20 December 2008

Which Buds for You?

The earbuds that came with your player may suit you fine, but for most people they are far from ideal, for two reasons.

The first problem is sound quality. The basic Apple Earphones ("iBuds") are truly poor, and the old upgrade Apple In-Ear Headphones ("olives") were not much better (though the new two-driver olives are reported to be very good). To be fair, most bundled earphones are very cheap and have poor sound. An exception would be the Sony MDR-EX82 earphones that come with new high-end Sony DAPs, which sound great and are very comfortable.

The second problem is, in fact, comfort. There are three basic types of earphones. Almost all bundled earphones are earbuds, which insert into the concha ridge of the outer ears. Most people find them uncomfortable and their sound quality is uniformly poor. The alternative is earphones that insert into the ear canal, variously called ear canal headphones, in-ear monitors (IEMs) or canalphones. There is some confusion in terminology, so I will simply call them all IEMs. These provide much better sound quality than earbuds, block out much more outside noise, and are very comfortable. No buds for you. These are the 'phones to own.

Off-the-shelf IEMs come in a variety of styles and ear tip designs. The most common have rather large, round silicone tips with single flanges that nestle just in the entrance of the ear canal. There are also similar, shallow-insert foam tips that some listeners prefer. They function about the same. But some high-end IEMs have duo- or tri-flange tips than insert deeper into the ear canal. These block much more outside noise, but not everyone finds them comfortable.

Foam tips (above) and single-flange silicone tips (below)

Custom IEMs are an entirely different creature. First you must visit an audiologist and have a cast made of the inside of your ear. Then a custom plastic IEM is made from that cast that fits your ear perfectly, blocking a maximum of outside noise and positioning the speaker driver perfectly for optimal sound quality. Custom IEMs are used for on-stage sound monitoring by musicians, but are now also becoming increasingly popular among audio enthusiasts. While they can cost more than $1000, over and above the ear casting, low- and mid-priced offerings by companies like LiveWires and FREQ (review) are starting to appear.

L-R: Custom IEM, tri-flange deep insertion IEMs, and single-flange shallow insertion IEMs

In the works: Earphone and headphone reviews.

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