Earbud Showdown

28 Comments

A couple of months ago, while burning calories on an elliptical machine, I noticed that my trusty Apple earbuds were increasingly sounding horrible. It eventually got to the point where any sound that was even remotely loud was just crackling to the point where it was unbearable. My Apple earbuds had finally bitten the dust.

I started looking around for a new pair of earbuds and found the selection to be a tad overwhelming but I eventually found a pair I really love. Hopefully this little “showdown” will help you with some comparison shopping when you’re in the market for a new pair of earbuds.

Something worth noting here. I’m not a professional sound engineer and in no way claim to be some sort of professional in that area. I like music and more importantly I like listening to my music with the best sound quality possible. This review is meant to help the “average” user find a pair of earbuds. If you’re a pro sound engineer, chances are you don’t need this article. :)

The Tests

In an effort to keep the playing field as level as possible there were a few common tests I do.

Comfort/Fit Test: I wore each earbud for approximately 30 minutes while running (a common situation when earbuds would be used).

Bass Response/Sound Clarity/Noise Reduction Tests: I put each earbud through a run of the following 4 songs:

JLab JBuds

JLab JBudsI knew up front that JLab JBuds were on “economy” side of the scale when I started using them. Unfortunately they never really moved out of that categorization.

At only $19.95, they are certainly the most affordable option by a long shot, but at the sake of low pricing JLab seems to have sacrificed quality as well.

When listening to everything form hip-hop to rock, the sound was just plain muddy. The range of response was small and they just didn’t sound good. On top of that, they were quite uncomfortable and had a strong tendency of not staying in my ears well (regardless of what size “bud” I used).

V-Moda Vibe

V-Moda Vibe I had seen the V-Moda Vibe earbuds in a slew of commercials and they were being pushed pretty hard at my local Apple store so I was anxious to give these a try.

These were fairly comfortable though they were almost so pill-like that I felt like they’d just get stuck in my ear canal.

While the bass response wasn’t quite up to par of what V-Moda claimed, the sound clarity on these was great. For the hip-hip tunes, I wasn’t that impressed but on electronic, pop, and rock they were really quite enjoyable.

The downfall of these, atleast for me, is price. At about $100 they just seem overpriced. They are certainly marketed for their “style” and it just seems like a large portion of the $100 goes towards the hip-factor…something I don’t find that useful and certainly don’t think is worth paying for.

Sennheiser CX55

Sennheiser CX55 Sennheiser has been in the audio business for over 60 years and in that time have come close to perfecting the art of delivering sound.

One of their newest sets of earbuds is the CX55 model.

These were definitely some of the most comfortable earbuds I’ve ever worn. They were extremely light and I at times it was easy to forget they were even in my ears.

The sound quality was great and bass response was solid. The only thing against these are noise reduction. Outside sound made it’s way in fairly easily so if you’re listening to music on something like a crowded bus or in the subway, it could be noticeable.

In terms of value, these have the most bang-for-buck. At around $80 these are still quite affordable and deliver superior quality at such a low price point.

Etymotic ER-4

Etymotic ER-4 Wow. I’m impressed. The Etymotic ER-4’s are some of the best earbuds I’ve ever used.

The base response and sound clarity are top of the line in terms of consumer earbuds. I really can’t say enough good things about the sound quality. But what really does it for me is the noise reduction. When you have these earbuds in, the outside world is practically silent thanks to their 3-flange eartips that give an extremely solid seal on the sound.

One thing I really like about Etymotic as a company is that they genuinely want to educate their buyers on sound and how to get the best sound quality out of their products.

The ER-4 comes with an entire “kit”, of sorts, with a plethora of different foam and rubber eartips as well as replacement filters for the earbuds.

At $300 they are definitely the most expensive set in the lineup, but if you’ve got the money to pick these up, I highly suggest them as they are one of the highest quality consumer earbuds on the market.

Comparison Chart

The ratings below are on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the best and 1 being the worst.

  Comfort Fit Bass Response Sound Clarity Noise Reduction Price Overall Value
JBuds 2 1 2 2 2 $19.95 1
Etymotic ER-4 4 5 5 5 5 $299 4
V-Moda Vibe 3 3 3 4 3 $101 2
Sennheiser CX55 5 4 4 4 3 $79.95 5

Disclosure: The items covered in this review were provided by their respective vendors.

28 Comments

ken hildreth

has anyone tried beats by dr.dre yet,the new earbuds that are like150$

Wayne

@Bill: I never tried a foam product. I saw the UE custom products but as you state they seem to be aimed at professionals. I’m just someone that wanted to have comfort. Also there was a HUGE difference in price. The UE custom product was over $600 or $700 (I forget now) while I paid around $150.

Still loving my custom product.

Billy Halsey

@Chris — I suppose it’s worth a shot. They’re technically disposable, so if you use them to the point they’re ready to throw away then why not try it? In fact, I just might try it with my UE Super.fi 5’s. My only issue with them is that the rubberized tips can be a little hard at times. So here’s to testing it!

Chris

@Billy Halsey
Hey Bill, about the foam buds. I have a pair of ER-6i’s but I’ve not tried the foam buds for them yet. About the drawback of the foam buds gathering wax: I use plain old foam ear plugs for sleeping/flying and when I don’t have a fresh pair at hand, I have found that its easy to clean them by running very hot water over them for 5 minutes. After washing I give them a squeeze with a towel and then let them dry overnight. Do you think that the Etymōtic foam buds could be cleaned this way also?

Billy Halsey

@Wayne — I’ve never tried a custom product, but I know that the foam buds that came with my old Etymōtic ER-6 definitely were more comforable and leaked less than the rubber tips. The drawback to them is that they’re only good for a few uses (depending on how much wax you produce) before having to be replaced. My UE Super.fi 5 Pro also have foam buds available, but I haven’t tried them. I do know that UE make custom-fit products for musicians and other music professionals.

Wayne

There are some comments that make reference to comfort. Has anyone ever tried a custom fit product? I recently purchased a pair of “earpleezers” from Earsound Customs. After having a mold of my ear taken I received them in 10 days. With this product you do have to use your existing iPod earbuds but the comfort is perfect and you can turn the volume way down. I will tell you that the sound does change a bit so I had to change the equalizer setting. After changing the equalizer the sound is great.

Billy Halsey

Following up on #14, when I switched to the Super.fi 5 Pro, I actually was able to turn the volume limiter down — had to turn the volume limiter down on my iPod despite having the volume at maximum with all previous buds and over-the-ear phones. I’ve been seeing some hearing loss and the Ultimate Ears Super.fi 5 Pro are allowing me to listen to my music in very high quality without causing excessively more damage. The’re available for $100 off at Amazon (where I bought them) and worth every penny.

Billy Halsey

You so beat me to this one, Josh! And let me tell you — I have had some experiences with in-the-ear buds. From Sony Fontopia to Etymotic Research ER-6, then the V-Moda Vibe, and now, finally with 100 percent satisfaction: the Ultimate Ears Super.fi 5 Pro.

steve

i am going to have to agree wtih charles, canal phones and exercise don’t mix. Although I also think they help with noise damage because i can keep the volume really low with my Er-6i’s around half of what i need it at for regular earbuds.

Marc Orchant

I have to agree with #14 RC’s mention of the Ultimate Ears buds. I have the super.fi Pro 5 model and they’re astonishingly good and far more comfortable than the Etymotic (also a lot easier to keep clean – the Etys collect a lot of… well, gunk). The have great separation, imaging and bass response and, as a number of other comments have noted, the noise isolation these buds provide means you can listen at much lower volumes.

Not cheap but in the high end a definite contender.

Charles

I have the Etymotic ER-6i too and I love the sound quality, HOWEVER I strenuously discourage people from using them while exercising. I used them while walking for exercise, and I noticed that these headphones totally seal the ear canal, which made my ears pop with every footstep. After a few days, I noticed my ears were ringing. I assert that vigorous exercise while wearing in-canal earphones will cause cumulative hearing damage. And that’s a shame because they sound so good.
Also, these sorts of in-canal headphones are sold as “isolator” headphones, they block almost all external sounds. So I would discourage people from using these phones while exercising outdoors, the isolation from external sounds could be a safety hazard, you might not hear that car or truck until it runs you over.

weisen

@Blair,

Actually, I think that my ER6’s probably prevent hearing loss. I find that since they isolate the outside noise (e.g. loud trains, etc.), I can listen to my iPod at a much lower volume than I used to with the stock headphones.
Instead of listening to subway noise+loud music trying to drown it out, I can listen to music at a comfortable volume and block most of the subway noise. I suspect that the impact on my hearing is positive.

RC

Though they are expensive, Ultimate Ear, Shure and Westone are basically the best earbuds money can buy.

I got mine from earphonesolutions.com

Fast and they’ll match any price you find (except eBay)

And regarding “they’ll all cause hearing loss” that’s only if you jack the volume up. The best part about a reeaaaally good set of earbuds — they dampen the surrounding sound so well that I can comfortable listen to them very quietly… sometimes so low if I turn the volume down any more they’ll turn off (and that’s after I have already placed the loudest volume setting at half!)

chris

The etymotics are good but you should really try Sure E500s, they really are the last word in sound- it is like having a band playing in the middle of your head. well worth the price.

seth

i’m pretty happy with my vibes; wish i could find foam tip replacements for them for an even better fit. the shure e2c tips don’t fit over the flange on the vibe with out modifying the tips (which would most likely just tear the foam).

as a side note, to those getting vibes, i have rev. 1 and they did need a good breakin period to really get the full life from those tiny drivers.

i also rockboxed my 5.5g ipod and am using flac as the source file and am able to get some pretty intricate eq settings to really make these little guys flourish and sound their best.

steve

i use ER-6i’s

you can get them on ebay for %100 or less, but why does it matter when you use an ipod? its not like they have good sound quality.

IntrepidSilence

Is it just me or does anyone else find it strange that the Sure line of earbuds was left out of this test. Even stranger to me since Sure is one of the featured brands at Apple stores.

I have used the Sony MDR-EX51 and MDR-EX71 sets which sound very close to each other, the 71s just have a few more features.

I also have a set of Sure E2Cs that normally run about $100 that I bought recently on Amazon for $40. They offer sound isolation and pretty incredible frequency response. They are larger but because of their design, they are very comfortable for long-term use. They make the Sonys sound like toys.

May

I LOVE my Etymotic’s ER-6i headphones and swear by them…if only they would come up a pair that I could use with my iPhone (ie: with a built-in microphone) then I would likely never part with them. I often switch from the foam and silicone ear pieces and find that the silicone ones stay put better and are more comfortable. My only real complaint with them is that they aren’t the best for running as I tend to hear the thudding of the wires and such. But as far as sound quality and such these are definitely the best headphones…period.

Rod

I _love_ my vmoda vibe’s. They’re really good for sealing out external noise (not actively noise cancelling, but noise isolating) and particularly wonderful on a plane.

And fantastic at the gym when I don’t want to listen to the conversations or machine noise around me.

Gary

I’m on my third pair of Sony MDR-EX51 earbuds. They’re great and I use them all the time. (I’m on the third pair because I’ve inadvertently broken the other pairs over the past few years from overuse… and stupidity.)

George

I picked up a different pair of Sennheiser earbuds (the CX300 model), and the rubbery cords transfer all sorts of noises to the earphones when it moves/bounces on things (like your shoulders). It’s terrible, and a shame because the Sennheisers are nice sounding. Curious if there’s any line noise with these.

Also hate the asymmetrical cording on the CX300s – how are the CX55s corded?

Matt

Nice summary of some of the more recent buds.

Etymotic’s ER-6i are my favorites — 90% of the ER-4’s performance, but around $100, depending where you buy them. And you still get all the little customizing bits and the sound isolation (which I love on planes), they’re just not *quite* as good sounding, but still better than any other bud I’ve listened to.

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