Tech Life The Ear Wax Tax

Regular Audio Human

I’m a rookie when it comes to listening to music, and chances are, so are you. Like me, you’re just fine using whatever headphones were supplied with your smartphone. You know there are better headphones out there, but you think, “What’s the point? I can hear the music just fine.”

You can, but there are vastly better headphones out there.

For this piece, I’m going to compare three different types of headphones at three different price points. This makes an apples-to-apples comparison tricky to make, but the point of this piece is not to fully explore the world of headphones, but rather to begin to understand how the headphones world is built.

I deliberately did not research all of the attributes that make or break a good set of headphones. There are legions of audiophiles who will angrily shake their fingers at my lack of due diligence, and I’m eagerly waiting to hear their feedback and criticism. But my requirements for a good set of headphones have little to do with whether the headphones are based on a moving coil or electrostatic driver. My requirements are simple: I want to listen to my music as it was intended to be heard with a minimum of fuss anywhere on the planet.

You may not know much about the state of the art in headphones, but you are intimately familiar with hearing. This is an article for folks who like to hear.

The Hardware, The Tests, and a Great Song

For my selection of headphones, I wanted to test the Apple-supplied earbuds against both a high-end in-ear selection as as well as a set of full-sized headphones. For the full-sized headphones, I asked Marco for his recommendation, since he’s obsessed a lot more about headphones. He suggested the Sennheiser HD 380 Pro (~$170.00). For in-ear, I went to Twitter for recommendations, and the good people at Klipsch provided me with a pair of their X10i model, which retail for around $349.00.

For the song, I chose Titanium by David Guetta and featuring Sia, which is, first, a great song, but also features thumping bass accompanied by Sia’s bold and raging vocals that test the high end of the sound spectrum. I listened to the song on each of the three headphones in two different locations. The first location was a half-full bar at an airport. There was light to medium ambient noise from nearby conversations, as well as soul crushing techno-elevator music descending from the ceiling. The second location was at 32k feet over Greenland in the bubble of a 747 – heavy continuous white noise.

I chose these two test locations because they are where I need my headphones the most: when I’m traveling and when there is a lot of noise. Any headphones I use need to contend with the noise of traveling. Yes, I use my headphones at home, but not a lot. See, there is a wife and kids in the house, and while they’re cool with my playing of video games, they are not cool with the way that any good headphones completely remove me from the Planet Earth.

For each set of headphones, I listened to Titanium a few times in each location. For different parts of the song, I’d often swap back and forth between the different headphones to hear precise differences. What I’ve captured are my thoughts about each set of headphones relative to sound and noise reduction as well as comfort, convenience, and quirks.

Apple EarPods, in-ear ($29.00, but included with iPhone, iPads, and iPods)

Apple EarPods

The sound quality of the Apple EarPods is fine, and by fine I mean until you spend any sort of money on your headphones. Both of the headphones below have instantly recognizable superior sound quality. Both in the bar and especially on the airplane, I found myself turning the volume up on my MacBook to ~ 75% of the maximum to get what I consider full sound with the EarPods. The same volume level for both the Klipsch and the Sennheiser was blaring; I had to turn it down.

Apple claims there is noise reduction in this latest generation of the headphones, and I believe them, but for my test cases — the bar and the airplane — all of the external sound was dulling the sound of the song, and again, giving me the impression that I needed to keep turning the sound up.

Apple’s headphones are well designed. One of my favorite features is that because of their distinct shape and molding, you can tell left from right purely by feel. Each time I put on my other headphones, I’m compulsively checking the earbud, looking for that L or R. With the Apple headphones, it’s an effortless process. For me, the EarPods are tied with the Klipsch for comfort. They fit snugly and firmly in my ears and I just forget about them for hours. No issues.

One of the quirks of the Apple in-ear headphones is one of its more useful features – I can hear what’s going on around me. Both the Klipsch and the Sennheiser almost completely remove all external sound, which means when Frank the bartender looks me straight in the eye and asks me if I want another round, I give him a blank stare – I can’t hear a thing. Apple headphones are my go-to headphones when I’m on the go and need to maintain situational awareness.

Klipsch, X10i, in-ear ($349.00)

Klipsch X10i

The first indication of the vastly superior sound of the X10is is the fact that when I swap from EarPods, I have to turn the sound down – way down. This is a function of the seal the headphones make with your ear, which I’ll talk about in a moment, but once you’ve got the right volume, you’re in for a treat. The sound of the X10is is transcendent and complete. Your music will completely and wholly fill your head. Big huge bass, crisp highs, and simple, complete sound, but it comes with a cost.

The beauty of the Klipsch is the seal that it makes with the inside of your ear. It’s at that point that the crystal clear sound comes pouring into your ear, but this seal is problematic. First, the seal between the plastic ear buds and the skin of your ears not only seals sound in, it also creates a perfect medium for sound to travel through any part of the headphone assembly. Sitting here right now in the back of a car heading to the airport, all I need to do to remember what type of headphones I’m wearing is shake my head. As the cables hanging from my ears drag across the wool coat I’m wearing, the scratching sound races up the cords with perfect, annoying fidelity. If I happen to be eating peanuts while wearing these headphones, I hear the death cry of each and every peanut I consume.

Additionally, the Klipsch earbuds make you intimately aware of a part of your body that you, perhaps, would prefer to take for granted: your inner ear. I’m certain that it is for very good evolutionary reasons that my body produces ear wax. I would thank billions of years of evolution that have given me this strategic waxy advantage, but I would prefer to take ear wax for granted. I’ve been using my Klipsch headphones steadily for several weeks, and in the last week I’ve noticed the sound in my right ear degrading. The issue? Yeah, ear wax. A quick cleaning with a Klipsch-provided cleaning tool and we’re hunky dory, but for roughly 18.5 seconds I’m sitting there contending with… ear wax. This unavoidable ear wax tax is an annoying price to pay for both the sound quality and convenience of the Klipsch headphones.

Lastly, with the by far best sound quality of the three headphones, one of the more frustrating minor quirks of the the X10is is the cord quality – I constantly have to untangle them. I carefully wrap up the cord each time I’m done, but upon removal from my pouch, it’s tangled. Apple allegedly partially solved for the tangle problem, but my impression is all the science involved is – wait for it – making the cords thicker, and therefore stiffer, which is harder to tangle. As I’ve been constantly pulling both of the headphones out of my travel pouch, I can confirm that Apple’s headphones tangle less and the acoustically superior Klipsch headphones feel cheaper because they’re tangled.

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro, over-ear ($199.95)

Sennheiser HD 380 Pro

Like the Klipsches, the Sennheisers are a huge step above the Apple headphones in terms of sound quality. It’s a shocking comparison that you should try at least once to understand how much sound you’re missing. Compared to the X10is, the sound quality of the Sennheisers is slightly inferior. Audiophiles likely have dictionaries full of sound-specific words to describe the quality, but all I have is crispness. After jumping back and forth between each headphone on the same part of the song a half-dozen times, the Sennheisers are really good, but lack the crispness of the X10is – I feel like I’m hearing more of the song with the x10is. The same goes for the bass; the Klipsch bass is rounder and deeper than the Sennheiser.

In terms of noise reduction, there’s a world of difference between the Apple and Sennheiser headphones, but again, the Klipsch has superior noise reduction. It’s not clear to me whether this is a function of the electronics or the design the headphones. I have the same thought about the Klipsch seal. Are they better simply because of the complete seal they make? How much of the noise reduction is actual electronics? I can give the Sennheisers a noise-reducing boost simply by pressing the headphones harder against my head.

One of my favorite conveniences of the Sennheisers is really a quirk. The 1.5 inches that each headphone provides is a surprisingly convenient headrest on long haul flights.

I’m serious.

Many airlines provide head support in the form of fold-out head supports on both sides of your headrest, but the problem is that even with the pads folded completely forward, your head has a lot of room to bounce around. While I’m certain this wasn’t a design goal for Sennheiser, their headphones do a splendid job of filling that space. They hold my head at a comfortable angle and allow me to sleep better. Combined with the simple muffling provided by the headphones, I often sleep with headphones on but with no music at all.

While they are an unexpected sleep aid, the Sennheisers are not at all convenient. They’re a huge travel accessory only made larger by their traveling case, which I recommend using on trips. Here’s why: I’m on my third set of Sennheisers because I tossed the first two in a fit of rage. I’d been lugging them around the world without the case, because they do fold flat, and once you’ve wrapped the cord around them, they’re compact-ish. Problem is, the plug is exposed, and if that plug is bent, sound on one of your headphones gets spotty. You have to twist the plug just right to get everything to work. And another tip: attempting to re-bend the plug does not work. There are easier ways to protect the plug, but after having spent three hours on a transcontinental flight holding the plug just right I’m protecting the headphones in the supplied case, which makes the headphones the size of a late 80s mobile CD player.

Apples to Apples

I am a regular audio human. I’ve have no significant demands of my headphones. This article takes a very high level approach to looking at headphones, and I know there is much more to learn. While the lessons above might be broad, I’m eager to learn more. Again, it’s tricky to compare the three sets of headphones listed above, but I can finish by answering a few questions:

Can I just get by with the Apple EarPods? Yes, even with the blaring white noise of an airplane, the Apple headphones are just fine. They work. You can hear your music. You could also learn to write in dirt using just your fingers on paper you found on the street. My point: if you’re obsessing about your pens, backpacks, and notebooks, why wouldn’t you obsess about your headphones? A single comparison to any other headphones will show you what you’re missing.

Are the ginormous Sennheisers ever worth it? It seems to be fashionable to be walking around with huge headphones hanging around your neck. I think this is a fashion statement, not an auditory statement. I’m sure these headphones are good, but each time I see someone walking through the airport with their massive headphones, I think of every single moment that they have to contend with their bulk. The Sennheisers’ long cord and high degree of comfort do make them my go-to home setup, but that’s only when the kids and wife aren’t home. I’ve had Sennheisers for a while, and in a world where they were the only higher end headphones I knew about, I would’ve been very happy.

Would I ever pay $350 for headphones? If you asked this before I started this article, I would have laughed in your face. $100? Maybe. $200? Probably not. $350. Never. It wasn’t until I did the headphones to headphones comparison on the same song at the same time that I realized the stunning sound quality of the x10is. I sat at the bar listening to Titanium for the 18th time. I just finished with the Sennheisers, placed the Klipsches on for the first time, started the song and said, “Holy shit.” I might’ve yelled it, but I didn’t know because I couldn’t hear a thing.

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78 Responses

  1. Sharas 3 years ago

    Before worrying about sound quality. How about working on your lack of musical taste?

  2. Fernando 3 years ago

    I really like the Shure’s.

    Comfortable, great sound, cables are very good and detachable.

  3. David 3 years ago

    Wondering how these stack up against Monoprice’s $6 8320 earphones, particularly with aftermarket tips?

    For me, the 8320 was a big step up from my old iPhone 4’s earphones, although I realize the iPhone 4’s equipment doesn’t measure up even to the iPhone 5’s you mentioned here.

    Any reader able to compare the 8320 against either of the models mentioned here? I’d settle for 75% of the quality for 10% of the price…

  4. Chris 3 years ago

    I’ve actually been really liking the latest generation of Shure in ear headphones. The features I find great:

    -Detachable cord – So if you managed to bend the plug like on the sennheisers you could replace just the cord. They also have an alternate cord with an in-line remote.

    – Foam in-ear pieces rather than silicon – this still transmits some cable noise but nowhere near as much.

    They have 4 versions in increasing sound quality:

    SE215, SE315, SE425, SE535

    I’ve also had great experiences with the repair service as I will inevitably wash or step on or destroy my headphones in some manner once a year or so.

  5. Samantha 3 years ago

    So this is probably entering the realm of “that’s a whole different article” but I (and my partner) listen to headphones almost exclusively while working out, and this leads to… well… sweat-related failure. My instinct is the use the absolute cheapest headphones at the gym, but then, there’s also the times where I’d love a set of headphones suitable for drowning out the insipid chatter of college students. It’s not something I’d have ever considered, had you not posted this…. and now, I’m off to find The Best water-resistant in-ear headphones…

  6. For the travelers, there’s an aspect that I personally find more important than high-end sound: noise cancellation.

    And if you asked me whether I’d pay $350, my answer would be (and has been twice): Oh yes!

    I couldn’t imagine train rides or flights without my QC2/QC15s anymore. Worth every penny.

  7. aczarnowski 3 years ago

    I had this epiphany a couple years ago, though not to the $350 level. Don’t settle for the headphones sent with the device.

    I recently picked up Shure’s SE215-K for $99. I wouldn’t buy them again.

    The sound quality is better than my previous Etymotic ER6is but not better enough.

    The cable is too thick making management a PITA while wearing them. The cord doesn’t fold reasonably into a pocket with the player and there is no clip to help. They are also an over the ear cable system which is more secure while wearing and also more of a pain to put on than they should be. The bent over the ear ends also lead to tangle issues which, as noted, is another annoyance. So that trade off doesn’t work in their favor.

    Their removable cables? At under $100 I generally consider electronics to be disposable. So removable cables seems like a failure point rather than a feature.

    I use headphones for commuting on light rail so easy on/off, wear-ability and some situational awareness are more important than absolute isolation and sound reproduction. YMMV.

  8. I can’t speak about the HD380, but I have a pair of HD280s that I use in my bedroom recording studio. The HD280 has a flat frequency response that treats bass equally as treble. So perhaps the X10s sound better to you because they’re probably emphasizing those lows and highs.

    That was my reaction when I first put on the HD280s. I wasn’t terribly impressed, but over time, I came to appreciate the fact that I could hear every part clearly.

    That’s certainly a requirement for mixing in a recording studio.

  9. Joshua 3 years ago

    I’ve found that I prefer the Etymotic Research (ER 6i) headphones as they use a flat EQ. They don’t accentuate the bass which keeps the sound clearer.

  10. You may want to look at noise-cancelling headphones.

    Fantastic both for:

    – flying where they remove the white noise and make audio better

    – listening to music in offices where they block out conversations around you

  11. In the end, you have to go with what works for you.

    I had a pair of Sennheiser’s with a fixed cord that I had to replace on a couple of occasions. The last of which was when I accidentally left them in a hotel room in Rome. The model I had been buying had been discontinued in the meantime so I went on safari looking for a pair of over-the-ear headphones for listening to music and podcasts while working in a noisy office. When I wear them, I want the world to go away. I also wanted a detachable, replaceable cable.

    I ended up catching a sale for a pair of VModa Crossfade LPs. The reviews were mixed with many suggesting a break-in period but for the price ($99) I jumped and haven’t looked back. Even at low volume, they are clean and clear sounding with lots of definition. Many folks who have tried mine on have remarked at the sound coming from regular laptop line-out jacks. The phones came with 2 cables, one of which is made more for use with a cellphone or ipod, and a beefier cable which is what I use more often than not. They also came with a compact case which comes in handy for traveling to and from the office as well as on occasional flights. I haven’t had trouble with them being overly bulky although they are full sized headphones.

    Here’s the amazon link if interested: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_ss_i_0_6?url=search-alias%3Daps&tag=deadt-20&field-keywords=vmoda+crossfade+lp&sprefix=vmoda+%2Caps%2C131

  12. Dennis Madrid 3 years ago

    If the price of the Klipsch X10i is a little daunting, look for the regular X10. It’s the same headphone, just without the in-line volume/track control and mic, and can be found for significantly less. I picked mine up a couple years ago for around $175 on an Amazon deal, I’ve seen them drop to almost $100 depending on where you look. At that price it’s a no-brainer.

  13. The only headphones I can stand wearing are the oldschool earbuds where you can’t tell right from left without checking. The new Apple earbuds HURT. Anything that goes over my head gives me a massive headache. In-ear headphones with a seal always makes me keenly aware of sounds within my own body (my breathing, my swallowing).

  14. SinnheiserKassc 3 years ago

    I prefer on-ear headphones over full size headphones. Why? Lighter, more airy, less sweaty (think hot summer day) and earlobes aren’t painful at the end of day.

    Sound isolation should not be a problem unless you are in really noisy environment.

  15. Jared 3 years ago

    I would be another voice for Shure’s in-ear options. I’ve had a pair of E2C (prior versions of the SE series) and they’ve held up well until recently when the cables frayed around my ears. One design quirk that I actually came to like was looping them over the top of your ear; unfortunately this means they’re subject to a lot of motion that will eventually fray them. The SE series sort of fixes this by making them replaceable. What I like the most about them is you’re not paying for a name like Klipsch but the sound pedigree is there. Varying price points as well. I will be replacing my E2C with some flavor of SE in the near future.

    On the bigger side of things I’ll also pitch for the Sennheisers. I’ve had a pair of HD555 for about ten years and I’m about to send them back to Sennheiser to be reconditioned. I wouldn’t travel with these but at my desk they’re fantastic. They are, however, open back, so I’m not sure this suits your needs.

    I also recently got myself a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-M50 for DJ use. I would happily also use these for regular listening and they have an added bonus for travel of being foldable. Even better that they can be had for around $120.

    All three of these headphones meet different needs but all of them satisfy my need for decent audio quality at a price point I can live with. At the end of the day this is how you choose headphones: what sounds good to you, are they comfortable for you, is this a price you’re willing to pay for them.

  16. You don’t need to spend $350 to get good IEMs (or sound isolation). Good isolation comes from good tips.

    I own some rather expensive headphones, but on the train to and from work I always use my (~$8) Monoprice 8320 or (~$30) MEElectronics M9 with Sony replacement tips. They sound great and block the train and people noise just fine.

    It’s rather misleading to suggest that someone who doesn’t know much about headphones but cares about sound needs to spend $200 or more. Can someone hear the difference listening to high-end and then one of the ones above? Definitely (though perhaps not while walking around in an airport). But one can get orders of magnitude better sound than EarPods for much less than suggested above.

    Perhaps try out a few more (inexpensive) headphones before you make recommendations about spending $350.

  17. I want to like in-ear headphones, but I can’t. No matter the variety I have a limited time span before they hurt too much to use. (This varies: pre-EarPod Apple bundled ones: about half an hour. Per year. Shure SE220: about a year of regular usage, then no more.)

    So I have to go with big over the ear ones. It’s not an aesthetic statement. Sure they are a hassle, but a hassle that is easily worth it.

    I solved my “never the right pair” by having three:

    1. Bose AE2i for planes (no noise cancelling, but I can comfortably wear them for 15 hours straight, and no battery to run out)

    2. Sennheiser MM 550 X for commutes and general wandering around (they’re bluetooth, I hate wires)

    3. Sennheiser RX 170 wireless headphones for when I work in an office (I don’t, most of the time now, so I just use non-on-my-ear speakers)

  18. Sander 3 years ago

    I agree with Sinnheiserkassc: for me on-ear headphones are the perfect compromise.

    – Standard buds are of low sound quality and often fall out of my apparently weirdly shaped ears

    – Over-ear headphones are too warm and too visually present for me to be comfortable in public. Also, with the models I’ve tried, my ears feel ‘squeezed’ when I take them off after listening.

    – In-ear headphones are great in theory, but the biggest problem for me is that it always takes a few seconds to get them in my ears just right. (I used ones with foam tips that you have to roll between your fingers.) Whenever someone wants to communicate with me at work I have to take them out and roll them again, which started to get annoying when it happens too much. Also the foam tips need replacements every couple of weeks.

    So in the end I settled for the in my opinion perfect compromise: on-ear headphones. Not too big, still comfortable, light, flexible, some isolation, and good sound quality. For over half a year I’m very content with my AKG K450, which for around $85 gives very good quality, while still being at a price level that I’m okay with folding them and throwing them in my bag without a case. Moreover, the cable is replaceable. (Although

  19. Old Audiophile 3 years ago

    To me, the best sound comes from open-ear headphones. A great example of this is the Grado product line. Sennheiser, I think, also makes open-ears which have a good rep. You can drop a LOT of money on these things, way more than my remaining hearing (and pretty much all equipment) can drive. The negative is that everybody near you hears what you’re listening to… So if your cave is big enough to isolate you from your “neighbors”, go for the best sound. Otherwise, noise isolation is a two-way street.

    Oh, and Etymotic 4’s are a pretty good choice for in-ear. They make a lot of hearing aid speakers, so they know how to make small sound. And, if you’re getting into better headphones you’ll (quickly) learn about external DAC’s. The ones in mp3 players and laptops are pretty much crap, and you can get far better equipment in the $100-300 range. These, too, can go way up in price, but if you’ve got the ears you’ll be quite pleased with the results.

  20. I’ll let you discover your way into higher end headphones/earbuds. I wanted to point out that the little amp chip in your smartphone is pretty basic and rapidly becomes a limiting factor. Similarly, the quality of your audio files will quickly become a limiting factor. The latter is easily correctable by burning your music with a lossless codec like apple lossless or at least using the highest bitrate you can.

    There are a bevy of high quality portable headphone amps ranging in size from tiny to small that will give you another step up. Fiio makes good inexpensive ones but there are a many others. Google portable headphone amps and you’ll get an education.

    A good pair of quality $250 headphones (eg Sennheiser HD600s or 650s) and a good headphone amp at the same price playing Apple Lossless tunes will easily compete with a hifi system costing 4x as much.

    You’ll hear an amazing soundstage with the ability localise the instruments in space, you’ll hear far more of the timber of instruments and levels of detail you’ve never heard before. Think of it as a retina screen for your ears.

    Enjoy.

  21. Hello Rands.

    I usually never reply to posts and such as I either have nothing to say or feel I’m not qualified to do so.

    As you say, this isn’t a fair test for headphones.

    Completely disregarding headphones for a moment, the human ear is the most important part in hearing. Given that as you increase the volume of a specific sound it sounds better to the human ear, you have to take account for the Fletcher-Munson curves. The basic premise of this is that as you turn the volume up, the differences in the frequency range heard by the human ear level out.

    So, testing against the headphones would mean you would have to get the same amount of electrical signal out from the output device.

    As the electric signal you sent between the three devices varied a fair amount, you would have been significantly changing the loudness contours of your own ears.

    As for the track, it’s not a bad choice at all as the frequency content is varied, however I would be interested to know how much stereo depth and dynamic range is in the track.

    The Sennheisers are very very large, yes. However, if one was to pick up a pair of HD-25’s, you might be pleasantly surprised. The sound is a little coloured in the bass region as these headphones are designed for live sound reinforcement people and DJ’s, but they are small/portable and pack a punch.

  22. Orion Woody 3 years ago

    The EarPods are the only pair of earbuds I’ve ever owned that don’t constantly fall out of my ears.

  23. Sean Stapleton 3 years ago

    For what it’s worth, the cable on the Sennheiser HD280 Pro is replaceable, (also presumably on the HD380). All it takes is a phillips scredriver, video tutorials are available for the googling. Based on the UK sites, prices for the replacement Sennheiser cable are nearly half (!) those of the Shure (~$74 vs $39).

  24. Piete 3 years ago

    Throwing another option in the mix, I would say definitely look into the Soundmagic e10 range. They’re damn cheap, and while less of a flat response than my Senn HD600s, I really enjoy the sound of what I listen to on them. I wouldn’t mix on the e10s, but that’s not the point of them.

    To Samantha who has sweat related failures, a friend of my recommends the soundmagic e30s, which are in-ear, but have a little over-ear piece to them – might be the right shape, if not the right manufacturer!

    Also something for your consideration: while a “flat” response is highly desirable during song creation (for hearing the details and setting the levels appropriately), everyone’s ears are different, as are everyone’s preferences.

    The combination of song mix + headphones + ears will affect the sound. The only way to listen “as the song is intended” would be to use the mix/mastering engineer’s equipment and ears, so in lieu of that: go for a headphone that you enjoy listening to songs in, even if that ‘phone colours the sound somehow.

    All in all, that’s a long winded way of seconding Rob Allen: “you have to go with what works for you.”

    I would amend the statement slightly to read: “you have to go with what works for you, both sonically and practically”.

    Good luck in your music-listening endeavours. The nice thing about music is, there is no right answer, just what you enjoy the most.

  25. I would suggest retesting after many hours of playtime through the Sennheiser headphones. I know I noticed a huge difference after the cans got used and warmed up a little.

  26. Richard 3 years ago

    For IEM you can get better than X10 for a lot cheaper, I like Gr07 bass edition, and have used both. There are others I am sure, but beyond a certain price, differences are more personal taste than quality in IEM’s

  27. Peter Evans 3 years ago

    I’ve been through a lot of earphones, and one thing you haven’t mentioned that I reckon is key is mechanical robustness. A lot of earphones, getting stuffed in pockets, yanked at, rolled up, squashed in bags will eventually suffer a wire break, either at the bud end, or at the plug end. It will happen. I went through some expensive kit (Etymotic and Sennheiser). To their credit, the new Apple earphones are definitely at the robust end of the spectrum (and like you, I use them when I need to be able to hear ambient sound, like walking down the street). The best (as in robust, but also with pretty good sound) earphones I have found are A-jays, which also have the benefit of a near untanglable cable (it’s like a ribbon, and is very robust).

  28. Justin 3 years ago

    My biggest problem is that my $99 klipsch headphones started breaking down after 12-18 months. So, I’ve traded sound quality (Klipsch) for durability (Earpods or $10 disposables)

  29. Aidan 3 years ago

    I have the Sennheiser 380 Pros, and a set of Shure SE215 in-ears. In-ears are great, but seconding other commenters, when you’re at work and frequently interupted, it’s just too much hassle to refit them each time. I do love using the Shures at the gym however.

    Earpods are complete crap for me fit wise – I purposely use an older version of iPod earbuds in fact.

  30. I think the Apple Dual driver in ear headphones are a dramatic step above the included earbuds, and reasonably priced. I’d be curious for you to compare them as well. As an added bonus, they have volume up and down as as well as a microphone that are compatible with the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and recent computers.

  31. Walt French 3 years ago

    I’d be a bit wary of earphones that sounded “crisp.” I fly some 50X/year and would be worried that “crisp” or “bright” would pretty soon be “in my face.” Just the way that “strong bass” is all too often a low-rent, boomy mess.

    Maybe, even “precise” would be fine. Mostly, though, I would look for a sound that’s not there; all you hear is the music exactly the way that you imagine the performers want it to be heard,complete, balanced and rich.

    I can’t compare my long-term favorites, the Etymotic 4Ps, to the ones you discuss. But like the Klipsch earbuds, they are superb at blocking out external sound. That helps enjoy the full dynamic range — loud and soft — in noisy environments, without blasting.

    They’re also fine at staying in the ear while I jog, though I have to be VERY careful around street crossings. I’ve worn em enough that I can sleep with ’em in but I don’t know anybody who finds the fit natural on the first try.

  32. Interesting review. I’m an audio professional, and I do a lot of listening with Apple’s earpods. They definitely don’t sound as good as my nice headphones, but as you say, they sound good enough. I always spend a lot of time with my mixes to make sure they are exciting to the listener whether they listen with free earpods or the more expensive options.

    One point: you mention “noise reduction” a lot, but I’m pretty sure you’re talking about “sound isolation”. Noise reduction is an active process (typically using digital signal processing), that very few headphones have built in. Sound isolation is part of the physical design.

  33. chris 3 years ago

    Although my favorite sounding headphones are over-the ear Sennheisers, I’m actually a big fan of the stock Apple EarPods for a few reasons:

    • CONTEXT: They should be judged first against their predecessors, and the fit/finish/water-resistance/sound quality are all markedly improved. And I have yet to see or try any other similar style earbuds that exceed them at a similar price. To be included with the latest iPhone is a nice all-around upgrade. Surely Apple makes a fortune on each $29 replacement set, but still—it’s only $29.

    • COMFORT: I find them to be much more comfortable (especially for extended listening sessions) than noise-isolating earbuds. Ditto about maintaining auditory awareness of your surroundings. Plus, they coil up into their little case rather conveniently.

    • POSITION: The EarPods stay in the correct position much better than any other earbuds I’ve tried. As I turn/tilt my head or go for a run, their shape keeps the sound directed into my ear canal with surprising consistency. With many other models, the treble/bass balance varies as the position of the earphones change (major pet peeve). Perhaps my ear shape allows more earbud movement than the average person’s, but I’m surprised that nobody else has mentioned this.

    • OUTPUT: As for the lower volume output, this was a welcome change for me. I suspect it was made deliberately by Apple’s engineers to reduce the risks of hearing damage with sustained listening at higher decibels that is very common (especially among kids/teens). I don’t know how many times a song or unexpectedly loud alert chime has hurt my ears because I left the ‘headphones’ volume too high for use with an AUX input. Switching between an AUX device and the EarPods now has much lower volume disparity.

    Rands and everyone else—thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  34. The biggest reason I stick to the basic Apple earbuds is phone calls. When I use my iPhone, I periodically get phone calls. I want to be able to stick with the same headset I’ve been using. With the higher-end headsets, I can’t hear myself speak — meaning I can’t really conduct a phone conversation. I once bought a high-end pair (a couple of years ago), but they went unused for this reason.

  35. Kendall 3 years ago

    It may be the case that all $300+ headphones sound better than the Apple EarPods, but not the $100 ones…

    I have a set of Etymotic HF3 in-ear buds. They are really well made. They seal against the ear well. They have very nice inline controls, and a great microphone (at least the reports say then do, I’ve never tried recording from them and comparing).

    But – I tried listening to a variety of music through both the Apple EarBuds and the Etymotic, and preferred the sound from the Apple. It’s not even like I like base turned up to 11 or anything like that. just overall, all of the sound to me seemed a little better…

    I’ve also used off and on some over-ear Seinheiser noise-canceling headphones, which I like a lot. But since the EarBuds I can actually tolerate for hours unlike most other in-ear headphones, I prefer the compactness of them even though you do get more noise than with the Seinheiser.

  36. Jesse Robertson 3 years ago

    Velodyne vPulse are a great alternative to the Klipsches. The linguine-like cables don’t tangle, the ear wax and friction problems are not so bad, and the sound quality is genuinely surprising for the price—about 100 bucks.

    They’ve got iPhone controls and a mic, too.

  37. tinytone 3 years ago

    No complain on the selection of headphones but this test is biased: David Guetta > Good song. Come on….

  38. Lachlan 3 years ago

    You’d be much better off buying noise-cancelling headphones/ earphones than running standard ones at high sound pressure levels over many hours to block out external noise. Protect your ears – high SPL’s contribute to hearing-loss and should be avoided.

  39. The HD380s are fairly low impedance and hence need a fairly hefty amplifier driving them. They lose definition when plugged into my Mackie 1202 VLZ mixer but sound quite nice when plugged into my Apogee Duet.

  40. Thank you for giving me hope that what I hear with sound-isolating in-ear headphones isn’t just auditory hallucinations. I’m speaking of the booming, scratching, and screeching sounds that travel through the wire and into my ear.

    I’ve experienced this with all decent in-ear headphones (Klipsch, Shure, and another I’m forgetting). Even the tiniest little movement results in a deafening sound coursing up the wire. I found myself sitting as still as possible, and even closely monitoring my breathing, as to not move the cord at all.

    Yet… until this review, I had never heard another person describe that sensation. In-ear headphones are insanely popular. How could they possibly be if others hard such a maddening sound with every movement? I deduced that it was simply my imagination.

    It’s not! What a relief!

  41. After reading this article on Gizmodo

    http://gizmodo.com/5617200/the-secret-scam-of-cheap-earbuds

    In response to the article, V-Moda had a deal where they’d give you $35 off a pair of their buds if you sent in some trashy ones, so I did. My Vibratos are the first earphones I’ve ever really, truly noticed the difference with. I even bought a pair of their refurb Crossfade LPs for use around the house or at the computer. Both are brilliant. They tempt me to venture further into the expensive realm of audiophilia. In the meantime, I can thoroughly and unequivocally recommend V-Modas; they aren’t the cheapest things out there, and they’re not the most expensive things either. But they are GREAT sounding.

  42. Just curious, what bitrate was the file?

  43. One consideration of in-ear phones is fit. I have a small ear canal and normal in-ear phones are painful to wedge in, and ear buds won’t stay in place. Etymotics has small tips available, both foam and silicon, suitable for child-size ear canals which fit me perfectly and are comfortable for long listening sessions.

  44. When I switched to a pair of in-ear headphones (UE’s TripleFi: great sound, but the cord breaks every year or two and it’s frustrating as hell to replace), I was shocked by how much my music preferences changed. Suddenly, I could get things out of genres which had been close to inaccessible before; I could focus on my music in a way I couldn’t with the old default iPod headphones. As a result, the times I turned to music, the ways in which I relied upon it, changed.

    For one thing, I needed less of a beat, less of a blunt and obvious rhythm, than I’d needed with the default headphones. I could wring rhythm out of a cello or a violin, out of punk singers and rappers with a clear sense of beat, and could stay engaged in songs which were far less blatant in what forces were driving them. Similarly, I found it easy, for the first time, to hear the shape of music. When listening to a top-notch classical ensemble, I could suddenly notice how the opening to a piece seemed to be telling me: “Here’s what will be coming up. Here’s what you should focus on. Stay in touch, there are stories unfolding all over the place.” Music which I would have found unbearably slow instead sometimes seemed too intense to listen to in its entirety; I remember listening to certain symphonies in five-minute increments, because past the five-minute mark I’d be too overwhelmed and too enraptured to go on. So I would skip back and re-listen, until my delight faded just enough that I could permit myself to continue.

    I’ve had similar experiences of music styles suddenly clicking at live shows; I don’t think I ever saw the point of orchestral music beyond pure prettiness until I saw a certain philharmonic play in Washington DC on a high school field trip. Similarly, going to punk shows and raves and experimental rock performances shocked me into realizing, basically, the ways in which various audiences listened to various kinds of music; each time I’d walk home at night with a new world open to explore.

    But with a good pair of headphones, you can explore any avenue of music in the world, and it is a hell of a trip. Skipping in and out of various musical cultures, particularly the sorts that originated in foreign countries, can be a real eye-opener. Learning how different kinds of music engage the mind is the sort of hobby that slowly teaches you something about who you are, how your brain functions. You probably don’t need an especially elaborate set-up to get your music sounding good enough that it lets you explore; $100-150 for a solid pair, or probably even half as much if you know where to look, will get you a set of headphones that captures your music better and makes the listening process a more immediate one, less a means for making some other end more enjoyable and more an end unto itself.

  45. Is the cord on the 380’s really that fragile? I’ve had my 280’s for 10 years and the cord is just about the only thing that’s in good condition. I can kind of understand $100 headphones being made to break, but at $200, it’s downright mean to make them so disposable.

  46. MDR-V6 is still my gateway drug of choice.

  47. I have many headphones (mostly mid to high end) and in-ear buds. I have had most big brands and auditioned many more. I have Sennheiser, Klipsch, Bose, AudioTechnica and many more. I think the Apple ear-buds are a vast improvement on the old ear-buds and stand up well against most competitors costing twice as much. That said local-grown (I’m from Perth, Western Australia) Audiofly earbuds have to be auditioned if you want high quality at a bargain price.

    My favourite recent audio purchase are a lovely pair of Harmon Kardon CL headphones which combine high audio and build quality and comfort with the travel functionality of a flat-pack case with REMOVABLE cable (with phonemic and controls!!!) all at a reasonable price. I went into the Apple store looking to buy an iPad mini and after auditioning these cans came out with a big phat smile on my face. Two big thumbs up! Try them – they kill phones costing two to three times as much! my 20c worth. PeterSW

  48. I don’t think the earpods do have noise cancelling in their headphones. Maybe you meant the apple in-ears, which you should have tried anyway in my opinion. The earpods are crap. I love the in-ears though.

  49. Jonathan 3 years ago

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned The Wirecutter yet…

    http://thewirecutter.com/leaderboard/headphones/

    They have recommendations at many price points…very good stuff!

    Including a pair of sports headphones, for Samantha et al.

  50. Jim H 3 years ago

    I’ve tried out a lot of headphones. When I started working out frequently, I got interested in Bluetooth, and soon I was hooked. But first it became clear that a lot of headphones, in-ear or otherwise, don’t stand up to more than two weeks of sweat from my ears. Finally, I found the Moto HD 10s. Not terribly comfortable, only decent sound, but they’ve lasted about a year and a half… so far.

  51. Jamesy 3 years ago

    Koss headphones. Prota Pro, not the most aesthetically pleasing but absolutely the most warm sound.

    http://www.koss.com/

  52. Have you tried Dirac from the App Store together with the Apple EarPods? They measured the frequency response and impulse delay and built a filter to compensate for all of that. It makes them sound better.

  53. I shall never buy in-ear phones that cost more than $30. Ever. That has nothing to do with the audio quality, but all the more with the likelihood of me breaking the damned things. These are fragile devices, almost without exception, and I’ve been eating through them at a rate of 2-4 per year. That makes it just too much of a risk to spend much money on.

  54. I’m a huge fan of my Bose headphones with active noise canceling. They’re wonderful for every day use. At the gym, I use an inexpensive pair of BT over the ear headphones that do the job. If I hadn’t won the Bose, I wouldn’t have bought them. My normal priority in choosing headphones is how pissed I’ll be if one of my kids loses/breaks them. Obviously, they don’t touch the Bose. 🙂

  55. Jesse 3 years ago

    I’m surprised no one has bothered to talk about ear infections due to the VAST amounts of bacteria trapped in your ear by the Klipsch phones, or any other buds with the “inner-ear seal”.

  56. Crateish 3 years ago

    My Apple EarPods are my goto set at work. I use Audio Hijack Pro to provide EQ to whatever I am listening to.

    I lean the Bass up and add some Reverb for an expansive, radio like sound.

    And since they are ‘open,’ I can hear people in the office when I need to.

  57. After I lost a pair of Shure SE-110s, I could not find an in-ear headset that I liked. That is until I came across the Bowers & Wilkins C5s. They have a little loop that keeps the units in place, talk about an ingenious approach. The sound is amazing.

    But when I want to isolate myself I use my over-the-ears Bowers & Wilkins P5s. Worth every penny.

  58. Anton 3 years ago

    The crucial point about Apple earbuds is that they are earbuds. It’s very difficult to make decent earbuds. And, the ones that sound good cost about 7 times more. Read this review by a known audiophile site: http://www.innerfidelity.com/content/lauding-jobs-least-loved-product-basic-apple-ear-bud

  59. Wrong, Apple earpods are not included with ipads which is a dick move.

  60. Just FYI: *none* of the “noise reduction” you’re describing in any of those headphones is electronic. None whatsoever. All of it is in the design of the headphones, produced by sound isolation. There are what are called “active” noise canceling headphones, but they require separate batteries, and the noise canceling circuits reduce the sound quality.

    I’m also not sure why you chose to pick up the HD 380 Pro for personal listening; that isn’t really what the model is for. It’s intended to facilitate studio monitoring, which has different needs (reproductive accuracy versus personal enjoyment) from home hi-fi headphones. And Sennheiser makes so many of the other kind! The HD 5×5 series, the HD580, 600, 650, 800. All great products. And of course, for sound isolation there’s the brilliant HD25-1 (so good for dealing with plane rides they used to give ’em away to Concord passengers).

  61. Justin D. 3 years ago

    Always be mindful of using inner ear-style headphones, especially if you rock them on a daily basis.

    Depending on your ears, your earwax composition, etc, you can run the risk of having earwax build up in your ear canals. You may end up wondering why the world sounds a little more muffled than usual, but chances are you won’t notice because your brain adapts. Then next time you go to the doctor and gives your ears a peek, you’ll be told you have a buildup, get a nice stream of hot water to clear it out, then be all “holy cow everything sounds so much better now!”

    So yeah, be mindful. I’ve stopped using inner ear headphones because of this.

    On another note:

    I’m a huge huge fan of V-Moda’s headphones, formerly the inner ear ones, currently both sizes of their over-ear M-80 and M-100 models.

    The sound is sublime, they’re super comfortable for extended wear, they have some great accessories, build quality is outrageous, and they have an excellent warranty program should anything go awry.

  62. I love the in-ear style when they are finally in-ear, but the pain of having to take them out every time someone needs to talk to you is a deal breaker. Particularly at work (although the aesthetic of over-the-ear headphones at work isn’t ideal either), it’s in, out, in, out, in… until I just leave them out.

    I feel like I’m abusing my ear each time I twist and plug them in.

    Also, if I’m doing anything even slightly strenuous (like walking), perspiration loosens the seal and they fall out.

  63. Add me to the list of people who prefer Audio-Technica ATH-M50. For the money there is no better value for a set of closed cans. For open/semi-open I have a set of AKG K 240 MK II that let in enough ambient sound that I don’t feel isolated when I don’t want to be. For my teenaged son, I buy the Senn HD 201 for $15 on sale because he’s so hard on them.

  64. Please check out this wonderful new app called: myVoiceDrop which turns your iPhone, iPod Touch & iPad into your personal podcast and voice gram to share with others.

  65. Please check out this wonderful new app called: myVoiceDrop which turns your iPhone, iPod Touch & iPad into your personal podcast and voice gram to share with others. http://mindobix.com/myvoicedrop

  66. I, for one, go for active noise cancellation. I’m sure the audio quality doesn’t measure up to passive noise-isolating headphones, but nothing beats being able to tune out the loud white noise on trains and airplanes.

  67. Janne 3 years ago

    There’s one thing to note: if you can hear your surroundings when wearing the headphones, it means that the people around you can hear your music. Which can be REALLY annoying when listening to music in trains, buses and planes.

  68. Chris 3 years ago

    For the in-ear isolation buds, to cut down on the microphonics I suggest you take the cord as it leaves the bud, bring it forward and up and over the back of your ear and down.

    It takes a bit if adjustment, but the contact with the back of your ear will dampen the microphonics a good bit. I’ve been wearing them this way for well over 10yrs daily. Some buds are angled a bit better than others for this too.

    Also, don’t underestimate the more entry level buds like the Klipsch S4’s as an example. They all have varying characteristics, but a lot of the subtlety that the highest end models give you gets lost in the din of travel, whether on a plane or in a subway car. The S4’s for the cash are pretty darned nice as are many others that are similar.

    An mp3 player with a nice EQ option helps out quite a bit too.

  69. HaraldS 3 years ago

    I have had the Klipsch for more than a year, and they stay mind boggling great against all comers. I actually am using the plain X10, which I bought on sale from Amazon for

  70. HaraldS 3 years ago

    for… was truncated – for less than $100.

    BTW, when properly seated the noise shielding is better than that provided by my noise canceling Bose or Sony headsets…

  71. Tyler 3 years ago

    Am I the only one that suffers tremendous ear ringing and pain after heavy use of active noise canceling headphones? Even at low volumes, they’re murder on my poor ears. I’ve tried several different brands over the last several years, and they’ve all led me to the conclusion that noise isolating as the only viable option to reduce background noise. I ain’t down with the long term hearing loss.

  72. Daniel 3 years ago

    The cable for the Sennheiser 380 is detachable and replaceable! No tools necessary. It just slides out with a little tug.

    Great headphones, but yup, they’re a bit of a hassle to lug around. I never use the carrying case though. Seem pretty indestructible to me.

  73. Interesting comments.

    Over the years Iv’ve amassed a rather impressive collection of high-end, in ear devices. The executive summary:

    Best sound: Ultimate Ears Triple-Fi (most open “soundstage” and detailed sound)

    Most comfortable: Klipsch X10(i)

    Your mileage may vary.

  74. Sony MDR-V6. They sound great, they don’t need crazy ass USB amplifiers, I can take them anywhere, and they cost $70 on amazon. This obsession with spending several hundred bucks on headphones is just silly. And yes, when I wear out our rip the pads after a couple years, I replace them with the beyerdynamics ones and they still feel great.

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  77. There’s a lot to be said for plugging your headphones into a good source.

    I have always found the built-in outputs on Mac portables to be a little dull and muddy, but conversely Apple’s mobile devices (and particularly the later ones) have excellent and clear outputs.
    Since the output on my MacBook Pro dropped one channel I have picked up an external USB sound output which is worlds better than the built-in output ever was.

    The other thing to consider is that some headphones (larger drivers usually) require more power to drive, those again will be seriously let down by a lacklustre output.

  78. Scott Atkinson 3 years ago

    I own some very nice headphones, including a pair of Sennheiser HD650s, but spend 98 percent of my time with Koss PortaPros. Not a fan of audiophile terms, so I’ll leave it at they sound right to me, and if they break, the max I’m out is $40. (Plus Koss offers a generous lietime warranty.)

    The only thing thing they’re not good at it blocking out noise, which could be a deal breaker for you. But assuming you haven’t spent your headphone budget already, buy these. They’re worth it.