Headphones: Finding the right kind of sound for your ears

What sounds better: headphones that try to be neutral or headphones that try to match your ears perfectly?
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

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Most headphones concentrate on sound quality, but they all make choices about how they amplify the music.

Etymotics traditionally focuses on a neutral reproduction that aims to add nothing to the sound, whereas Bose tunes the sound to give it a slight warm colouration and Beats adds a lot of bass.

Audeara does a lot of processing, to tune the (full size, over the ear) headphones to match any damage or deficit in your hearing. That starts by taking a hearing test through the headphones, using the iOS or Android app to play a range of test tones between 100Hz and 22kHz; you adjust the volume for each frequency tone until you can only just hear it to build your hearing profile for each ear.

This takes five to ten minutes per ear if you do the full range and it relies on you to be consistent about what counts as 'barely audible' (and be somewhere quiet enough to hear the tones). We found the interface a little fiddly and, while you can go back and try the tones again or save different profiles to compare, be prepared to invest time getting this right.

If you're sharing the headphones, multiple people can save profiles to load onto the headphones, but switching profile takes a couple of minutes. You also need to choose how aggressively to apply the equalisation that optimises sound to amplify the frequencies you can't hear as well; 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent, or 100 percent -- and changing that setting takes another few seconds so you can't easily compare the effect.

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One excellent feature is that once you've sent the settings to the headphones, you aren't restricted to using them with an Android or iOS device; as long as you leave the power turned on, you can connect to another device via Bluetooth or with the plug-in audio cable (if necessary with the adapters included for larger audio jacks and the twin ports found on some planes) and still get the adjustments to the sound.

Without any adjustments, the sound is good quality and fairly neutral -- above average, but it doesn't stand out for this price. We tested the personalisation with three people, with varying quality hearing, and none of us found the change an unqualified success at first; the processing emphasises clarity in the music rather than richness or volume and bringing out details in one area of the music can soften or muddy other tones.

The tester with the most hearing loss preferred the headphones without any processing; the personalisation deadened the bass and the tones they need boosted in one ear are at the high end of their hearing range and not found in many pieces of music, so the other trade-offs weren't worth it. The tester with the least hearing problems felt that it made the sound thinner, flatter and less rich. But perhaps more than with any other headphones we've tried, this is all about personal preferences.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

There was also a notable difference when testing with different devices. Both over Bluetooth and with the cable, and in different music apps, with and without the adjustments, we heard significant hiss when listening to an iPhone. We didn't get the hiss with other Bluetooth headphones on that iPhone, or with the Audeara headphones on other phones and music players, and we liked the headphones much more when we tested them with other devices.

The design for the Audeara 01 headphones is sturdy rather than standout: they look like a typical pair of over the ear headphones with a lot of padding. They're pretty comfortable to wear for extended periods, although the over-ear padding is snug and can get warm and the finish of the manufacturing isn't quite what you'd expect for £299.

The built-in microphone and the headset button on the cable mean you can use them for phone calls and video conferencing as well, which is very welcome.

To use the app, you have to sign in with Google, Facebook or personal details like your gender and age; Audeara says it want that to build up a community of listeners but we'd like to see a clear opt out for that.

Given how impenetrable most Bluetooth interfaces are it was handy to have the pairing instructions appear telling us which switch to flip and which button to hold down to pair but we still had to go into the iOS Bluetooth settings to get the headphones paired; it would be better to simply have a better, simpler Bluetooth pairing sequence that didn't involve flipping and holding tiny buttons.

The quoted battery life is rather optimistic: with both Bluetooth and noise cancelling on, we averaged around ten hours of use -- and you have to have Bluetooth turned on even if you connect by cable to get the audio personalisation. Save on power by turning off the 'active' noise cancelling: it doesn't really hide background noise much more than the volume of the music you're listening to does. Annoyingly, you can't connect to the headphones while they're charging, and that takes quite a while for a full charge, so if you run out of power while you're out, you run out of music too.


The Audeara A-01 headphones.

Image: Audeara

Picking the right balance of how much of an adjustment to apply -- and connecting to something other than our test iPhone -- made a big difference in how much we liked these headphones. Because the impact of personalising the audio is so very personal, you're going to have to try out the Audeara 01s to see if you like the effect yourself (and if you like it enough to spend £299 on them). Thankfully, there's a trial period and money back guarantee so you can find out if the experience is transformative or irritating, because it's how they sound to you that will matter the most.

Etymotic's new ER3XR (eXtended Response) in-ear headphones take a completely different approach, giving you exactly what's in the music with only a slight bass boost.

Etymotic invented the in-ear noise isolating headphone and, like their other models, the ER3XRs are tiny; they fit right into your ear canal and the triple flanges of the soft tips go in deep and mould to your ears to cut out sound. If you don't like the very deep fit of the triple flange tips (there are three sizes in the box), the heat-sensitive foam buds don't go as deep -- but they won't give you the same stunning noise isolation.

On a recent transatlantic flight, the ER3XRs completely cut out the sound of a crying child only a few seats away, and you're not going to hear people talking near you, or even to you. If you've invested in custom tips for previous models of Etymotic headphones, they still fit the new models and give you the same isolation with more comfort. Either way, once you find the right tips for you so they don't shift around, the in-ear buds are light and comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time.

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The cable is sturdy, with a right-angle plug so it fits snugly against your phone, media player or computer so it won't pull out -- but if it gets damaged, it just pulls out of the ear buds for replacement. We had very little cable noise (less than with the Kevlar-reinforced Er4XR cable). The clip for attaching it to your clothes also pulls off if you don't need it. There's a two-year warranty and if the deep fit means you get ear wax not just on the tips (which you can pull off and wash) but into the neck of the earbuds, you can use the tool that comes in the case to remove the filters and replace them with the spare set (because clogged filters affect the sound).


The detachable cables let you replace the component on the ERXR3s that is most likely to wear.

Image: Etymotic

The deep fit and excellent noise isolation mean you don't need a lot of volume, although the ER3XRs can pump out plenty of volume if you want -- the ER4XRs we tested previously were a little on the quiet side but we didn't have that problem here.

The detail and quality of the sound mean you don't need to crank the sound up though, and while these are the budget cousins of the ER4XR at £199, there's nothing budget or disappointing about the sound.

Stereo separation is superb; sounds that are supposed to move from one ear to another have an almost physical sense of movement. Detail is crisp and clear; the bass isn't bombastic but has real depth and presence, and that gives the mid-range plenty of strength and warmth. On one of our standard test tracks (Angel from Mezzanine by Massive Attack) which starts with almost inaudible bass rumbling, we could hear it with two seconds of the track starting; on lesser headphones and speakers it's only audible after four seconds or later.

If you've tried the cheaper Etymotic models like the hf3 or hf5 -- which have excellent audio quality, very neutral sound and great noise isolation but wanted more bass and presence, the ER3XRs deliver that -- with replaceable cables so you don't have to worry about wear (the cables of my hf5s are patched in several places with Sugru). In fact they're very close to the quality of the ER4XRs, without the price and rather over-the-top carry case.

They won't pump up the frequencies your ears have problems with the way Audeara attempts to, but we really enjoyed listening to music with them.

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