Hand up those of you who still use the set of white earbuds that shipped with your iPod or iPhone. Just as I thought – a lot of you. They’ve gone through a few revisions to get the size right, and to add remotes or microphones, but they’re still the cheapest that Apple can get away with.
One of the main problems is their lack of clarity, which forces you to pump up the volume to hear everything you need to hear. This, fairly obviously, is bad for your hearing over the long term.
So we’ve done the most extensive Australian Macworld Lab Test ever, calling in 24 sets of earphones of different types from $19.95 to $689.
I’ve been using the Bose In-Ear v2s for a few years now, and rate them very highly, so I grabbed the new, improved set out of the box and used them as the benchmark for this Lab Test.
To level the playing field, and to represent the general use they’ll get, all the earphones were tested on an iPhone 3GS and using a mix of music tracks that would test their strengths and weaknesses across the board: Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, for its range and depths hidden to inferior earphones or speakers; Andreas Wollenweider’s Book of Roses for sound effects that, again, can be easily missed; Fatboy Slim’s Wonderful Night, because it sounds strident if your earphones can’t handle treble properly, and beautifully warm if they can; Them Crooked Vultures’ No One Loves Me & Neither Do I, for a bit of rock and bass; and Autumn Leaves by Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, for some mid-range tenor sax and to see how the earphones handle the positions of a jazz quintet.
Most of the brands represented here make a range of earphones, so if we’ve reviewed a set with a microphone it doesn’t mean there isn’t a ‘plain’ set available. Many brands supplied a few sets for us to choose from, so the choices here were made simply to get a good balance across the price ranges.
More than any other products, earphones seem to have the wildest price variations at retail. As always, we’ve given the recommended retail prices as supplied by the manufacturer or distributor, but the street prices should be below this – and well below, in some cases.
As an example, the most expensive pair of earphones here – the Shure SE530s – have an RRP of $689, but can be picked up for as little as $449.
We’ve placed an emphasis on cable noise (or microphonics) as the great sound of many earphones is spoilt by the supremely irritating noise caused by moving or touched cables. Many sets lost points because of it.
Finally, a word about the mouse ratings here. We’ve split the earphones into three price brackets, so the rating of each product applies to that price bracket only. In other words, don’t expect a four-mouse set in the sub-$50 bracket to be the equal of a four-mouse product in the over-$200 section.
This Lab Test originally appeared in the June issue of Australian Macworld magazine.