Earphones: Am I doin' it wrong?
July 1, 2013 10:34 PM   Subscribe

EarPhoneFilter: I used to have absolutely amazing in-ear earphones years ago before an associate broke them and I missed the really awesome experience of having super high quality music... so as per an audiophile friend's recommendation recently bought what were supposed to be an absolutely amazing pair to top any other in its price range, Ultimate Ears Triple.fi 10. However, I have had absolutely no luck with them so far and have sort-of been missing my free Samsung Galaxy SIII earbuds? Is there any way I could be... cripes, using them wrong? Is it possible to use earphones... wrongly? Has anyone had any experience with this particular model? Do I have a dud pair? Help!

* The earphones were allegedly untouched in the original box and have not been used before.
* The music sounds far less crisp and impactful than on previous great-to-nice earphones and even, as I said, those free Samsung Galaxy SIII earbuds. It just seems to fall... really flat, weirdly. I feel like the sounds are all blending together and it's hard for me to differentiate overt instrumentals from each other, nevermind more subtle instrumentals.
* Subjective differences in sound quality seem to be consistent across varying quality of the original sound file (from YouTube video to high-quality MP3 to FLAC).
* I have tried them on: my work Mac computer, my Samsung Galaxy SIII, and my 2.5-year-old very good quality Windows 7 laptop, so it doesn't really seem to be a sound driver issue?
* I've tried all four types of tips (one foamy set and three sets of the kinda single bubble plastic-y ones in three different sizes) to no avail... I've never even had to bother with changing them before. They all seem to isolate sound ok, though not perfectly certainly. Is it possible I need to buy new tips? They essentially look the same as other tips I have been OK with before...
* Is it at all possible I'm... wearing them wrong? If I search in Google Image for the model I keep getting pictures of people wearing them in this weird loop-around-the-ear-way that I've never seen before. (In fact, looking at the branding box seems to say something about over-the-ear). When I try to rep. Could this really make "all the difference" ... ?

I'm just not sure if I'm: (a) screwing up wearing earphones somehow; (b) in possession of a defective model; or (c) just having a huge difference in taste here. My audiophile friend swears by these so much he owns two pairs! Ahhhh!!! I want my nice music back!

(If you think the problem may be the earphones themselves, it'd also be great to have some alternative suggestions for great in-ear earphones... I paid around $230 for my current pair and can return them within two weeks.)
posted by Keter to Technology (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
*Oops, I was going to say... when I try to replicate what I'm seeing in these "wear-them-weirdly-over-your-ear" pictures... just did so and I'm not really feeling much has changed. Alas!
posted by Keter at 10:37 PM on July 1, 2013

I haven't used those, but I've used other fancy pants in-ear earphones (etymōtic, shure), and basically you have to jam them into your head far enough that the tip makes a good seal with your ear. If your ears aren't shaped the same as the earphones, then this might be difficult or uncomfortable or impossible.

You should compare them to your audiophile friend's set.

As for alternate recommendations, I adore my Shure SE 535's but they're super expensive and it's possible they wouldn't work any better for you than the ultimate earses, since a lot of this comes down to fit and the shape of your ears.
posted by aubilenon at 11:00 PM on July 1, 2013

I am a huge fan of the UE headphones, but their fit definitely causes issues for some people — it seems to depend on your personal ear shape, and you wouldn't be the first person online to complain that they just can't get a good fit no matter what. Make sure you're wearing them hooked over the correct ears, first of all; and make sure you're getting a good, solid seal when you insert them into your ears. They're not meant to work like earbuds; without a completely solid air seal they sound terrible. They should vacuum-pop noticeably when you're pulling them out, and if this isn't happening you may well need to get new/better-fitting tips. And yes, it's important for fitting with the UEs that you bend the rigid portion of the wire into an over-the-ear hook that fits your ears well, and helps to hold these relatively large earphones in your ears — think of it like the back part of the arm from a set of eyeglasses.
posted by RogerB at 11:04 PM on July 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've found that these types of headphones need to be pretty far in your ear in order to work well. I always purchased comply foam tips for my in ear headphones until I learned how to make custom molds of my ears for them. I never noticed that the sound changed dramatically, though, so it may be that you have a bum pair, or that you are expecting to hear something that isn't going to be there.

Honestly, if you aren't happy with them and can still return them, I'd say do that. Unless you have a broken pair, I don't think you're ever going to be happy with them, and you don't want to be out that much money in the long term over something you aren't happy with.

Some people will tell you that getting a separate headphone amplifier will help them to sound much better. I've gone that route, and while it may help a bit, it isn't a night and day difference.

Give them one more try, but try to get them really far in there. The cord wrapped over the ear helps to keep sounds from traveling up the cord, so you won't hear it rustling up against your shirt. I have found with this type of headphone that when you have them on correctly, they don't really stick out of your ear at all. So, if you feel like they are sticking out, than you don't have them in far enough.

I've used the Shure in ear headphones (I don't know the model, but they were about $200), the Etymotics, as well as a custom molded pair of westone headphones which were $700 or so, and a lot of others. Each one sounded different, and none of them sounded amazing to me. I got used to each one, but there was never a set that really stood out to me from day one as sounding great. I know at the time when I bought the westone phones, people thought that their universal fit ones sounded really good, so you might try those.

If you really want to hear clarity, the Etymotic headphones are the ones to get (I don't remember the model, maybe the ER4). They are considered to be very clear and precise, although they don't have a lot of bass (they go down fairly low, but don't have the oomph that most other phones have).

If you do go with an in ear set of headphones, I have found the comply foam tips to be a million times more comfortable than any tips that came with the phones. I have small ear canals, so that may be part of it, but the comply tips would be comfortable in my ears for hours, while the standard ones would annoy me within 5 minutes.
posted by markblasco at 11:06 PM on July 1, 2013

It's possible this model won't really make you happy. I also have the TF 10, and its sound is somewhat idiosyncratic: the bass and treble are ramped up relative to the midrange. When you've been used to midrange-emphasized earbuds for so long, that can make earphones like this sound really boomy, or just plain muddy if you're not really into bass-heavy music. Personally I have much better earphones that I use more regularly. Some cost less than the TF 10 (but are even more difficult to wear properly, so I can't recommend them here, sorry!)

There is a booklet that came with your earphones. Study it. Wear them according to the directions and diagrams. This model goes into the outer part of your ear canal, but don't go very far. They're not really earphones for beginners because so much of the bulk hangs outside the ears and so you might always feel like they're about to fall out. Have your audiophile friend help you. These don't fit in your ears the way earbuds do... they depend on sealing your ear canal to sound properly.

And if they still don't sound to your taste, return them. I don't personally think they're easy to recommend to beginners or people looking for balanced-sounding audio; they're for people who are looking for a particular kind of bass-heavy presentation. Try something like the Etymotics ER 4S, which has a more balanced sound and has much less bulk hanging outside the ear (note that Etys tend to have to go very deep into the ear canal, even when compared to the TF 10).

It's also possible that in-ear monitors are not for you. Many people simply can't bear to have things stuffed in their ears. There's no helping this... Try, in all seriousness, Apple's new earbuds. They're cheap (you can buy a half-dozen of them for what you paid for your problematic earphones), the sound quality is surprisingly good, and since you're already used to earbuds you'll have no difficulty wearing these.
posted by ardgedee at 2:31 AM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I own or have owned the super.fi 5, super.fi 3, shure E4C's, bose MIE2, lots of interesting cheapies like the marshmallows, and a shipping container worth of over the ear models.

I was not really whelmed by the S.F5's, and i really doubt i would be by the 10s.

What i can say though before you give up on them is that the "angle of attack" on your ear canal is critical. It's exactly like the sweet spot with a set of speakers, or the distance+position that can get screwy and need to be played with on over the ear cans. Definitely play around with looping them over the ear. This is one of those things that i always play around with when i get a new set. The old Shures were remarkably good at being designed so that they really only fit in a narrow range of angles, but the new ones with the fatter "stems" aren't as good at that :(

Another issue i had with both the S.F 5 and 3 is that the "stem" that the tip slides over is really thick. This made it hard to get a super solid fit because it made the tip a lot more rigid, and just generally left less room for the tip to flex and deform and really get a good solid comfortable seal that didn't work it's way out after a few minutes even after playing with various tips.

My favorite set of headphones of any type i've ever used was the shure E4Cs, and part of what made them so incredibly kick ass was the tiny stem which meant that even the smaller tips were like 90% rubber and 10% stem, as opposed to the UE's which seem to be pushing around 40%. And it would be one thing to have that giant stem with multiple channels for the different drivers if it seemed to actually do anything.

I'm actually curious now as to what the old model you had was. Because i'm betting that not liking these ones is a combination of fit, and just well.. not liking the way they present stuff. That's totally fine, because i've yet to really like anything by UE and i can relate a bit. Everything they make comfortably clears the bar of "yea, this is pretty decent. i guess i could use this all day" or "if i got these for free and had no headphones i'd probably just use them forever/until they broke as opposed to getting better ones" for me but doesn't get very close to "Shit, these are AWESOME. i wanna dust off old stuff i haven't heard in a while and see how it sounds" the way say... the shure's or various over the ear cans have for me.

Send them back and get some shures, or etymotics, or klipsch, or any number of other well-regarded buds circulating around out there now. Especially if you bought those retail for $$$. The other stuff in that range is awesome. The shure 515s and etymotics firmly kick both cheeks of the ass. And the way several sets of shures i've used, and the one i've owned present sound is very different from ultimate ears. They're just the same as any other set of speakers. Which is a whole other rabbit hole to go down, but a similar preference thing. I like my infinities and so do a lot of people online, a vocal group of people online also hates them. Such is life when it comes to subjective things like this.

So yea, i don't think you're doing it wrong. I think the buds are doing it wrong for you. Get a refund and try out some other stuff.
posted by emptythought at 2:39 AM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Like emptythought, I am a bit of an earphone tragic, and I too really didn't like my brief fling with UEs. I have small ear canals (apparently), and the fit was absolute horseshit for me. I couldn't get them deep enough, I couldn't get a proper seal, and it may make me a philistine, but damn it I loved the mid-heavy sound you get from many of the other popular brands.

My main issue, however, was comfort, couldn't get them to fit in properly, and they were constantly slipping out, too.

By the way, you can get amazing in-ear phones now for much lower prices than even 5-6 years ago. A good source for reviews on the cheaper end of the market is: In Ear Matters. Tai tends to avoid most of the modish hyperbole of places like head-fi. Note: I said "most".

I advise you to experiment with a few cheaper pairs with different nozzle sizes and armature types (balanced vs dynamic etc). Over the years through this kind of experimenting (much easier when the phones are under 150), I have discovered I like a small nozzle, with a Shure-like mid heavy sound, and tend to prefer balanced armatures to dynamic (though I will say dynamic have just improved out of sight since I first adopted this strange interest), and excellent isolation. Everyone is different, and likes different things, but once you lock it on what you like, you can then spend more on something you know that you will enjoy.

Personally, however, I can't really see myself spending more than 200 ever again - the quality is so good at the cheaper end now.
posted by smoke at 4:52 AM on July 2, 2013

Like so many other "audiophile" obsessions, most people really can't tell the difference between supposedly superb and supposedly average sounding ear buds/phones and the discourse about this is a huge amount of bullshit. If you don't like the sound, they aren't "good" cans.

Ear buds are a lousy technology anyway. Anyone who has used real over the ear cans for long knows it. Bad for your ears too.

I love my Klipsch S3s for about $30. I've tried several $100+ buds and can't hear a price-commensurate difference (whereas I can with over the ear cans across a similar spectrum).

Sound is a subjective experience. Like wine, you should buy what you like and tell the experts who say your tastes are crude to stick it in their own ear. They are usually faking their supposed discriminating tastes anyway, as experiment after experiment (with wine and audio equipment alike) has proved.

Moral of the story: don't force yourself to use something because you're supposed to appreciate it. Go with what sounds good to you.
posted by spitbull at 5:18 AM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm just going to repeat what's already been covered. If you don't like the sound, don't force yourself to do so. At that price point, I wouldn't be shy to return something in which I couldn't find satisfaction. Fit is a huge deal with in ear monitors. If you aren't getting that seal, you're not getting the full potential of the equipment. But I'm thinking you've done your due diligence as far as making sure you can get the most out of your investment.

I'm new to audiophile gear as a rule. Never bought anything over $50 until recently. But I'll definitely tell you to check out the Vsonic GR07 IEMs. I took a big risk buying them. Lots of hyperbole on Headfi, and to make matters worse, they're made in China and distributed by all kinds of random out of the way warehouses through Amazon. Wasn't sure if I could trust them. Also, warning, it looks like tons of the reviews on Amazon have been schmoozed out of customers receiving free swag. All of that stuff almost stopped me from buying them entirely. But I got them and they were great. Bonus points for having an adjustable nozzle so you can get a good angle on your ear. They also come with like sixteen pairs of tips so you should be able to find a good fit. Also significantly cheaper than your UEs.

They were like night and day for me compared to everything else I've used. But like I said, first audiophile set, so YMMV. But they're very customizable in terms of fit, and since that seems to be the problem you're having, I'd recommend them. The sound is subjective, but there's no harm in trying and returning if you don't dig them. Mid centric phones, little harsh on trebble, and the bass isn't super strong, but you can fix that with an equalizer if needed. Hope that helps.
posted by Ephelump Jockey at 5:41 AM on July 2, 2013

If you are willing to spend that kind of money on earbuds, you might be better off looking into custom molding with less expensive earbuds, say ~$100.
posted by chairface at 7:33 AM on July 2, 2013

THe Galaxy S3 earbuds are surprisingly good for cheapies packaged with the phone. Why not just get another pair?
posted by stenseng at 9:40 AM on July 2, 2013

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