The Smartest Take on In-Ear Headphones Ever Written

An audio engineer's personal quest for musical peace in the big city

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.45.14 AM
Stick it in your ear! The author, a sound engineer in Manhattan, shares his take on wringing the best sound from the tiniest earbuds (Photo: Frank Verderosa)

In a city of 8 million people, I find myself on a never-ending quest to not hear any of them. I find the noise on the subways so jarring that I choose to walk when possible, and then I need to combat everything from sirens to loud people walking and talking near me (the nerve!).

Maybe it’s because I spend all day in a soundproof room recording actors in a soundproof booth. I need my music, and I don’t want noise pollution.

When the iPod came out, my life changed. Tons of music with me at all times! The headphones that it came with were hyped by Steve Jobs, but as a sound engineer, I refused to buy into it. They were better than other ear buds I had owned, but like all ear buds before them, they were awkward and ill-fitting. For me to enjoy my music on the subway, I needed to have the volume almost all the way up to mask the noise of the train! Having always kept those squishy earplugs on me in case I needed them at a loud bar, concert, or anything, I began to wonder if someone could make headphones that work like that: squish them in your ear like an earplug and let only the music through. Well, like all of my great ideas, someone had already done it.

Shure, a company that makes pro audio equipment, was already producing in-ear stage monitors. You’ve probably seen them—those things that look like hearing aids in your favorite singers’ ears. I can still remember the first time I ever really paid attention to them. It was in a promotional video for Genesis’ 1992 tour. At one point, Phil Collins is holding the funny looking things and saying how he’ll have a great tour, because no matter where the band is playing, he’ll have “the same nice mix in his ears,” immediately followed by him saying “Until they break!” (See the video here at 00:38:20.) Little did I know how relevant that last comment would be on my hunt for in-ear serenity in the urban environment.

In-ear monitoring has a lot of advantages for performers. By blocking out everything else, a singer can hear exactly what he or she needs to without speakers blasting in their face and having to be loud enough to cut through the audience noise, etc. According to Greg Thompson, a Grammy winning independent audio engineer specializing in live music, this is particularly useful for live broadcasts, where the sound coming off the stage monitors factors into the overall mix for air. In-ear monitoring cuts this way down. But does everyone use them?

In Greg’s experience, around 75% of performers have their own custom ear mold monitors (where imprints of the ear are taken to create a unique insert for a perfect fit), while the backing band will often use a generic kind provided by the sound company, which these days might even be as simple as Skull Candy in-ear headphones. At an Audio Engineering Society convention in NYC a few years back, there was a booth set up for a company that makes custom ear molds, and they got me considering it, despite the high price tag at the time. The logic is that by blocking out all the outside noise, you can keep your headphone volume a lot lower, which is less damaging to your ears. In contrast, an ear surgeon I once spoke to told me that he was strongly AGAINST putting ANY sort of earphones in your ear, mostly because of concerns about bacteria and dirt getting where it shouldn’t.

Having purchased and returned (or kept) so many headphones over the years, I have developed some expertise here. But when it comes to “what to get,” take Public Enemy’s advice: Don’t believe the hype!

My first attempt at my own personal audio oasis was around 2003 with Shure’s E3 in-ear monitors. For a consumer product, they weren’t cheap, but my ears are worth it! I fell in love immediately. They had similar characteristics to the Genelec studio speakers I have spent most of my career mixing on. In short, I got an honest picture of the music, no exaggerated bass, no artificially punched high end. If a song was mixed well, it sounded wonderful; if it wasn’t, so be it. They came with several styles of tips, from the aforementioned “squishy foam ear plug” stuff to silicon tips in a variety of sizes. I preferred the foam tips, but they needed frequent replacing due to dirt and a loss of ability to hold shape over time. The silicon tips worked well once I found a size that worked. but I found the “suction” that formed in the ear canal a bit scary.

Removing them had to be done very gently. But they sounded great! They had a 2-year warranty, which I had to act on pretty quickly. Despite coiling them up when not in use and storing them in the hard case provided- they started to just fall apart. Shure was awesome about sending a new set after receiving the broken pair. But a few months later, the replacement set started to fall part as well. Pretty aggravating. It was time to hit the stores and see what else was out there.

In 2007 I stopped in a computer store, and noticed that they had a decent selection of headphones. I went through this odd process of purchasing, auditioning and immediately returning headphones (you can’t try them on like over the ear headphones for obvious reasons).

The sales guy suggested a few options. None of them came close to what I was looking for.

So, I wound up buying another set of Shures. This time the SE210. They were slightly cheaper than my original E3s, but sounded almost as good! I was pleased … until the fancy runner trim started to come off of them. And again, despite babying them when they weren’t in use, they started developing other problems—the left ear cutting out, crackling, etc. So once again, I took advantage of their excellent warranty and once again they sent another set. Which also ultimately started to fall apart. Off to the stores again!

Now to around 2009, and next up was the Shure SE215. You know the drill. They sounded great. These seemed to be built more solidly, with less unnecessary design, sturdy plastic, etc. Then one day the bass seemed to stop working. I can’t blame Shure for this. There’s a good chance I did something to blow them while not actually wearing them. I’m not sure. They sounded great, and cost about 1/3 of what my first pair of Shures cost. I think the price may have gone down even more since then, but I can only ever find these online.

I was desperate, but no longer willing to spend hundreds on a pair of headphones. I went into a Best Buy near my place of work. Again, since you can’t try them on in store, I had to buy—and ultimately return—several! Klipsch is a brand I know from the home theater world. They make great speakers, so surely their headphones must be great, right? I bought a pair of their A5I in-ear headphones. I was disappointed to realize that they were not the kind that go in the ear canal to offer sound isolation. They were also sonically disappointing to me. Back they went, along with three other brands I can’t even remember.

By now, Bose had come out with those interesting ‘in ear’ headphones with the cool black and white swirled cable. I was curious- so I went out and dropped $99 on a pair. They sound “nice.” Like all of Bose stuff. Plenty of bass. A shimmery, bright high end. Everything sounds pretty. It’s not an accurate portrayal of the intended mix. But “nice”! Sadly, while being more comfortable than standard ear buds and even going a little further into the ear canal, they don’t offer any sort of isolation (nor do they claim to). I have had them for years now, and still use them occasionally at home. I keep them in their nice little case in my bag for those times when I forget my “headphones of choice.” For the price, they are decent headphones (minus the sound isolation). They offer noise canceling versions of these as well, but I’m not a fan. There’s just something about those noise canceling headphones that makes my ears unhappy. I prefer the isolation approach.

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.45.32 AMA friend introduced me to this little Sony bluetooth unit that works with the iPhone. The MW600 (I don’t believe it’s in production anymore, but there are newer offerings from Sony). I liked the idea of clipping this little tube on my collar and leaving my phone in my bag. The unit still sells for nearly $100, but I paid a lot less than that initially. It has a built in FM tuner, the ability to retain 3 different bluetooth profiles, a built-in mic, a button for SIRI/ answering calls, a volume slider and dedicated “previous”/“next” buttons- and a nice little display screen that shows what you’re listing to. When I opened the box, I discovered it also came with some Sony in-ear headphones. I assumed I would just throw those out and use whatever other headphones I wanted. But I was shocked to discover that the Sony’s were pretty darn good! I had tried some cheap Sony buds in the past, and returned them before leaving the store’s parking lot. These were better. They came with a variety of soft rubber tips, like the Shures I was used to before. They formed a great, isolating seal in the ear canal. Plenty of bass and highs and an overall “ok” sound. Not pretty and full like the Bose.

Not detailed like the Shures. So I decided to just use them for a while- mostly because I missed the ability to block out all of NYC during my commute. I was impressed enough with these that I decided to buy a couple of extra “backup pairs.” I went to Amazon and bought 2 pairs of Sony headphones that “looked” like the ones I had. They were $8 each!! Crazy cheap.

No, they didn’t sound great- but they were useable. If nothing else, it proved to me that you can get by with some pretty cheap headphones. The first Shure’s I bought cost me nearly $300.

Now I’m slumming it down in the $8 end of the pool, and having my most basic needs met—sound isolation and an “ok” sound.

Saving money sometimes comes at a price. Those dirt cheap Sony’s failed on me within 6 months. I expected as much. But the headphones that came with my MW600 are still going strong in 2015!

It’s now been a decade of messing around with in-ear headphones.

One day I barely survived my commute, having left my headphones home. I thought “Maybe it’s time to invest in something better anyway,” so I dropped into a convenient Radio Shack. They had a nice-looking pair of JVC headphones I thought I’d try. They were the in-ear canal style for something like $79. I brought them back to the studio to try them out. Not the worse things I ever heard, but certainly not worth the price. Back they went.

Over the holidays, I was given a gift card to Best Buy. I decided to FINALLY try to find myself something isolating for a moderate price that also sounded better than my trusty Sonys—somewhere between $30-$90. I ran over to the store in Midtown where I work, and gathered up several. There was a brand I’d never heard of before called Modal.

The MD-HPEBS1-W looked similar in style to those Shures I loved so much- but for a mere $29.99. Grabbed ‘em. Then because I’d had so much luck with my Sonys (which at this time were missing and presumed to have been eaten by my in-laws’ black lab, Rosie, but later found elsewhere), I figured I’d grab a set of those too. These Sony MDREX100AP were also $29.99. And for something on the more expensive end, I grabbed a set of SOL Republic Relays for around $60.

The Modal packaging was slick, and the design was sleek. I was so excited to plug them into my iPhone and check them out! Alas, I could not pull them out of my head fast enough. It sounded like a pair of tin cans with string on my ears. I experimented to see if it was just a bad fit (that’s often a factor in not hearing any bass with in-ear headphones). But no, these were just terrible. Boxed them right back up.

Next up were the cool replacement Sonys. To my shock, this $29.99 pair sounded worse than those cheap $8 sets I had ordered on Amazon. They too were boxed up to return.

Next up were the SOLs. I truly expected them to suck. You see, Beats by Dr. Dre do nothing for me. I think they are well-marketed and over hyped. I’ve tried a few over the ear models, and laughed at how awful they are for the price. Obviously there’s a market for all that bass, but it does nothing for me. So, when the dude in Best Buy told me that 50 Cent was involved in the SOL Relays (which I can’t seem to find anything about anywhere), I braced myself. But I gotta say… I was really surprised!! 50 Cent involvement or not- they have rich bass without being overbearing or exaggerated, and clean highs without being shrill or stopping around 6K and feeling like hiss! The quality was close to my ‘beloved but overpriced and poorly built Shures’ but for around $60! It took me a little experimenting to find a fit that worked for my ears. These don’t go as deep into the ear canal as many others, which results in less isolation, although even at a low volume, your music will drown out the world around you. The design is like a ‘button’ that sits just inside your ear allowing the tip to go just a little into the canal. The Relays model also have three buttons and a microphone inline for using your smartphone. I find the buttons a little difficult to navigate. They require a hard press… but I’m hoping over time they will loosen up. While I do wish it did a better job of isolating the outside world, these are the clear winner at this price point and I consider my search to be over … for now!

At the end of the day:

• A high price does not guarantee quality.

• A low price does not always mean terrible sound.

• Everyone’s ears are different and what worked for me may literally not fit your head the same way.

Having purchased and returned (or kept) so many headphones over the years, I have developed some expertise here. But when it comes to “what to get,” take Public Enemy’s advice: Don’t believe the hype!

The Smartest Take on In-Ear Headphones Ever Written