The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 2

The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 2 1

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

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. And as surprising as this may be, some positive reviews – even from apparently reputable sources – have been paid for in one way or another by the makers of the products.


Friendtech’s iDea Dynamic Ear Speakers are sure to polarize opinions with their bizarre shapes

We can’t speak for anyone else, but iLounge’s editors avoid hype and stick to the basics: how do the earphones sound, feel, and look for the price, relative to other, comparable alternatives? Having tested vast numbers of earphones – reviews of over 100 of them can be found here – marketing claims have no effect on us, and we don’t allow advertisers to influence us, either. For these reasons, our reviews tend to be tougher than others, but we also feel confident that our top-rated earphones are special standouts.

What about iLounge mini-reviews in our Forums and Comments? As much as we appreciate the majority of these submissions, it’s hard to know for sure whether an opinion comes from a well-informed, impartial user or someone trying to generate positive/negative hype for a specific product. Even opinions repeated several times can come from one or two people using multiple fake IDs, so take such comments with a grain of salt.


Readers’ comments on durability may sway your view of Sony’s MDR-EX81s, and other earphones

It’s also worth noting that earphone reviews – even iLounge’s – rarely discuss long-term durability, one of the five key factors worth considering in an earphone purchase. For obvious reasons, we can’t spend years testing every one of the earphones we receive, and no one else does, either. Instead, our Comments invite readers to share their durability experiences; take the most negative ones with the same grain of salt, as it’s hard to know whether they’re the result of misuse, actual defects, or competitors just trying to scare away customers.

Continue on to Part 3 of the Complete Guide to Earphones

  1. I have been engaged in a constant struggle to find the right pair of headphones. I was previously a behind-the-neck kind of guy, but was won over by the sound of in-ear buds.

    I have also come to accept, that even with the best care, these things don’t last too long (much less forever). They get beat up, scrunched up, etc., everything that goes along with being a constant and portable companion. Durability and warranties are very important to me now.

    I started off with some of the cheaper Sony’s ex71’s I think, and I hated the double-cord. It made the cord heavier and too long. The EX73’s fixed that issue but they had some sort of rebber ear-ring that was supposed to hold the things in place, but really just made them pop out.

    I upgrade each time I have had my fill, so I moved on the Sennheiser CX300’s (great, tiny, fragile), then on to E2c’s, my favorite so far. They are bigger than the E3c’s, but fit better. They also have a rounder, fuller bass. Unfortunately, they were stolen from the mail on a return trip for repairs.

    After that I got the E3c’s, which sound great but I have not yet been able to get the rubber gaskets to fit perfectly, and the foamy pads get disgusting in just a few days.

    I am awaiting my new DJays, which I hear have a double-cord, so the quest will prolly continue…

    I DID get the the Logitech Freepulse bluetooth headphones, because earbuds don’t work for my sweaty head at the gym. They are so damn uncomfortable that they are unuseable for any extended amount of time, and making any audio judgements moot.

  2. After almost immediately ditching my iPod earbuds (VERY uncomfortable and don’t sound too good, but everybody already knows this) for a pair of Sonys from my old MiniDisc player, I set out to find a decent pair of earphones. The only substandard ones I could find where I live (Chile) were Xtreme Mac FS1, so I bought the first pair I could get a hold on (and a great price I might add – $90 US, probably the retailer’s mistake). My first impression was terrible when I tried them on with the rubber tips (NO bass whatsoever), so I tried with the rubber flanges (uncomfortable and sticky, still no sign of bass). What a relief it was when I listened to them with the foam earpieces. They’re butt ugly but the seal they provide makes your listening experience worthwhile. Being a basshead, these were the exact thing I was looking for and I was lucky to find them first. I’m still looking forward to trying some of the Shure or Etymotic models, but the price tag (+ shipping + 30% customs here if you buy them online and have them shipped here) will prevent me from doing this until some friendly local retailer decides to carry them.

    Enjoyed the article, looking forward to part 3.

  3. I was reasonably happy with the original Apple pack-ins w/ Griffin Ear Jams. Probably the best $10 I ever spent on audio equipment. After a 1 1/2 yrs the wiring started to separate. I went on-line shopping using iLounge grades and a ceiling of $150. I narrowed it down to UEs or ERs. When I found the ER6is new on eBay for under a $100 the deal was done. The best-sounding triple flanges took a few days to get used to and the my-ears-need-to-pop feeling went away in a few days too. They sound very much as decribed by iLounge – accurate, clear w/ a moderate bass boost. They render detail very close to my Bose TriPort cans. If I had a headphone amp I’d like to compare them to my ’78 vintage Yamaha HP-1s. And yes, I bought those new in ’78 for $200. Ouch!
    I’m so impressed with the ER6is that I’m currrently re-ripping about 9000 tracks in “Lossless” and seriously considering upgrading to a Red Wine iMod. Anybody want a 5G 60gb?

  4. Yeah I’ve had some problems with the in-ear headphones I buy. I started off with the Apple In-Ear Headphones, a pair that I could never get to stay in my ears. I got it back to the CompUsa where I bought it (there ain’t a single Apple Store, Circuit City or Target here in Puerto Rico), and asked for Sony’s MDR-EX71. Those were good for 3 monts before the left earbud stopped sounding. Then I upgraded to the pair of headphones I was dying for, Etymotic’s ER6i. These were awesome headphones for 3 months before the filters got broken. Now I have them on my desk. Now I don’t have the money for another $100.00+ pair of headphones so I’m considering buying another pair of EX71’s (this is because I don’t find the damn ER61’s filters anywhere). I hate this country!! Why can’t we be part of the US as a state and not as a colony?

  5. Yeah that Sony MDR-EX81 caption is pretty spot on…I kept persisting with them because I think that when they work, they’re the most fantastic earphones i’ve ever heard/had at that price point, in terms of sound and comfort. After 3 broken pairs though, I sadly gave up…

  6. I know you can spend a lot of money on headphones, but saying the “typical listener” should spend $150 seems kind of ridiculous. The pack-in earbuds are worth maybe $20? And most people are happy with those. So I would say the “typical listener” would spend about $20. If you’re using them while you exercise or on the go, you’d be crazy to spend much more than that. More discerning listeners would spend $50-75. iLounge editors are anything but typical and maybe spoiled by their access to getting to review a number of high-end options.

    This is a good guide for audiophiles (who probably don’t need the advice honestly), but I’d rather see more mention of headphones that the mainstream can afford and would be willing to buy.

  7. Actually, what was said in the context of the Diminishing Returns column was that the sweet spot of diminishing returns for the typical listener is around $150. In other words, the typical listener would be able to tell a tremendous difference between $150 earphones and less expensive ones, and we’d advise people to try for themselves and hear the difference, as thousands of readers have agreed is worthwhile. Past that point, the differences will become more subtle to most people, and are probably not worth the typical user’s extra cash to either test or purchase.

    We spend a lot of time reviewing earphones at all price levels, and have for years provided picks at each of four price levels – typically, under $50, under $150, under $300, and price no object. (See our past Buyers’ Guides.) Whether you choose to spend $20, $50, $150, or more is entirely up to you.

  8. i was hoping this thread would help me in my decision to purchase some inner ear earphone and was overwhelmed with the wealth of knowledge of collected from these few pages. i want to say thanks for that and appreciate you taking the time to be so elaborate on this topic. even today, we the general consumer are still struggling to find more understanding about this market. in the future i think you should include some more reasonably priced companies i was hoping to find something on small companies that are not well know but have high quality products that can stand up to the big boys without the beefy price. so in the future please collect a more conducive line of earphones that the general consumer would buy. thanks

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