Upgrading Those White Earphones? Don't Go by Price

Times Staff Writer

Sound engineer Kevin Glendinning knows earphones. And in his line of work, which mostly involves mixing sound for onstage performers such as Justin Timberlake and No Doubt, he has little use for the standard types that come with portable music players.

"I couldn't do what I do with those ear buds that come with the iPod," said Glendinning, who was on his way to Paris for a series of Timberlake gigs.

But you don't have to be a rock 'n' roll sound engineer to upgrade your earphones to near professional level.

Audio firms such as Etymotic Research Inc., Sennheiser Electronic Corp., Shure Inc. and Ultimate Ears now offer premium earphones aimed at users of portable music players. The earphones start at about $80 and can run as high as $550. In many cases, these products use the same components as the earphones for professionals.

But the sound coming from the ubiquitous, white iPod ear buds is already pretty good. How much are you missing in sound quality by sticking with them?

Not much in many cases. After testing six sets of high-end earphones, I found only one that significantly improved music listening as we do it in the real world.

They're the quite wonderful Sennheiser CX300 earphones, and luckily they're the least expensive of all those tested. At about $80 a pair, these Sennheiser earphones provide a warm sound mix with plenty of bass not only for rock but also for symphonic music.

That's not to say that the high-end earphones from the other companies are bad. Indeed, they produce an extremely clear and bright sound, especially in the upper range.

That is apparent during the first 37 seconds of the song "The Long Way Around" on the new Dixie Chicks album. Lead singer Natalie Maines' voice comes through with such astonishing clarity on the Shure and Ultimate Ears products that you can close your eyes and think you are standing next to her. Same goes for the guitars that accompany Maines.

The separation of the voices and instruments is terrific for a professional who is carefully mixing sounds so that onstage performers can hear one another under live performance conditions.

But on the 38th second of "The Long Way Around," a low-pitched drum and other bass instruments resound. On the Sennheisers it's a satisfying thump, whereas on the more expensive sets it's a wimpy slap.

The resounding bass on the Sennheisers also produces a rounded, musical resonance, whereas the more expensive sets maintain the bright sound of separated instruments that feels studio-like and clinical.

Indeed, the only disadvantage of the Sennheisers for general listening is that they sometimes provide too much bass.

It seems as if producing sound from a device as tiny as an earphone is an exercise in compromise: You can have a rounded sound with a fulfilling bass or you can get a shimmering clear upper register, but not both, at least not on the earphones tested.

I found the earphones from Ultimate Ears and Etymotic especially disappointing, as did Times colleague Randy Lewis, who covers music for the Calendar section.

Listening to soprano Anna Moffo from a 1966 recording of the Puccini opera "La Rondine," Lewis says the vocal is superbly clean. "But it was like the cellos and basses had been given the afternoon off," he says.

The multilayered Dr. Dre production on "Been Through the Storm" from the new Busta Rhymes hip-hop album suffers even more from the lack of strong bass.

Worse, the clinical, slightly harsh sound is fatiguing as well as unnatural.

The standard iPod earphones might produce a somewhat mushy sound in comparison, but at least they provide a highly listenable presentation. "The iPod earphones let you feel like you are listening to music instead of a device," Lewis says.

The Shures fare better than the Etymotic and Ultimate Ears products. "It's critical that you get these placed into the ears just right," Lewis says of the Shures. "Then it's a real hi-fi sound."

That points out another disadvantage of the Shure, Ultimate Ears and Etymotic sets. They are all designed to be inserted into the ear canal and carefully positioned for best sound.

The fit isn't a problem for pros. During performances, Glendinning uses Ultimate Ears earphones that have been molded to the shape of his ears, ensuring a perfect fit. The onstage performers he works with also use personalized earphones. That's critical in a concert hall full of screaming fans.

For the rest of us, it's "one size fits all," and they don't always get into the best position inside ears for optimal fidelity. The Sennheisers fit snugly into the ear but not so far inside that placement becomes critical.

The standard iPod set, as well as most other earphones that come with players, sit outside the ear canal, and that causes problems for people who want to listen to music while exercising.

Again, it's the Sennheisers that produce the best of both worlds: a snug fit and better fidelity.

If you stick with the standard earphones, you're doing fine. Just stay away from trying the Sennheisers if you don't want to be tempted.

Let me put it this way: I listened to the great opera singer Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died this month at too young an age, through the standard earphones and she sounded great. I listened through the Sennheisers and I started to tear up.

David Colker can be reached at technopolis@latimes.com. Previous columns can be found at latimes.com/technopolis.



Higher fidelity

Numerous earphone upgrades are available for the standard pair that comes with iPods and other music players. Yet the more expensive ones are not always the best for general listening. A set from Sennheiser proved better than earphones more than twice the price.

Sennheiser CX300

Price: $79.95

Pros: Resounding bass makes for a rounded, satisfying sound. Fits snugly in ears.

Cons: Bass sometimes colors music too much.

Source: Times research

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