Saturday, September 26, 2009

Earbud Review

Way back sometime in 2006, I realized that the default iPod earbuds pretty much sucked, so I decided to do a little shopping.

Pretty much instantly, I became a fan of the Philips "virtual surround sound" headphones. They're cheap ($20 or so in the store, $13 plus shipping on Amazon). The "virtual surround sound" works better than it has any right to. The treble-bass equalization is pretty much spot-on. And they have a convenient behind-the-neck arrangement, so if you need to actually listen to something in the real world for a few seconds, you're not stuck awkwardly holding them--they just rest on your neck. I really love these headphones. In fact, I love them so much, I bought three pairs of them over as many years.

Wait... no, I bought three pairs of them because they kept breaking. Like clockwork, after about a year of use, the sound in one channel would suddenly crap out on me. September 2007, left ear drops; I buy pair number 2. September 2008, left ear drops; I buy pair number 3. So when the melody dropped in September 2009 (leaving me with nothing but drums, a little bass, and some background vocals if I was lucky), I thought twice about buying pair number 4.

Thinking back on it, the design on these earphones is a little screwy. The cord is far too long, so it keeps getting caught on random objects as you walk past them--particularly doing yardwork or exercising. That much tension on the cord probably doesn't help the auditory integrity that seems to plague the earbuds. And because the cord was so long, it kept getting tangled in my pocket, ensuring that I'd spend at least half the time I wanted to listen to music on disentangling the damn cord.

So if not the old reliable Philips, where to turn? I headed to the Staples up the street and came out with the Griffin Tunebuds. I spent $30 (but they're cheaper--$18--on Amazon) on them, subscribing to the old fallacy that more expensive means better quality.

From the standpoint of durability, that seems to be true. Also, these earbuds did a great job of "noise isolating" like they claimed. The only problem is that the sound is no good at all. First, the bass is pretty decent, but the treble is cranked to eleven, and the low-mid range is way underbalanced. Equally as bad, there's a white noise/static undercurrent that runs all the time. That means if you're listening to music that relies on lots of dynamics changes (anything classical) or anything with a lot of starting and stopping (like a podcast), you're treated to SHHHHHH at every quiet moment. I had to find a better solution.

I've been participating in E-poll surveys for several years now. It's one of those deals where you fill out surveys about various things--usually TV, but sometimes random products, and occasionally food and drink. In return, you get "points" that go toward various rewards from cool places like Amazon, iTunes, and Best Buy. It's not much--it takes about a year to get to twenty bucks' worth of rewards. Having not cashed in for a while, and being a poor grad student, I decided to check my point balance on a whim, and hooray! I had enough for fifty bucks at Amazon.

Armed with that much virtual cash, I decided to buy the highest-rated fifty-dollar earbuds, figuring that surely they'd blow anything else I've ever heard out of the water. I ended up at the UltimateEars MetroFi 170 by Logitech. The verdict? They're good, defintiely better than the Tunebuds I had to put up with for a couple of weeks. The equalizer is much better, and the noise isolation is at least as good. On top of that, they seem much more durable than the Philips I used for years: the cord is sturdier and shorter, and I haven't had a tangling issue yet.

The thing is, though, I'm not sure they sound any better than the Philips. I'm inclined to think that the "directionality" of sound I noticed in the Philips was actually better due to this "virtual surround" business. And I get the same sort of white noise/static on low volume that I did with the Tunebuds. It's not as noticeable--more of a shhhhhh every time the volume drops--but it's definitely there. Maybe this is merely a side effect of good noise isolation--the static is there all the time in the iPod, but you only notice it if the noise isolation is any good?

Bottom line: I'm happy with the UltimateEars, and I'm even happier that they were free. I'm not sure I would have been as happy if I'd actually spent money on them, and I'm not at all convinced that a pair of these is any better than the two or three of Philips that cost the same amount of money and in series would last just as long.

Currently listening: "Spiders", Lovedrug

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