Headphone recommendations

Dear Lazyweb,

With the new phone, I find myself in need of new headphones. My last three phones, two Treos and a Centro, used 2.5mm 4-band jacks. The Pre uses a far more sensible 3.5mm 4-band jack, but that means my headphones no longer fit. I don't want to use an adapter because they are bulky and, in my experience, make it more likely that you'll break the headphone jack.

My previous headphones were "Shure e2c", and I loved them. The sound quality was great, they fit well, and they blocked out outside noise better than any other headphone of the size that I've ever used. The cables tended to fray, though. I had the 2.5mm 4-band version, but they also used to make them in a 3.5mm 4-band version. However, apparently the whole e2c line has since been discontinued.

Shure's new product line baffles me. I can't tell what corresponding new product is, if there even is one. It kind of looks like they have decided to only make headphones with 3-band jacks, and if you want to use it as a headset on a cell phone, you have to use an adapter. That sounds bulky and irritating (and also would put the mic quite far away from your face, I assume.)

Before the e2c, I tried "Etymotic ER-6", but I hated them. I gave them away after two days. They had no bass response at all, and were not nearly as sound-isolating as the e2c were. And I they had the wrong sized jack, too.

So, because Shure's site confused me, I took someone's recommendation and picked up the "V-Moda Vibe Duo" headphones (3.5mm, 4-band). I've been using them for a week, and I kind of hate them. They block out basically no outside sound. They sound muddy. The midrange is weird. And about a quarter of the time when I take them out of my ears, the rubber ear-bud tips stay behind in my ear canal and I have to go digging, even using the smallest size.

My requirements are:

  1. 3.5mm 4-band, so I can talk on the phone with it too (though the primary use is music).
  2. In-ear-canal. Not those iPhone-like buds that just sit on the surface. Not over-the-ear cans. Don't bother telling me about those, no matter how much you love them.

  3. Extremely sound-isolating. With the e2c, wearing the headphones without anything playing sounded like wearing earplugs. I loved that.

  4. Good sound quality. I'm no audiophile, but I can tell when it's crap. Bass is better than "perfectly flat", but bass to the exclusion of all else is bad.

So what should I get?


Update: I picked up the Ultimate Ears SuperFi 4vi. Conveniently, the Apple store stocks these. (Not any more. Bastards.) I've only used them for a few minutes so far, but they seem pretty good. Nice isolation, and sound quality is very similar to (possibly better than) the e2c. So I'm hopeful.

One nice thing about the Modas was that the cable was cloth, so they didn't tangle as easily. More manufacturers should do that.

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Current Music: SSQ -- Walkman On ♬

23 Responses:

  1. aris1234 says:

    In addition to the replies you get here, check out the forums at http://www.head-fi.org/ and this faq:

    http://www.inearmatters.net/2008/11/basic-guide-to-in-ear-canalphones.html

  2. edouardp says:

    I'm on my second pair of Etymotic ER-4P, and I can't live without them. The ER-4 range is higher quality than the ER-6, and the "P" model has a boosted bass response. Sound isolation should be better, as they have three rubber flanges rather than the ER-6's two, and I think they are designed to go slightly deeper into the ear canal. I can't compare them to the Shure's as I've never tried those.

    Not 4-band though, although Etymotic has a HF2 range that looks like the ER4's with talk as well. Perhaps someone else can offer some advice on how good they are.

  3. carlcoryell says:

    I use the Ultimate Buds UB7EB http://www.ultimatebuds.com/store/product.php?productid=16134&cat=0&page=1&featured $130

    These are futuresonic headphones (very very very sound isolating) with the apple mic assembly (tiny). The had some build quality issues in the beginning, but the company has provided me with *outstanding* customer service and repaired the defects quickly and for free.

    They make versions with a couple of other models of headphones(including the ER6i) if you want to try those again.

    Apples in ear headphones are *wonderful* and $80. I bought a pair for my wife and borrowed them for a day and love them.

    • I use the Apple in-ear headphones on my motorcycle, the noise isolation is very good.

      • ultranurd says:

        The Apple in-ears are 4-conductor 3.5 mm, but aren't they doing something custom to send the remote control signals? Or would another phone just "see" the audio and mic, as long you didn't press the control buttons?

        • dr_memory says:

          As far as I know, the remote "signals" are just quick shorts on one of the leads (too lazy to look up which one), a la a rotary phone.

          Even better, the Pre (JWZ's new phone) supports the iphone controls.

        • I think all of the controls are Apple-proprietary, none of the buttons work with my 1st-gen iPhone. What's neat is that they function just like on the 3rd-gen Shuffle when connected to an iPhone 3GS or a Unibody MacBook Pro running iTunes (also great with Skype).

  4. cdavies says:

    Is non-wired an option? I'm a big fan of the Jabra BT3030, which is a dog tag like thingy with microphone, call/music controls and a 3.5mm jack for regular stereo headphones. OK, this doesn't answer the whole question, but there's bound to be far more choice in the headphones department if you aren't looking for the 4-band part.

  5. luminalflux says:

    I really like my Ultimate Ears SF5's, which have a lot more bass than ER-6 buds. They apparently make an iPhone version of these with a mic, but I'm not sure if the 4-band connector on the Pre has the same pinout as an iPhone (I know Nokia and iPhone don't have the same pinout).

    • bellacrow says:

      Another vote for Ultimate Ears, they have a few different levels of products. I hear that the customized ones were great but didn't get to sample those when I wrote the other product descrptions.

  6. jered says:

    I have a set of Etymotic ER-4Ps that I love, but the fit is a bit touchy and if you don't get it right the bass is missing as you describe.

    I just recently got the Shure SE115s. They are fantastic. The earphones are on a short cable that connects to a 3.5mm straight-through, but you can also buy the MPA (Music Phone Adapter) which replaces the plain cable and makes them suitable for a phone. (Don't buy from the Shure website, you can get much cheaper elsewhere online.)

    This is nice, because you can then also use the earphones with a A2DP Bluetooth headset widget (like the awesome Sonorix C3) and not have lots of messy excess cable. The Sonorix fixes my main complaint about Bluetooth headsets... great concept, craptastic drivers.

    The SE115's are the best value; you can spend more for higher-end SE-line Shures if you really want.

  7. jered says:

    Oh, also, sorry about the V-Modas. Those are the shittiest mid-price earphones I have ever used. If you check out the website they're all about style rather than audio technology, so that should have raised some red flags...

  8. theno23 says:

    Sennheiser MM50's are pretty good.

    They're designed for iPhones, but the connector looks like a normal 3.5mm 4 ring. I don't know if that makes them compatible with other phones or not.

    The cable is a bit springy, but on the upside that makes them tangle less than others I've had, sound is great, as is the isolation, but as a headset they're only OK.

    Come with 3 different sized ear-bungs.

    http://www.reghardware.co.uk/2009/03/11/review_headphones_sennheiser_mm50/

  9. dan_lane says:

    I upgraded from the E2C to Etymotic HF2 and found that they worked reasonably well but the cable was worryingly thin. After about 4 months of use the left channel stopped working so I went back to Shure and splashed out on the SE530 with the "music phone" adaptor. They are a huge improvement on the E2C. To address your bulky/distance concern the SE530 has a standard 3.5mm connector on the Y headphone cable that connects to a straight through cable. When you pick up the "music phone" adaptor this replaces the straight-through cable so the mic sits around the area where the two headphone cables meet. This isn't as perfect as the models where the mic sits on the left headphone cable but I've never had any issues with people not hearing me while it's been clipped to my shirt.

  10. spike says:

    Have you considered just screaming in your pillow -- again?

  11. ywwg says:

    If you still have your broken E2Cs, shure will replace them for ~$50 out of warranty. I know because I did this just last week. You just send them in with a basic form (no need to call ahead) and they'll trade out the busted headphones and replace them with a completely new pair.

    If you don't have the old headphones, there are new-in-box sets of E2Cs on ebay.

  12. gthing says:

    I got a pair of generic earbuds from Target for $10 last winter and they're actually really good. I know there is a perception that paying more will get you better headphones, but these were definitely a hit for the money. Hell, they're probably made in the same factory as some expensive brand and just sold off-brand for way cheaper. The brand name is "protocol" but don't bother looking it up because they're so generic I'm sure you'll never find them.

    Realizing that that doesn't help you, I would recommend checking out the skull candy earbuds. They're really nice with a fabric cord instead of PVC plastic. http://www.skullcandy.com/shop/headphones-c-42.html

  13. wyndebreaker says:

    I too used Etymotics ERs (both the 4 and the 6) and I hated both of them.

    I finally found ones by Future Sonics and I really love them. Apparently a shitload of well-known musicians use their monitors, FWIW.

    The bass response on them totally blows away the Etymotics. They come with a variety of tips (foam isolates the best, but you have to roll them in your figners to compress them first). Their silicone tips are a lot softer and more comfortable then Etymotics, which you had to moisten with your spit before insterting (gross).

    I believe they fit all 4 of your requirements. Again, the bass response and sound isolation (with the foam tips especially) are great.

  14. neonscribe says:

    One thing to keep in mind about ear canals is that each one is unique. Even your left ear is different from your right ear. Therefore, canal phones that work for you might suck for someone else, and vice versa. My experience with Etymotics phones is that they sound great but after an hour my ears are in pain. An expensive solution that I have not yet tried is to get custom molded earpieces. These are similar to custom-made hearing aids, but they go on the phones in place of the standard silicone or foam earpieces. This is supposed to be more comfortable and secure and sound better than the generic earpieces.

    Here is more than you ever wanted to know about in-ear headphones, written by a non-native English speaker:

    http://www.head-fi.org/forums/f103/fyi-basic-guide-ear-canalphones-310723/

    Here is a place that sells do-it-yourself custom fit earpieces for a few different headphones including many Shure and Etymotic models. Usually you must go to an audiologist to take an impression of your ear canals, but they claim you can do this yourself. I would enlist the aid of a friend in this case.

    http://earplugstore.stores.yahoo.net/cusfitearmol1.html

  15. circuitsoft says:

    I currently use the Etymotic ER-6i canalphones. At first, I found them uncomfortable and difficult to get a proper seal. Once you have a proper seal, you will get good bass.
    To make them comfortable:

    1. Start with the three-layer tree tips. Cut off the smallest layer.
    2. Flip the cups around.
    3. Insert the earphones into the small end of the ear tips. It's a bit stiff, but they will go in.
    4. Insert them into your ear canal. They won't go in very far, but will make a good seal.

    I do find them a tiny bit weak in the bass, but my previous phones were the very bass-heavy Sony Fantopia MDR-EX51s.