Roundup: 9 In-ear-canal Headphones

There's no easier way to improve the sound quality of your iPod than to swap out the original Apple earbuds for something better. With the right 'phones (and quality audio files, of course) the iPod is capable of producing truly excellent sound. To help you find the right step up the audio ladder, we've rounded up nine current in-ear-canal headphones (also known as "canalphones"). A complete discussion of what makes this kind of headphones unique is available in our in-ear-canal headphone primer, but the quick description is that canalphones fit down inside your ear canals and are designed to block most external noise.

Prices of the models reviewed here range from $25 to $350, and the range in sound quality is equally wide--though sound quality isn't strictly proportional to price. Construction quality and included accessories also vary from one pair of canalphones to the next, though most manufacturers include, at the least, multiple sizes of eartips and some kind of carrying case. Other possible add-ins include cleaning tools, cable extensions, and adaptors for connecting the headphones to home stereos and airplane audio jacks. (None of the models tested here have controls for the iPhone and recent iPods, though some do have inline volume controls.)

I tested the various models using an iPhone 3G playing 256kbps AAC files ripped from CDs; equalization (EQ) and Sound Check features were disabled. The testing was conducted over a period of one month in a variety of settings, both noisy (on airplanes, in commuter trains) and quiet (a basement and a rooftop terrace), from Chicago to Japan. Here's a look, in alphabetical order, at the models I tested.

AO Safety Blockade Noise Isolating Earbuds

Right off the bat, the $50 Blockade Noise Isolating Earbuds--made by a company, AO Safety, specializing in industrial safety products such as ear-protection equipment--stand out with eye-catching packaging, and bright yellow eartips. In the box are three identical pairs of silicone, triple-flange eartips, along with a fabric carrying bag. The Blockade's eartips are claimed to provide 24dB of noise reduction, and an inline volume-control limits the headphones themselves to 91dB of audio output. The Blockade's construction doesn't seem as solid as most of the other headphones here, but that's not a surprise given the relatively inexpensive price.

The Blockade's tips are soft and comfortable, providing a good seal and the promised noise reduction. On the other hand, if your gut tells you not to expect exceptional sound from a company focused on workplace safety, in this case you'd be right. There's nothing objectionable about the Blockade's sound quality--it's about what someone who's never heard a good set of headphones might expect. But while the midrange frequencies are balanced, they're also muted and distant, and the highs and lows both taper off significantly. Apple's stock earbuds produce better overall sound, just without the Blockade's noise isolation. The $50 price tag is relatively inexpensive for in-ear-canal headphones, but the sound quality isn't as good as several other noise-isolating canalphones priced even lower. For example, the Memorex EB100s tested here cost half as much and have superior bass. And several canalbuds, such as Sennheiser's CX300-II and Radius' Atomic Bass Earphones, also offer better sound in this price range.

Comply NR-10

Comply's $100 NR-10 ships in a simple black box that also includes a soft carrying case and one extra pair of soft-foam eartips. The NR-10's construction doesn't inspire confidence: the cables are thin, and there's no reinforcement where the cables meet the earpieces. On the other hand, the inline volume control is a nice extra, and the foam eartips are noteworthy for their comfort. The tips are long, allowing for a good fit in a wide variety of ears, and provide plenty of noise isolation. (Comply actually makes a line of these eartips for other brands and models of canalphones; Dan Frakes covered them last fall. The tips even come as standard equipment on some canalphones from other vendors, including the Westone model covered below. This makes comfort less of an advantage for the NR-10.) The headphones themselves are as understated as the packaging--black with the signature gray tips.

Comply claims noise reduction of 48dB or better, but in my testing the isolation seemed no better or worse than any of the other canalphones here. Audio quality is somewhat veiled and distant, similar to that of the Blockade model, but with noticeably better highs and lows. Still, there's none of the sparkle, detail, or texture that one gets in better (and pricier) headphones. Overall, audio is roughly comparable to that of Apple's stock earbuds, but with the benefit of sound isolation and stronger bass response. The inline volume control adds a bit of weight to the cables, and as no shirt clip is provided, that weight pulls directly on the eartips in your ears.

Etymotic Research hf5 High-Fidelity Earphones

Etymotic Research's $150 hf5 High-Fidelity Earphones, available with black, red, or blue earpieces, include a full array of accessories: three pairs of eartips (foam, gray silicone triple-flange, and clear silicone triple-flange), an extra pair of filters, a cleaning tool, and a semi-soft carrying case. (The filters help keep moisture and ear wax from finding their way into the inner workings of the 'phones; Etymotic claims the filters also smooth the sonic output.) The headphones themselves are very light, the cable is rubbery and kink-resistant, and there's a slider to snug the cable under your chin and a small clip to secure the cable to your shirt.

In my testing, comfort and fit were exemplary--the hf5s slid right in, effortlessly creating a good seal, and their light weight and small size made them very comfortable, even for extended listening periods. The hf5's audio is detailed and accurate, but leans toward the bright/forward end of the spectrum thanks to understated bass response. When pushed to higher volumes, this bright sound can become a bit strident, especially with some female vocals. But if you want comfort for long listening sessions, and don't need loud volume and bass output, the hf5 are a very good choice, providing quality sound at a very reasonable price.

Future Sonics Atrio

Future Sonics' $199 Atrio canalphones are well-built, with a very sturdy cord, and each set comes with a variety of sizes of foam and flanged-silicone eartips, a semi-hard carrying case, and a cleaning tool. Future Sonics claims Atrios can be worn either with the cable trailing down from the ear, or with the cable going up and over the top of the ear and then down behind; in the latter case, you use a slider to gather the left and right cables together behind your head. However, I was able to get the headphones to fit well only in the cable-up orientation, as the shape of the earpieces prevented me from inserting them far enough into my ears in the cable-down position. Which was fine, as I able to get a nice seal cable-up, and with the cable cinched against the back of my head, extraneous cable noise disappeared. Oddly, neither earpiece has any left/right label, leaving you to figure out from the shape which earpiece goes in which ear. (It appears, in my testing, that the cable-up orientation requires you to flip the left and right channels.)

The earpieces are available in four colors--black, blue, red, and "earth beige"--none of which, in my opinion, makes them attractive. But that ugliness is only skin deep: these are good headphones. Future Sonics makes much of its one-driver philosophy, holding that multiple drivers are unnecessary for good sound in canalphones, and the Atrios provide compelling evidence for that position. The first thing you notice is the bass response. It's not especially tight or punchy, but it's clean, real, and extended--all rarities in canalphones. In fact, there may be too much bass for some tastes, and on some recordings the prodigious bass response can overpower the Atrios's clean and clear mids and highs. Voices are natural and the highs are even cleaner (if less forward) than those of the Etymotic hf5. The Atrios headphones are not very efficient, requiring your iPod's volume to be turned up a bit, but as with most canalphones, volume is easily loud enough to damage your hearing without distortion. The Atrios's fit is a bit unconventional, but if bass response is important, these could be your ideal headphones under $200.

Klipsch Image X10

Do packaging and presentation matter? The first impression you get when opening the box for Klipsch's $350 Image X10 is quality. Inside are five pairs of silicone eartips of different sizes and types, a cleaning tool, a two-prong adaptor for airplane use, a 1/4-inch adaptor for standard-size headphone jacks, a large semi-hard carrying case, and a smaller hardshell carrying case with a slick magnetic flap. At one end of a classy-but-easily-kinked, fabric-covered cable is a gently curved headphone plug. The other end hosts a pair of copper-colored earpieces with a shape mirroring the plug's curve. Klipsch took the Image's name literally, as the design and packaging are impressive.

The first listen backs up this impression: the Image 10X headphones sound rich--nearly too much so--with excellent texture and detail in the upper frequencies and accurate, natural-sounding voices. The bass is there, and it's tight and natural-sounding. (Interestingly, I found the overall sound to be quite unlike Klipsch's famous horn-type speakers.) However, extended listening sessions reveal the Image's one major sonic flaw: there's a dip in frequency response in the midrange that means despite the overall richness, some female vocals (think Edie Brickell) and some strings (violins) sound as if they're behind a door.

Like the Etymotic hf5, the Image X10 headphones are lightweight, slip into the ear easily, create a good seal immediately, and are very comfortable. (My wife has ears with small openings for which it's almost impossible to find a good-fitting earphone; both the Klipsch Image X10 and Etymotics hf5 fit her well.) And these canalphones are so light you almost forget you're wearing them. Klipsch describes the Image X10 as "the latest must-have accessory," and if you think of them that way, they're great: attractive design, excellent build quality, full sound, and plenty of comfort. If rich sound and the "cool factor" come before ultimate accuracy on your priority list, these are your headphones. If you have the money, that is--these are the most expensive 'phones in the bunch.

Memorex EB100 In-Ear Headphones

Representing the bottom of Memorex's product line, the $25 EB100 In-Ear Headphones are plain, with light gauge cables and a sturdy, 45-degree headphone plug. However, the included eartips--a pair plus a single extra--are surprisingly good, made of higher-quality gel-type foam similar to those on the Shure headphones, below. These tips have a less porous surface than some other foam tips, making them easier to keep clean and more resistant to moisture. Unique to the EB100 is a small port on each earpiece, presumably designed to enhance bass performance. And Kudos to Memorex for a thoughtful touch: the left earpiece's cable features a tiny bump so you can keep track, by feel, of which side is which.

The EB100's earpieces are easy to insert, and the gel-foam tips provide a good seal that enhances bass output. Unfortunately, the good news ends there, because as good as the bass might be, the midrange and treble frequencies get pushed way into the background. (For readers old enough to remember, the sound is a bit reminiscent of a cassette tape that's been through your car's tape deck a few too many times.) And even in the bass region, you get far less extension than that provided by the Atrio canalphones. Of course, given the super-low price of the EB100, you can't expect audio miracles, and the truth is that no audiophile will be shopping for canalphones in this price range. So Memorex is providing a classic "budget" compromise: decent bass "kick" at the expense of bass extension and better clarity and accuracy throughout the rest of the audio range. The overall sound isn't objectionable; for the non-critical listener with a taste for bass and a very limited budget, the EB100 In-Ear Headphones are worth a try.

Shure SE115 Sound Isolating Earphones

The two Shure models I tested are unique in having very short cables--a perfect reach from a shirt pocket to your ears, providing you're not too tall. Each also includes a 2-foot extension cable, which some people will use all the time. Some might question the utility of this design, but I liked the flexibility. The cables themselves are sturdy and seem to be of high quality. Each cable ends in a straight miniplug, and there's an adjustment slider to snug the left and right cables under the chin.

The $120 SE115 Sound Isolating Earphones are near the bottom of Shure's SE line and are available in black, blue, red, and pink. (I tested the pink model, which isn't as garish as you might expect.) Included in the box are five additional pairs of eartips of different sizes, as well as a cleaning tool and a soft carrying case. The SE115's eartips are made of a smooth foam that makes cleaning and insertion easy--no pre-squishing is needed, and I was able to easily get a good seal.

Perhaps the best way to describe the sound of the SE115 is to suggest reading my comments on the Sure SE310, next, and then qualify each of those comments with "just not so much." The overall sound signature is natural, with a good balance across the audible frequency range. However, audio is a bit veiled--not quite as detailed--compared to that of the SE310. Similarly, the highs roll off a bit lower in the frequency range, and the bass thins out a bit higher. Still, the overall sound is not at all bad, and the balanced delivery makes these phones easy to listen to. For someone on a budget without a need for audiophile-level performance, these canalphones, with their solid construction and two-year warranty, are a solid choice.

Shure SE310 Sound Isolating Earphones

Inside the $300 SE310's box is the same assortment of smooth-foam eartips included with the SE115, along with a pair of silicone, triple-flange tips. The SE310's carrying case is a bit more substantial, but on the outside, the SE310 and SE115 share the same quality construction and two-piece cable design, along with similar fit and comfort. (As an aside, while the SE115, above, comes in a perfectly adequate cardboard box, the SE310 is packaged in an infuriating-to-open blister-pack clamshell twice the size.)

What's different--and what accounts for much of the price gap between the two models--is that each of the SE310's earpieces includes two drivers. (Among the other headphones reviewed here, only the Westone UM2, below, uses a similar dual-driver design.) As a result, while the sound of the SE115 and SE310 share a family resemblance, there's no mistaking one from the other. Using dual-driver technology doesn't guarantee better sound, but it pays off big here. When switching from the SE115 to the SE310, it's as if a heavy curtain between you and the music has been lifted--details are revealed and instruments come alive. As with many accurate sound reproducers, speakers and headphones alike, these canalphones don't jump out at you and get in your face--there's no booming bass or sizzling highs. Instead, they just deliver the music, and it sounds right. My only complaint is a slightly bright character: When played at high volumes, the SE310 can become a bit strident, and if you listen carefully, you'll hear some high-frequency transients getting smudged. But overall, the SE310 would be a great everyday musical companion.

Westone UM2 True-Fit Dual-Driver Earphones

Westone's $300 UM2 includes a fairly standard batch of accessories. You get a semi-hard carrying case, three extra pairs of Comply foam eartips, and a cleaning tool. However, the cable for the UM2 is unique, with the visible individual wires twisted and terminating at reinforced sections at either end--the overall appearance is that of durable construction. The cable ends in an L-shaped miniplug, and small green and red dots identify the left and right earpieces, respectively. There's also a slider for snugging the cables under your chin or behind your head.

Inserting the UM2 was initially a bit of a challenge. The earpieces fit only in the "upside down" position with the cables draped over and behind the ears, and while the Comply eartips provide a good seal, they don't slide in as easily as silicone or smooth-foam versions. But once I got the insertion procedure down, the hassle was well worth it--the UM2 Earphones are a solid step up from the Shure SE310 and clearly the best-sounding in this roundup. In a nutshell, these canalphones are dead accurate with nothing over- or under-stated; detail is clear, bass response is solid, and the overall sound is natural and airy. The audio quality is also consistent across volume levels: there's no weakness at low levels, and there's very little strain when pushed to higher volumes. Compared to even-more-expensive canalphones on the market, what do you give up? The list might (but doesn't necessarily) include heavier-grade construction, a bit more sparkle and definition in the highs, and even stronger, cleaner bass. But this is the one pair of canalphones I really regretted sending back to the manufacturer.

(Note: The first UM2 sample sent by Westone did not work properly due to either a defect or damage in transit. The second unit we received functioned as expected.)

Macworld's buying advice

It's worth noting that, surprisingly, none of the phones here sounded "bad." The differences were real and significant, and certainly many fall short of what an audiophile would consider acceptable. Nevertheless, for many listeners, and with the source material found on many iPods, there are many good choices among the canalphones tested. The differences in sound signatures were significant, and personal taste--whether one prioritizes accuracy, bass, or high frequency definition--will play a big part in your decision. And for some, comfort may weigh more heavily than sound quality; in fact, with canalphones, fit and comfort make the choice even more personal, so we recommend purchasing canalphones from a retailer with a good return policy. (Others, and we know who we are, will skip lunch and dine on instant ramen for a month in order to pay for the best sound available.)

The best overall value in the bunch is Etymotic's hf5 High-Fidelity Earphones, which give you great sound quality and comfort for a (relatively) low price. If you're willing to give up some comfort for strong bass response, the extra cash for the Future Sonics Atrio would be money well spent. If you're OK with a more laid-back, unobtrusive sound, the Shure SE115 will save you a few bucks. Each of these three sounds good, but each makes different compromises.

At the higher end, had I not tested the Westone UM2, I could have been very happy with the accurate, balanced sound of the Shure SE310s. But once the UM2's earpieces were properly inserted in my ears, pouring out near-perfect sound, the decision was clear. (Or so I thought. A final glance at the Westone Web site revealed the availability of a new big brother to the UM2, the UM3, with triple drivers. Looks like more instant ramen for a while.)

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