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 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 10:00 PM | Comments (0)

October 25, 2005


So I finally decided that my old faithful Nex II MP3 player needed upgrading. Memory-wise I didnt really have a problem. This player uses compact flash cards so upgrading memory is just a matter of buying a new CF card. But the interface is a little old and it doesnt have that many features I like, especially song ratings and good playlist support.

So conveniently enough, Apple brought out the iPod Nano. This time with a black model, as I really don't like the white one, it just looks so ...wrong. This is the first Apple kit I've bought - ever since high school I've always found Apple gear a bit wacky and too brain-dead. Much of my high-school years was spent taunting the computing teacher for his obsession with the things. But Apple has matured over the years, and their user interface design with its combination of intuitition and power is a lovely balance. The itch started...

Less than a week after its release, I started to really pang for a Nano. It's tiny size, sleek black form and lack of moving parts really sold itself. It was not an easy the time I started looking they'd all but sold out worldwide, and a fruitless search had me just about given up. Persistence paid off here. After a few deals on second hand ones fell through, I finally managed to snatch one that was effectively brand new, thanks to a Dutch online classified site. Paying about 10% less than retail, I was almost prepared to pay full retail for a 2nd hand unit in as-new condition.

I've had it for a couple of weeks now, and even now I'm still awe-bound with just what has been put into that tiny package. Photos of it do not do it justice. You see a photo and think OK, it's a small mp3 player, but to actually look at it and have it in your hand is another thing entirely. The inteface is highly intuitive yet powerful (a great compliment coming from a Unix user!), and the partnership with iTunes is flawless. (But my gripes about there not being a good free iTunes replacement are still there).

Best of all, the audio coming out of this credit card sized device is nothing short of heavenly - the engineering that went into the analogue output circuitry matches the work put into the rest of the device.

Posted by Ben at 12:26 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack