What do in-ear headphones and underwear have in common? Yes, you cannot try them on in the store and have to imagine fit and, in the case of earphones, sound. It's a big problem.
Generally, all you see with earphones is a nicely packaged product and have to imagine the fit and performance, which is nigh on impossible. Choice is especially difficult with earphones because there are so many different varieties and it is difficult to find out which will be most comfortable or most effective.
Recently I set myself the task of choosing two made-for-iPhone earphone sets – one for general use and one for noise suppression. Because you can't try out most of these products before purchase (except if you buy on a 14- or 30-day cash return basis) I was reduced to reading reviews on various web sites and, also, the often-biased customer reviews in the on-line Apple store or on Amazon. The reviews can tell you a lot, particularly when you get consistency, but they can't tell you how you will enjoy the sound nor, crucially, how comfortable the earbuds will be for you rather than for other people.
Note that iPhone-ready headhones (as discussed here) include an in-cable control panel and microphone. With the buttons you can control music and also receive and end telephone calls. Almost all iPhone-ready earphones are also available without the controls and microphone at a lower price.
There are three main designs to consider. First is the simple earphone that sits outside the ear canal, the standard Apple in-the-box freebies being an example. Secondly we get the rounded earbuds which fit just inside the ear canal and, for some, offer the best of all words – better sound with some noise suppression. The third category is the so-called in-canal design where a longish (up to half an inch) earbud is push right inside the canal. With a good fit, this type can cut out most background noise.
Personally I discount the second variety because I find the round buds are difficult to position correctly and often fall out. They can also be uncomfortable. But it's a personal choice and without doubt many people refer this design. I wanted two medium-price (up to £150) examples of the first and third types.
- First, easy-fit external phones that would be comfortable for long periods and would let in most ambient noise. This is for safety (you don't want to walk under a No. 11 bus if you can help it) and practicality so you can carry on conversations without having to yank the phones out of your ear.
- Second, a pair of in-canal phones that would be suitable for noisy environments such as an aircraft cabin.
I have also excluded from this review the bulkier headsets (such as the excellent B&W P5s) which fit over the ear. A similar offering, the Bose Quiet Comfort 3, offers active noise suppression with an essential power supply provided by custom rechargeable batteries. Both of these units are bulky and are not suitable for use in public unless you are under 18 years old.
However many reviews you read and opinions you seek, the choice really comes down to what suits you and what sounds good. Here is my final choice; it's a personal decision but I think I have the best of both worlds. I'm not going to waffle on about sound quality and frequency response because, frankly, I'm no expert. Instead I've gone for what I like, but I have also been influenced by third-party experiences.
Outer-ear buds: Bose MIE2i, £119.95
Having complained about the difficulty of trying out earphones, I was pleased to find that any Bose store has demonstration headsets which you can try and, even, connect to your own iPod or iPhone so you can listen to a familiar track or two.
The staff are extremely helpful and are careful about hygiene, cleaning the buds with antiseptic gel after each demo. I was frankly surprised by the quality of sound and impressive bass delivered by the iPhone-ready MIE2i phones. I'm not an audiophile, so I go for what I like without thinking much about the technicalities. These phones sit in the outer ear, similar to Apple's in-the-box earbuds, but delivery a vastly superior performance.
They're equipped with soft plastic shark-fin wands which look really strange but work surprisingly well at fixing the buds in the ear. Unlike normal earbuds, which are constantly falling out, the Bose design ensures a secure and comfortable fit. There is an angled sound channel which pokes into the canal, but is not intended to be a close fit. It just helps channel the sound.
All that said, the most impressive feature is the sheer comfort. Never have I been able to wear a headset for hours at a time without discomfort. These are the first earphones that I can wear for a whole day (if necessary) and completely forget they are there. There is absolutely no noise suppression here; certainly you should avoid them if you want to cut out ambient noise. But being able to hear what people say, and to hear cars, buses and other hazards, is important when walking around the streets and visiting shops, banks and suchlike. It's for this reason that you really need two types of phone, with the Bose being arguably the best-sounding and most comfortable design on the market for normal use. To clinch the deal, Bose offer a 30-day money-back guarantee if you don't like the MIE2is. There's every incentive to buy a pair and try them out.
In-canal phones: Etymotic hf3, £134.95
Choosing noise-suppressing earphones that fit snugly in the ear canal is a completely different matter. Not only is it almost impossible to try them out in the store (although Apple do offer a 14-day return policy and some on-line retailers give you 30 days), it is difficult to be sure that the fit will be perfect. That's why, after a lot of deliberation, I went for Etymotic's hf3s because they come with a voucher for custom-made earbuds (at extra cost, of course). I wasn't able to try out the Etymotics before purchase, but I read as many reviews as I could and was impressed by the general chorus of approval and all those stars.
Out of the box, the hf3s come with three types of earbud in various sizes. The in-canal buds (which you see in the illustration) have three flanges to help fix the buds in the canal – a bit like a barbed arrow. Second come standard round earbuds intended for fitting just inside the canal. Finally there is a strange cylinder of squishy plastic which feels like stock earplugs. You squeeze them until they are small enough to push into the ear canal, after which they expand and attempt a perfect fit. At the moment, I can say that I prefer the ugly ear-plug-style buds because they are comfortable and do a really good job of suppressing external noise
After a few hours of use I can see why everyone raves about these phones. Although they lack the bass response of the Bose MIE2is (which is made clear in most reviews) they deliver clear, faithful and ultimately pleasing sound. An ideal fit, which I haven't yet achieved, will almost certainly boost the bass resonse (as I have read) I particularly like them for classical music.
Custom-fit earbuds, around $100
The real reason I chose the Etymotics was the opportunity to get custom-made earbuds at an attractive price, considering the need for an audiologist consultation. The voucher downloaded from the Etymotic web site says the cost will be $100, but I haven't yet had the bill in sterling. I've read prices from between £70 and £90 but we shall see in due course.
After downloading the voucher you make an appointment to see an audiologist. Since the price is the same whether you go to Boots or a specialist, I opted for the Harley Street Hearing Centre at 55 Harley Street. Famous musicians have tramped these stairs to have their ear moulds taken. But the course of true sound doesn't run smooth in my case. After visiting the audiologist I was told my ears needed de-waxing (something that will no doubt enhance the sound in and case). So it was back to the starting block and today I go to have the wax removed before booking another appointment in Harley Street. It's probably a good idea to visit your doctor for de-waxing before booking an audiologist appointment.
After I've had my ears filled with blue goo I will have to wait several weeks for Etymotic's specialists to send my buds which, if other reviewers are to be believed, will be a perfect fit. I'm also told they will improve bass response because of the deeper canal penetration and will achieve excellent external noise suppression – ideal for use on planes and in other noisy environments. I can't wait.
I am definitely in love with the Bose MIE2i phones for general use when on the move. For music, phone calls, podcasts and video chat they are everything I want. The Etymotics, which represent my quest for noise-suppression and long-term comfort, are still an unknown, despite all the good reviews I've read. When I get the custom buds I will report in more detail.