The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 2

In the first part of our Complete Guide to Earphones, we discussed three key points: headband-less “earphones” have replaced old school “headphones” in popularity, and now offer iPod users an easy way to make their music library sound amazing, yet with 11 different types and hundreds of options, it’s hard for most people to pick a truly great pair.

Audio-Technica’s ATH-CM3s, sold in five iPod mini-matching colors
The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 2

Today, we’re publishing part 2 of the Guide, which is designed to help you understand the basics behind choosing new earphones and the pitfalls of earphone reviews. Really serious buyers will want to read tomorrow’s part 3 for additional details, and part 4 for iLounge’s editors’ recommendations.

Making a Quick, Decent Choice: The Basics

Ideally, we could skip Part 2 of this Guide entirely – we think that a smart earphone buying decision is based almost exclusively upon five factors we’ll discuss in depth tomorrow. But since we know that some readers want a rough, simpler way to pick a replacement pair of earphones, we’ve compiled this list of basic considerations and some of the challenges you’ll face.

  • Rank the Five Key Factors in Importance: The five factors we consider most important in any earphone are Sound, Comfort, Looks, Price, and Durability, and though we’ll detail each of those factors in Part 3, you probably already have a general sense of what each one means. From person to person, women, men, active users and less active users will each have their own views as to which of these categories are the most and least important. We strongly advise you to put them in your own personal rank order before beginning your research, and focus on your top three when picking an earphone.

    v-moda’s Remix M-Class was praised for balancing looks, sound, and durability
  • Recent Trends in Earphone Sound: In the past, more expensive earphones were typically more “accurate” earphones, presenting audio neutrally rather than trying to make it skew more bass-, treble-, or midrange- heavy. Thanks to improved miniature speaker technology, market research, and engineering, even premium earphone makers are now focusing most of their efforts on making earphones with “colored sound,” which exaggerate certain sounds in a way that makes some music sound better to some listeners; extended bass is the most common type of sound coloration.

    You’ll have to pick the sound curve (accurate or enhanced) that’s right for you; iLounge’s editors still prefer balance, but with slight bass and treble enhancement.

    XtremeMac’s bassy FS-1 earphones sounded entirely different with different ear tips
  • Fit is Critical: If you’re considering canalphones, the feel and seal of rubber or foam ear tips is arguably the most critical factor in guaranteeing that your listening experience is as intended by the earphones’ designers. Having tested hundreds of earphones, we can tell you with absolute certainty that simply misaligning the rubber tips, picking the wrong sized tips, or changing rubber to foam can dramatically alter the way a pair of earphones sounds. As crazy as this sounds, if you’re not happy with the way your new earbuds sound, check the manual: even if you’re really knowledgeable about earphones, you might have put the tips on wrong. Don’t return a pair of earphones until you’ve made sure they’re properly fit in your ears.

    Etymotic’s ER-6i; in Japan, stores let you directly compare the sound and fit of these and other earphones
  • No Kiosks: It’s almost impossible for most users to perform their own comparative tests before making an earphone purchase – a fact that disappoints iLounge’s editors tremendously. Some stores in Japan, and headphone specialists in other countries, have set up elaborate comparison kiosks that let you do direct hands-on comparisons between tens of different models from different companies. Though there are potential concerns – theft, insuring proper fit, hygiene, and use of your own iPod’s music – smart retailers should set up and maintain these kiosks if they’re hoping to sell more earphones.
  • Return Policies: Since you most likely won’t have an opportunity to try a pair of earphones before buying them, make sure you check your vendor’s return policies before making a purchase. Avoid stores that charge restocking fees for returned earphones.

    People often love Sony’s bassy MDR-EX70/EX71s – until they’ve heard alternatives
  • Satisficing Effect: As noted by social scientist Herbert Simon, people tend to settle for things that are less than optimal but good enough to meet their minimum level of expectations – this is known as satisficing behavior. For this reason, if you make an earphone purchase without doing comparisons in advance, you’ll either be dissatisfied and want to return it, or satisfied and want to keep it, regardless of whether you could have done better. Depending on your tastes, this can be a good or a bad thing: sometimes it’s easier to settle and be happy than to go on a potentially endless quest for the ultimate earphone.

    Even the hardest-core listeners – audiophiles – tend to have multiple pairs of earphones, including inexpensive ones they find acceptable for less than critical listening.

    iSkin’s Cerulean XLRs, a pioneer in iPod case-matching colors
  • Diminishing Returns: At a certain point, spending twice as much money will not get you twice as good of an earphone. Depending on who you ask, the point of diminishing returns begins at the $150 mark or at the $300 mark – in other words, you can’t get twice the earphone for $300 or $600 as you get for $150 or $300. Our view is that the $100-150 mark is the sweet spot for typical listeners, and $300 for serious ones, but you can get unquestionably extraordinary earphones for $500.

Earphone Reviews: Be Careful!

Viewed from a 20,000-foot vantage point, there’s a huge problem with the earphone industry today: since consumers have little or no opportunity to try or compare earphones before they buy them, they’re naturally reluctant to spend money at all, and make price-constrained decisions at random, on advice from friends, or after reading a few reviews online. Most often, people go with what they know (“replace Apple earbuds with identical Apple earbuds”) or look for an easy fix for an identified problem (“get bigger earbuds or ones with more bass”). If they’re looking for a fix, they don’t look very deep – product packaging or “user reviews” are commonly consulted but frequently inaccurate guides.


Those seeking “Apple earbuds, but black” would find Aural’s Earbuds a sonic disappointment

If you’ve read this far, you probably already know that there’s a lot of inaccuracy in descriptions of earphones: manufacturers almost invariably tell you how accurate and bass-rich their products are, while polarized user reviews of the same earphone are the norm rather than the exception. Even reviewers for professional publications can fall into the same traps, and you’d be surprised to learn how often this happens.

How can you figure out which reviews to trust? Avoid reviews that are obviously simplistic (“these suck and don’t fit”), and be skeptical about those loaded with pretenses, either describing the magical, lush sounds of specific songs, or making big, unsubstantiated claims (“these are the best earphones available at this price point, period”). Some negative reviews are the result of improper use of the earphones or defective units, while some positive reviews come from inexperienced reviewers trying to be too positive, or viral marketers paid to hype up a product.