Audiophile dopers: Help a brutha buy some earbuds

For, like … ever, I’ve been pretty big on over-the-ear headphones, preferably of the studio monitor variety in terms of quality. However, I am finding that when I’m on the go, I’d really rather use a pair of earbuds.

One problem. I hate earbuds.

However, once I discovered that Shure seem to make some rather good earbuds that use soft silicone caps that fit right inside the ear canal, I started to change my tune. I’ve never tried them myself, but Shure has been a big name in pro audio for decades, so I became intrigued. I’d read some mixed reviews on the e2c line though, so I hesitated. A set of e4cs look tasty, but they damn near cost as much as my iPod, so possibly a bit out of my range.

Still, I’d like a nice set of earbuds of the same variety – in-the-ear-canal with soft caps that fit well and provide great sound at a slightly more moderate price (but not cheap). Being an audiophile myself though I’m really picky, so here’s my general criteria for good headphones:

  • Good frequency response. (Generally 30Hz or under in the low register, and 22,000Hz or higher in the upper)

  • Excellent bass, treble and midrange – I hate feeling like one or more of them is missing; there’s nothing worse than muddy, tinny or hollow audio.

  • I don’t know if this applies to buds, but a higher impedence would be nice. In regular monitors I usually take anything over 60ohms so I get nice clean sound. If there is an equivalent in buds (being lower power I’d imagine the numbers change) then apply that here. Something with neodymium magnets would be ideal.

  • THD less than 0.1% – most do, but the lower the better. (Buds have smaller bits so I imagine harmonic distortion isn’t as much of a factor here)

  • Solid construction. I’ve owned maybe one or two pairs of buds many years ago and it didn’t take very long before the plastic/cellophane/onion paper/whatever cones started to tear, resulting in a “buzzing” noise playing over the audio.

  • Good signal:noise ratio. Not hard to do but surprisingly few headphones are shielded well enough to provide a good ratio.

  • Little to no external noise leakage. This one is an important factor for one like me who takes public transit and doesn’t want to assault those around me with my music, which does tend to be percussive and heavy on the bass and treble.

Now, I’ve looked around and checked out the stats on the backs of packages but those really only tell half the story – and that half not very well, so now I turn to you fine dopers for some advice as to which phones sound and hold up the best. Should I keep pursuing the Shure buds? Are there equivalent buds that may be less expensive – maybe Sennheiser or (gah!) Sony?

Sorry, have to do this to you - I like my Sony’s.

I’m not a huge audiophile, but I’d like to think I like decent sound. I got an iPod and HATED the damn white earbuds it came with. I looked at some reviews online, and came accross these:
http://www.bestbuy.com/site/olspage.jsp?skuId=4141057&type=product&id=1051384741645

Sony Fontopia Ear-Bud Headphones
Model: MDR-E828LP

I think they were called something different when I got them, but these look the same and have the same specs. They’re plastic all around, no soft mesh at any part. Some of my friends don’t like them because they don’t fit in their ears right, but I love them. Sometimes I think I’m being really loud, but when I take them out of my ears, I can’t hear them at all - all the sound seems to channel directly into my ears. I think you could probably blow your ears out with them! (A good thing, in my opinion, as long as I’m not stupid). I often coil them around my iPod and throw the whole combo in my bag to rattle around, and they’ve been fine for a couple years now.

They don’t sound nearly as good as my giant studio-style headphones I use at work, but I think they sound pretty good. Plus, they’re freaking $12 so you really don’t have much to loose.

Random: when I bought them (from Best Buy) the chick at the door said “Oh, I love those earphones! They sound great!”

So, two votes from random people you don’t know. :cool:

Headphone geeks usually use “earbuds” for phones that sit in your outer ear and don’t make a seal. The Apple Ipod buds are the best I’ve heard of this type (out of just a few) but they don’t have any deep bass and the lower mids are muddy. There aren’t many expensive ones, and the good ones probably will have weak bass since there’s no seal.

For In-Ear Monitors (IEMs or canalphones) that form a seal, there are different types. Some use a dynamic diaphragm like the buds and fullsize cans. These tend to be the less expensive ones, up to $70 or $100 ones such as the Shures which are respected. They tend to cover pretty much the whole spectrum, with even cheap ones often having deep if boomy bass. Then you’ve got ones that use balanced-armature drivers, which were used in hearing aids and then in professional IEMs that were later sold to the masses, starting the trend. The balanced-armature drivers can’t really cover the whole spectrum, so the most expensive units use two or three armature drivers, or an armature for treble and a diaphragm for bass.

There are some that have a single rubber flange, which give moderate isolation and are easy to get in and out, and then there are some (usually the such as the Etymotics) with tips that have three flanges or a compressible foam. These can cut out so much sound that it can be very dangerous if you walk around with them.

The Sony EX-81 and Creative EP-630 are supposed to be decent at $30 and they have strong bass, but they both are a little cheap and harsh in the treble, and the Sonys are a bit weak in the mids. I tried the Ultimate Ears Super.fi 3 which are a single-armature design. They have a nice midrange for violins and things, better then the Sonys and Creatives but the bass isn’t good and overall they have a sort of hooty, cardboardy tone.

All the in-ear types sound horribly crude to me compared to my $50 Sennheiser HD-497 which are the only decent open headphones I’ve heard. I tried four pairs and gave up because I’m broke and I don’t think there are stores where you can listen to IEMs before you buy. I’ll use the Creatives when I have to though. I got this tiny Ipod Nano and I wanted something small to go with it but I didn’t find anything good. I can’t spend any more on something I might not like, certainly not on the mutil-way ones.

I don’t know if noise has to do with shielding or just sensitivity. The balanced-armature drivers are extremely efficient so noise from the amp can be bad, and you have to be careful with the volume.

There’s a big headphone forum at http://www.head-fi.org/ but I’m not too fond of it anymore. It’s too busy and has too much junk about cable mods and things.

I haven’t seen THD numbers for any headphones.

I’ve been using the buds that came with my iPod, and I find them to be rather crap. I found them very muddy in the upper registers and squelchy a few KHz down. Mids are okay, and bass is present but relatively weak. Just the same the mud and squelch kill it for me. I have a pair of over-the-ear Denon 60Ω monitors that are my preferred pair (as evidenced by the hard-worn leatherette coating over the foam pads) and they sound great – 18Hz in the low and 32KHz above. Despite that though they still feel a bit lacking in the bass, but not enough to constitute a serious complaint. The main problem though is that they leak like a collander, and they’re a little bulky for travel, thus my desire to find a good pair of IEMs that can seal out the majority of sound so I can listen at a respectable volume without disturbing those around me.

I’ve looked at the Sennheiser monitors and everything I’ve read about them sounds great – they’ll probably be my next pair of full phones – but right now I need IEMs. I’ve heard about the lack of bass in the lower-end Shures, which is a little disappointing given what I’ve known of Shure for ages. (My dad still has a Shure ribbon mic from the 50s he’s always raved about) The lack of ability to test-drive IEMs before buying though is part of what’s making this choice so difficult. I can’t just go out and blow $100 or more on a pair just to find them lacking, so if I can find some suggestions as to acceptable possibilities I’ll at least have a suitable direction in which to head. I’m trying to stay away from the low-end consumer stuff – the Sonys and JVCs and Creatives – just because even the full phones I’ve tried that sounded halfway decent didn’t last very long before the mechanical flaws started to creep in. I’d like a set that sound better than good and have quality construction. Not an easy thing to find these days it seems.

I still have Shure in mind for the higher end of their line, but alternatives are most welcome, especially if they offer a better price:performance ratio.

Sennheiser CX-300’s. Best earbuds for the money. Period.

Dont get the Sony’s. Their cord disinigrates within a month or two.