On the hunt for the perfect earphones

19 Jul

The Sennheiser earphones curve around the ear and wrap around the back of the neck, so they never fall off. And they sound fantastic. When the dog sees them, she knows it’s time for a walk.

July 19, 2010 

By Geoff Meeker

A while back, I told you about the Reebok Easytone sneakers, which provide a bit more of a workout while you walk. This week, I talk about earphones, one of the essentials for any workout.

I had a trusty old set that came with my tiny portable radio, but a month ago, they bit the biscuit. Turns out, the set was not moisture proof – it’s a wonder they lasted as long as they, enduring hundreds of hours of sweaty workouts on my elliptical before throwing in the towel.

So, I now had a legitimate excuse, er, reason to go shopping for a new gadget. This time, I had three criteria: the earphones had to fit well, sound good and be moisture-resistant.

The fit is an important point, as I have great difficulty wearing the white earbuds that come with the iPod and iPhone. They irritate my ear and fall out easily, even while walking. I believe I have several pairs of these, gathering dust in a drawer.

My objective? To see if I could find something acceptable, and inexpensive.  I succeeded, but also failed. Allow me to explain…

I started with the Rocketfish Sport Earbud headphones (Futureshop, $22). They clipped nicely around my ear, and fit well – thanks to several different sizes of earbud and earclips – but they didn’t pass the sound test. They failed miserably, in fact – tinny and harsh, with no bass at all. And without good sound, nothing else matters. I was frankly surprised that a company would invest so heavily in the look, feel and branding, yet market a product that sounds awful.

So, I took the Rocketfish back for a refund, picking up a pair of cheap HS Sport earphones (Walmart, $15). At home, I tried them on – the wrap-around ear clip was quite comfortable, and no amount of head shaking could jar them loose – and plugged them in.

Not bad. The sound quality was definitely acceptable. However, the bass, though better than the Rocketfish, was still lacking punch. And some of the high notes, which I knew were there, just weren’t coming across. At this price, you can’t go wrong, so I decided to hang onto them – I am not the only user of earphones in the house, after all – and try out a nicer set.

This time, I splurged, picking up a set of Sony Active Series Splash Proof earphones (Futureshop, $50). They have all the distinct Sony touches, including three different-sized ear hangers, for a custom fit, and a short cord for armband use, with an extension to reach the hip pocket.

There was just one problem. The sound quality was not good. I definitely expected better than this, from Sony. I used them for several days, almost in disbelief, as if trying to convince myself that they were okay.

But they weren’t. The bass was thin, almost non-existent, and the high ends were harsh and annoying. It sounded like the sound was coming from a vibrating reed – not a speaker – which is entirely possible, given the small, conical shape of the earbud. Either way, the product had to go back.

At this point, I was torn. I could try the Skullcandy earbuds, which were $30, or I could up the ante. One other brand, Sennheiser, had been flirting with my attention, but it was out of my league. After all, the cheapest ones in the store – the PMX680 Sports – were priced at $80.

My heart bickered with my head, rationalizing that, after all, $80 wasn’t that much more $50. As often happens in such cases, impulse won over common sense, and I walked out of there with the Sennheisers.

I tried them on, and the fit was perfect. A U-shaped band goes around the back of the head, holding them snugly in place. No amount of head-shaking could jolt them loose.

And then, the sound. Deep, rich bass. Clean, clear highs. Good separation of instruments and vocals. Just a pleasure to listen to. In fact, they would suffice for use as everyday headphones, with one exception: they don’t block outside noises.

Which brings me to a key point. Getting lost in the music is fine on a treadmill, but when walking in the outdoors, keep safety in mind. Make sure you can hear approaching traffic, and stay aware of your surroundings. And, if hiking a wilderness trail, leave the darn things at home – you should be enjoying the sounds of nature!

One more thing. If $80 is too high for earphones, check out the Skullcandy (Futureshop, $30), which friends have told me are good value for the money. In fact, don’t be afraid to do what I did, and that is shop around – if you don’t like a set of headphones, bring them back. (Be sure to check the store’s return policy first).

Now, it’s time to walk the dog…

Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at www.thetelegram.com.


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