Thursday, August 11, 2011

Earphone test (Sony, Shure, Ultimate Ears, etc.)

The Sony earphones

The story started when I've tried out my girlfriend's brand new earphones (Sony MDR-EX50LP). I was very much impressed how these small devices fit into the ear and how clear the bass was. I had good headphones by that time (Sennheiser HD 25-1 II), but the bass in my ears sounded way better, so I immediately wanted to have good earphones for myself.

I naively thought that if the cheap Sony is good, then a more expensive one is good, too, so I bought a pair of Sony MDR-EX510s. I did a side-by-side comparison with the EX50s, and it turned out that these earphones have much better characterized highs and mids, but the bass is almost non-existing. Not to mention that the fit is less good than the EX50s even with the same tips.

Basically the EX510 was a deep disappointment, which actually led to a research for good earphones. I started by browsing web forums about these topics, and sought help from my colleagues.

What did I test?

My tests were entirely subjective. For the earphones which I had access just for a short time, I usually listened some of my favorite songs: Like a G6, Crash, Threshold, On the floor, God save the foolish kings, etc. After listening for these songs, I was able to decide whether they worth more testing with other kinds of music or not.

The songs had to sound good on two devices:
  • On my MacBook Pro, in iTunes through Airfoil, with the equalizer set to enhance the bass and the highs.
  • On my Nexus S in the built-in Music app with some tuning in the CyanogenMod DSPManager: extra bass set to Medium and the equalizer set to enhance the bass and the highs.
On the Mac side, there was no problem with the volume for the earphones. On the Android side, the extra bass setting usually limited the maximum volume, because the distortion level became very high when I turned the volume up. I really like the punchy strong base, but I also like the clear mids, highs and the clear separation of the different instruments. This requirement actually very much limited the range of earphones (see below the results).

The devices which I did not manage to get hold of

I've read some earphone reviews, especially on, and based on that, I wanted to try out the following earphones, but I did not manage to get them: Tested, but failed

These are the earphones that I managed to test but I did not find them particularly good. Most of them failed at the first criteria, the volume. I could not make my Android loud enough to have a decent base (with a WOW! factor) and have the rest of the spectrum sound well.
  • Etymotic ER4 PT: I tested it only for a couple minutes in k55. It failed with the volume.
  • Sennheiser IE8: I did not find its sound particularly good. In my short test it had a little bit of a washed out sound, nothing spectacular, I expected much more. The bass was pretty strong, but the whole spectrum was not clear enough, I missed the good separation which I had in my HD-25 headphone. The idea of the bass fine-tuning looked like a good idea for me first, but the fact that you need to use a screwdriver for it made the whole thing useless (it is very hard to do it when its in your ear).
  • Monster Turbine and Monster Turbine Pro Gold: I listened them once only for a short while. Their volume was not particularly good and their quality did not seem to be that great either. On the other hand they are the best-looking earphones I've tested.
  • Shure SE310: The smaller sista' of the SE530. It was not too bad, but the difference between the 530 and 310 was very obvious.
The winners
  • Ultimate Ears 5 Pro: This is a pretty nice earphone with a lot of volume and a lot of bass. I even think that the bass is too much and the treble is not that super clear, but this earphone is definitely one of the best. On the aesthetics side, I think this is the most ugly of all I've tested (I tested the white one), but I think this is something which people can live with. Note, that the fit of the earphone can be problematic for some people, because the tube is pretty wide. I still did not find the perfect tips for this earphone, but so far the Sony's standard medium size tips are the best.
  • Shure SE530: The best of my tests. With 3 small speakers (2 bass and 1 treble), the sound of this earphone is wonderful. After using it for 2 days, I just fell in love with the clarity of the sound and the bass is exactly what I imagined: very strong, powerful but clear, and not too much in quantity. And it has a WOW! factor. The foam tips were also very comfortable, the most comfortable tips I've ever worn. Another thing which is interesting with Shures is that you can buy a PTH (push-to-hear) module for them, which allows you to listen in to the environment when you pushes a button. It is very useful with this level of sound-isolation that these kinds of earphones have.
  • Shure SE535: This is a newer model of the SE530. I did not manage to directly compare them, but I could say similar things about the sound quality. I tested it only for a few hours, but I did not find the fit as good as the 530: the medium foam is smaller and it is too small for me, the large one is too big. I also like the outside look of the 530 better than this. On the positive side, the replaceable cable makes the 535 less prone for cable errors.

I decided to buy an UE 5 Pro as a secondary earphone, and I'm still trying to get a Shure SE530 for a primary one.

Other qualities

I did not test other qualities of the earphones, like sound isolation and cable noise, because I've found the winners pretty good in them. Some of my colleagues mentioned that these can be real issues with some earphones, but I did not have this experience with any of the winners.

To be continued?

There might be more tests following this one, because I've ordered a very small amplifier (FiiO E5), and I might rethink testing the low-volume earphones, including my own Sony SE510. I'll also get a Head-direct RE0 in the next days, which I've read very good reviews about.

Stay tuned, send feedback!

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