A Better Personal Listening Experience

They're opening a Starbucks and a Duane Reade directly across from the Grove Street PATH station, where I catch the train to work each morning. This will certainly bring more people to my growing neighborhood. This morning, the train was so crowded that I couldn't read my book, Murakami's colorful Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. So, instead, I did what I always do when there's no room to read:

I counted the number of people listening to personal digital players. From where I stood in the middle of the car, my hand grasping a stainless steel pole along with ten other morning hands, I counted thirteen people listening to PDPs. Of those thirteen, eleven were wearing Apple's plastic white earbuds, which are included free with all iPods. I think it is interesting and a shame that these plastic white earbuds, creatively and predominantly depicted in much of Apple's iPod advertising, have become symbolic for the brand. They don't sound very good.

I see these people wearing their white earbuds, and I want to offer them suggestions for upgrades. Throw away those plastic white earbuds, and try these!

Shure offers some wonderful alternatives. Their SE series starts with the $119.99 SE110, a sound-isolating design that uses a single drive unit, what Shure calls a "Balanced MicroSpeaker." I use Shure's middle-of-the-line SE310s. Ultimate Ears is another company offering very cool in-ear monitors. They attempt to match their headphones to the listening preferences of their customers. Their Super.fi line starts with the $129.99 Super.fi 3, said to be ideal for classical and jazz fans, while the $199.99 Super.fi 5 adds a subwoofer for fans of house and electronica. I've always been impressed by Ultimate Ears' products when I've listened to them at hi-fi shows. The sound is full and involving. Many of my friends seem to like the triple-flange designs provided by Etymotic. Their 6i isolators are small, attractive, and cost $139. I thought my Shures were more comfortable, but I was impressed by the Etymotic's clarity. Michael Fremer seems to like the Future Sonics Atrio Series in-ear monitors. He mentioned them in our March 2008 issue, saying they delivered "exceptionally smooth performance from top to bottom of the audioband." They cost $199.

There are many other options, too, at many different price points. If you're curious, you might try visiting Tyll Hertsens' HeadRoom. HeadRoom provides tons of excellent information and advice on enjoying a better personal listening experience. You don't have to settle for the plastic white earbuds. Welcome to the neighborhood.

earlneath's picture

Many rate the Koss Porta Pro headphones but they are not buds

selfdivider's picture

I really want to try those brands you mention. Right now, I have Audio Technica ATH-CK7, and I think they're pretty great. Plus they cost like less than seventy bucks now, I think. I also got Sennheiser PXC450 as a gift. No way I'd get a $450 noise-canceling headphones for myself! But that said, these cans are pretty divine on the subway & on the move. Got that typical Sennheiser sound, pretty close to Senn 650s in character. Will probably have them on when I'm getting off the Grove Street station tomorrow!

Dan Boersma's picture

Talk about (semi) portable music systems :I take my itouch wherever I go, and almost always take along my Grado GS1000's and the RA-1 headphone amp. I just put the amp in a little laptop bag and I got music, baby. Yes I get some looks with those HUGE can's on my head but I don't care, as I am in audio nirvana.

Ariel Bitran's picture

I play the same game. I also try and spot the Grados out of the crowd here at NYU. When I see them, I tell them nice headphones or point to my ears and smile at them, since they're usually listening while walking around.

Rohit's picture

Aside from the fact that many people who use public transportation listen to inferior Apple earbuds, they listen much too loudly! It literally pains me to see (especially young) listeners damage their hearing by turning up the volume so loud. It's probably an unconscious and self-perpetuating combination of "really wanting to 'feel' the music" and an attempt to counteract ambient noise. But either way, I should not be able to hear what someone else is listening to with earbuds, EVER! I'm afraid that an entire generation of listeners are ensuring a hearing-damaged future for themselves.

Stephen Mejias's picture

Excellent point, Rohit. I agree completely. As a commuter, I'm annoyed whenever I have to put up with hearing several different pieces of music coming at me from poor earbuds. I think it's rude of others, and it simply can't be good for their hearing.

Matt's picture

I'm currently in the market for buds or in ears, as my home phones are Grados. Anybody have opinions about the Yuin PK series? One issue I usually end up having with cheaper headphones has to do with the cord getting worn where it connects to the ear pieces. Do all of these units have higher quality cords, that aren't too stiff for walking around?

Stephen Mejias's picture

Hi Matt.
I haven't had any experience with the Yuin headphones, but HeadRoom does recommend them. I haven't had any trouble at all with the cables. They're very flexible and durable.