What earphones should I get for portable CD player, iPod or MP3 player? Will they work well in my home system? Are they comfortable? Can I use them on a plane? Will I be able to hear the doorbell? How good do they sound? How much should I spend?
All good questions, and today I will attempt to answer them by examining two sets of canal earphones, the $249 super.fi 5Pro from Ultimate Ears and the $300 Shure E4c. Both manufacturers will tell you the key to a good sound is a good fit, and both offer an array of sleeves (or tips) to get the job done. You can go with disposable foam sleeves, which you compress with your fingers before insertion. After ten seconds or so, the foam will expand to provide a good fit. The disadvantage is that you have to keep replacing the foam sleeves due for reasons of hygiene. Foam also provides less isolation from external sounds than the alternatives, although this can be to your advantage in some situations. Walk down the street wearing foam sleeves on your earphones and you have a better chance to hear the cars approaching from behind.
Shapes And Sizes
The Shure E4c does have some practical advantages. The cords are rather less flexible, are despite their extra length, are much less prone to tangle during storage. You can also easily read the L/R markings to know which way round they go. Ultimate Ears, for some reason best known only to themselves, hide the L/R markings in a difficult to read spot, with white on white lettering! You'll just have to learn which is which by shape.
Shure and Ultimate Ears, both active in the professional musicians earphone market, approach the design from different perspectives. Although the Shure E4C is the more expensive model under test, Ultimate Ears offers the more extensive range of canal earphones; from the $99.99 super.fi 3 Studios to the custom fitted UE-10Pro, which will run you $900. Shure's range covers 4 models, from the $99 E2c to the $499 E5c.
Shure's E4c uses a single wide-range driver with a tuned port, which injects sound into the ear canal through a single narrow diameter tube. The casing is rounded, petite and sleek. Super.fi 5Pro uses a dual driver and a much wider diameter aperture featuring two larger openings in a much larger and more angular package. The cord is another story. Shure uses a substantial 60" cable terminating in a right-angled mini plug. The 46" cord on the super.fi is much thinner and more flexible, both important considerations for comfort. It also has a thin angled wire brace for the first inch or so from the earpiece, designed to fit securely around the top of the ear. Another major difference is in the sensitivity – the super.fi being 10dB/mW more sensitive than the E4c. This can be a problem in some home stereo applications so Ultimate Ears provide a fixed attenuator to provide a better match with high output devices. Shure provides a variable attenuator (or inline volume control). I prefer the fixed attenuator for this application, since it will impose little deterioration on the sound, and my experience with miniature volume controls has been that they are inclined to develop noise over time.
No doubt about it, these earphones are not primarily intended for the home stereo. If they were, they would be much less sensitive and offer much longer cords. But that's where my tests begin, because I want to know just how good they can sound, and how they compare to serious headphones such as the AKG K1000. The test system is as simple as possible – a Meridian G08 CD player connected directly to the superb Graham Slee Solo head amp via Soundstring cables.
And The Music...
Switching to an equally fine jazz album, Sonny Rollins Alfie [Impulse IMPD 224], the contrast between the two units is much reduced. The Shures do have the brighter high end, but the lack of body is not so evident and the balance closer to AKG's or my Wilson Benesch speakers. Bright and forward, bass shy, high in resolution and a limited sense of space would be my quick summary. The Ultimate Ears are less aggressive, missing some of the real zing this recording can convey so well, but the stronger deep bass - amazing for such a tiny earphone – fills out the sound and captures more of the atmosphere, if less of the detail.
What should I use for a demonstration quality Pop album? My brother Alvin recommends The Well, by Jennifer Warnes, so The Well it is [CISCO SACD 2034]. The level of detail and clarity of treble that the Shures offer is outstanding once again, but the voice is a thin and nasal, and again I prefer the more balanced, warmer approach of the Ultimate Ears. Neither one approaches the much more expensive AKGs in terms of ease and flow, pace and weight.
So far I haven't found an inexpensive replacement for my enormous AKGs in either of these miniature sets. Disappointing but hardly surprising. The AKGs are among the top two or three headphones, of any price, that I have ever experienced, and closer to the sound of full range speakers than you would have thought possible. Before we leave the home system, how do the canal phones compare with a much more conventional and less expensive set of home headphones, the Sennheiser HD580s. Here the sound is so much more relaxed and larger in scale, but the highs are restricted and the bass lacks definition compared to either canal phone. Personally, I would take the Ultimate Ears over the Sennheiser in a flash, but not for sonic reasons. I just don't like large clamps over my ears; the pressure and the heat drive me to distraction in short order.
Ok, so now the review really begins. Plug these canal phones directly into an iPod, a Mini 6GB, and who wins, and how do they each compare to the supplied Apple ear buds? All the test material is recorded using Apple Lossless Compression direct from CD sources. Let the games begin!
Once again, I start with a superb recording, this time "Battle Hymn of the Republic" from Dr Ray Kimber's 88 Keys recorded at Weber State University in 2003. The Ultimate Ears quickly reveal the limitations of the iPod. Treble is harsh and splashy, not in absolute terms, but certainly in comparison to the hi-fi system auditioned before. There are four jazz instruments at play here: a bass, drums, sax and piano. The bass is tight, tuneful and extended, missing just a touch of presence. The piano loses extension at the top of its range, and some crispness of the leading edge. Heavy chords overload the output stage of the iPod. The saxophone is having the most fun here, but seems a bit hollow and nasal. The percussion is quite unpleasant, offering neither crisp clean definition nor freedom from distortion. The Shure deliver a much cleaner top end as far as the drums are concerned, but the cymbals are too bright, dominating the mix. The sax sings clearly but with little contribution in the midband. The bass swings like mad, but has no low-end extension. The piano is a lighter instrument, still distorting on heavy chords. Everything is tilted up. But the transient snap is to die for.
So my initial impression from this very demanding track is that the Shures will make you sit up and listen, while the Ultimate Ears present a more sober and solid picture, offering much greater bass and midrange presence, which will make for better long term listening. Switching rapidly from one to the other left me in no doubt. The solid bass of the Ultimate Ears makes the music seem far better balanced.
Now this track places unusual demands on the iPod's little output amp, demands that it is not fully capable of meeting. This is not unexpected, since the album 88 Keys has been recorded using an enormously wide dynamic range, as a reviewer's tool to sort out the most capable reproducing equipment from the run of the mill. By the standards of high-end audio, the iPod is indeed run of the mill, equivalent in my opinion to other CD players in the $150 to $200 price range at best.
So let's be fair and listen to some more conventional tracks, ones made using commercial dynamic range compression techniques!
Jennifer Warnes tries on the Famous Blue Raincoat, a track auditioned both through the hi-fi and now on the iPod. The Ultimate Ears (the more often I write this name, the odder it appears to me) sound much better than they did on 88 Keys. The strings are a little thin but the rest of the instruments are clear and focused, while the voice is strong, intimate and all of a piece with the supporting instruments. The distortion heard before is now almost completely absent. This may not be an accurate reproduction, perhaps it veers a little to the dark side, closed in, laid back, but it is one I can live with without fatigue. The Shures astonish again with clarity and high resolution. This is quite an acceptable alternative presentation, the strings are preferable, distortion absent, and there is a good spread of the instruments in the sound-space. The voice is lighter and a little strident. Perhaps these phones are ideal for those who have lost some acuity in the upper octaves of their hearing.
I have to play Eleanor Rigby. I'm practicing for my Paul McCartney concert at the Air Canada Centre tomorrow night. Bright, clear and forward on the Shures, a good spread left and right, no hole in the head feeling. All the vocals are clear. But switch to the Ultimate Ears and I'm in another world altogether, deeper, richer, warmer, more grounded, but with plenty of aggression in the strings and the vocals still absolutely clear. Now it's easier to hear the different sounds of the Beatles' voices. The rest of the tracks on The Yellow Submarine Songtrack [Capitol 7243 5 21481 2 7] confirm these initial impressions. The firm bass of the Ultimate Ears is addictive and satisfying. Yes, I crave the openness and the high definition of the Shures and I'd love earphones that could combine the best of both pairs. But just one of these pairs makes me want to get up and dance, and bless me, it's the cheaper pair!
So we do have a clear winner today, the Ultimate Ears super.fi 5Pros. Here's what I would do to improve them, if it were up to me (it isn't). I would make the cord just a little more robust so that it wouldn't tangle up at every opportunity. I would also make it longer or include an extension. I'd paint the L/R indicators a contrasting color and move them to a more visible location. Finally I would change the name of my company to Super.fi and the model can be just the 5Pro. But damn it, these guys are good, and now I'm itching to get my hands on the top of the range custom fit UE 10Pro. Now they should give the AKG K1000s a run for the money!
I promised you some answers, so here goes:
Q. What earphones should I get for portable CD player, iPod or MP3 player?
A. Ultimate Ears super.fi 5Pro. They are efficient and well matched to the task.
Q. Will they work well in my home system?
A. Not really.
Q. Are they comfortable?
A. Damn straight!
Q. Can I use them on a plane?
A. Yes, the noise isolation will do the trick nicely.
Q. Will I be able to hear the doorbell?
A. No, sorry.
Q. How good do they sound?
A. Good enough to get the best out the iPods.
Q. How much should I spend?
A. Up to you. These are $249
$249 for 0.7oz of musical heaven. Go for it!
Ultimate Ears super.fi 5Pro