Separate the sound from the fury: 5 in-ear headphones for your smartphone

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Credit: Photo: Michael Homnick

I have a love/hate relationship with in-ear headphones. I like the portability and light weight of in-ears, especially when running or working out at the gym. I even like the sound they produce close to my eardrum and the way they block out the sounds of the outside world—in certain situations.

But there are trade-offs. I don’t like the feeling of having things jammed into my ear canals because my ears physically tense up, expecting a loud sound too close to my eardrum. Not to mention the seemingly unavoidable sound of the cord moving around, vibrating up into my ear.

The five earphones I’ve tried out recently—relatively new models from Bowers & Wilkins, Shure, Bose, Beats and Harman/Kardon—balance those pros and cons in their own way. And I found something to like in all of them.

Shure SE215 ($100)

Shure has years of experience making in-ear headphones, reacting to user experiences with past products. That expertise shines through in the Shure SE215 and some user-friendly touches.

Take the cables—the last three inches of the SE215’s cables are wrapped in a bendable plastic covering that can be molded around the top of your ear. The cables also detach from the ear pieces to prevent the earphones from ever being yanked out of your ears and rotate at the point of the connection with the ear pieces, which helps prevent cord movement from having any effect on the fit of the earphones inside your ears.

The whole construction of the phones seems heavy-duty. The cables are thick clear plastic, inside which you can see the braided wires. The SE215s come with three different sizes of foam tips that mold to the shape of your ear canal.

shure se215 cl e

I was wowed by these earphones, particularly the expansiveness of the sound. Even though the sound happens in a very small space between the small driver and your eardrum, it seems wide and spacious sound.

At reasonable volume level, I found these earphones to be accurate—that is, they are not tuned to more monstrous bass as many headphones are. I got the impression that the designers were more interested in producing a sound that’s true to the intent of the people who mixed and mastered the recording.

So the bass was large and loud where it was supposed to be. The SE215s deliver equally accurate mids and highs: The mids were punchy yet restrained, and the highs crisp. The mids and highs have a mellow quality that seems to respect the sensitivity of one’s eardrums to sounds in in those frequency ranges.

Still, you do have to watch the volume on these phones, because they sound so good you will want to turn them up, and they will deliver excessive volume if you push them.

I have one criticism of the SE215: Its jack is so large that I can’t plug it into my phone via the opening in my phone case. And I suspect that my case won’t be the only one with an opening that doesn’t fit the SE215. It’s no showstopper, but it’s a feature you’ll want to keep in mind when choosing your set of in-ear headphones.

Bowers & Wilkins C5 ($179)

The C5s from Bowers & Wilkins are certainly eye-catching. They look like little sawed-off black pipes sticking out of your ears, with little silver grills on the ends. Those pipes are made of plastic; just underneath, you’ll find a solid metal construction around the actual driver.

A small tube around the cable has volume buttons, a call/pause button, and a microphone. This seemed to work as advertised in my tests.

As with the Shure SE215, the three inches of cable next to the C5’s earphones is covered by a bendy material that holds its shape. Part of this loops up above the earphone, and can be pushed to wedge up against the cartilage ridge in your ear to keep the driver solidly in your ear canal. I had some difficulty getting the earphone wedged in place using this loop, but eventually got it to work.

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The original rubber earphone stuck too far inside my ear canal, which affected the sound, so I used one of the supplied replacements, a shorter one, and got better results. I listened to a couple of recent hip hop recordings to check out the bass response of the drivers: it’s nice and round and full, if not quite as punchy as in some of the other in-ears I’ve listened to.

The mids and highs were a bit more in-your-face, which was fine until I pushed the volume up past the 80 percent mark on my iPhone; then they began to sound a bit jarring and shrill. The gain on the bass frequencies didn’t seem to ramp up as quickly.

Overall, the C5s create a spacious and dimensional sound environment inside your ears. It’s not the most accurate representation of music I’ve ever heard in a pair of in-ears, but it is a pleasing sound—provided you position the earphones in your ears correctly using the right size rubber tip.

Bose MIE2i ($130)

The Bose MIE2i earphones are a moderately priced set of in-ears, but they don’t sound or look as good as many less expensive models I’ve tried.

I was surprised by the materials and general construction of these earphones. The outside of the ear pieces are made with cheap-looking black-and-silver plastic. The cord is built with a plastic material that’s flexible, but it appears vulnerable to cuts.

The MIE2is include a volume control/call mute toggle switch/microphone on the cord or taking calls, which doesn’t appear to be sturdily built but seems to work properly.

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If the design and construction of the the MIE2is is suspect, the sound they deliver is even more so. They kick out far less sound than the other headphones in this roundup, hitting a volume ceiling long before I reached “rock out” volume level. The earphones themselves have a rubber tip that’s supposed to fit inside your ear canal. The tip has a wing that’s supposed to tuck up under the cartilage ridge on your ear to hold the ear piece in your ear. This all looks good on paper, but I could not get the ear piece to fit securely in my ear, and the little plastic wing didn’t help.

In my tests, music sounded remote and boxed in, far from the expansive and immersive sound I heard from the SE215. The bass had no kick, the mids no punch, and the highs no crispness.

I’m sorry to give a Bose product such a negative review, because I have liked many other products from the company. But the only thing I can see that props up the price of these headphones is the Bose name.

Beats Tour In-Ear ($150)

As with the over-ear headphones Beats makes, the Beats Tour in-ear headphones feature a very frontal, in-your-face sound, especially with rock music.

With in-ears, you’re essentially mainlining sound into your brain. They perform well because they need only fill a small cavity in front of your eardrum with sound. But there just isn’t much room there to reproduce the dimensionality and depth of a sound recording (assuming the recording has those things).

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With rock music (like the Band of Horses stuff I was testing with), the bass was very present yet well-contained in the Tours. I found the mids and high-mids to be a little overbearing at times, while the high end had a smoothness about it.

Listening to music like Aesop Rock, it’s pretty easy to tell that these phones are tuned for lots of bass, so it’s a credit to the phones that big hip hop bass doesn’t muddy up everything else.

Like the Studio over-ear phones, the Tour in-ears have a volume controller on the cord with a microphone for taking calls. A button between the volume buttons switches between music and phone calls, and, held down, can trigger Siri on iPhones.

Harman/Kardon AE ($130)

The Harman/Kardon AE in-ear headphones follow the stainless steel and black aesthetic vibe of the iPhone.

They look like little rounded aluminum boxes hanging out of the ears, and they aren’t light. The metal construction gives them a sturdy, substantial feel, though it isn’t heavy enough to be uncomfortable during use.

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The only part of the AE that isn’t metal is the rubber piece that fits inside the ear. The headphones come with three sets of these pieces, including a pair of foam tips. A plastic, three-button controller on the cord controls the volume, pauses the music, and acts as a mic for calls.

The high price tag of the AE sets high expectations for sound performance. The AE uses 9mm drivers, which pump out plenty of bass. As in most new headphones, you can tell that heavy bass output was a key design consideration.

On the Steely Dan record I used for testing, the AE reproduced the bass in a tight, defined way. But the bass on that stuff lives in the upper end of the low frequency range. When I listened to some Aesop Rock, it became clear that really deep bass starts to become messy and outsized as the volume goes up. When the bass isn’t out of control, the mids can sound fairly punchy and the highs have a nice smooth gloss about them.

For people who are attracted to the iPhone-inspired design of these headphones, the audio performance will not disappoint for most types of music. If sound quality is the most important consideration, you can probably get more bang for your 150 bucks.

This story, "Separate the sound from the fury: 5 in-ear headphones for your smartphone" was originally published by TechHive.

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