Earphones for the Discriminating Ear from Etymotic, Shure, Future Sonics, iSkin, & Skullcandy

We have listened to a large number of earphones and headphones, a few of which actually drop the term “audiophile” with varying degrees of accuracy. We have been working on a review of noise-canceling headphones, and the most expensive model we tested, was one of the worst sounding. Of course, we have heard some cheap units that sounded, well -- cheap! In the end, you need to sit down and listen to your own favorite music, with the EQ turned off, and any audio improvement software disabled, before making a headphone purchase. You will note that we urge you to audition them yourself, since fit and feel are a critical aspect of the decision to purchase. Even if an earphone has great sound, it's of little use if they don’t fit you.

One thing is clear: we should be encouraging more people and manufacturers to move away from the Apple-inspired earbud design. Why? It’s not a problem with the sound quality, but rather the need to crank up the volume to hear the music clearly over the din of outside ambient noise. It makes sense that if you hop on a subway car, where you can’t talk to your neighbor without raising your voice, you have to raise the headphone volume to even higher levels to drown out the din. And test after test is showing permanent hearing damage as a result of over amplified headphone sound levels. The answer is to use earphones that seal out the noises of the outside world, allowing you to play music softer with the same apparent level, and usually with an increase in bass and the subtle overtones in the lower registers.

Etymotic ety8

The gold standard for high-fidelity earphones for many folks has been based on the Etymotic design. Etymotic was the original high-fidelity earphone, which fit inside your ear and are rated as top picks by audiophile reviews on a consistent basis. Last year, they introduced the first Bluetooth-compatible earphones, the ety8, which we detailed in an interview with Dr. Mead Killion, the founder of Etymotic, earlier this year. Amazingly, there was no discernible difference between the wired version of the Etymotic earphones and the wireless set, so the company appears to have really done the necessary homework. One suggestion is that the ety8 transmitter/receiver unit that attaches to the dock on your iPod is pretty small and easily lost, so we took to securing ours with a bit of tape to make sure we didn’t lose it. You can control the iPod from the earphone, and I was able to use mine with the built-in Bluetooth on my MacBook Pro, a capability often overlooked. Despite hype from other manufacturers, the ety8 is still the best-sounding Bluetooth earphone we have heard.

Shure SE 310

A couple of new wired earphone models are noteworthy. The new Shure SE 310 earphones offer a warm, rich sound, but at a higher price point. With impeccable fit and finish, one hallmark of the Shure design is the ease of fit. Some of the best earphones are also the most finicky in terms of fit, and we have found that the Shure design is among the least finicky, with a real ease of fit. We found them to have a solid, yet not overbearing low-end response, and at this price point they provide serious competition for other high-end earphones. The soundstage is precise, accurate, smooth, and balanced and we consider them worthy of a serious audition.

Future Sonics Atrio

Another brand that you might not be familiar with, but should be, is Future Sonics. Their newly released Future Sonics Atrio Series earphones have quickly become the favorites of many reviewers. We reviewed the XtremeMac FS1 earphones in the past, which were based upon the Future Sonics technology, one hallmark of which is a rich bass response even at low listening levels. Future Sonics’ background is in professional audio, and accordingly, the Atrio is offered in two models - the M5 and M8. The M5 was designed primarily for live performance monitoring, while the M8 was designed for recording studio and broadcast work. They are identical in terms of their actual components. The differences between the two are the colors and accessories. We found the sound neutral and accurate without any of the sterility that sometimes befalls some earphones that attempt to balance the sound over a range of listening levels. At the same time, these are dead accurate; there is no over-emphasis of the bass response, just a more linear representation. The Atrio series sound good at a wide variety of listening levels, and the cost is lower then many other high-end earphones, and they are offer serious competition. As you might expect, the MG5 Pros come with a set of tips to obtain the best fit, and the build and finish is first-rate. They are a solid improvement over the already highly recommended FS 1 models. The Atria are definitely worth a very serious audition.

iSkin Cerulean F1

In the past months, there have been other Bluetooth units introduced, and one that caught our eyes was the iSkin Cerulean F1 earphone, which have loops that go around your ears. Looks are always subjective, and some of our testers loved the look, and others felt the look a bit too Star Trek-inspired, but the hooks kept them securely positioned. The sound quality wasn’t in the same league at the Etymotic, but was adequate for general use, and with their mono mode option, they can be used with a cell phone, since they also have an internal microphone. We viewed them as a nice mate to your cell phone with a built-in MP3 player, allowing better then average audio, with the ease of Bluetooth and automatic switching into mono mode.

iSkin Cerulean TX+RX

OK, so the Cerulean TX+RX bundle is a set of tiny little transmitter/receivers and not an earphone, but we still thought you might want to know about them. You attach the TX to your iPod or computer, and the RX attaches to your audio system, and you can transmit your music without any wires across the room. The sound quality was very good, and the convenience factor can’t be overstated. The units don’t require batteries and run off the voltage supplied by the units they are attached to. If you are tired of having to physically attach your iPod to your audio system, give the Cerulean TX+RX bundle a look.

Skullcandy Icon

Switching from expensive audio solutions, we hope you won’t mind if we look over in the college bookstores across the country for a moment. If you are in college or have college-aged kids around the house, then you might have seen some very hip looking headphones emblazoned with a chrome skull logo. Nice solid products, great marketing, and a favorite of students everywhere, Skullcandy has quickly built a loyal following. With features such as their Skullcrusher headphones with built-in subwoofers, and DJ style headphones, they are products that you can’t miss. Our favorites are also their least expensive, their Icon line. Molded of flexible plastic, they are built for abuse, are flexible, lightweight, and have a surprisingly open and accurate sound, especially for the price. We recommended the Skullcandy Icon last year as a pick for students on the move and still think they are a great low-cost set of headphones.

Harris Fogel, Posted 12/20/07

For more information on the Etymotic ety8: www.etymotic.com

For more information on the Shure SE 310: www.shure.com

For more information on the Future Sonic Atrio: www.futuresonics.com

For more information on the Cerulean F1: www.iskin.com

For more information on the Cerulean TX+RX bundle: www.iskin.com

For more information on the Skull Candy Icon: www.skullcandy.com