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Earbuds for your iPod: Listen Closely

By Ken Hamberg

Straight up, I must admit to being a headphone addict; I buy headphones the way some people buy shoes and scarves, and I match my headphones with the music the way some people match their leather bags with their outfits. I use headphones a lot for recording music or voiceover stuff in the studio, for practicing my various musical instruments, and for late night music listening on my stereo system. So my editor thought I might be a good candidate to evaluate one of the popular trends in consumer headphone technology - in-ear headphones for the iPod and other portable listening devices.

I don't own an iPod, but everyone else in my family does, and I see why it's become a cultural phenomenon. You can store and easily find thousands of your favorite songs in a pocket-sized unit that lets you be your own DJ, and the thing sounds better than most cassettes ever did. The in-ears that come with an iPod sound O.K. to me and the cables hang stylishly from the ears like pendants. It's a great street look.

 

What's Driving the Music

The growth of the in-ear industry has been spurred by the not coincidental proliferation and accessible pricing of both portable MP3 music players like the iPod, and the increasing popularity of in-ear monitoring systems (IEM's) for the professional musical and theatrical stage. For example Ultimate Ears, one of the more elite manufacturers of earbuds for both pro musicians and consumers, was founded by Jerry Harvey, a former monitoring engineer for arena rockers Van Halen. His prototype earbud, built in 1995 at the request of the band's drummer, was designed to improve upon whatever they were using for in-ear headphones at the time.

Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 Pro


Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 Pro

There are two types of in-ear driver design, balanced armature and dynamic. In-ears tend to be of very low impedance because of the modest power of the headphone amps found in most portable devices. Balanced armature design is found only in in-ear headphones and comes directly from hearing aid technology. These drivers are basically sensitive, sub-miniature, self-amplified speakers housed in a tiny frame and secured by an enclosure called an armature. They're meant to insert directly into the ear canal. They're somewhat limited in frequency range (50Hz-16kHz is typical) and require a good solid seal (as in fit) to properly deliver their full potential, particularly at the low end of the spectrum. Balanced armature design allows for multiple drivers - there are plenty of two-way and some three-way models, which divide the frequency spectrum by utilizing a passive crossover like the ones used in P.A. speaker systems to separate the lows, mids, and highs. Properly fitted and sealed, a good set will deliver a big, balanced sound competitive with many closed-back headphones, at very reasonable and safe volumes.

Dynamic drivers are found in most headphones and tend to be larger than armatures. They use the same voice coil technology that most loudspeakers do, and they require ports just like those found in many studio and P.A. monitors in order to achieve optimum low-end response. This means they have openings that let in ambient sound and noise, which precludes any true isolation, so you have to listen louder to compete with ambient surroundings. They rest in the ear outside of the canal. They usually exhibit a good bass and lower-mid response, but often lack clarity in the higher frequencies. And like their open-back headphone counterparts, dynamic in-ears also allow a lot of sound out into the world. Think of some of your particularly annoying fellow passengers on the bus or train, cranking their portables unto deafness.

What You Had to Say

I spent five days listening to fifteen in-ears from six different manufacturers, and I also conducted an informal poll of portable listeners on the streets of New York City. Fourteen of those who stopped to talk were men and nine were women. The demographic was between the ages of 16 and 55 (rough guess). All were earphone as opposed to headphone users, and I asked them why they preferred earphones and whether they were happy with the sound, fit and appearance. Here's what they shared with me:

  1. Most of the respondents found earphones to be more comfortable and discreet.

  2. Over half of the respondents liked the fact that earphones did not mess up their hair. Headphones definitely presented a hair issue.

  3. Only four of the respondents were listening to portable CD players, and they had no patience for the sound of MP3 players. All of them used in-canal earphones.

  4. The vast majority of the others owned iPods and loved them like pets. They enjoyed the storage capacity of the units and the absolute control they had over their music – it was really personal. Sound quality was mostly secondary to the features of the iPod.

  5. Most of the iPod owners used the Apple in-ears that came with the unit, wore them out, and often replaced them with other Apple in-ears.

  6. Over half of the respondents were unaware of the existence of in-canal earphones, and most of them were somewhat squeamish about putting anything directly into their ear canals.

  7. Three of respondents were musicians, and they all used in-canal earphones.

  8. All of the respondents dedicated their earphones exclusively to portable use.

 

 

Conclusions

The players of choice for my in-ear evaluation included three different species of iPod and a CD player. There's no question that the quality of the source material had a significant impact on the sound quality of the playback. The CD's sounded consistently better on all the earphones. As for the MP3's, I noticed a big difference in sound quality when the selectable recording resolution feature had been invoked in the iPod. Transfers from CD done at 192 kbps or higher resolutions sounded better. While you can't do much with straight downloads, if you're archiving from your CD collection you should consider this option. Sure, it eats up more drive space, but the sound quality is noticeably improved, and your earphones will respond nicely.


Setting your CD import to 192 kbps resolution in iTunes

The seal in the ear canal is really important. The better the fit and the tighter the seal, the better the earphones will sound, particularly the bass response. There's a long-term safety factor here, too - you don't have to turn the portable's volume up very loud to achieve a full sound when you have proper isolation and aren't competing with the ambient noise of your surroundings. The fit of the earbud is entirely subjective, and ideally a custom mould performed by an audiologist or the manufacturer will guarantee consistent and reliable performance from the earphone. This is just as important to the consumer's aural health as it is to the professional musician's.

Finally, while I apologize for my expensive taste, I found that the professional in-ear models represented the best value, and competed very closely with studio headphones in terms of sound quality, fit and isolation, durability and versatility. Again, for that kind of money I expected equally good performance in both portable or fixed stereo system listening and studio recording applications, and I must say that the pro units delivered. That being said, all the in-ears listed in the chart below met or exceeded the expectations associated with their price tags.

 

What's in your ear?

 

Ultimate Ears  Super.Fi 5 EB Extended Bass Earphones (Black) Bose In-Ear Headphones with Black and White Cable

 

Shure SCL5 - Professional Sound-Isolating Stereo Earphones Ultimate Ears triple.fi 10 pro Westone UM2

For a list of all products highlighted in this article, click here

 

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Etymotic Reasearch ER6i Ultimate Ears  Super.Fi 3 Studio Earphones (White) Etymotic Research ER-6C