Why don't earbuds ever work well for me?
September 30, 2020 6:12 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for advice on what kind of earbuds to buy so that music will sound good.

I've never had a pair of earbuds that worked well. When I bought my first iPhone years ago, I received a pair of hard, plastic wired ear pods. They didn't work well at all -- they seemed to be the wrong shape for my ears and would fall out almost as soon as I put them in.

I switched to using the other type of earbuds -- the ones with soft, flexible rubbery tips on them. I've tried three or four different brands. They work OK for listening to podcasts, but music always sounds tinny, unless I use my index fingers to push the earbuds into my ears. While I'm pushing with my fingers, the music sounds great, with rich bass. But if I remove my fingers, the music immediately starts to sound like a cheap transistor radio.

I'm an average-sized guy, and no doctor has ever told me that I have unusually small or misshapen ear canals. I just purchased a new set of earbuds: Palovue Lightning. They're highly rated on Amazon. They come with three different sized tips. I used the smallest ones. Same problem -- they work fine for podcasts, but music sounds crappy. I tried pushing them further into my ears, but I'm afraid of pushing too hard and damaging my ears.

Is it possible that my ear canals are unusually small? Do I need to get some earbuds with extra-small tips? I suppose I could just switch to using regular headphones, but they're bulky and uncomfortable.
posted by alex1965 to Technology (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: If earbuds fall out and don't get a good seal, I'd say you need larger tips, not smaller ones, but I guess it's hard to say without actually seeing it. I would recommend finding a set that comes with multiple sizes and experimenting with them.
posted by primethyme at 6:18 PM on September 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, I think the moral isn't "your earbuds need to go in deeper" but "your earbuds need to fill up your ear canal better and get a firmer seal" — which means bigger buds, not smaller.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:20 PM on September 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify: Only the hard plastic pods fell out. The rubber-tipped ones don't fall out.
posted by alex1965 at 6:20 PM on September 30, 2020

Depending on your budget, you can actually have custom in-ear phones made.

Personally, I think canalphones are fine but I prefer a good set of old-fashioned cans.
posted by selfnoise at 6:32 PM on September 30, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've bought multiple iterations of Sennheiser CX300 series earbuds, which come with multiple rubber earbud thingies in different sizes.
posted by axiom at 7:13 PM on September 30, 2020

I had a similar experience. Ultimately, I found that no matter what earphones I bought, they didn't stay in or sound good until I removed the tips they came with and swapped in Comply earphone tips. Start off by buying a variety pack with one small, one medium, and one large tip, and then buy more of whichever works.

Be warned that you will have to replace Comply tips (or other memory foam tips) more often than rubber ones. The foam eventually degrades, becoming cracked and crumbly. I found it well worth the minor hastle of replacing them to get the improved sound and comfort.

I will echo everybody that you (probably) don't want tiny tips that fit into the deepest, narrowest part of your ear canal. You probably want larger tips that will grip the bigger, outer part. In addition to staying in, bigger tips will create a seal that will stop sound from leaking out, and will make music sound better and clearer.

(I am not an audiologist or an audio tech guy. Above is just based on my own subjective experience.)
posted by yankeefog at 2:11 AM on October 1, 2020

Etymotic’s are basically earplugs with high end speakers embedded. They are amazing.
posted by flaterik at 2:37 AM on October 1, 2020 [2 favorites]

You need to be looking at frequency range. If they don’t list the frequency range/specs at all, don’t waste your money. Most earbuds are absolute crap, including the ones that come with your phone.

Phillips makes some inexpensive ones that sound good. I can’t get the link to work, but search on amazon for Philips SHE3590PP/28 In-Ear Headphones (Purple). (And if you scroll down that listing, you’ll see a spec comparison.) I’ve also found some pretty good ones in Marshall’s, by checking the frequency range.
posted by MexicanYenta at 4:19 AM on October 1, 2020

The solution I've found to this problem is Bose QuietComfort in-ear headphones, which have soft spurs on the earbuds that hold them in place against the outer folds of your ear. They aren't cheap, and so far each pair has lasted only about two and a half years before the earbuds start to come apart and the noise-cancelling becomes a peril rather than a boon, but for those two and a half years they're fantastic.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 6:02 AM on October 1, 2020

2nding Comply tips! They have different densities available depending on how much outside noise transmission you want. I bought the isolation density and they really help on planes.
posted by Don_K at 7:36 AM on October 1, 2020

I'm your resident audiologist. I personally use Starkey custom tips with Etymotic earphones and have for years. If you listen to a lot of music, custom earphone tips are one of the absolute best investments you can make. If you don't lose them they can basically last a lifetime. In my office, we charge about $100 for the pair (probably a little more elsewhere as I am in a teaching clinic). So, so worth it. They are comfortable, secure, and I get about 40 dB of passive noise attenuation meaning they are safer for my ears as I don't have to turn up my music very loud trying to mask outside noise and the sound quality is superb. A good quality earphone helps a ton as well, but nothing will make as big of difference as custom tips.

Then yeah, most earbuds - sound quality wise - are junk. Earphones are diminishing return, meaning that you will get a huge difference in sound quality between a $20 pair and a $100 pair, and less noticeable differences after that (my Etymotics were about $200. I love them. But don't let audiophiles trick you into thinking you need $1000 earphones. You don't). But do pay attention to things like the frequency response of the earphones. A tinny sound is usually due to both a poor frequency response and a bad, unoccluding seal from the tip, which lets all the long, low-frequencies roll out of your ear and you get a very unbalanced sound biased toward mid-to-high frequencies.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:35 AM on October 1, 2020 [5 favorites]

Coincidentally, I ran across this article earlier today: "New UE Fits true wireless earbuds can mold to your ear shape for a perfect fit" on The Verge. Obviously, I can't speak to the quality of them, but they might be an option if you can't find anything else (and if they're not actually vapor-ware). Probably not as good as the option Lutoslawski mentioned above, though, but I thought I'd share. Good luck!
posted by malthusan at 1:42 PM on October 1, 2020

Seconding the importance of a good seal, though in my experience that does go hand in hand with inserting the tips at least a little deeply. The best bass I've ever gotten with standard in-ear monitors was using Shure SE 315s with these tips; the (usually) black tips shaped like gumdrops never sealed as well.

My most recent purchase was the Nuraloop. There's a learning curve with fit, but after that, the bass (and rest of the sound) is great, and you have further control of the bass experience via a setting in the app. But I don't love them, because the sound changes depending on the position of your jaw; you want to keep it either closed or open. I don't have the same problem with the Nuraphone, which is both an over-ear phone AND an in-ear -- the latter for the sound, the former to further communicate bass via vibration. Like the Nuraloop, it runs a diagnostic that results in what Nura says is a personalized profile, giving you sort of a personalized flatter EQ curve -- e.g., determining that you hear some frequency insufficiently, and subsequently boosting that frequency. I don't know how much of it I believe, but the sound is outrageous; I get to hear the bass I normally miss, but all the other instruments are just as audible as before. It helps me listen to music more softly sometimes, as I don't have to crank the volume to hear e.g. the guitars the way I want.

But you're asking about in-ear monitors, so the Nuraloop might be worth considering.
posted by troywestfield at 1:46 PM on October 1, 2020

Most earbuds also fall out of my ears or don’t sit properly. Oddly enough, AirPods work great for me. I was really skeptical and figured they would fall out immediately, but they don’t. Something about the way they’re weighted keeps them seated in my ears properly. They still start to feel uncomfortable after hours of listening (I think my ears are small, plus I wear glasses, so my outer ears get kind of squished between the earbud and the glasses). But they stay in my ears, and sound good.

I haven’t tried other brands of wireless earbuds, so can’t speak to them. But it might be worth a shot for you to try some.
posted by snowmentality at 2:48 PM on October 1, 2020

I think some ears aren't "buds friendly". Mine are always falling off too and I never found a solution
posted by newz12 at 10:09 AM on October 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for everyone's advice. I tried using the large-sized tips (the ones that came with my Palovue buds) instead of the small tips, and I noticed a substantial improvement in sound quality. So I was barking up the wrong tree. I kept thinking that I needed to jam the things deeper into my ears. Thanks go out to everyone who commented and offered suggestions.
posted by alex1965 at 5:26 PM on October 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

Amazing post. I think about this topic every day (as someone who always has earbuds in).

Since I wear earbuds all the time, I go through a lot of sets. Currently on my second set of Sennheiser CX300s. I enjoy them, but the last pair died of simple daily use. Not the perfect fit, but I by rubber tips (memory form) that conform to my small ears and give me a better seal.

I am reading this post hoping to pick up some great tips as well.
posted by konaStFr at 5:02 AM on October 4, 2020

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