REVIEWS / Earphones & Earbuds Reviews

Marie Georgescu de Hillerin
We've said it before and we'll say it again: you need to replace the headphones or earphones that come with most MP3 players and mobile phones! In-ear headphones are an increasingly popular option, and have three big advantages: their fidelity, audio insulation and small size.

The tips at the end of in-ear headphones come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and materials.

In-ear headphones are designed to work in a closed system, and need to be perfectly sealed from the outside world to produce bass sounds correctly. You should try several different sizes until you find those that fit the best.

In general, triple flange tips are better than double flange tips, which in turn are better than those with just a single flange. Triple and double flanged tips look like several traditional tips stacked one on top of the other and are better at isolating external noise.

The most comfortable of all use foam, which you'll need to work a little before sliding them into your ear. Once inside, they slowly expand to their old shape, meaning they provide the best possible isolation. Unfortunately, they tend to get dirty quickly and frequently need replacing.

Every time we test portable music players or mobile phones, we end up saying the same thing: the headphones supplied aren't up to the job.  There isn't a single exception, and while replacing them is a good idea if you have an entry-level MP3 player, it's an absolute necessity if you've shelled out for a more advanced device.

The market for headphones for portable devices is divided into three different segments: traditional headphones, more lightweight versions and finally in-ear headphones, that we're looking at here.

What are in-hear headphones?  How are they different from regular headphones?

Unlike standard headphones, in-ear headphones slide into your ear canal.  They're perfectly safe, as long you keep your ears clean.  Depending on how far you push them in, there is sometimes a distinction between semi-in-ear headphones and in-ear headphones, but the difference between the two is really quite minor.  The basic principle is the same as for any device that produces sound: an electric current induces movement, which in turn produces vibrations in the air; changing the electrical signal changes the sound that is produced.

In-ear headphones: the pros

As we said before, in-ear headphones go right inside your ear, and are covered in silicone or rubber, or else tipped with foam.  That means they are much better at isolating you from external noise than other types of headphones.  Only those headphones that use active noise reduction can rival in-ear models, but they're much larger and often produce a gentle hum while they work.

Once you've put them in, you're totally cut off from other sounds around you.  You'll soon get used to not having to listen to the chatter of those around you on the bus or the tube slamming on its brakes.  You can use this to your advantage by playing your music at a lower volume, thus protecting your ears.

In-ear headphones: the cons

This excellent isolation can cause problems precisely because you're cut off from the world around you.  It can be dangerous to use them while you're out and about, and if you're cycling or skating you'll hear almost nothing.  You're much more likely to run into another vehicle—and that's going to hurt!  The same is true if you're out walking or jogging: it's all too easy to find yourselves surprised by a car or a motorbike as you cross a street.

You don't always realise it, but your ears are a valuable source of information, especially in urban areas. So be careful!

Finally, remember that not everybody finds the sensation of having headphones inside their ears particularly pleasant.  Try them out before you buy.

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