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In-Ear Headphones Compared, Low-End to High-End

The iPod has certainly changed the music-listening habits of many of us here at TMO, and judging by Apple's record iPod sales, it seems we're (very happily!) in a majority with folks all over the world; and while the iPod has made our respective lives better, one can't help but to wonder if there are ways to make the iPod experience better. Well, there are -- and one of them involves changing the way you hear your music.

The iPod is capable of reproducing sound with amazing quality. Unfortunately, the earphones bundled with it are not. That's OK -- as we're sure you've noticed, those earphones are removable. Simply plug in a new pair and immediately you've changed your sound, hopefully for the better!

One of those most popular types of earphones these days are the "in-ear" style -- that is, something that completely seals the ear canal and delivers sound directly to you while blocking out external noise. In addition, because they fit completely inside your ear, they're small enough to travel with, and work extremely well on airplanes where there's a great deal of ambient noise. In comparison to "noise-canceling" headphones, which use special circuitry to effectively filter outside noise, in-ear headphones simply block the outside noise by sealing it out, resulting in a similar net effect, but without the size and bulk of additional noise-canceling circuitry (and the batteries required to run it!).

One word of caution -- with any of these options, be sure to remember that you're putting miniature speakers inside your ears. With that comes the inherent risk of severely damaging your hearing. As we have done, we recommend you consult an audiologist regarding safe listening levels with whatever option you choose. Yes, our lawyers recommend we say this, but we would have said it anyway: your hearing is important, especially if you're an audiophile.

Important Factors

But what to choose? Never fear -- we spent many long hours experimenting, testing, and even having GOOP poured in our ears on your behalf, esteemed reader, so we could deliver a comprehensive survey of your options. Bear in mind that because you're putting these things inside your body, your mileage will almost definitely vary from ours. That said, to make your own decisions, there are a few factors you should consider.

Comfort: Each earphone is molded differently, and so are each of our ears. What fits well for one person doesn't necessarily hold true for the next. Obviously, you need to make sure the earphones don't hurt when they're in your ear, but beyond that, it's important to get a good seal so no sound gets in around the earphone. This is crucial to the sound reproduction both because any leakage will reduce bass response, and additionally some of the higher-end models rely on bone conduction to properly reproduce the low-end: without a proper seal, that's not going to happen.

Also, some earphones have cables that simply dangle down from your ear, while others wrap up and over the ear, falling behind your head. While this might appear a minor factor, in the long run it can make a difference. It's most certainly a personal preference, and depends on how you're going to be using it. If you're sitting in an airplane, with your back against a chair/seat, you'll likely prefer the cord to come forward. However, if you're someone who uses your iPod to exercise or do something otherwise active, having a cord coming down your chest may be a problem. In addition, there's the comfort factor to consider: going over the top of your ear can feel a little weird, but it prevents accidental cable tugs to yank on your ear canal, something that can be quite painful.

Single- or Dual-drivers: Believe it or not, earphones can be made with more than one speaker in EACH ear. In fact, there are companies out there making them with three speakers per ear, but we won't go there just now. For this article, we'll be looking at those that have either one or two speakers per ear.

Those with one speaker obviously have to make it such that it delivers both low- and high-end sounds (and the mids in between) from the same speaker, which sacrifices quality in the name of price (and size!).

With two speakers, you have one speaker completely dedicated to the low-end (a miniature sub-woofer, if you will) -- this not only allows for much better low-end reproduction, but because the high-end speaker isn't cluttered with the job of reproducing all those low frequencies, things sound better across mids and highs, as well.

Universal or Custom Fit: The earphones that come with your iPod are considered "universal" fit -- that is, most anyone can take them and put them in their ears (if you let them!). It is possible, however, to get custom-fitted molds made that fit your ears (and only your ears) perfectly (until your ears change, which can happen over time). This increases comfort a great deal, and makes for a much more pleasurable listening experience, especially if you tend to leave your earphones in for extended periods of time.

We've chopped the article up into 3 sections for you here. The first two deal with universal fit earphones, in Single and then Dual-driver configurations. The last deals with Custom-fitted dual driver models. There are Custom-fitted single-driver models available, but we opted not to look into them, as the costs involved with getting the custom molds would place these way out-of-line when compared to other single-driver models.

With that, we're off!

Single-drivers

The most common configuration you'll find are earphones that have a single-driver in them. That is, they have one speaker per ear, and that speaker is intended to deliver the full range of sound for you to hear. Pricing, and quality, of the single driver models varies widely, but for less than US$100 you can get something that will work fairly well for you.

Model: Koss "The Plug"
Price: US$14.99 MSRP
-- One of the least expensive options available, the Koss plug has limited use. Its sound is actually quite competitive, but it's very difficult to get the phones to stay lodged in your ear. The earpieces are made of a strange foam material that is quite large and, as such, has a tendency to pull completely out of the ear. Still, at less than $15 per pair, it's one of the cheapest ways to test out the technology. If you like the potential here, then it's time to move onward (and upward, in price!).

Fit: While simple to insert, most folks here found these earphones didn't stay in the ears very well. Because of that, it was a constant battle, and we found our ears getting sore after repeated attempts to keep them in.

Sound: Sub-par, largely because of the fit problems. When seated properly in the ear, they sound exceedingly average, which isn't bad for the price, but the seal was very hard to maintain. Nothing to speak of, but not horrible, either.


Model: Apple In-Ear Monitors
Price: $39.00 MSRP
-- Apple, as always, has their engineers working on every aspect of the design, and these earphones are no exception. They look cool, are very lightweight, and come with a hard, clear plastic case that holds both the earphones as well as the additional tips (which are included to ensure a proper fit).

The sound is surprisingly good. For the price, we expected something a LOT less than what we got. These have decent bass response, and a good signal up to the mid-high range. The high highs are noticeably absent from Apple's ear buds, and it makes a cymbal wash sound a little weird (think old-school Dolby Noise Reduction and what it did to your high end sounds, and that's close to what these do).

Once in the ear, they fit very comfortably, but have a habit of falling out pretty easily -- they don't seat very snugly at all. Also, because of the way they sort of "hang" out of your ear, they tend to suffer from a lot of "cord noise" -- that is, the noise transferred to your ears as you touch and rub the cord. An over-the-ear application would tend to insulate against this quite a bit. For the price, however, they perform extremely well, especially in terms of their sound, rivaling that of earphones costing $100 more.

Fit: Very comfortable. The earpieces are extremely lightweight, and that makes it almost feel like there's nothing in your ear at all.

Sound: Very good for the price. High-end response is lacking, and low-end tends to waver because of the lack of seal with the ear canal. Seated properly, though, they sound very clear.


Model: Westone UM1
Price: $99 MSRP
--These tend to sound average, and fit is impeded by the foam tips, which don't seat very far into the ear. For us, they just never felt solid in the ear. Some folks may like this, but they tend to move around quite a bit in the ear if any pressure is applied to the cable. The tips are basically impossible to clean, since they're foam, and must be replaced once too much cerumen (earwax) gets on them. For our money, we would invest in something better.

Fit: Difficult to get seated comfortably; cable pressure causes earpieces to angle too easily.

Sound: Average. Low end was weaker than others in the same class. Mids and highs are fairly well reproduced.


Model: Etymotic ER-6
Price: $139.00 MSRP
-- The ER-6 model is a worthy contender in its field due primarily to its size. These things are small. Once in your ear, the only thing that comes out is a cord (which goes down the side of your head, not back over your ear). This makes them very easy to travel with, and works well when contending with those wacky adjustable airline headrests. Insertion (and isolation) is made simple by their double-flanged rubber eartips -- they fit snugly and remain comfortable for at least a couple of hours. Sound quality is slightly above average, with a bit of a boost in the mid-range.

Fit: Very easy to insert and get a seal that stays with you. This is made possible by the double-flanged eartips, however they also provide a bit of outward pressure (which keeps the seal in tact), which some folks may find uncomfortable, especially after time.

Sound: Great low-end for a single-driver. This is due to the depth and quality of the seal. Mid-range is a bit over-expressed, but overall an acceptable sound.


Model: Shure E3c
Price: $179.00 MSRP
-- Shure's E3c model has, without a doubt, the best sound quality of all the single-driver earphones we tested. Impressive bass response coupled with crisp, clear highs make these easy to listen to regardless of what you're doing.

Their design is a little kooky in that the earphone almost sticks diagonally out of your ear when fully inserted (the cord wraps around the top of your ear), and that makes them slightly less comfortable when resting your head (i.e. on airplanes, train, etc.) when compared to some of the other models we tested.

Still, when it comes to bang for your buck, this is probably the best you'll see. Shure's included "fit kit" has many different types and sizes of adapters, one of which will likely work for just about everyone. New with this model is Shure's "ultra-soft" flex sleeves, which almost feel like a mix of foam and silicone (if that's possible!). They are extremely comfortable, and are our top choice for single-driver earphones.

Fit: Seal is easy to obtain and holds very well, even for long periods of time. Angle at which earphones stick out of the ear is a little odd, especially when trying to rest your head back.

Sound: Best in class. Tight low-end, crisp highs. Mids are slightly over-pronounced, but for a single-driver, this is about as good as it gets.


Dual Drivers

If you're especially picky about your audio, particularly in the low-end, it's definitely worth considering taking the quantum leap into the realm of dual drivers. That is, earphones with TWO speakers per ear. With these, one speaker works to reproduce the midrange and high end, while a second speaker is dedicated to the bottom end. With speakers small enough to fit into your ears, one would assume it wouldn't make a whole lot of difference, but if you assume that, you'd be wrong -- VERY wrong. Somehow these engineers have found a way to make it sound (and, in some ways, even feel) like you're living that low end. Listen to some funk and feel like you're in tune with the bass player and the kick drum -- you'll see what we mean.

Model: Shure E5c
Price: $499 MSRP
-- Probably the most widely recognized dual-driver earphones, the E5c is definitely impressive. As with the E3 model, these things are BIG. The E5c earphones actually fit flush in the ear better than its single-driver sibling, but just barely. And if you don't have exactly the right tip on them (Shure's fit kit is included in this model, as well), you're not going to be comfortable. Most of us here found that using the triple flange sleeves were the only way to really enjoy these, and enjoy we did. The response is crisp and clear from the lowest low to the highest high. Again, as with the E3c, there's a boost in the midrange that might be a bit odd for some folks, but it gives the sound an extra edge, and is not enough to be a problem for most. At $500 these are some of the more expensive dual-drivers, and if you're ready to pony up for these you might want to consider moving up another level still into the realm of custom-fitted earphones.

Fit: Very difficult to get comfortable for most everyone who tried them. The earpieces are large, and have trouble fitting in the ear. The cable is coated in a plastic that tends to hold its shape almost TOO much, and can take a bit to get it just right.

Sound: Very good. Clear lows and highs. Mids are slightly over-pronounced, but with the clarity in the low and high end, the extra mids tend to "heat up" the sound quite nicely.


Model: Westone UM2
Price: $329.00 MSRP
-- On first glance, these look extremely similar to the Shure E5c, and that's no surprise once you learn that they started life in the same manufacturing facility (we'll spare you the industry gossip that goes beyond that!). However, once you slip these into your ears, you'll find the similarities end quickly, especially in terms of fit. Though they look the same, we all found it much easier to fit these into the ear. The earphones come with four pairs of elongated foam tips, and everyone was able to find one that fit their ear very well. The Westone folks indicated that one of the biggest differences between the UM2 and the Shure E5c was the angle at which the "nozzle" was set (that's the part that actually goes into your ear). Apparently, those of us who tested it found the Westone nozzle angle to be much more comfortable than the one Shure has decided upon.

Sound quality is quite stellar, as well. These earphones have a very even reproduction all the way from the lowest low to the highest high, and make listening a real pleasure. Combine all that with the price, and you'll see why these are our top choice in universal fit Dual-Drivers.

Fit: Very comfortable with the included fit kit. Cable is light and malleable, and fits well over the ear. Seal was easy to get and maintain.

Sound: Very clear, even response from the low end all the way up to the high-end.


Custom Fitted Earphones

Before we move into this next category, it's worth mentioning that you can get custom molds made for just about any of the aforementioned models that allow for different eartips to be used (All the Shure, Etymotic, and Westone models, for certain). These molds typically sell for about $100 (plus a trip to the audiologist, as explained below). By doing that, you'll have the flexibility of moving between a universal fit option, or the custom molds that just fit your ears alone. However the downside is that it makes the earphones that much larger, since the drivers are completely separate from the earmolds. If you want them all together, then you've got to order them that way from the start.

Getting custom molds made involves a trip to the audiologist. For between $10 and $50 (generally about $20), you get to subject yourself to sitting in a chair for five minutes, mouth wide open, with goop (actually silicone) hardening in your ears. At the end of that procedure, your ear impressions are then sent off to your manufacturer of choice, and in a couple of weeks you'll receive your earphones (or earmolds, depending on what you've ordered).

While the procedure is not exactly a pleasure, it's quick and (usually) painless, and nets you a comfy custom fit in the end (and can make you look and feel like a rock star, at least from the ear perspective!). Some manufacturers require that the audiologist send the molds in and they, in turn, send the earphones back to the audiologist. This requires a second appointment for fitting the earphones. While that can incur an additional expense, it is most definitely worthwhile. Ensuring you have a proper fit, and learning how to insert these, is crucial to your success with them. The second visit to the audiologist will typically run anywhere from $20 to $100, depending on what area of the country you're in.

Model: Ultimate Ears UE5c
Price: $550 MSRP
-- Used by touring professionals on stage for years, Ultimate Ears is now making a consumer-targeted model. The UE5c is a completely custom-fitted, dual-driver earphone built specifically for listening to pre-recorded music (don't worry, if you want to use them on stage, you still can -- they just have a slightly different EQ than the traditional stage model).

They are made from a 100% hard plastic material, primarily for durability, but are surprisingly comfortable once you learn how to insert them into your ears. Assuming the fit is correct (which is an assumption to be made when discussing any of these products -- it took us 3 tries to get this pair "just right"), they seal very well, and deliver a pristine listening experience.

Because these are custom-tailored for pre-recorded music -- accomplished by expanding the high-end range and a slight reduction in the high-mids -- the UE5c earphones have a leg up when it comes to listening to your iPod, and the difference is quite noticeable. Comfort is top notch -- you can wear these things for hours with little or no worry. Because they're 100% acrylic, unless you drop and crack them, they should last for quite a long time. As for aesthetics, Ultimate Ears will make these earphones in just about any color combination you want with no additional charge.

While all of the custom-fitted models we reviewed here come with hard cases, the Ultimate Ears case is a notch above the rest. Built to look like a mini "Road case", it is large enough to hold both the earphones and, if you take out the included foam insert, your iPod itself. Ultimate Ears tells us that they will soon be offering a special foam insert specifically built to hold the iPod and earphones. For dual-driver, custom-fitted earphones, these were our favorites, but only by an edge. The other three models we tested in this category performed extremely well, and should not be overlooked.

Fit: Very comfortable, and easy to insert and remove repeatedly.

Sound: Very clear low-end, slight reduction in the mids, and the best highs we heard in any custom-fitted model. Great mix at any volume level.


Model: Westone ES2
Price: $650 MSRP
-- These are something of a hybrid, with a hard acrylic outer shell, and a softer inner body shell made from a body heat activated material that softens as it warms to your body, with the idea that it will provide a more comfortable/easier fit on the inside, while still protecting the electronics on the outside. We certainly did find these comfortable, but no more or less so than any of the others in this category. With a custom fit, comfort is all but a given (assuming the impressions were correct to begin with).

These favored the low-end a bit more than the Ultimate Ears, but didn't reach quite as far into the highs as the UE5c model. Still, you're presented with a fairly well balanced sound here. Bear in mind that these (and the Sensaphonics, mentioned next) are built for stage monitoring first, whereas the Ultimate Ears UE5c model is built specifically with the iPod-type user in mind. Obviously, any of these models can be used for either purpose, the difference is in how the sound is equalized at the factory.

Westone, for an additional fee, will customize the look of your earpieces for you, allowing for a truly personalized experience.

Fit: Very comfortable, and easy to insert and remove.

Sound: Crisp, balanced sound, presenting bouncy lows and clear highs, evened out with a subtle boost to the midrage.


Model: Ultimate Ears UE-Hybrid
Price: $800 MSRP
-- These hybrids are significantly different in design from everything else we've reviewed here. Like the Westones, these too have a combination shell -- the outside made of hard acrylic, and the ear-canal portion made of a softer, more malleable material -- but that's not the only thing that differentiates these. The UE-Hybrids have a filter in them that allows ambient noise to be heard even when they're inserted. They still block out quite a bit of outside sounds (10-12db versus 25-30db for all the other models), but this ambient filter changes the sound characteristics quite a bit. In addition to letting you hear a little more of what's going on around you, they also have a vastly increased low-end response. Depending on your taste, it may even be too much for you, but do know that it does NOT at all get in the way of the highs or the mids -- the low end is simply more present. If you're someone who really digs bottom end in their listening experience, these are definitely worth a closer look.

Fit: Very comfortable -- easy to insert and remove.

Sound: Extremely warm and present low-end response, coupled with a boost to the mids and ultra-clear highs. In addition, the ambient filter built-in to these allows you to more easily carry on a conversation with someone while the UE-Hybrids are sealed in your ears.


Model: Sensaphonics ProPhonic SOFT 2X
Price: $750 MSRP
-- These custom-fitted earphones feature a 100% clear silicone soft shell. In addition to improving comfort, it allows for a very tight seal that isn't disturbed by excessive jaw movement (meaning that if you sing while you listen, you might want to consider these!). The only drawback was that it took extra care to seat them properly in the ear, simply because the material is so malleable. Because of that, regular removal and reinsertion can cause the ear to get irritated (i.e. if you have to keep taking them out to hear what someone next to you is trying to say, it can be a problem). However, if you simply put them in and leave them in, they practically disappear into your ear, and you almost forget you're wearing them.

As with the Westone ES2 model, the low-end is favored a bit, almost making it feel bouncy (it's almost as though the spongy silicone in the earpiece helps to round out the sound, but we're no experts!). It has a very crisp, clear low end, with a respectable high-end. Mids are right about where we think they should be.

One drawback with these is that the cable is permanently attached to the earpieces, which is a problem if something were to happen to the cable itself. The other two custom-fitted models we tested have removable cables, making repairs easier.

Fit: Extremely comfortable, due largely to the combination of the soft silicone and custom fit. Repeated insertion and removal in a short period of time can cause the ear to get irritated, but this shouldn't be a problem for most folks.

Sound: Very clear and punchy. Lows are round and full, highs are clear, and mids help to fill in the sound quite nicely.


Wrap-up

As you can see, there's quite a few options available, and the field is growing every day. Before you run out and buy new earphones, ask yourself how often you use your iPod, where you use it, and how long you plan to keep using it. An investment in quality earphones will make a HUGE difference for almost every iPod user, and is seriously worth considering. Using the included earphones, you really don't get a good feel of the quality your iPod is capable of reproducing. Whatever you choose, do be careful with that volume knob, and remember that your eardrum really isn't all that far away -- if you have any questions about fitting these in whatsoever, be sure to speak with an audiologist FIRST -- before you hurt yourself.

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