Comparing earbuds and in-canal earphones

Earphones come in two basic types:

  • Earbuds: This type of headphone has small modules that fit just inside the ear. Fit can be fussy -- what fits one person's ears can fall out of another's -- but earbuds are easy to carry in a pocket or toss in a bag. Some earbuds have small ear clips to keep them fitting properly.
  • In-canal earphones: In-ear canal headphones extend farther into the ear than earbuds. They stay in better, but not everyone is comfortable sticking earphones so far into their ears, and getting the right fit is crucial for sound quality. Most manufacturers will include a number of replaceable foam and silicone plugs of different shapes and sizes with the in-ear models they sell. Because they're more delicate and expensive, in-canal earphones often come with their own cases and require occasional cleaning.

Many of the differences between sets of earphones are now internal. For instance, cheaper earphones will be built with a single wide-range audio driver. Better sets will have two or more drivers in each earpiece, with at least one tweeter (for high-pitched sounds in the treble range) and one woofer (for low-pitched sounds in the bass range). Experts say that multi-driver earphones give much better audio accuracy and detail.

Reviews can help you narrow the field when shopping for earphones, but reviewers stress that if at all possible, you should try before you buy. That's because comfort, fit and sound quality are entirely subjective. "Reading a review isn't a substitute for listening because individual listening traits are, well, individual," says Gene Pitts, publisher of The Audiophile Voice magazine and a 40-year veteran of evaluating audio.

To test earphones, Pitts advises, "One should take one or three CDs, and play 20 to 30 seconds each of three favorite cuts -- I recommend female vocal, solo acoustic piano and solo cello -- maybe organ if that's what you like." Pitts says you should start with the cheapest earphones you're considering. Once you move up to a more expensive pair and there's no sound improvement, you've found your earphones (the cheaper pair).

Other than a test drive, reviews say to consider the following when shopping for earphones:

  • The best earphones sound good to your ears. Although reviewers may not like earphones with too much bass, some people prefer a lot of bass. Some manufacturers even make models that are identical, except for deliberate differences in low-end balance. Keep in mind that too-heavy bass can cause ear fatigue.
  • The type of music you listen to should determine the kind of earphones you buy. For example, heavy electronic or drum-and-bass music requires headphones with a deep bass range, while classical flute medleys call for headphones with a wider treble range.
  • Fit is crucial for earphones. Reviewers often stress that earphones that aren't fitted properly will sound much worse than they should. Low-frequency sounds (such as bass) are most likely to be lost this way. Many higher-end, in-canal models will come with a variety of silicone and foam tips, so you can use the size and shape that suits you best. Experts note that foam tips tend to seal the ear better, but silicone tips are more durable. Custom-molded tips are another option but are much pricier.
  • Not all earphones are suitable for workouts. Earphones that will be used at the gym need extra-sturdy construction and resistance to sweat and water. You'll want to get a pair of earphones with little or no cable thump, audible noises made when you brush against the cable, a common occurrence when running or strenuously exercising.
  • Keep in mind what the primary use of your earphones will be. Earphones are used in many different places and auditory environments. Earphones for commuting on a subway, for instance, should have good passive noise-blocking properties. If you'll be moving around a lot with them on or you don't like to use cases, consider owner reports on durability.
  • If you don't listen to music on your phone, make sure to get earphones without a microphone. Many earphones these days also come in a headset version, i.e., with a microphone so that they can be used both for listening to music and answering calls. If you don't have a music-enabled phone or don't use your phone for listening to music, it pays to check the model carefully because those with a microphone are a little -- and sometimes a lot -- more expensive.
  • Electronic noise-canceling technology works better for low tones (like rumbling traffic or an airplane engine) than for higher tones, such as voices. Also, reviews say that in-canal earphones are better than in-ear models -- or even noise-canceling full-size headphones -- at physically blocking the full range of ambient sounds. However, you shouldn't expect too much from most active noise-canceling earphones when compared with their full-size cousins.
  • Experts say that $50 should get you a good pair of earphones. Although earbuds can be found for as little as $10, most experts say the sound quality at this price point is very poor.

Although many audiophiles naturally want to hear more of their music and less of the world outside, safety experts say it's a bad idea to wear earphones -- especially noise-canceling or in-canal earphones -- while biking or running outdoors. They warn that wearing earphones can make you less aware of your surroundings and less likely to hear warnings such as horns or sirens.

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