October 27, 2005

Earphone quest

Having bought my new Nano, I've actually been looking forward to the commute to and from work, now that I can create useful playlists based on lots of variables such as song ratings.

The iPod series is renowned for having particularly good audio, with Apple taking care to properly engineer the analog stages rather than just throwing in any cheap amp. I've got a bit of an ear for good audio, and reports of Apple's flash based players having even better audio had me keen to really hear it.

For some years I've been pretty faithful to Sony EX70 Fontopia canalphones. These tiny in-ear phones had excellent sound isolation (a godsend on flights) and very responsive bass which I rarely found in regular earbuds. Over the last few years, I've maintained faith in these phones, having bought the same ones after an earlier pair finally wore out. I never trusted regular earbuds again, and I feel they give a higher chance of hearing damage given that you need to increase the volume further to listen through ambient noise.

But my faith has recently gone.

Around the time I was looking for the Nano, I became aware of far better alternatives to the Fontopias. Reports about them being rather muddy and lacking in true clarity started to worry me, and I wondered if that was the reason why I occasionally felt a little drained after listening (as opposed to just an uncomfortable fit). I finally had read enough to realise that there were much better canalphones out there, and that the Fontopias were actually fairly crummy.

I started hunting for a replacement.

Reading Slashdot, I read one comment about Etymotic ER-6 earphones. They supposedly had truly amazing isolation, at 36dB which reduces the noise of a passing train to a mere murmur. After what turned out to be not enough research, I went ahead and bought a pair on eBay, and eagerly awaited their arrival.

After a week, the friendly postman hands me a pacakge - my new Etymotics! I eagerly gave them a try, and was almost instantly made deaf - they really live up their isolator name, and the world was plunged into silence. I had to be shouted at to be heard, and even then it became a whisper. That was the good news.

I filled them with music - and was actually quite disappointed. Where's the bass?, I thought. Whilst they were in transit, I'd read further about them being very thin on the bass. I'm no real bass-head (I always make sure "bass boost" switches are off) but I still like a nice presence. I could not hear much at all in these phones.

After a few days, I have either improved my bass hearing, or I've managed to get the recommended seal in them, and I'm hearing more bass, but I'm still not happy. I have to admit though, the rest about these phones is superb. I have never heard audio so clear, every nuance in a singer and even the slide of a guitar pick is crystal clear - lots of songs have come alive with these phones. But still I miss having a really present bass.

I've decided on replacement phones, as I need to restore bass to acceptable levels. It turns out that there are several main players in the canalphone arena. Shure, Etymotic, Ultimate ears, Westone and Sony trailing up the rear. One of these would be my ultimate choice, though Sony immediately dropped out of the race as my existing ones sound like I've got wool stuffed in my ears.

Hunting for good reviews and opinions on earphones is really daunting. Because eveyone has their own opinion on what good audio is, I heard everything good and everything bad about the contenders. Etymotic has too much high end, Shure is big/muddy, UE are expensive, etc. It took a while but I finally waded through all of the info I could find, and purchased a replacement for the Etymotics, that I hope will be the right choice.

So now I await my new Ultimate Ears super.fi 5Pro earphones, at over twice the price of my Etymotics, but what seems to give the best balance around. Dual balanced armature drivers and a passive crossover supposedly give crystal clear highs whilst retaining a strong but clear low end. But ultimately, my ears will be the true test.

Having a whole woofer, tweeter and crossover in my ear canal should give me true audio bliss. I will report once I've given them a workout.

Posted by Ben at October 27, 2005 10:00 PM
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