Tuesday, July 08, 2008


With gas prices being what they are I've been taking the bus to work more and more often. It's not that I suddenly can't afford to drive to work, but the higher gas prices have forced me to think more about the impact of my actions on the planet. I've always considered myself an environmentalist, but it's time to put my money where my mouth is, so I'm taking public transportation as often as I can.

Obviously, the bus is the perfect place to enjoy my iPod. But with the noisy environment the bus provides I find myself in need of a pair of in-ear headphones to block out external noises. I'm hoping to get a recommendation for a decent pair of in-ear headphones (the kind you insert in your ear canal to reduce the volume of external sounds).

I currently use a pair over-the-ear style iGrado headhones with my iPod. I love the sound of these. They have a rich, well-balanced sound with a bit of sparkle in the treble, but they don't sound harsh or spitty. Unfortunately, they can't block out enough of the outside world to be used on a bus. Buses are loud, and to hear my music I have to crank the Grados loud enough to cause hearing damage and annoy my fellow passengers. I also have a pair of Grado SR-80s, which sound even better, but are too bulky for portable use and wouldn't reject external sounds any better.

If Grado made a pair of in-ear headphones I would buy them in a second. If Grado made a toaster or a bird-bath I would buy them too. Every product I've ever heard by Grado--whether it's a phono cartridge, pre-amp or headphone--excels at it's price point. Maybe it's because Grado is a family-owned, artisanal business--most of their products are hand-made in Brooklyn--but invariably Grados got soul.

Unfortunately, Grado doesn't make an in-ear headphone, and my experience with headphones outside of Grados has not been good. I had a pair of Sennheiser earbuds that fell apart within weeks after I purchased them. They sounded okay, but they didn't have soul. Then I tried a pair of Apple in-ear headphones. I can't really tell you how they sounded because they never stayed in my ears long enough to form an opinion.

Then I was given a pair of inexpensive Skullcandy Ink'd in-ear headphones. They sounded somewhat tinny and hollow with a sucked out midrange and little bass, but at least they stayed in my ears. So when I saw a pair of top-of-the-line Skullcandy FMJs marked down to $25, I took a chance on them. They look kinda cool, even if they are a little too "skate-punk" for a gentleman of my age and social standing. But I figured if they gave me a better balanced version of what the Ink'd phones offered they'd be good enough for the bus. Certainly they are impressively constructed with their molded aluminum enclosures and laser-etched logos. And they stay in my ears comfortably. And they sound...hideous. The FMJ's definitely don't got soul. They don't even got treble. They barely got midrange. They got bass though; lots and lots of tubby, exaggerated, undefined bass. The cheap-o buds that came free with my iPod sound considerably better. I feel really sorry for anyone who paid the $60 MSRP for these aluminum clad turds. Mine are for sale on Amazon's Marketplace if you want to experience their earth-shattering awfulness for yourself.

So maybe one of my readers can help me out. I'm looking for a pair of in-ear headphones that are relatively cheap and sound good. They don't have to have soul like the Grados do, but they shouldn't make me want to set my ears on fire to make the pain stop either. I know that Shure and others make supposedly good sounding in-ear models, but I won't spend that much on portable headphones. I'm looking for something with a MSRP of $50 or less (hopefully with a significantly lower street-price). They should be relatively durable and be able to fit in my smallish ear canals. Any ideas? I've read some good things about JVC's cheap in-ears, but I'm looking for personal recommendations.


Peter Hennig said...

I'm using these $20 Sony in-ear headphones and am fairly happy with them. For under $50 there are limits and these are no exception. The in-ear phones tend to have a more closed-in sound with less shimmer in the high end - which when listening to mp3 might actually be a bonus. Midrange and bass are decent but again don't expect them to be as good as the Grados. They do a good job of blocking outside sound and actually I have to be always aware of this when biking. I even wear them under external ear protection when cutting the grass and they work great. Quality seems fine and have used them alot over the past year.

Pete Bilderback said...

Hey Pete--

Thanks for the recommendation. I remember listening to those briefly when you were up last summer and thought they sounded good. They might have sounded better than the Sennheiser buds I had at the time. The Sennheisers had more top-end sparkle, but on the whole the Sonys were probably better balanced. (Like you say, at lower price points any headphone will be flawed, so pick your poison).

So I ran out to the local Stereo Shop to see if they had these and try them out. (Nice to have a decent, real stereo shop nearby that allows you to demo headphones).

I thought the Sony Fontopia headphones were very good. In the end I went with the Sony MDR-EX85LP, which were a little more expensive.

I paid more for them than I would have through Amazon, but it means something to me to be able to actually listen and try them on (whether this kind of phone will stay in my ears is a big concern for me).

I think I'll be happy with these. Sony has its detractors, but I have never been less than happy with any Sony product I've ever purchased. I have a pair of $15 Sony earbuds that I've owned for 15 years. They still work and sound decent.

Anonymous said...

Pete, If you really want to be eco-friendly and healthy you should ride the bike path.

The path is flat up until the last the last 1/4 mile where there is a short hill (50 yards). It's about 5 miles door to door.


Pete Bilderback said...

Yeah, I plan to ride my bike in on occasion this summer too.