Ears to You: Five Sets of Earphones/Headphones Compared


- Episode 41 - July 1st, 2005

Among the products garnering the most votes from my "Clean Up The Pile" column last month were earphones. Fortunately, I've been testing third-party earphones and headphones with my iPod since time immemorial. I started with the free iPod earphones that come with every iPod-you know, the crappy ones with the fuzzy black covers that always seem to rip or fall off at the worst possible moment. But they were uncomfortable and sounded thin and tinny to my ear.

Next I tried Apple's iPod In-Ear Headphones (street price $39), which were a bit better and more comfortable than the freebies, but fell short of the jaw-dropping sound quality I was looking for.

Then I got serious and started testing higher quality earphones and headphones including the Grado SR60 (street price $70), Future Sonics Ears EM3 (street price $100) and Shure's E3C Sound Isolating Earphones (street price $140).

All of my testing was done using a 40GB iPod Photo playing songs I'm intimately familiar with including material by Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, The Eagles, Todd Rundgren, and The Beatles. The standard I used for listening was AAC at 128 kbps (what the iTunes Music Store sells) but I also re-ripped many of the songs at multiple settings for comparison-MP3s at 128, 160, and 192 kbps, AACs at 160 and 192 kbps, and Apple Lossless.

What Makes Me Qualified to Evaluate 'Phones?

Although I'm middle-aged and my ears aren't what they used to be, I feel extremely qualified for this comparison. You see, before I became a full-time Mac geek I studied audio engineering and production with multi-Grammy-winning producer Bill Lazerus. After that I produced band and songwriting demos, which was fun but didn't pay much. Rather than starve I went into the advertising biz and produced audio and video for TV and radio commercials.

I've played guitar (badly) since I was 12, and have played in garage bands (including the fabulous Macworld All-Star Band, which features The Mac Observer's own Dave Hamilton and Bryan Chaffin) most of my life. I've maintained a small audio project studio in my home office for as long as I can remember. And, I'm also the author of GarageBand For Dummies ($14.95 - Amazon).

The point I'm trying to make is that I have more real-world audio experience than most computer columnists.

Here's how things shook out:

Apple iPod Earphones
Everyone knows the earphones that come with iPods suck, and if you didn't already know, I'm telling you now. They suck. They have the thinnest, tinniest sound of any of the phones I tested. Their highs and lows are muddier than others, they distort more at high volume levels, and they're uncomfortable for extended use to boot. (Plus, they have those stupid little fuzzy black covers that constantly tear and fall off.)

Bottom line: Almost any other earphone or headphone would sound better and be more comfortable.

Apple iPod Earphones
Rating: 2 (out of 10)
Street price: free with iPods
Pros: Free
Cons: Uncomfortable, mediocre sound

Apple iPod In-Ear Headphones
A step up from the freebies, the Apple In-Ear Headphones come in a small plastic carrying case which includes three different-sized caps to insure a comfortable fit in your ear. Because this type of earphone (I don't understand why Apple insists on calling them "headphones") pretty much seal your ear canal from the outside world, the iPod In-Ear Headphones reject outside noise much better than the freebies, and sound noticeably better, too, with crisper highs and better-defined lows.

There are probably better sounding $40 earphones, but the iPod In-Ear Headphones are a decent replacement for the stock iPod earphones. They're also stark white so they'll match most iPods, if that matters to you.

Bottom line: If your budget won't stretch to the more expensive 'phones discussed below, Apple iPod In-Ear Headphones, though not spectacular performers, are a definite improvement over the freebies.

Apple iPod In-Ear Headphones
Rating: 5 (out of 10)
Street price: $39.99 (Amazon)
Pros: Low price; more comfortable and better sounding than the freebies; three different caps to insure proper fit; included carrying case.
Cons: Not that much better sounding than the freebies.

Griffin EarJams

Bob asked me to put in a sidebar about Griffin's EarJams after I told him that I thought using them can make Apple's earphones not suck.

EarJams are nothing more than plastic caps that clip onto the business end of Apple's Earphones. This cap includes a piece that fits further into your ear-canal, including a rubbery plastic seal.

These combine to make Apple's Earphones fit snugly in your ear -- no more falling out -- while at the same time dramatically improving bass response and overall sound quality. In other words, EarJams are an inexpensive way to turn your Apple Earphones into an in-ear headphone.

Griffin Technology's EarJams

While it still won't rival the sound quality of some of the more expensive in-ear headphones on the market, the $7.49 price tag at Amazon makes it a great alternative for those looking for better sound quality on the cheap.

Bryan Chaffin

Grado SR60
I've owned my Grado SR60 headphones for 6 or 7 years and I still love them. I've always been impressed with how great they sound given their low, low price and I'm not alone: Grado SR60 was voted Stereophile's Product of the Year in not one but two different categories: Accessory of the Year and Budget Component of Year.

The SR60s are the only traditional over-the-ear headphones I tested. While they're relatively lightweight for the type-well under a pound-they are still much bigger and bulkier than any of the in-ear models. But while they are big and bulky and somewhat retro-ugly, the sound they produce is absolutely amazing.

Bottom line: The SR60s sound as good as or better than any other products I tested. They're comfortable, with a remarkably clear and lifelike stereo image and excellent frequency response across the spectrum. If you don't mind their additional size and bulk, the Grado SR60 is easily the best value among the products listed here.

Grado SR60
Rating: 8 (out of 10)
Street price: $69 (Amazon)
Pros: Great sound; comfortable; low price.
Cons: Bigger and bulkier than the others by far.

Future Sonics Ears EM3
Shure E3C Sound Isolating Earphones
Future Sonics' Ears EM3 and Shure's E3C are in-ear 'phones that are more alike than different. Both offer excellent sound-isolation (as does the Apple iPod In-Ear Headphone), are light in weight and comfortable for extended wear, and offer excellent frequency response across the spectrum with crisp, clean highs and deep satisfying lows.

Some days I think the Future Sonics' sound better; other days I think the Shure's sound better. In my humble opinion both of these earphones sound fantastic and both were extremely comfortable in extended use.

The big difference, then, has to be the price: Shure E3Cs sell for $30-$50 more than the Future Sonics Ears EM3. To be fair, the Shure E3Cs include useful extras you don't get with Future Sonics such as a nicely-designed zippered carrying case as well as 7 sets of different sized/shaped ear caps made out of three different materials. The Future Sonics Ears EM3s, alas, include only two sizes of foam ear caps and no carrying case.

Bottom line: If a case and more ear cap choices appeal to you, you can't go wrong with Shure E3Cs. They are surely (pun intended) a good deal if you want or need those things. But if you don't care about the carrying case or extra ear caps, you'll be extremely satisfied with the less-expensive

Future Sonics Ears EM3s
Future Sonics Ears EM3

Shure E3C Sound Isolating Earphones
Rating: 8 (out of 10)
Street price: $100.
Pros: Reasonable price; great sound.
Cons: Ugly brown color (earbuds and wires); no carrying case; fewer ear cap options than the Shure E3C.
Rating: 9 (out of 10)
Street price: $119 (Amazon -- Add to shopping cart to see price)
Pros: Great sound; valuable extras.
Cons: Highest price of products tested.

In conclusion, if you're on a tight budget the Apple In-Ear Headphones are a significant improvement over the freebies but don't hold a candle to the Grado, Shure, or Future Sonics 'phones. If you don't mind traditional band-over-the-head, over-the-ear headphones, go for the Grado SR60s. If you desire the best sound and noise rejection, regardless of price, you want the Future Sonics Ears EM3s or the Shure E3C.

And that's all he wrote...