REVIEW - A review of the Klipsch Image S4i earbuds (amongst others), as told by someone with super-hearing
For the Twitter generation, simply read the following 140 characters, ”You appreciate music. Do yourself, and your ears, a favour and buy better earphones. The set that ship with the iPhone are awful. Get these.”
A little over a year ago, I became, for reasons not entirely solved by western medicine, ’blessed’ with super-hero hearing*(1). Like Superman, I’m able to hear things that you normal folk thankfully don’t have to. I also ‘see’ certain sound frequencies as a physical shape (like sonar), but I’ll save that for a different post*(2).
Unlike Superman, there is no off switch. Rather than easily being able to hear a cry for help three blocks away, the noise of the gentleman’s cell phone ringing two floors up is maddening; a car honking its horn five blocks away will drown out a conversation I’m having with someone across the table. Unsurprisingly, since the onset of my newfound talent, anything related to the creation, understanding, or avoidance, of both sound as it pertains to hearing has become very important to me*(3).
Since iTunes 1.0, I’ve been digitising songs from CDs at the highest bit rate available (and, with the addition of DRM-free tracks to the iTunes music store, I’ve been purchasing a few tracks here and there, too). Much of this music is now uncomfortable (Miles Davis––any brass instruments), or even painful to listen to (Goldfrapp’s “Train”). And so in January of this year, Project Re-rate commenced. I created a series of Smart Playlists that dynamically update my iPhone with unrated music from different genres so that I might rate it, not so much on merit, but listenable-to-ness. Since, as of iTunes 9.1, Apple still hasn’t come up with a good system for managing one library from different machines without creating unnecessary and hard-to-track duplication of content*(4), my very understanding wife has to accept my ratings rather than make her own. 1 Star means, “Hells, No!” and 5 Stars means, “Hells, Yes!”. There are some exceptions––tracks that receive a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card because they’re just that good. Of course, having to listen to over 30,000 digitised tracks all the way through is going to take some time*(5). Even if I listen to and rate the equivalent of 1 CD every day (not as easy as you’d think), I have about 8 years left before the completion of the project and that’s assuming I don’t buy anything new between now and then.
One thing that is essential to this rating process is a good set of headphones. I want to be really sure that it isn’t the poor-quality of my listening device distorting Miles Davis’s excellent brass work on “Weirdo,” before I consign it to the 1 star bin forever. At work I wear a pair of Sennheiser HD 280s. Very reasonably priced at $99, these over-the ear cans are very versatile (great sound reproduction across genres––rock is raw, classical is warm), and have the build quality of a headphone beyond their price point. As with most cans, they can get tiring to wear after some time. For this reason, and because you don’t want to look like a turnip walking down the street with a giant pair of headphones on, it’s also important to have a good set of lightweight (read portable) earphones.
Earphones, whether it be the style that sits just in the ear (Apple’s standard earphones), or the old school, on-ear (the kind you received with your Walkman for Christmas in 1987) do little to block out ambient sound. You might be able to play your music at low-ish levels in your house and enjoy a good listening experience, but as soon as you leave, you have to pump up the volume to block out the sound of traffic, the subway, people, and cows. Poor-quality earphones also contribute to noise pollution. How many times have you sat next to someone on the subway and been able to hear every note of music they’re listening to? Don’t worry, they’ll be deaf soon enough and staying at home crying into their gigantic pillows––all due to their own idiocy. In seriousness, I can’t stress strongly enough that, unless you’re very careful in your listening habits, both these types of earphones are causing permanent damage to your hearing. Chances are you already can’t hear mosquitos––higher frequencies are normally the first to go.
The good news is that you can do something about this.
You know how you can’t hear quite as well when you stick your fingers in your ears? Well…this is the basic principal behind my favoured style of earphone affectionately known as the canal-phone, or in-ear monitor (IEMs). The principle is known as Passive Sound Isolation––an airtight seal is created between the ear canal and the earbud, thus blocking out external, ambient noise. You’ll be able to listen to your music at much lower levels, reducing your risk of permanent hearing loss.
All good IEMs ship with varying sizes of tips, allowing you to find the size that creates an airtight seal. You’ll notice when you’ve found the right size because you’ll hear sounds in your music that you’ve never heard before and tremendous jump in bass response. You’ll also hear considerably less external noise, so be careful when you’re crossing the street. When you’re shopping for earbuds, you’ll normally find an isolation rating, measured in decibels, on the box. Anything in the range 15-25 dB is terrific for everyday use*(6).
Once you’ve got a good seal covered, then you need to think about the quality of the drivers. Some models rely on a single driver in each ear to do all the work, whereas some split the work across multiple drivers (one for bass, one for mids, one for highs). Although sound quality is much higher in multi-driver units, they tend to be much larger, making them impractical for every day use (even vigourous walking). You also pay more for each driver added––these things aren’t cheap to miniaturise.
Since becoming an iPhone 1.0 owner in 2007*(7), I’ve been through a number of different makes and models of earbuds including the standard pair that ships with the handset. Because of the law of diminishing returns*(8), I’m only going to cover those I favour in the range of $80-150. Ratings are given as a number between 1 and 5, higher numbers being better.
Sound quality - 1 out of 5 The worst of the group with no ear seal and low-quality single drivers. Do yourself a favour now and buy something else on this list.
Durability - 2 out of 5 Whilst the standard buds do a great job of staying together, the white wires get dirty quickly. White wires also shout, “Please mug me, I have an iPhone!”
Microphonics - 4 out of 5 Microphonics, the detrimental effect of sounds passing along your headphone wire to your ears as it brushes against your clothing, rarely affects earphones with no ears seals and thin wires. In other words, these buds get a high rating based on a technicality.
Cord tangling - 1 out of 5 Like snakes? No? Then avoid these like a plague of asps.
Mic & Controls - 5 out of 5 Light unit. Positioned just under the ear for easy handsfree use.
Sound quality - 3 out of 5 Apple’s dual-driver offering sound a little too clinical. Flat sound with little in the way of bass.
Durability - 1 out of 5 Like their cheaper cousins, the white wires get dirty quickly. Unlike their cheaper cousins, I’ve had to return three pairs in as little as six months. Each pair lost sound in one ear and lost the ability to control a device through the remote due to a poor seal against moisture. In other words, you can’t wear these to the gym.
Microphonics - 3 out of 5 The lightweight cords don’t pick up much wind noise or clothing vibration.
Cord tangling - 4 out of 5 As long as you put them in their provided case, you’ll avoid annoying tangles.
Mic & Controls - 5 out of 5 Light unit. Positioned just under the ear for easy handsfree use.
Sound quality - 3 out of 5 Designed with a good bass-offering in mind, these single-driver buds deliver––this might not suit all (the bass is artificially heightened). With well-rounded mids and highs, they provide an easy to listen to, engaging sound experience. Especially good at reproducing pop/rock genres.
Durability - 1 out of 5 Great to look at, with chrome trim, you can see that V-Moda put a lot of thought into their product design. Unfortunately, someone in production didn’t get the memo about build quality. Two pairs simply stopped producing sound for me within three months of each other. A third pair bought for my wife suffered the same demise.
Microphonics - 4 out of 5 The Vibes have a cloth lattice covering rather than rubber. The beauty of this is that there is little to no microphonic effect.
Cord tangling - 4 out of 5 Even if you do manage to get them tangled, the cloth cover ensures that the cables are easy to untangle. Why more manufacturers don’t do this is a mystery to me.
Mic & Controls - 3 out of 5 Light unit. Positioned just under the ear for easy handsfree use. Button sometimes fails to register rapid clicks (skip track).
Sound quality - 4 out of 5 Very good cross-genre reproduction of bass with clean mids and highs.
Durability - 1 out of 5 Sigh. Another headphone that I had to return to Apple three times. First time, the cable came away where the jack meets the iPhone, the second and third, where the microphone meets the headset cable.
Microphonics - 2 out of 5 The wider than normal cables generated a lot of tapping.
Cord tangling - 4 out of 5 On the other hand, the wider than normal cables rarely tangle.
Mic & Controls - 3 out of 5 Light, split unit. Mic positioned just under the ear for easy handsfree use. Controls placed under the left/right cord split. Sometimes hard to grab for without looking.
Sound quality - 5 out of 5 Apart from also making the attenuators that allow me to leave the house on a daily basis without losing my mind, ER make consistently high-quality products. I still use a pair or ER 6is that I bought to use with my first iPod many years ago––there is still little sign of wear and tear. What ER sets out to do is reproduce your music perfectly. That’s an important thing to note, because most manufacturers tend to add a little warmth here, or a little extra bass there. If you’re listening to low-quality MP3s, ER earphones are not going to be apologetic about reproducing every nasty compression artifact (clicks, cheeps, or beeps). Re-digitise your music at a higher quality, or the HF2s aren’t worth investing in. If you like classical music, prefer to be blown away.
Durability - 5 out of 5 Etymotic build quality is astounding.
Microphonics - 4 out of 5 Thin cables avoid microphonics.
Cord tangling - 2 out of 5 The thin cables can snag. The only downside to an otherwise excellent earphone.
Mic & Controls - 4 out of 5 Large, yet light unit. Positioned just under the ear for easy handsfree use.
Sound quality - 4 out of 5 These are the best of the group, by far, if you listen to a lot of rock, pop, or alternative. Guitar-heavy work sounds wonderful and bass is heavy without being overwhelming.
Durability - 4 out of 5 I’ve only had them for a month, but so far, I’m very impressed.
Microphonics - 4 out of 5 Although the cables are reasonably wide, they seem to produce less noise than the UEs.
Cord tangling - 4 out of 5 Relatively snag-free, even if wound, carefree into their carrying case.
Mic & Controls - 2 out of 5 This handsets only downfall. Unit is positioned at the left/right cord split. This might make the unit more durable against accidental cord tugs, but it means you need to lift the unit to your mouth to avoid your friends hearing it bounce against your clothes as you walk. If you have the need for more hands-free talking than just listening, then this might not be the unit for you.
Functions supported: Mic, play/pause, volume.
Given that most people aren’t going to be listening to the Apple Lossless Codec on their iPhones (in which case I’d go with the Etymotics), the Klipsch Image S4is emerge the winner.
Note: If you aren’t an iPhone owner it’s worth mentioning that, with the exception of Apple, each of the models above is available as a slightly different model number without the microphone and controller.
Footnotes: *(1) I am, in fact, a Super-Hearo –– thanks, again, for that, Amanda. In real terms, the portion of my hearing condition attributed to super-hearing is called Hyperacusis. Out of four categories, I’m number three.
*(2) Probably something involving bats, or dolphins.
*(3) Does that fabric rustle too much? Does that pen scratch when I’m writing with it? Do I like this band enough to go through the mostly unpleasant experience of seeing them live? Will the leather soles on those shoes make too much noise when I walk? Should I walk two blocks out of my way because there are fewer people walking their (potentially) barking dogs? Will that new restaurant have favourable acoustics? When I’m there will it be quieter to eat the fish, or the soup? Is it be better to leave a restaurant five minutes after sitting down with friends because It’s uncomfortable, or sit there quietly, pretending everything is fine, just to feel like I’m still part of the human race?
*(4) The new ‘Home Sharing’ feature doesn’t accomplish what I need it to and I’m not quite ready to commit to a NAS solution until better support for 64 bit Apple file protocols comes along. When it does, it will probably be something a little along the lines of this.
*(5) I even tried writing an AppleScript that passed the songs through Apple’s Soundtrack software, removing tracks that hit certain frequencies, but it reduced the amount of songs in my library to less than 500. I wasn’t going to accept that.
*(6) If you want to take things to the next level, you can purchase a set of headphones with ‘active noise cancellation.’ Active noise cancelling technology employs the skills of hundreds of little magic pixies who listen to the sound around you, filtering out any unpleasantness through the wings of butterflies so it doesn’t reach your eardrum. Bose makes the reasonably sounding, if a little expensive, Bose QuietComfort 15 Accoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones.
*(7) The iPhone is a wonderful device for someone with my particular hearing issues. Not only can I rate my music on the go, but I can use Sound Curtain, an adaptive noise cancelling application to cancel out the noise around me.
*(8) Above $150, the difference between models becomes more and more negligible. Also, you generally need to be listening to uncompressed audio to notice the difference.