iPod Headphones

Because I was not satisfied with the quality of the earbuds provided with the iPod, I searched for new headphones. On this page I'd like to share my observations.

Summarized, if you want earbuds I would recommend the Etymotic ER-4P. For open headphones I would advice the Sennheiser HD 497.


iPod earbuds. I'm not such an advocate of earbuds, because they must be fitted perfectly to give some bass and treble. If you press and move the iPod earbuds in a good position (in my case the wires should be directed horizontally away from my face), they sound about acceptable, although they lack quite some quality in the treble region, are a bit harsh/shrill, and have no punchy bass. The earbuds will not stay in their optimal position during movement, resulting in degraded performance. During my encoding experiments, they also failed to reveal differences between the higher bitrate encodings.

Sennheiser MX400. I've could also have a look (listen) to the Sennheiser MX400. Although already a lot better than the iPod earbuds (more dynamic, more punch), their treble and accuracy are far below the Sennheiser HD497 or the Etymotics.

I can imagine people being attracted to these headphones, because they sound very "fat", but they miss the delicacy needed to reproduce acoustical or vocal music, and sound oppressive at louder volume levels. Not my cup of tea.

Sony MDR-E888LP. In a nutshell, I think these earbuds sound very bad in combination with the iPod (sorry to be not so nice to people who own one). Despite their € 79 price tag, they don't deliver substantial more performance (if any) than the iPod earbuds. The Sony is harsh, oppressive, lacks decent and refined treble, and has no bass whatsoever. I also double checked with the output of my CD player, just to be sure, but there it performed bad as well. On some websites it is said that the Sony needs time to "break in". Although I think this can help a bit, I've never seen situations in audio where breaking in implies crucial changes in sound characteristics, and has more to do with getting used to the sound.

In-ear buds

Etymotic ER-4P. To be very short about the Etymotic ER-4P: very convincing. The first notes of whatever music you play suck you into the music. There are details everywhere, the atmosphere is right, the positioning of instruments in the 2D/3D sound stage is right, the pace & rhythm is there, the bass though a bit thin is under extreme control, voices are mellow / detailed / transparant / brilliant at the same time, dynamics are there, there is rest, etc. etc. These things are really good. I'm immediately involved in the musical happening, fully relaxed. This is supported by many reviews (see iPodlounge, BestStuff, FirstScience, enjoy the music, enjoy the music again, epinions, audioreview, multimedian, Jacobsen, ZDNet, the gadgeteer, forbes, multimedian, an overview of reviews at Etymotic, and probably many more).

First of all, the insertion of the Etys deep in your ears feels a bit weird. It wouldn't be my definition of being comfortable, but you get used to this feeling very fast (see headphone for some tips). The first day a bit painful (mainly because you need to find out how to use them), after 1 or 2 days of use you don't even notice them in your ears. The sound isolation is good. You can hardly hear a conversation among two people, and once with a take-off in an airplane with a slow Diana Krall song, this gave a very surealistic impression. If you play music, even at lower levels, the common surrounding noise is gone, hence not suitable for on-the-move. Moving the cable is fairly audible, but it's not a big issue, as you can attach the cable with a plug. Some even put the cable over their ears. My only worry about the Etys was the fact that they close the ears for longer times. I've asked Etymotic about this issue, and the following reply shows there is nothing to worry about:

"Occluding the ear canal with an earphone, earplug, or hearing aid will not cause infections in a healthy ear.  It is possible they can aggravate the situation in an already unhealthy  ear.  If you do not experience ear infections currently, the use of earphones like the ER-4P will not cause an infection even when used for long periods of time.  If you have a history of ear infections or other ear pathology you should consult your physician to determine if there any risks you need to be aware of."

Compared to my Sennheiser HD 497, the Ety's are more "dry", more to-the-point, and much more involving. They especially excel in voices, and midtones. For instance, snare drums are a pleasure, way more than "just a beat". The Sennheisers are more mellow, easier. Though there is more bass on the Sennheiser, it is "muddy" and out of control (though it is already good compared to other regular headphones), which affects timing, pace and rhythm. With the Sennheiser positioning of sound sources is less accurate, the treble is less refined, and overall it is less accurate, less involving, more fuzzy and confusing. Don't get me wrong, the Sennheiser is a very good quality headphone, and you'll become a very happy iPod user with them. But the Etymotic is performing better on most aspects, and for most music. They are more explicit and clear about anything you reproduce. Maybe a good electrostatic headphone, a Sennheiser HD600, or a Beyerdynamic 990 might achieve the same type of quality (or better?), but they cannot be driven with the iPod, so this is not relevant for my purpose. The efficiency of the Etymotics ER-4P fit the iPod perfectly.

I've also tried the ER-4P to ER-4S cable. The drop in efficiency is obvious, but overall it is loud enough (you need to get rid of the European volume reduction though, see goPod). With the ER-4S cable, the ER-4P sounds more refined. Treble is singing more, and is more coherent overall. Also the bass is a bit more refined and deep (which might be associated with the drop in bass output of the headphone output when driven with low impedances). When removing the cable, it is like you suffer from a cold where your ears are blocked a bit, changing the characteristics of the sound experience. A more detailed comparison between the ER-4P and ER-4S is published on Head-Fi.

The price of the Etys, US$330, is quite high in absolute sense. But this is a general problem regarding high-end audio. For the last bits of quality, you'll have to pay more than just twice as much. I can imagine not everybody is willing to spend US$330 on headphones (, but my main conclusion is that if you're looking for the ultimate result out of your iPod and you're concerned about the finishing touch, the Etys are worth every penny. I would buy the ER-4P in combination with the conversion cable. It gives you the choice for efficiency and prefered sound characteristics.

I bought my ER-4P and ER-4P to ER-4S conversion cable together for $270 at iDealSound, with good service and support, but current pricing is reported to be $330. Also at the earplugstore you could find them cheaper, but obviously Etymotic is pressing people to sell at the suggested retail price, so they don't publish their selling price. I guess asking about the price gives some headroom. At headphone they are sold for $219. Just look at Google or Froogle for recent prices.

There is also a cheaper alternative around, the Etymotic ER-6 (US$139). Some reviews can be found at bbrown, a Dutch comparison to the Sony 888, audioreview, ipoding, and many more. A detailed comparison between the ER-6 and ER-4 is published on Head-Fi, basically saying it is less good than the ER-4P or ER-4S.

Shure also makes in-ear headphones, but according to Dave the ER-4P are better concerning sound quality, though other issues might influence price-value trade-offs. There is also an extensive review on iPodLounge. I guess from these reviews you can conclude the Shures sound more juicy, but probably less accurate. Haven't heard hem myself, so I have no clue, but I would to review them (and trade them for my Etys if these are better!).

For some tips about the Etys, look at fixup, or at Linkwitz.

Open headphones

Philips HP-890. I bought this headphone for about € 68 one year ago, to use with my iBook. Despite the size and weight, the comfort of this headphone is very good, one of the best I ever tried. You can leave it on your head for hours, without any fatigue.

The Philips sounds quite nice, but has an interesting frequency response. It has some emphasis on the 8kHz range, which on a computer can be compensated a bit with an equalizer. It has a strong punchy bass, but only in the very low bass region. Base drums are not so strong, as you would like for disco/funk. The treble is clean, but a bit on the harsh side due to the emphasis in the 8kHz range. Voices are a bit shallow, and miss body. I would call it a warm-toned headphone, a bit on "the dark side". It has an nice diffuse field, but at the expense of some dynamics (all music is "far away"). Seperation of sound sources is very good. The sound pressure achieved with the iPod is OK (109dB/mW, 32 Ohm).

Overall it's a quite nice headphone, especially considering the price, but it is not suitable for tranport, which is one of the constraints for an iPod headphone. Luckily, I could make one of my friends happy with it, to replace his broken AKG 240 Studio Monitor.

Sennheiser HD 497. The Sennheiser, € 69, was a pleasant suprise to me. Normally I'm not so enthousiastic about Sennheiser headphones (their treble is always very grainy and harsh, and they lack body in the sound making them very thin and uninvolvong), but this one is an exception. The strongest point is its "rhythm and blues", it swings directly out of the box. It has a decent bass, deep and strong, and it has quite some body. Treble is good on attack (e.g. strings of acoustic guitars, harpsicord), but lacks a bit on decay (e.g. cymbals) and finesse. Treble is also a bit emphasized, maing the headphone sound very brilliant, but on some music this becomes too much. There is not so much spatial information, everything is quite close to the ear, although with classical music in orchestral halls the spatial info is OK. Because the Sennheiser is quite efficient (112dB/mW, 32 Ohm), it can go quite loud with the iPod, even with the EU volume restriction. It is compatible with a large range of music styles, which for me is a pro, because I like classical renessaince music to techno pop (my music taste can best be described by "introvert", if this gives you a clue).

Compared to other headphones, you can hear that the Sennheiser is a bit emphasized on the mid-lower treble, and probably the high-efficiency transducers break up in that range (non-linear distortions, exposed by a somewhat oppresive sound). Loud female voices make you lower the volume, although the iPod earbuds are even much worse in that domain. The headphone also clamps quite strongly on the ear, so after an hour you'll need a rest.

Overall I like this headphone a lot. I liked it so much, that I took a second one (see the Sony MDR-E888LP earbud section for the reason) for usage at my work place, without having to transport it on my bicycle. To my suprise, this second Sennheiser sounded completely different (it was the demonstration version of the shop) from my first one. It had a small deficiency in the left channel (it was less loud in the treble), and it sounded a bit mellow and hollow. Strange...

Something I forgot to mention is a remark about the long cable delivered with the Sennheiser. For usage with a fixed audio set, a few meter from your favourite chair, I can imagine the advantage of such a cable, but for portable usage the cable is constantly mangled, which is very irritating. Accordig to the shop, a shorter cable doesn't exist. A replacement cable (which I could change by soldering a new 3.5" cinch plug onto) would cost €25. Yes, €25 for a simple cable with 2 plugs. RIDICULOUS!!!


If you want to have more in to depth information about headphones first, take a look at Headwize.

Some links to other headphone reviews:

© Copyright 2003, Marc Heijligers