Looking for earbuds
December 24, 2013 10:30 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for earbuds. Under $200 is preferable but willing to go up to $300. Suggestions?

I've browsed other headphone threads but, unless I've missed some, none have seemed directly relevant to my combined budget/listening preferences. Thus far I've bought and returned Bose QC 20's and Brainwavz B2's. I loved the noise cancellation and comfort of the QC 20's and the sound was pretty nice but $300 felt pretty steep for what I was getting.

The B2's were ok but somehow I was really underwhelmed by them. I don't know what the best way to test headphones side by side is, but I went back and forth, listening to a song or two at a time, with the B2's and some random $30-ish Skullcandy earbuds I got a few years ago. The B2's were slightly better, but not nearly as dramatically as I expected for the price point.

So, suggestions? I mostly listen to classical and some folk-type stuff. My impression is that these preferences would suggest that really analytic headphones like the B2's would be good, but perhaps not. Budget, as I said, is $300 max with sub $200 preferable. Comfort is important as well and I prefer the appearance to be as un-gaudy as possible, if that affects your suggestions.
posted by pdq to Technology (13 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Klipsch X10 - the i (microphone) and X11 variants are all marketed close to $300 and the sound quality is incredible. I think the X10 at $100-150 is a steal.
posted by kcm at 10:34 AM on December 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Wirecutter has plenty of suggestions. Or Head-Fi, of course, has a million reviews and recommendations and a few buying guides that may be useful.
posted by ropeladder at 10:35 AM on December 24, 2013

Have you looked at Etymotic ER-4 earphones?
posted by The Architect at 10:46 AM on December 24, 2013

Bang & Olufson make earphones. I think they are comfortable and not too gaudy. If you have a dealer near you, they might be worth trying out with your music.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:57 AM on December 24, 2013

hmmm. my personal and well educated, albeit empirical, opinion is that with drivers that small there is not much difference to be had. comparison shop at around the $50 range for the one with the best freq response on the package, along with the highest sensitivity and other features (i for one require the kevlar braided cloth chord) and pick one you like... if you don't like it return, rinse, repeat.

i used to use skull candy but they kinda suck now (all plasticy and gaudy.. the good ones seem harder to find) so my favorites which sound great are, and this is pretty indicative of what i'm saying here, a brand i cannot for the life of me recall. i comparison shopped at a fry's and ended up with these and love them when they die in a year or two i will repeat the exercise... ad naseum.

so in essence your perception of the $300 vs $30 is what i too have experienced.

on to an actual recommendation of sorts:
what I really wanted to direct you at is if you want something with actual value and performance that is objectively and quantifiably better i would suggest custom molded in ear monitors. the brand i favor the most is 1964 and you are tantalizingly close to the budget required for them. (they range from $300-600 plus the appx $75 audiologist appt)

as for the quantifably better part:

* actual scientific engineering to design the driver/armature and arrangement of them
* noise isolating as opposed to active cancellation
* recessed (protected) sockets and fully replacable external wiring (incl kevlar)
* totally customizable
* real legitimate warranty from a small respected company

good luck, i know how irritating it can be finding good headphones...
posted by chasles at 11:00 AM on December 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

From going through some previous threads here, I just got my girlfriend a pair of Sony XBA-C10IPs and they're pretty damn tasty in terms of sound, much better than any earbuds I'd heard before. I'm an over-the-ear guy, mostly because the buds rarely feel right in my ears, but those are pretty damn fantastic. They've been discontinued in the US, but Amazon got them shipped from Japan for less than many of the other options here.
posted by klangklangston at 11:51 AM on December 24, 2013

I have the Klipsch X10's as well, and they are WAY smaller than they look in the picture. I use the double-flanged medium tips and they fit excellently. Granted, they're not noise canceling - just noise isolating, but I use them on flights and they isolate me well from most of everything happening.
posted by dobi at 11:52 AM on December 24, 2013

I've tried tens of these, and just wanted to comment that there's absolutely a difference between the 50-100 ones and the $300 ones. Just like there is with full sized headphones, despite the drivers being similar sizes. For one, nearly all $50 earbuds are dynamic driver, whereas most expensive ones are balanced armature.

The best earbuds I've ever used or had by gigantic margin are the shure e4c/ecl4. Go read the amazon reviews too. Apparently the 535 is the new equivalent?, but I'm honestly considering paying the $100+ to get mine repaired out of warranty(the cord fell apart after years of use and losing the case. They lasted like... 5 years though, of heavy use and abuse. And only the cord is bad, and is quite heavy duty with no cord noise)

I've had the UE super.fi multi-driver model, and other "high end" earbuds. None of them could hold a candle to the e4c. It just utterly humped Etymotics or anything else I tried out.

I honestly don't trust klipsch or any of those speaker companies that just got in to headphones like 4 years ago to market them to people who wanted "fancy" headphones for their iPhone. Shure has a long track record of making kickass stuff.

Oh, I'll also note that a lot of the "nice" earbuds especially UE, and a lot of the cheaper shures have an oddly fat shaft(I have no idea what the official name for this is) that goes inside the rubber/foam tip of the earbud. I have a giant head and big ears, but these things still hurt or were at least fairly uncomfortable. The e4cs have an EXTREMELY narrow shaft. This made them super duper wear all day comfortable, and made them stay in way better because the rubber tip could really deform and compress. They didn't get clogged with wax over time any easier than the others, and were also easier to disassemble with a removable shaft I could just blast water down And an included tool which not even all the nice ones have.

I can't say enough nice things about that model, and good shures in general. I'm getting a case of the sads just thinking about how they're broken now, and I have to use my Bose quasi-iems(which I would have returned like you if I bought, and agree are comfortable as all getout but cheaply made feeling) or the UEs which never ever fit quite right and stay in like crap.

I will throw the UEs a bone for having a user replaceable cable, but I think shure has addressed that on the newest higher-end models?

I've tried a lot of models, and if my house burned down and I had no headphones the first earbuds I would buy would be some of those on amazon marketplace or eBay or something. I don't know if I'd even try the newer models. They're that good. I used them for everything from gaming to composing music for years, and they honestly sounded way better than my other favorite headphone of all time, the sennheiser hd-280. That's mostly because almost anything but my 1st gen iPod can drive shures(which isn't always true of all earbuds!) and the 280s aren't comfortable forever like the shures are. Anyways, I'm rambling at this point. Buy shures.
posted by emptythought at 12:22 PM on December 24, 2013 [3 favorites]

2nding Etymotic Research (see my recommendation on a previous thread).
posted by melissasaurus at 12:43 PM on December 24, 2013

I don't see the need for noise cancellation for quality earbuds. I've bought and tried a lot more expensive sets but nothing matches my Bose MIE2i set for comfort and really lovely sound. They are just a little over $115.
posted by bearwife at 1:49 PM on December 24, 2013

This is one of those things where it seems like individual preferences are just very different — even apart from the always-thorny issue of sound quality there's also the problem of fit, since it turns out that individual people's ear shapes are quite variable. You may just need to try a lot of earphones before you find the ones that do it for you. Anyhow, I'll throw in a vote for trying out the high-end Ultimate Ears. My all-time favorites are the old SuperFi 5 Pros (which you can only get used now — I love these enough that I sometimes catch myself trawling eBay for cheap used ones even though I already have a pair!). The new UE 900s are also great, though; I find them better than the previous model (TripleFi), but you might as well try those too if the larger fit works for you. These all fall into the "insanely expensive, but might actually be worth it" category for me, but obviously your taste may vary, so trying before you buy, or buying from a store with a no-hassle return policy, is advisable. I also liked the Sony XBA-3s when I tried them, and they're both cheaper and a lot easier to fit in smaller ears. And also on the less expensive end, everyone seems to like the Klipsch S4s at least okay.

my personal and well educated, albeit empirical, opinion is that with drivers that small there is not much difference to be had.

Maybe I'm just agreeing with your broader point (certainly it's true that anyone might end up loving some specific $30 earphone more than the $300 ones), but my own experience with headphones is pretty much the opposite of this — that there's far more variation in how good mid-priced to expensive headphones sound to me than there is in full-sized speakers. Though there's still some variation, I find almost all non-cheap speakers these days sound basically just fine to me. But I've spent a lot of time comparison-listening to a lot of $100+ headphones/earphones, and some I find consistently shitty, others consistently great. I feel like there's an almost strangely wide range in perceived quality from the shitty ones to the few whose sound really impresses me. De gustibus, I guess, but I'm much more comfortable telling non-hardcore listeners just to go get whatever's available, affordable, and seems okay at first blush in almost any other home audio/electronic category than I am with headphones.

posted by RogerB at 4:21 PM on December 24, 2013

If playing from a computer, perhaps a Dragonfly DAC would help? It would work with whatever you chose - Shure, Klipsch, or Bose
posted by sidi hamet at 7:59 AM on December 25, 2013

I listen mostly to classical, so accuracy and realism are important.

I don't like Etymotics. For me, they have harsh treble distortion, and the "Chinese pagoda" design hurts my ears. Sony earbuds, even the expensive ones, are cloudy and congested. I do like the B&W C5, though they need a little treble cut and bass boost.

However, earbuds are just not durable. All the ones I've bought lose a channel within a few months, with no possibility of repair. You'll do better with a light on-the-ear design. If you can't have anything but earbuds, get inexpensive ones from good makers, such as Sennheiser. If you listen to MP3s (rather than CDs), there's very little difference between one-step-above-minimum and the expensive ones

I currently have Bose 20i Acoustic Noise Cancelling earbuds. They're klutzy to use, not very comfortable and need fairly frequent recharging, but, with a big bass cut, they sound great.
posted by KRS at 7:26 AM on December 26, 2013

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