The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 3

Jeremy Horwitz
By Jeremy Horwitz - Editor-in-Chief
The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 3

In the first two parts of our Complete Guide to Earphones, we looked at the many types of earphones (Part 1), then offered general pointers and advice on picking a good pair (Part 2). This Part 3 is designed to help you understand the specific factors we consider most important in evaluating pairs of earphones; Part 4 offers our editors’ top earphone picks and points you towards additional information on iLounge.

Westone’s UM2 is a popular choice amongst musicians, offering smooth sound and comfort.
The Complete Guide to Earphones, Part 3

Consider the first two parts of this Guide to have been a warm-up for what follows: our look at the five factors that are most important to an educated earphone purchase. By the end of Part 3, our hope is that you’ll understand each of these factors, and as noted in Part 2, you should rank them in your own order of importance, and look for earphones that achieve your personal goals.

Making a Smart Choice: The Details

The five factors that matter most in any earphone are Price, Sound, Comfort, Looks, and Durability. Each of these factors is a little more complex than it initially appears, so we’ll discuss them individually here.

  • Price: Most users will find that price is a critical factor in any earphone buying decision – the first knife that separates likely candidates from unlikely ones. Earphones sell for between $15 and $900. Over the last several years, we’ve seen four logical price brackets form within that wide range: earphones selling for $50 or under, $150 or under, $300 or under, and “price no object” (above $300). Though there are occasional exceptions, earphones in these price brackets tend to be most similar to one another on features, quality, and performance.
    • We think that the sweet price spots for earphones are between $100-150 for music lovers and $250-300 for hard-core listeners. Options sold for $50 or less are almost inevitably fine for the price, but entirely forgettable when you’ve used anything better.
    • Recent improvements in earphone technology have enabled companies to deliver better sound at lower prices, so an A-rated earphone in 2006 or 2007 will generally be more impressive than one similarly rated in 2004 or 2005. Today, there are many excellent offerings priced at or around $100, while new $400-$500 earphones perform as well as or better than earlier $900 offerings. Our most recent reviews note these shifts as appropriate.
    • Our standard advice to first-time earphone buyers is to consider the purchase an investment: spend between $100-$150 today and you’re guaranteed to get a mind-expanding improvement in sound quality, rather than buying several pairs of decent $30-50 earphones and throwing them away. Trust us, you’ll be glad that you spent the extra money when you realize how much a good pair of earphones can improve your music.

  • Sound: Most people know the basics of sound – “treble” (high-pitched sounds), “bass” (low-pitched sounds), and “midrange” (everything inbetween) are what many people listen for in music, though earphone sound is actually much more complex than that. (Our iPod 201 Tutorial, Equalizers and Advanced iTunes Features, discusses the subject in greater depth.) We consider four factors to be especially important when assessing the sound of a new pair of earphones: sound balance, dynamic range, clarity/distortion, and staging.
    • Sound balance refers to the earphone’s relative levels of bass, treble, and midrange – whether the designers present sound neutrally by balancing these types of sound equally, or skew/color the sound so that bass, treble, and/or mids are exaggerated. Over-exaggeration can make certain types of music sound distorted.

      Etymotic’s vaunted ER-4 series offers impressive detail, but Ultimate Ears’ clear UE-10 Pro have a wider range,
      with additional bass.

      Shure’s copper-toned E500s rival the UE-10s’ range, but exaggerate the bass – a different sound balance.

    • Range/Frequency Response:* As we use the word, “range” describes the earphone’s ability to let you hear the most extreme high and low ends of the audio spectrum – technically, it’s called Frequency Response. Shure uses charts, replicated below, to let you know how much of the audio spectrum a given pair of its earphones can perform: its lower-end earphones have up to three circles per side, showing their bass and treble range, with its best earphones using four circles per side and four always-full “mids” circles. (* We prefer to avoid calling this “Frequency Response,” because that phrase is frequently cited on packages and advertising to misleadingly summarize what a piece of audio equipment will sound like; our advice is not to make much of these numbers unless they’re provided by reputable manufacturers, and even then, rely on your ears before coming to any conclusions about their accuracy.)

    • Clarity/distortion are positive and negative ways of describing an earphone’s ability to reveal hidden details or flaws in your audio. The better the earphone, the more detail it reveals in all parts of the audio spectrum; many earphones reveal only high-end detail and leave bass and mids muddier. However, really good earphones can actually make compressed MP3 music sound worse, as they make it easier for you to hear ‘artifacts’ caused by compression – a problem most noticeable with earphones sold for $150 or more.

      As a general rule, the less expensive an earphone is, the more likely it is to make music sound muddy.
      Apple’s official iPod pack-ins are surprisingly good, but knock-offs try to match their looks, not their sound.
    • Finally, there’s staging. Really excellent headphones have in the past enabled listeners to have a greater sense of “being there” in the recording studio or concert venue, separating vocals from instruments and placing them at different places on a virtual stage in your ears. Accurate staging is hard to achieve in earphones, in part because the smaller, earcup-less speakers have less ability to bounce sound off of your outer ears, creating the echoes that resemble open-ear listening. Some earphones do a better job than others at faking or approximating staging; we currently tend to consider this a less critical area of importance than the other sound factors, but not irrelevant.

Headphones such as AKG’s k701s cover your ears and use larger speakers, together convincing your brain
that you’re hearing bigger, more natural sound. The trade-off: considerable physical size.

  • Comfort: Even more subjective than sound is “comfort,” the rough summary of how an earphone feels on the surfaces of your ear. Given the variety of ear shapes and sizes – one person’s ears, for instance, can have two differently-shaped canals – there’s no easy way to predict whether a given earphone will feel loose or tight in your ears. But there are things manufacturers can do to increase your chances of satisfaction.
    • Size, Shape, and Location of Earpiece: As you can tell from the photographs, earphones vary widely in each of these respects. Generally, the smaller the earpiece and the less dependent on additional reinforcement it is, the more universally comfortable it will be, but little shape issues can make even certain small earphones hard to wear.
    • Tips: Size aside, canalphones depend almost entirely upon soft tips – padded covers – to bond with your ears. These tips range from porous foam and coated foam to various shapes and sizes of silicone rubber, and infrequently soft plastic. Preferably earphones will come with multiple sizes and types of tips to fit different shapes of ears; in recent months, we have come to prefer coated foam over even silicone. You’d be amazed at how much of a difference the right tips can make in both comfort and sound – without the right tips for your ears, even the best earphones will sound terrible.

      Shure’s lineup of earphones, including SE210 (shown), includes fit kits with rubber and foam ear tips in multiple sizes.

      Though rubber has come to be the material of choice in making earphones more comfortable, many earbuds and clip-on earphones still rely upon puffy foam or fabric covers to lessen ear fatigue; these covers make the earphones bigger and are susceptible to tearing.

      Sennheiser’s LX70s came with easy-to-tear foam earbud covers.
    • Weight: Earphones vary considerably in weight – generally measured including their cables – but unless they become exceptionally heavy, we typically don’t consider this to be a critical factor in determining comfort. Low-end earphones such as Apple’s earbuds weigh as little as 4 grams (0.14 ounces), while premium earphones – especially those with two or three drivers – are where you’ll typically see extra weight. Etymotic’s ER-6 series earphones and v-moda’s Vibe both weigh a comparatively light 12 grams (0.42 ounces), but the ER-4 series weighs 28 grams (0.99 ounces) and still wouldn’t bother virtually any user – its heavier cabling is most likely responsible. For comparative purposes, the first-generation iPod shuffle weighed 22 grams (0.78 ounces), and the second-generation version weighs 16 grams (0.55 ounces).

      Shure’s high-end E5cs weigh 1.1 ounces, and E500/SE530s weigh 30 grams (1.05 ounces). Based on our experiences, we’d start to be concerned about earphones weighing more than 30 grams, and those that distribute their weight unevenly, as sometimes happens with large in-line volume control boxes placed too high on the cabling.

      Despite their metal bodies, v-moda’s Vibes feel surprisingly lightweight.
    • Cable Length, Symmetry, and Materials: Rare is the pair of earphones that has too little cable to reach your iPod in your pocket – too much cabling is far more common, forcing you to deal with dangling wire or use a cord manager. To this end, some companies recently have been segmenting their cables, with a mid-cable split-off point that is generally sized to let you use a wired remote control without any dangling wire, and others have aimed for 4- to 5-foot total cable lengths, which are in the “right” range for full-sized iPods and nanos. For everything else, cord managers are an option; we feature a number of them in our Accessories Guide here.

      JAYS’ new d-JAYS earphones have a cable that splits in the middle for use with remote controls.

      It’s also worth noting that some cables are asymmetrical – longer on one earphone side than the other – in an attempt to redistribute the earphones’ weight and/or limit their ability to be tugged out. Many people find the asymmetrical design to be more annoying and uncomfortable than it’s worth; it is more popular in Asia than in the United States, and U.S. versions of asymmetric Asian earphone models are sometimes recabled for U.S. customers.

      Despite the sound quality of Philips’ SHE9501, some readers griped about its asymmetrical cabling.

      The plugs used on earphone cables can also vary dramatically in size and shape from model to model. Some are straight, some are 90-degree angled (L-shaped), and some are more gently angled or curved. According to Etymotic, angled plugs stand up to heavy use and abuse much better than most straight plugs, as they relieve strain placed on the cable when users wrap their cables around their iPods. Straight plugs are more likely to suffer damage when wrapped in this way. Bear in mind that the larger and thicker the plug is – attributable to metal or plastic reinforcement – the more difficult it may be to use the plug with certain iPod cases, a fact noted in all iLounge case reviews for the past two or so years.

      Different plugs, clockwise from upper left: Ultimate Ears UE-10 Pros (large L), Etymotic ER-4P (small L), JAYS d-JAYS (medium straight),
      Altec Lansing iM716 (small curved), Apple iPod Earphones (small straight), JBL Reference 210 (medium L).

      One final point on cables is that the materials they’re made from can impact the earphones’ weight, longevity, and even sound. Thinner cables tend to reduce earphones’ weight, but can also be easier to snap or fray. By contrast, thicker cables can sometimes create “microphonics” – tiny echoes that can be heard in the earphones when you move around. Consequently, premium earphones occasionally come with detachable, replaceable cables, and well-made, heavier earphones sometimes use small amounts of memory wire that mold to stay steady on top of your ears. Ultimate Ears’ recent 10 Pros are an example of an earphone with memory wire; the company frequently also includes detachable, replaceable cables. While detachable cables aren’t critically important, in our view, we wish that more high-end earphones, such as Shure’s E500/SE530, would use memory wire.

      Eight different colors set v-moda’s bass freqs visually apart from their competitors.
      • Looks: The appearence of a pair of earphones is, like sound, subjective; some people don’t mind wearing even the geekiest earphones if they sound good, while other people only want fashionable earbuds.
Jeremy Horwitz
By Jeremy Horwitz Editor-in-Chief
Jeremy Horwitz was the Editor-in-Chief at iLounge. He has written over 5,000 articles and reviews for the website and is one of the most respected members of the Apple media. Horwitz has been following Apple since the release of the original iPod in 2001. He was one of the first reviewers to receive a pre-release unit of the device, and his review helped put iLounge on the map as a go-to source for Apple news.