In-Ear headphones face-off

I came across this article which was supposed to be pitting the 8 of the more popular in-ear headphones against each other.

Naturally, I felt compelled to re-post it – if only for the reason that my IE-40s 1 Which is basically an OEM UE Triple-Fi rebranded under M-Audio came out on top (yay!) – what’s more is that my backup pair (Etymotic Research ER-4P) took the 3rd spot 🙂

The only thing I’m curious about is why they chose to compare the lower-end Shure SE420 instead of the SE530. Also, I would’ve wanted them to include the Westone 3. The two last mentioned, IMHO, were the real competition to the Triple-Fi.

Read all about it here

Before my other comments, here are some user comments I found in the referring page (digg.com):

I actually find it funny that people pay $150-$300 for iPod, yet they use the free iPod earphones.
If you love music, get the best earphone you can afford. It is worth every penny.

And for those who wonder why people like us have the same sentiment as the above poster, here’s a good summary done by another poster:

There is a huge difference between $1,150 headphones and $100 phones. It’s almost as dramatic as if you were going to buy a PC and had either $1,150 to spend or $100. True, the average Joe won’t notice that significant a difference. But to professionals or people who really can tell a difference; it’s huge.

A second example is whether you’d buy a nice Toyota or a Ferrari. Both will get you from A to B. But there’s a big difference in your experience in doing so.

For you people, here are some of the big differences between cheap buds and quality phones.

  1. Frequency Range – what frequencies can be (re)produced
  2. OHMs 2 But I think the what the poster was trying to say was “impedance” OHMs are to impedance as decibels are to loudness – they’re units for measuring the latter – how hard your device has to work to produce those frequencies, the less work the less distorted it’ll be
  3. SNR 3 signal/sound to noise ratio – How loud of a sound is produced for how hard it works
  4. Frequency Response Rate – how even produced frequencies are relative to each other (very different from frequency range)

This marks the end of what is typically in the packaging of consumer (el cheapo) products. These next are never mentioned because they’re so horrible in said products.

  1. Phasing – How accurately is each frequency reproduced, especially in regards to complex waveforms
  2. Timing Alignment – Most speakers or quality phones consist of many speakers/tweeters/woofers 4 Otherwise known as “drivers” working harmoniously. This is the judge of how closely in sync the individual speakers are, especially in an attempt to minimize phasing
  3. Drivers – As mentioned, quality phones have multiple drivers. My Shure SE530’s have a tweeter and two woofers, each time aligned, tuned, etc. Each has a dedicated purpose and set of frequencies to reproduce. When a speaker has less frequencies to reproduce, it can do them more accurately. Cheap phones only have 1 speaker, responsible for all the frequencies. Phasing WILL occur, and it will sound like crap. In this regard, the phones with multiple speakers have crossovers (which separate the frequencies for each speaker component)… good multi-speaker buds have good crossovers at appropriate frequency intervals. If it’s not done properly, you’ll get too much of certain frequencies or too little of others.

So before you say that expensive speakers/phones are not worth it, get educated.

Similarly, try walking into a recording studio with your $100 Logitech gaming headset/mic and compare it with a Neumann. If you can’t tell the difference, you’re deaf. Or a liar.


What amazes me is how long the audio quality of these headphones have withstood the test of time. The article was written this month (Jan 2010). My IE-40s (Triple-fis) were purchased at the end of 2007!

What’s even more amazing is how the Etymotics could still hold up with the “new generation.” People had said that the ER-4Ps set the standard in canalphones, 5 A major reason why I bought them and they weren’t kidding! I got my pair July, 2006. 6 And I bought them late in the game, so they’ve been around for much longer! It still had red and blue driver containers then And I’m not sure if I mentioned this, but Etymotic Research has got superior customer support! The left driver of my ER-4P died once, and I sent them back, out of warranty, to have repaired… they shipped back a brand new, and updated unit (all black, etc.) free of charge!


Anyways, as I stated earlier, I wished they did the Shure and Westone units I mentioned at the top of the post. I still would’ve probably gone IE-40 (Triple-Fi) though – all because of one very big plus factor which the author didn’t mention: user-replaceable cables.

A lot of people don’t like the prospect of spending over $100 for in-ear phones because they’re too “flimsy” for an active lifestyle (which everyone seems to have nowadays). The fact of the matter is that it’s the cables that wear out easily – and they’re usually integrated to the casings; if you damage the cable, you either send the unit in for repair and wait, or you buy a new pair. Ultimate Ears on the other hand, sell replacement cables starting from some of their Super-Fi ($200) models. Few or no other of the in-ear monitors of any brand offer that peace of mind – even up to their $500 price range offerings.

Having said that, I guess the Shures would’ve been a moot exercise for me. But Westone products still intrigue me, because when the time comes that I invest in in-ear monitors at the $1k+ price range… there are only 3 brands left to consider: Ultimate Ears, Westone, and FutureSonics. My first pair of in-ear phones were FutureSonics EM3s ($100) and while they sound really good, they’re too bottom-end heavy; which is the best for everyday listening, but not ideal for mixing. I’m assuming they use the same “tuning philosophy” on their other models – so they’re out of the running for me.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Which is basically an OEM UE Triple-Fi rebranded under M-Audio
2. But I think the what the poster was trying to say was “impedance” OHMs are to impedance as decibels are to loudness – they’re units for measuring the latter
3. signal/sound to noise ratio
4. Otherwise known as “drivers”
5. A major reason why I bought them
6. And I bought them late in the game, so they’ve been around for much longer! It still had red and blue driver containers then

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