In my noisy world in-ear headphones are a necessity. Whether I'm working out at the gym or waiting in an airport, I couldn't live without a good pair of noise-isolating headphones. I recently lost a pair of Shure E5C headphones during a trip from Denver to Nashville with a stopover in Chicago. I bought a replacement pair of Shure E530 PTH headphones ($550 list, $495 street) for nearly list price from a store in the airport – that's how addicted I am.
When Sennheiser came out with a new CX series of in-ear phones that promised superior fit, comfort, and excellent frequency response I decided to give their top-of-the line CX 500 ($129 list, $119 street) the once-over. They come with four different size inserts, a nifty little earphone-keeper and even a soft storage pouch.
Fit Is Everything
Everybody's ears are shaped differently. The same goes for their ear canals. The "secret" of getting top performance from any in-ear headphone design is getting the transducer to go in and stay at just the right spot. Sennheiser includes four different sets of foam and soft plastic "ear seals" to make sure that the CX 500's fit optimally. I tried every set and none fit my ear canals properly. Even when I got the phones to the right place, they never stayed there for more than fifteen seconds. Poor pitiful me and my extra skinny ear canals.
The CX 500 aren't the only in-ear headphones that give me fit problems. With the Shure E5c, E500 PTH, and SE530's the only inserts that work are the special-order triple flange inserts. Every foam insert either doesn't go in or goes in and slips right out again. But with the Shure headphones at least one insert does work. Sennheiser doesn't offer a rubber flange at this time, so I couldn't get them to fit properly.
I strongly suggest that before you purchase any in-ear headphones you make sure that they will fit your ear canal. Most reviews of headphones (including the just published review by Boston Audio Society that can be found on Enjoy the Music.com) neglect this fit issue. If in-ears don't fit not only won't they isolate correctly from outside sounds, but they will not deliver equal volume levels and proper harmonic balance from both ears.
Testing One, Two... One, Two... One Two
To evaluate the CX 500 in-ear phones I had to hold them in place. Testing periods were relatively short because after a couple of minutes trying to keep my elbows level with my ears my arms started to protest. Ouch, pain.
My primary source for testing was my 80G video iPod. Sure I could have hooked up the phones to my EAD 8000pro Player or Meridian 561, 568, or 800 AV controllers, but what would be the point? 99.9% of the time you're going to be using the CX 500's with portable music players. Use the right horses for your courses…since portable earphones will be part of a portable system, a portable source makes sense.
When properly seated in my ears the CX 500 delivered more than decent, but not supercalafragalisticexialogocious sound. The CX 500 delvers the same amount of information and detail as the Shure SE530 phones. Imaging is also identical. However the CX500's dynamics have noticeably less contrast than the Shure SE530 phones. I attribute this partially to the CX500's having lower sensitivity – to get the3 same volume level as the Shure SE530's you have to turn the volume up on the source – it works harder and delivers less dynamic contrast as a result. Also the CX 500 phones have less air and high-frequency extension. Cymbals didn't have as mush sheen and recordings of my mandolin lacked some sparkle. The midrange and overall harmonic balance from the CX 500's is drier with less warmth in the lower midrange and upper bass then the SE530 phones. The CX 500's bass response is also less prominent than the Shure SE530 phones.
A short side note – In the Boston Audio Society's review of the Shure SE530 phones they found the bass overblown and the harmonic balance overly warm. I think this conclusion was partially due to their use of CD players as sources rather than portable MP3 music players. In my own tests of MP3-encoded music at 320 KBPS verses 44.1kHz/16-bit WAV.and AIFF. files I noticed that MP3's always exhibit a cooler and less complex harmonic balance. Using a transducer with a slightly warmer than neutral harmonic balance is a very effective way to musically enhance MP3 sources. The Shure SE530 phones do this quite well. Is using a slightly "warm" set headphones cheating? If the goal is to maximize listening pleasure, my answer would be, "No." This comes under the category of system matching. The Sennheiser CX500's may have a slightly more neutral midrange and upper bass, but they don't help MP3 players sound better than they really are.
Time For A Reality Check
Fact: All the headphones that come bundled with portable players are pitiful pieces of plastic excrement fit only for boot heels and landfill. If you want to enjoy portable music you've got to get a better set of phones. The amount you spend on these headphones should be in direct relation to how much you intend to use your portable player and how important sound is to you.
I'm totally travel-phobic. The only thing that keeps me from melting into a quivering blob of protoplasm during airline flights is my iPod. So far I've found only two portable headphone systems that make me happy – the Shure E530 PTH and the Stax SRM-001 earspeaker system. For long-distance travel the Stax system is less than ideal since it eats batteries like Pringles and occupies more space than I can spare for headphones, cables, and the driver unit. For the past couple of years the Shures have been my primary travel earphone. Now I even bring a spare pair along just in case I lose the first set (again.)
I was hoping the Sennheiser CX 500 would offer a less expensive alternative to the Shure E530 PTH phones, but due to fit issues this was not to be. But for many people with more regularly shaped ear canals the CX 500's may well prove to be an substantial sonic step up from the phones that came with their portable players and well worth their moderate price.
I can't stress too strongly how important it is for anyone contemplating a pair of in-ear sound-isolating headphones to try before they buy to make sure the phones fit properly. If the Shure headphones did not have a triple flange insert I wouldn't be able to use them. Period. I'm hoping that Sennheiser will soon offer a better-fitting option than merely three sizes of foam plastic. Until then, the Sennheiser CX 500 headphones won't be part of my travel kit. But that doesn't mean these phones won't be right for you. They are well made, neatly designed, and deliver well above stock headphone sound. Try ‘em, you may like them, plenty.
Type: Design: Noise-isolating in ear monitors (IEM)
Sennheiser Electronic Corporation
Voice: (860) 434-9190