I need new, durable headphones. Again.
November 28, 2011 10:21 AM   Subscribe

I've had enough of all of my Shure in-ear isolating earbuds dying on one side. My right bud died suddenly, and this is the third pair in a row. I've had this pair for less than 6 months. Could you recommend a durable pair of isolating/noise cancelling earbuds/headphones with a few requirements?

1. Isolating. Not necessarily noise cancelling, but I'm becoming less and less enchanted with the in-ears since I find they irritate my ear canal, so I'm willing to try noise cancelling.

2. DURABLE. I'm going to be carrying 'em around in purses and knapsacks. I don't want another right earbud dying.

3. Portable. Huge hulking behemoths need not apply.

4. Of a size that would work on my tiny wee head--I'm a 5'3'' girl and a lot of good-quality headsets are simply too big to fit on my head. (I once duct taped some foam to one set, simply so that the foam would rest on my head.)

5. Solid sound quality. I'm not asking for professional level, but I want my music to sound OK.

6. Up to $300 Canadian, before tax.
posted by flibbertigibbet to Shopping (32 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
You sure its not the player? There have been many reports of iPods killing headphones.
posted by wongcorgi at 10:28 AM on November 28, 2011

I have had a pair of Etymotic ER-6i for... almost eight years, I think? I once had a driver start to die when they were out of warranty ( after 3-4 years), but Ety replaced them for free when I called to ask about repairs. Sound quality is good, not superb; they're balanced for rock music, but there is a flatter model.

It's a little odd that the right bud died three times, though. You're not putting extra tension on that side, are you, or tugging it?
posted by supercres at 10:29 AM on November 28, 2011

Response by poster: No, the wire is broken in the reinforced section that is meant to wrap around the ear. I can make it work by twisting that section, but then I can't actually use the Shures since the reinforced wire will be sticking out 90 degrees from my face.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 10:30 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Supercres: I think the first time it was the left-hand side, then right-hand side twice in a row. I use the foam bud for my right ear, since the rubber ones slide out of my right ear (no matter what side), so that takes a little more doing to get it in my ear.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 10:32 AM on November 28, 2011

Response by poster: Urgh, no matter what SIZE. Rubber is fine on my left, slides out on my right.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 10:33 AM on November 28, 2011

Throwing them loose (or unprotected) into a purse or knapsack is asking to get them damaged sooner or later. This appears to be what is happening. At least get a dedicated pocket to store them in.
posted by epo at 10:34 AM on November 28, 2011

Response by poster: I store them in a pocket, the little Shure package they come with. They're still getting damaged.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 10:37 AM on November 28, 2011

I'm not looking for audiophile quality on my earbuds--but I have been happy with the sound I got out of SkullCandy Smokin' Buds (with mic) for my iPhone (which would seem to be a ridiculous statement, given that I'm not a snowboarding teenager). I had a few v-Modas and Sonys that all cut out in one ear or the other due to crimps in the cabling/flex at the jack. The Skull Candys sounded quite good, despite the price and the maker.

Give them a shot--they're super cheap. They really sound fine, and take a licking.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:42 AM on November 28, 2011

I have nice headphones that I use for serious listening that do not go in my purse, and for every day use I use these JVC earbuds. They're pretty cheap, but I bought my pair 3 years ago, throw them in my purse, pull my ipod out of my purse by them, get them caught in my coat zipper, etc. and they're still doing well. They don't provide the same sound quality as your Shures, but it's good and isolating enough that I can listen on the subway.
posted by kyla at 10:49 AM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this applies in Canada, but Best Buy (which I otherwise avoid) has reasonably priced 2-year protection plans for headphones. You can bring them to the geek squad desk when they stop working and they'll swap them out for a new pair. Given the high failure rate of headphones I think this is an excellent deal.
posted by iamscott at 10:52 AM on November 28, 2011

I came to recommend those JVCs too. I used to spend like $100 on fancy "noise cancelling" headphones under I realized these JVCs cost under $15 and work much better at blocking background noise in an office.

I'm pretty picky about music and they sound fine to me. I'm sure it's not professional-level sound, but when I'm at work the most important thing is blocking out annoyances and letting me enjoy the music, and they're great at that.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:52 AM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: I had the same issue that you describe with my Shure in-ear isolating earbuds. I switched to the Ultimate Ears 700 last year and they have been a joy to use. They come with several sets of foam and silicone ear tips in different sizes so you can find a good fit, even if you have small ear holes.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:53 AM on November 28, 2011

I just bought a pair of the JVC marshmallows that kyla recommends (the variation with the Apple-compatible mic and three-button remote) and I agree that the sound quality isn't Shure-standard, but they're more than serviceable for on-the-go listening.
posted by holgate at 10:54 AM on November 28, 2011

I have an older pair of Ultimate Ears also and the great thing about it is that you can change the cables.
posted by cazoo at 10:57 AM on November 28, 2011

I've been pretty happy with the Klipsch Image S4i. They're the most comfortable in-ear buds I've ever used. Fantastic sound quality, discreet design (in black) and a 2-year warranty for peace of mind. There's also a version sans the iPod/iPhone remote if you're not an Apple zealot.

Sometimes I do long for some good old over-the-ear headphones; the Klipsch Image One is on my Christmas list. Haven't tried them yet, but the reviews are great… I'm willing to bet if Klipsch knows what they're doing with in-ear buds, the Image One has got to be awesome, eh?
posted by bhayes82 at 11:08 AM on November 28, 2011

I love my Sennheiser headphones--I have both overear ones and earbuds. I've had both pairs almost ten years now, with lots of being thrown/stuffed in bags and carted around everywhere without any issues. (I am 5 ' 1" female with a tiny head, and mine fit fine.) And they were cheap models. They do a pretty highly rated noise isolating earbud.
posted by kittenmarlowe at 11:14 AM on November 28, 2011

After losing two pairs of Etymotics to wear and tear, I got a cheapish pair of Denon buds. The sound isn't quite as great, but they are cheaper than Etymotics and have already lasted longer than either pair.
posted by caek at 11:44 AM on November 28, 2011

Get the meelec m9. Cheap, durable and audio quality is quite good (with excellent isolation) . the wirecutter has a comprehensive review of them. If you're going through earbuds at such a quick rate, I wouldn't be paying more than $30 for em.
posted by raihan_ at 12:00 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Make sure you're using the fantastic Shure warranty. The people there are great and in my experience have replaced new for old every time I've had a problem. As someone who is rough on headphones, the warranty and their support is a godsend.

Also, I chose Shures as every other brand I tried couldn't stand up to my usage (dog walker + excited dogs + earbuds = much breakage) Shures product was sturdier and when they failed their support would get me a new set gratis.
posted by merocet at 12:05 PM on November 28, 2011

Oo, I also came in to recommend the JVC marshmallow buds that have been mentioned a couple of times already. OP, I know you said in-ear buds tend to irritate your ear canal but I believe these are made of a different material than most - they're memory foam, with some kind of soft, smooth coating - and I've noticed not a single problem. They're definitely effective at shutting out noise as well - I've had people scare the crap out of me in trying to get my attention at my desk because I was so oblivious to their approach.
posted by AthenaPolias at 12:18 PM on November 28, 2011

It is amazing how much difference a little modification will have on a pair of cheap-ass earphones. My Shure E2C's are now 5 years old and the insulation is starting to crack, but they've offered to replace them with new for $50 (essentially half off a new pair).
posted by Runes at 12:35 PM on November 28, 2011

the headroom company and headfi forums, are both great to look through; ooh lifehacker article
posted by stratastar at 1:38 PM on November 28, 2011

Best answer: The nature of IEMs and your humidity-rich, oily ears is such that most of them will have a somewhat limited life for all but the luckiest or most fastidious this said, some general tips plus recommendations from someone who's been wearing IEMs for a long time, and tried out +10 different types.

1. Shure cables are notoriously crap. They claim to have "fixed" them every few years. They never do. They're crap, and they stiffen up and split especially in high humidity environments.

2. If you're using them for exercise, it's possible they're getting moisture inside; dynamic drivers stand up to this somewhat better.

3. IEMs are so much better now, and the field is way more competitive. You won't need to spend $300 for good quality, and I humbly submit the the differences between $100 IEMs and $300 - removing the marketing - are so small as to be undetectable by the average listener. Different IEMs are more around preference than quality these days.

4. Ultimate Ears are not a good choice for petite people - they are massive and stick out like bolts. I have a pair and I couldn't get them in my small earholes. Additionally, the tip-size is very different from Shure and you won't be able to insert them that deeply.

5. With all of the above in mind you might find the following recommendations useful:
Shure SE 210 - Dynamic Driver (Shure's first), and detachable, replaceable cables. I was pleasantly surprised with these. Good sound, good quality and the replaceable cables are something that should have been done ages ago.

SoundMagic PL-50 - An oldy, but definitely a goodie, and the cables are particularly lovely. If you like the Shure sound you will enjoy these IEMs, and they're so cheap replacing them once every couple of years or whatever is not a big deal.

Meelectronics A151 - another IEM with the venerable (legendary?) Knowles armature - on sale at the moment for a whopping 50% off, and a true, true steal at that price (I happily paid $80 for mine). Again, the cable is terrific, and the sound is the warm, mid-strong quality similar to Shures.

The uber-durable westone 1 or 2. These are the grand old dames of the IEM world - and I personally think they're a bit on the over-priced side these days. However, there's no arguing with the stellar build quality - US-made and built like a brick shithouse - and the original braided cable. For what it's worth, these are the most comfortable IEMs I've ever worn, and the Westone 2 remains one of the best-sounding - if not the best - I've ever tried (for my tastes, of course, everyone is different). The molded body is super tough.

Additionally, all of the above will work with your Shure tips. I saw your comment about irritation - have you tried the "olive green" Shure tips? I found they irritate my ears the least. Good luck, let us know what you decide on. :)
posted by smoke at 1:38 PM on November 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

Anecdotal data, my ultimate ears super-fi 5's with replaceable wires (that particular model isn't for for sale anymore) lasted for more than 4 years before I cracked the casing on one of the buds. Loved those things; and the 10's always go on sale during black friday time...
posted by stratastar at 1:40 PM on November 28, 2011

Sorry that's Shure se215, no210.
posted by smoke at 2:02 PM on November 28, 2011

You can probably get Shure to replace them for free, if you bought them just 6 months ago.

FWIW, I had a pair of Shure SE530's that broke in the same way you describe. The first time they replaced them for free. The second time (a year and a half later), they charged me, but sent me SE535's instead. I think this was a widespread problem - the 535's addressed it in THREE ways (the rubber is stronger, there's a swivel on the connector, and the cable is now replaceable). If it's the SE 530 you've been using that keep breaking for you, I highly recommend sending them in for replacement.
posted by aubilenon at 2:30 PM on November 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have the same JVC-marshmallows. I stuff them in my pocket or throw them in a bag, and they've lasted quite a long time. My old Sennheisers took a ton of abuse before I lost them. But the Klipsch s4 and s2's I had...I took great care with them, and they always broke inside 4 months. I gave up getting them replaced after awhile.
posted by K.P. at 9:04 PM on November 28, 2011

For longevity, I wouldn't recommend the small, black, Sony earbuds. Over the years, I have had 3 pairs die on me. However, I don't treat them well, they sound great and they're cheap as chips, so I keep buying....
posted by guy72277 at 3:21 AM on November 29, 2011

Response by poster: I wound up finding a Canadian Westone dealer (hearstore.ca, affiliated with heartoronto)* and grabbed me some Westone 2s for less than 300$ Canadian. I also liked the Ultimate Ears suggestion.

Thanks, guys!

*I only mention it because finding someone in Canada who will sell Westones online was... surprisingly difficult.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:43 AM on November 29, 2011

For when this pair breaks:

Buy two pairs of 'Koss Pathfinder In-Ear Earphones'. They're cheap and sound fine, but more importantly they have a lifetime warranty. So you use Pair A until they break. Ship Pair A off to the company for a free replacement and use Pair B until Pair A is repaired and returned.

You never have to buy a pair of in-ears again, or go a day without earphones.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 10:09 AM on November 29, 2011

Response by poster: Having spent a couple of days with the Westone 2s:


1) Incredibly light-weight and fits perfectly into my ear. I guess that results in less movement, because my ears are less irritated over 5 hours with the Westones and 5 hours with the Shures.
2) They do indeed feel super-durable despite being much lighter and smaller than the equivalent Shures, and come with their own hard travel case (which is where they stay when not in my ears).
3) The sound quality is outright fantastic. I tested it on classical, rock, pop, trance... Warm, good highs and lows (although the lows can be droned out on a bus), good sound isolation.

Definitely VERY happy.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 10:25 PM on December 1, 2011

My A151s, as recommended by smoke, just showed up in the mail. Very nice so far and great value at that sale price, thanks for the tip.
posted by markr at 4:37 PM on December 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

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