Improving Apple's In-Ear 'Buds

Although Apple has shipped run-of-the-mill earbuds with every iPod since the very first models in 2001, last year the company began offering -- as a $39 accessory -- their In-Ear Headphones as an audio upgrade. Like Sony's MDR-EX71, the In-Ear Headphones are in the middle ground between the iPod's stock earbuds and more expensive in-ear-canal headphones such as those from Etymotic and Shure. (See our reviews of these other canalphones in the headphone reviews section.) According to Apple , the In-Ear Headphones "have great sound quality and bass response." According to us ? Well, sort of. But their less-than-impressive performance isn't the fault of the headphones themselves; rather, it's due to the nearly useless rubber eartips Apple includes.

Performing Seal

Like the Sony MDR-EX71, Apple's In-Ear Headphones are supposed to provide better sound by sealing off the ear canal, much like an earplug. To accomplish this goal, Apple provides three pairs of soft rubber tips (Apple calls them caps ) of varying sizes; you use the size that best fits your ears. And I can confirm that if you get a good seal in your ear canal, the In-Ear models offer better sound than the iPod's stock 'buds.

Unfortunately, that's a big "if." I've found it nearly impossible to get such a seal, let alone sustain it for more than a few minutes or movements of the jaw. (Opening and closing your mouth changes the shape of your ear canals, making it difficult for poorly fitting earplugs or canalphones to seal.) Although the MDR-EX71 aren't leaps and bounds better, they are better, at least at getting the fit right.

Shure Fit

In fact, I was about to write off Apple's In-Ear Headphones completely when, by chance, I noticed something: Shure's $100 E2c canalphones and Apple's In-Ear headphones appeared to have approximately the same size "stem" (the part of the earpiece that fits inside the tips). On a whim, I decided to do my best Dr. Frankenstein imitation, replacing Apple's flimsy rubber eartips with foam eartips from the Shure E2c. Much to my surprise, the Shure eartips fit perfectly. (They also add a bit of color -- the Shure tips are orange.)

But more impressive than the fit was what the Shure tips did to the performance of Apple's In-Ear models. Because the Shure tips are foam, rather than rubber, they expand in your ears to form a solid seal in your ear canals, thus blocking out much more more external sound than Apple's tips. Even better, the sound quality improved by leaps and bounds. Part of this is surely due to the fact that by blocking so much external sound, you're better able to hear what Apple's headphones can really do. But the other part is that, as with all canalphones, creating a good seal increases bass response significantly (perhaps too much for some people, but most will likely prefer the increase).

Granted, my new Franken-phones don't outperform canalphones from Etymotic and Shure: Although they provide more bass than Shure's $100 E2c and Etymotic's $130 ER-6 and $140 ER-6i, they're still a bit tinny in the treble compared to these models and they have a bit of bloat in the upper bass. But my Apple/Shure hybrids cost just over $50: $40 for Apple's headphones and $12 for a package of 10 Shure tips. And they block more external noise and, to my ears, sound quite a bit better than Sony's popular $40 EX71.

Sound Advice

If you're looking for a great set of travel headphones, or just a way to listen to music in a near-silent cocoon at your desk, canalphones are the way to go. And at only $50, I haven't found a better low-cost option than the Apple In-Ear Headphones with Shure replacement tips. Let's hope someone at Apple reads this article -- with a simple tweak like this, Apple could make the In-Ear Headphones a killer bargain instead of a disappointment.

(You can purchase Shure's replacement eartips at any Shure retailer, or by going to www.shure.com/earphones/eseries_accessories.asp -- scroll down to "E2c Foam Sleeves." Like Apple's own tips, the Shure foam tips are available in three sizes. Shure also offers E2c "flex sleeves," which are made of stiff rubber. These tips last longer than foam, and also fit Apple's headphones, but some people don't get as good a fit with them. I personally prefer the foam models.)

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