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Like music? How much would you spend on an MP3 player? £500? Maybe you’d go for the top of the range 128GB iPhone for around £700. But what about your headphones? What’s that? You’re still using those crappy buds that came free with your iPhone? Oh dear. It’s time we had a little chat.
If you’re a music lover, then the chances are you’ll have already upgraded your headphones to something better. The truth is that even spending a moderate amount on a decent pair of headphones will give you a much better musical experience. If you are a Spotify Premium cutomer, you have the ability to stream 320kbps, and if you’re still using your old iPhone buds, youre only hearing half of what you’re paying for.
Many sites will tell you about sound quality of headphones, but what about the build quality? Most earphones wear out long before they should, as they get a pretty hard life, and daily use. read on to find out more about the Shure SE425 in ear phones, how they perform in the real world.
Do you like Fine Dining or a Full Belly?
What sort of thing do you look for when you go out to eat? Do you feel satisfied going to a reasonable restaurant, and eating food which fills you up? Does it bother you if it doesn’t taste of much, doesn’t look very exciting, and when you can’t accurately make out the flavours present? You can tell that it is chicken or some type of green vegetable, but beyond that? Perhaps you really appreciate it when a talented chef coaxes a multitude of delightful flavours out of the ingredients and wows your tastebuds in such an expert way that you can taste each individual succulent ingredient bursting with life?
In the musical world, crappy earphones will give you a very bland sensual experience, you can hear something but the sound isn’t clear by any stretch. It’s bass heavy for a visceral effect, but the treble is weak. The biggest hole however lies in the middle, where all of the detail usually sits. Compare that to a decent set of earphones which are so revealing of good quality source material that you feel like someone snuck in in the middle of the night and put new material on recordings that you’ve listened to a thousand times before, even recordings from your youth.
My personal phones of choice are in-ear earphones, of the variety favoured by sports presenters standing on the pitch at Twickenham. And whenever I hear someone listening to an iPhone or iPod with a crappy pair of Apple buds, I’m reminded why; loose fitting earphones leak. They leak your music to those around you, and they leak sound from the outside world into your ears. To get a decent sound level, you need to turn them right up, and in so doing you risk damaging your ears, and annoying your fellow train passengers (or at least making them laugh when you’re listening to your favourite tunes from the Grease soundtrack).
The biggest issue I had with Apple bids was that they wouldn’t even stay in my ears. They kept falling out. They lasted about a week before I gave them to someone else. They may have had a special button for controlling the phone and rewinding and playing music, but what use were they if they didn’t stay in my ears? Quite.
Time for something better than Free?
The first time I experienced the benefit of decent quality in ear earphones was a pair of Shure SCL3’s. These were great little buds, white and compact and fitted nicely deep into the ear canal. They cost around the £150 mark, and isolated me from the outside world so I could enjoy my music in its entirety without the clatter of the tube or someone else’s conversation diluting the sound. I favour in ear buds as they are ideal for use when riding motorcycles in conjunction with the iPhone and tomtom app). The little buds were a revelation, and improved my enjoyment of my music so much more than I anticipated. It was as though the scales had fallen from my ears, and I could finally hear properly.
Give them a Week
The first thing you will notice when you put a decent set of in ear phones in your ears is that they sound flat. Flat as a pancake. Where is the bass? Dear God, I’ve spent half as much as I spent on my iPod on some earphones and they have no bass! This is a diaster.
Calm down, breathe and just relax for a minute. First of all, earphones (and headphones) need to be run in before they start to deliver you their best sound. Like any speaker system, they sound harsh and tinny to begin with, but as they are worked the mechanisms loosen up and they start to deliver the goods unhindered and running free. If the “wasp in a coke can“ sound is too much to bear, leave them running on a medium volume overnight before you give them a go. at the very least give the, a week before sending them back.
Secondly, your ears need to adjust to the subtle tones that fine detail headphones are producing. You see, your ears have been blasted by a crude, bass-heavy version of your music for so long that they have lost all of their sensitivity. It’s a bit like eating tabasco sauce on every meal, and wondering why you can’t discern any subtle flavours. Give your ears time, and they will recalibrate.
Make them Fit
Extracting what bass there is available from good quality in ear monitors is about making an air tight seal. As I’ve already mentioned, this isolates you from external sound which destroys the subtle effect of bass, and allows what bass is presented to leak out of your ear rather than stimulating your ear drum. Any decent set from the likes of Shure, Etymotics and Klipsch will come with a host of different adapters. Find one which works, which gives you a tight seal, and isolates you from the outside world, providing you with a tight, punchy bass response.
In ear phones will never match that big bass ’club sound’. But these types of phones are not about bass above all else. If you want that you need something which will move large volumes of air, you need some over-ear, or on-ear phones with large diameter cones to shift some air.
The second thing you notice about in ear phones is your volume level hardly ever goes above half way. You will naturally listen to your music at much lower sound pressure levels than before, which is good for your ears. Poorly fitting earbuds leak so much noise that your fellow passengers often hear your music better than you do. But when you get a set of proper in ear buds, or a proper set of on ear cans, such is the quality of the sound that you turn down the volume, and appreciate the whole experience.
Now it is worth saying at this point that the better your speakers, the better your source material must be. Increased sensitivity will identify any weakness in your source material. If you ripped all your music at 128kbps, you might not benefit from a high end pair of buds.
I favour sound isolating earphones, as I have already stated. I like to have privacy, so nobody else can hear what I am listening to, and I like to be isolated from the outside world. I have enough faith in my other senses, that I don’t feel vulnerable without my hearing. Naturally when crossing roads, moving about or even operating machinery etc, you need to take extra care when wearing sound isolating earphones, or even when listening to music, as you could miss audible clues from your fellow road users. But when the outside world is kept at bay, you can enjoy your tunes in their entirely, with no unwanted noise leaking in and spoiling the performance.
After my Shure’s I bought another pair of SCL3’s until they wore out, and I looked for another and found they were discontinued. I bought some Etymotic HF3. Great buds with phenomenal sound reproduction, comfortable and with great sound isolation (and these came with a handy iPhone controller which is too convenient), but they were let down by poor build quality. Considering they cost £130, this wasn’t the end of the world. They were replaced three times (credit to the manufacturer who I sent them back to in the USA ) as the cables frayed at the buds and eventually the sound crackled and was lost in one and then both ears.
I returned to using Shure buds. The cheap ones I bought, SE215 were OK, but not as good as my pevious Etymotics. Finally I bit the bullet and bought some Shure SE425s. They were about £250 (they have come down in price a lot since). What I like about these earhones is they have a detachable cable. Yes folks, if you use your earphones daily like I do, the cables are going to wear out pretty fast. In the last ten years, including the many replacements, I have gone through about 9 pairs of earphones, all of which have failed at weak points on the cable. The SE425 cables are replacable, and the driver units are high quality items.
The SE425s are comfy to wear, I guess fit is a personal preference, but for me at least, the drivers fit in my ear, and the medium size rubber buds fit my ear canal well and are less of an ongoing cost than some of the Shure attachments which look like earplugs you squeeze and insert before they expand to fill your ear canal.
The SE425 sound isn’t bass heavy, but the detail they deliver is astonishing. You can hear each and every instrument and every layer of a track in such detail that it is like lisening in HD, or having your ears waxed after years of barely hearing properly. They incorporate dual driver technology, where one driver handles lows and another the mids and the highs. It makes for a most revealing listening experience. Take a high quality recording that you think you know well like The Beatles back catalogue, and you will be astonished at what you hear. If you work in a studio, these are just what you need to monitor your tracks.
They are supposed to be worn looped back over the ears (as shown), and left and right cables can be gathered either behind the head, or under the chin. For a stealth look (for example if you are wearing a suit and want to remain respectable looking), tuck the cord behind your head and into one of your pockets. The clear plastic version are particularly discreet.
If you are an audiphile, I cannot recommend these phones enough. The build quality is professional level, and if you use earphones daily and have high quality source material, they will do it justice and lift your musical enjoyment to a new level.
The cables will wear out and break, but a new one costs around £60-70 which, while steep, is not the end of the world. The cable itself is a heavy duty braided affair.
Headphones like everything require a little maintenance. Regular cleaning to remove ear wax (ewwwww!), and cleaning the connectors between the drivers and the cable which can become dirty over time, affecting the connection.
If you find your sound crackling, and your cables are still intact, they need a clean. Get yourself some electical contact cleaner (available from Halfords, ideal for cleaning dirty electrical points, or your brake pistons) and an old toothbrush.
Remove the cables from the drivers by lining up the coloured dots and once detached, spray the connectors with contact cleaner and scrub them with the toothbrush, and reattach.
Hey presto, clear sound once more, not crackling or intermittent sound.
Update: 25th Sept 2015
If your wires fail as mine just have, you can get a replacement cable called the EAC64CL Replacement Earphone Cable, it retails for around £35 in the UK, down from about £70 following the popular uptake of the SE425 phones. I bought mine from juno records at www.juno.co.uk
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