How to go about choosing earphones?
June 3, 2010 8:49 AM   Subscribe

I want to buy a new pair of noise-blocking earphones ... but I know nothing about noise-blocking earphones. Or earphones in general. Help?

Right now, I own a pair of generic noise-blocking earphones that I use all the time - on my iPod, my DS, my laptop, on the plane/bus/train/car when someone else is driving - and they're breaking down. Well, that's to be expected, I use them all the time and they weren't a fantastic pair to begin with.

The last time this happened, I replaced 'em with another generic pair of not-fantastic earphones and called it a day. To give an idea of the decision-making process involved, I'd go to some store and pick the prettiest middling-priced pair they had, which is generally a fair way of choosing an item one knows nothing about, but I'd like to do better this time around. I'd like to get a better pair - better sound, more hard-wearing, maybe more comfy (a pair I can wear for several hours on end without noticing would be nice), and light. However ... I know absolutely nothing about this stuff. Googling for earphone reviews hasn't been very helpful because I really know that little, and I don't know where to start. I know sound is measured in dB and the approximate upper limit of human hearing is 20khz. That's all.

So ... how should I go about choosing a pair of earphones? What specs matter, and why (what do they mean anyway)? What's a good budget to set - I'm willing to spend more if it's worth it, but I'm leery of those $400 pairs with reviews I don't understand. What other factors should I consider - previously I've just been going by size and weight - ? Generally, what do I need to know?

If anyone has specific recommendations that would also be helpful, but please explain why X earphones are awesome too - I'm interested in learning more about this so I don't have to come running back to AskMe again the next time my earphones break down. :)

(Currently in Singapore, so if anyone has fantastic local earphone-selling store recommendations that would be grand too.)
posted by Xany to Technology (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My noise cancelling headphones are Etymotic ER-4P in ear headphones. I've had my pair for over 10 years and they still work great, though I have replaced the filters and purchased more rubber tips.

I don't know if you're looking for in ear or over the ear headphones. The Etys go all the way down in your ear canal which takes some getting used to. It also takes a bit to get used to the bass response. But once you do get used to it, the sound quality is very good.

I'd highly recommend Headroom for headphone advice.
posted by cmm at 8:59 AM on June 3, 2010

I have these Sennheiser PXC-250. I fly and take trains a lot, but I was not willing to shell out quite for the Bose Sound Comfort 3's though people I know that have them love them. Good compromise on size and quality, but can be a little painful after a few hours (noise cancel earphones tend to vacuum in a bit to cut ambient noise)

Look for active noise cancelling, ability for sound to continue even if ANC is off or batteries are dead, for me I prefer AAA batteries instead of a rechargeable unit.

You will have no problem finding these in Singapore. Try Funan Mall, or 101 (I can't remember, been a few months since I was in S'pore!) mall on Orchard.
posted by wingless_angel at 9:18 AM on June 3, 2010

skullcandy has really good options, especially for the price. I have a pair that I got for under $50.

They work very well and if they break, they are cheap to replace. Also, they don't look half bad either.
posted by birdlips at 9:20 AM on June 3, 2010

I have some Bose QuietComfort headphones (mine are the 2, but apparently they're up to 15). They've made both ear-cup and on-ear versions.

They're great at what they do, but I'd hesitate to recommend them because the plastic swivel clip is easily breakable (a quite common problem) - but they best they offer is to replace the entire set for $100+. I'm fairly disappointed by that (and mine are "fixed" with electrical tape). The bass response is okay but not great, and they only play sound when they're "on".

In general, decide if you like the ear-cup, on-ear, or in-ear designs. I find the ear-cup (also "studio") design to be more comfortable and have better sound isolation than on-ear (like the QC3).

Also, for anyone who ends up wanting Bose, look at their refurbished prices - there's an outlet in FL that also sells over the phone.
posted by bookdragoness at 9:49 AM on June 3, 2010

I had something like the Etymotic ER-4P, except probably cheaper, and they were fantastic. No active signal blocking required, just a really comfortable fit in my ear to shut the world out. I walked to school along a fairly busy road, and I'd have to pay attention to traffic when crossing streets, because nothing existed except the music.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:15 AM on June 3, 2010

For any headphone, whether noise cancelling or not, the most important feature is comfort. So, go around to a number of different stores and try them on. I had (long ago) bought a pair of Brookstone noise cancelling headphones, and while they worked fine, they were totally uncomfortable. I also tried a pair of Plane Quiet phones a few years ago and they hurt my head as well.

I prefer the earcup style. Since I may be wearing them for 4+ hours, they must be comfortable.

I have found the Bose headsets to be the most comfortable. I currently have the QC2 and have owned them for 3 or so years. I use them during travel a lot and a minor amount around the house. So far, I have no complaints. I do wish they would sell a different headphone cord that also had a mic on it so that I could use it w/ my phone.

Also, since I use them most of the time when I'm travelling, sound quality is not as important to me, since I'm usually in noisy environments in the first place. When wearing them around the house, I have no complaints though.

When these die, I look forward to trying out the new ones and seeing how they compare. I started off with the QC1 and owned them for many years. When they died, I got a discount on a new pair by sending the broken pair back. That seemed equitable to me.
posted by reddot at 10:31 AM on June 3, 2010

The only earphones I've ever used that actually block out external sound are in-ear style. Noise-canceling phones tend to only work on very specific kinds of noise (when they do work, which is rarely). "Talking" is not one of those kinds of noise.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:56 AM on June 3, 2010

Another vote for the Etymotic ER-4. I've had mine for about 7 years, (I know it's just a matterr of time before I lose them, when I do I'll buy the same again.) For loud environments like trains and airplanes I've never heard anything better.
posted by phliar at 4:20 PM on June 3, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah sorry - I forgot to mention I'm looking for the in-ear kind.
posted by Xany at 5:32 PM on June 3, 2010

Casting a vote for Shure's E4C or their more recent equivalent. Superb sound quality, passive noise-canceling, and a whole host of options for ear buds to ensure a comfortable, secure fit in the ear. Also the cords are super sturdy / tough, ensuring that one pair will last you forever (or, if you're like me, until you next leave them in the back-pocket of the seat in front of you on that trans-Atlantic flight, damnit).
posted by allkindsoftime at 11:36 PM on June 3, 2010

I've had Etymotic ER-6i and like them a lot. Have had them for a few years, without problems. In fact, I have two sets, with one in my daily laptop bag and another in my travel bag.

In-ear is definitely the way to go; not only do they act like ear plugs to drastically reduce external noise, but they are about a million times smaller and lighter than over-the-ear noise cancelling units. These qualities make them perfect for air travel.
posted by StrawberryPie at 4:34 PM on June 4, 2010

Best answer: Xany, the guys down at Jaben Network (at The Adelphi) will be all you ever need. Best place to buy earphones in Singapore.
posted by hellopanda at 9:34 PM on June 12, 2010

Response by poster: Belated update: I did indeed wind up going to Jaben Network and they were awesome. I walked in there with a nervous "Hi, I know nothing about earphones, can you help me?" and they were friendly, helpful, and perfectly willing to talk me through trying on earphones for an hour and a half (I think past closing time, too, but they didn't say a thing).

They didn't have the Etymotic or Shure models - or at least, the ones they had were way outside my budget - so I wound up getting a pair of Westone UM1 earphones and they are lovely. Fantastic noise-blocking capability, great sound, and very comfortable.

They also sent me off with a shaker of bacon salt and a pair of adorable tiny glass hippos, now christened Hippicute and Hippie by my 8-year-old cousin.
posted by Xany at 1:49 AM on June 14, 2010

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