Love your iPod - Earphones

Finding the best earphones for an iPod (or Zune or whatever portable media player you choose) isn't as easy as I thought it would be.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Finding the best earphones for an iPod (or Zune or whatever portable media player you choose) isn't as easy as I thought it would be.

Over the past few weeks I've had the opportunity to spend a lot of time wearing a number of different earphones from Shure and Sennheiser.  The sets that I've tried are:

  • Shure E3c
  • Shure E500PTH
  • Sennheiser PMX 70 Sport
  • Sennheiser MX 75 Sport

I've said it before that one thing that you can guarantee about ears is that everyone has non-standard earsThere are huge differences between the Shure earphones and the Sennheiser earphones - but none is more obvious than price.  The Shure are high-cost and high quality while the Sennheiser's are good quality at a reasonable price.  If price is an issue, then which brand you go for is a done deal.

Shure E500PTH

Shure E500PTH

Street prices for these sets vary a lot.  The Shure E500PTH cost a whopping $499, the Shure E3c are cheaper but still cost $179.  The Sennheisers are a lot cheaper.  The PMX 70 and MX 75 both retail at $49.95.

The Shure also differ from the Sennheiser earphones in design.  The Shure's are both "in the ear" style while the Sennheiser sets are ear buds that fit over the ear canal.  This makes them very different to wear.  The Shure with the "in the ear" design I found offered amazing sound isolation but they required a bit of experimentation early on to get the right sleeve for your ear canal (each set comes with a handful of different sleeves to experiment with).  If the sleeve is too big your head feels congested and leaving you reaching for a Sudafed, too small and the buds fall out.  When you find the right sleeve the fit is amazing - it's so comfortable that it doesn't feel like you're actually wearing earphones. One thing that I don't like is that you have to wrap the cable over the top of your ear to keep the buds in place - I didn't find that this worked all that well for me at times, especially when I was walking.

Sennheiser PMX 70

Sennheiser PMX70

The sound quality out of the Shure earphones is, well, incredible, especially when using the E500PTH.  This is down to the fact that the engineers at Shure have crammed one tweeter and two woofers into each bud - something that I find amazing given the size of them.  Using them I felt that I could hear everything.  Rich highs, deep lows.  The experience was amazing.  However, I did feel that to get the best out of them you needed to be listening to high quality audio.  Audio books and low quality rips of CDs really are wasted on these earphones.  With the E3cs I felt I could detect a slight drop in audio quality, especially at the low end, but I had to work hard to spot the difference.  However, the more time I spent with the E500PTH, the more I appreciated the quality.  They're pricey, but they pack a lot of quality.

Shure E3c

Shure E3c

One thing that I wasn't all that impressed with when it came to the E500PTH was the "push to hear" system.  If you want to hear something without removing the earbuds you just push a slider across and an external microphone picks up the sound around you and pipes it to the earbuds.  Yes, it worked well but I found it bulky and added a lot of complication to the system.  It was fine when it came to sitting down quietly to listen to music, but I found it a hassle when moving because of the extra wires to get caught up in clothing, bags etc – making them tricky to use when flying. 

Sennheiser MX75

Sennheiser MX75

Both the Shure earphones come with a handy zip up carrier to keep them safe and reduce tangling.  They pack away into a neat bundle that's idea for traveling.

The Sennheiser's are different.  In fact, the two sets I tried out are quite different.  The MX 75 Sport feature a "twist to fit" design which holds the earbud in place by  locking it to the folds of your ear while the PMX 70's use a plastic neckband.  Both sets are extremely rugged and are sweat- and water-resistant.  Personally, I prefer the neckband on the PMX 70 to the "twist to fit" style of the MX 75's.  It's a bit tricky initially to figure out how to twist to get them to hold on and it feels a lot like trying to pick a lock on the side of your head.  I figured it out eventually but the neckband system seemed a lot easier to use.

Sound quality out of the Sennheisers is excellent.  The quality isn't as good as that from the Shure earphones, but it's still very good indeed.  Partly this is down to the technology being simpler but the fact that they don't have sound isolation also affects the overall quality.

So, which did I prefer?  Well, this is the $64,000 question, but the answer is so subjective that I don't expect it to be particularly useful to anyone.  My favorite from the Shure range is the E3c.  Why?  Simplicity.  I like the output from the E500PTH but the price is high and the extra wires that the "push to hear" feature adds makes them more complicated to wear.  From the Sennheiser range, my favorite is the PMX 70.  They're light, rugged and comfortable.  My overall favorite from the four is the PMX 70.  Overall, these are the most comfortable for my ears.

I've said it before that one thing that you can guarantee about ears is that everyone has non-standard ears.  What works for one person doesn't work for another.  With this in mind I got Kathie to try out the four sets of earphones.  Her verdict - not impressed by any of them.  In fact, she prefers her old set which came with some cheap MP3 player that she bought some time ago).  It's actually pretty funny to watch someone dismiss $499 earphones for ones that look to me like they were a novelty out of a Christmas cracker.  She found the "in the ear" style uncomfortable even with the smallest sleeves fitted, found the PMX 70 too tight and the MX 75 Sport hard to fit and painful on the ear folds. She speculates that the twist fit feature is too large for women’s ears (and knowing what’s good for me I’m not about to argue!) but I can see that they certainly are too big for her ears. 

So there you have it.  If you love your iPod (or Zune or whatever), you love your ears (or hearing), and you love good quality audio then you owe it to yourself to get a decent set of earphones (the ones that came with my nano wouldn't stay put in my ears for more than a few seconds - a problem I've always had).  The problem is choice.  How much you're willing to spend does factor into the buying plan but comfort and fit seem to be far more important.  Take your time, try them and above all choose wisely!

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