by Stewart Wolpin
To a set of persnickety ears sensitive enough to sense proverbial angels dancing on the heads of pins, even the best sub-$100 in-ear buds sound like tin cans connected by wax string. Audiophile headphones and earbuds can do things the “came with my smartphone” earbuds can’t. To place the subtle sonics of back-row timpani, to achieve precise live concert separation and airy soundstage, to feel the natural bass without it spilling over and whomping the mid-range – this takes more than simply slamming a full-range driver into an enclosure that hangs from your ear. It takes an obsessive attention to armatures or microdrivers, electronics, tuning and manufacturing.
But using audiophile in-ear buds, aka in-ear monitors (IEMs), pose a functional ergonomic problem: are they listen-at-home phones or are they on-the-road phones? Surprisingly, finding a pair of audiophile IEMs with in-line mic and music controls isn’t easy. Personally, if I’m paying $300 or more for a pair of phones, I ought to at least be able to control the volume and conduct a phone conversation without fishing my phone out of my pocket, which, BTW, I can do with nearly every sub-$100 bud or awful-sounding Bluetooth earphones.
Here are four buds I consider best-in-audiophile IEM class.
As the company likes to brag, Etymotics founder, Mead Killion, was the first to insert miniaturized heretofore hearing air armatures into noise-isolating stereo earphones back in the early 1990s, revolutionizing the bud business. Etymotics’ armature reputation is assured and enhanced by the bright, airy and precise ER-4 MicroPros. Sonically, you get in-the-studio presence, with finely distinct highs, broad mid-ranges that enhance vocals and well-defined bass that pounds without over-powering along with a concert hall-wide frequency response and soundstage. And Etymotics in-ear audiophile headphones make you feel your money is well-spent; the ER-4 are packed in a hard-shell, foam-lined case with a variety of flange, foam and silicon ear tips, an alligator clothes clip, an airplane adapter, a tool to replace ear wax filters as well as a supply of extra filters, and an in-line adapter that so you can choose between tuning that compensates for high-emphasis on CD recordings or wider response at the high- and low-ends. I’m not fond of Etymotics typical right-angle in-ear fit – make you look like Uhura or Spock (sniff!) on ST:TOS and, if you lie on your side, you’ll get impaled (ow!). And, unfortunately there’s no in-line controls, so be prepared to go phone fishing to adjust the volume or answer a call. $299
Just looking and holding these slight Klipsch X11i, which look like a thin stem topped with a thin fragile mushroom cap, and you think “how can these produce any sound?” But boy, do they. More subdued – one could say smoother and more natural – than the often staccato Etymotics, the X11i are even airier, but I freely admit this could be an aural illusion. The 10-gram X11i are so light and comfortable, especially if you wrap the cable up and over your ear (which eliminates microphonics, aka transfer noise) instead of letting the cable hang down, you’ll hardly know you have them in. This feeling of sonic nudity lend the X11i a perceived sense of live presence unlike any I’ve experienced with any other phone, in- or over-ear. Even if the X11i don’t technically deliver the frequency response, separation or soundstage of other audiophile IEMs, I feel as if they do because I don’t feel the artificial presence of the physical phones in my ears. From a convenience POV, the X11i also include in-line mic and three-button controls; when you wrap the cable around your ear, the mic sits conveniently right under your chin. $349.99
Three models in one capsule review? Isn’t this cheating? Yup, but – this is the Sophie’s Choice of IEM buying. Shure’s ridiculously comfy SE models – the buds swivel for the best, secure ear fit – are arguably the best-sounding series of in-ears available. But Shure’s flagship IEMs – considered the bud state-of-the-art – present a price v. sound quality v. convenience conundrum. Sonically, critics admit the tri-microdriver SE535 are the technically superior IEMs with equally measured highs, lows and mids. But, are they $200 better than the dual microdriver SE425, which are more mid-centric and, therefore, perhaps a bit more natural-sounding? The solution to this Catch-22 rests on the ratio between your sonic sensitivity and your wallet thickness. Adding to the SE selection predicament is what makes the SE line so price-appealing to begin with. If your cable goes bad, just pull them off the broken cable then snap them on re-attach them to an accessory cable instead of having to toss away your entire hefty investment. This arrangement is especially handy for the SE425 and SE535, which lack in-line mic or controls. For $50, you can buy Shure’s CBL-M+-K-EFS accessory cable, which includes a mic and in-line controls, integrated into the included cable on the SE535LTD. Or, you can go hog-wild and blow $999 (plus $50 for the accessory in-line control cable) on the SE846 built with quad microdrivers and a subwoofer. So, just how persnickety are your ears? $299/$499/$549
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