Since 1979, we’ve had a problem. Back then, Sony debuted a bulky but wonderful new widget called the Walkman. Folks everywhere slowly latched onto the product, which cut the cord between them and their “stereos.” Nowadays, most of us own an iSomethings — In my case, it’s three iPods of various vintages.
The Walkman not only made our audio portable but it introduced an ever larger population of consumers to the beauty, or bane, of daily headphone use. The walkcreature phenom also created the ear bud, a hideous invention that should be banned from any discussion of high fidelity music.
Until fairly recently, headphones were generally either cheap and small, such as those nasty ear buds I mentioned, or big and often a bit costly if you wanted high fidelity. In the 1980s, prior research in hearing aids and on–stage monitoring for musicians led to the development of the first high fidelity, in–ear monitors. Over time, improvements have been made and the technology has become widespread to the point where now, most quality headphone manufactures offer one or more in–ear varieties, which I’ll call earphones. Unlike headphones, which sit on or around your outer ears, supra–aural or circumaural respectively, earphones are intra–aural since they sit right in your ear canal. This has several advantages and a few disadvantages.
Why Stick It?
What I think is the most compelling advantage of a properly fitted earphone is the ability to significantly reduce the sound of the world around you, without big, cushy pads or high clamping pressure to seal out noise. For commuters who travel on public transportation or road warriors who often are in the air, this is a beautiful thing. Whereas “noise cancelling” headphones have active electronics that attempt to reduce the perception of ambient noise, always with limited success as it’s an imperfect solution, earphones physically block outside sound from reaching your ear drums in the first place. Because of that, you can listen at significantly reduced playback volumes, which means less long–term hearing loss.
Their small size and light weight relative to most headphones also contribute to their comfort. In addition, intra–aural phones are very hat-friendly, easily residing under a tuque, ear muffs, deerstalker or helmet, something that can’t be said for headphones. Finally, with proper fitting, earphones can also yield serious bass. That beefy low end response is something usually found lacking with ear buds and many open-air headphones. Unlike speakers, which launch their energy into your whole body, ’phones won’t provide any perceivable bass below about 40 Hz so, don’t expect the pant-flapping and gut-churning low end you’d get from a properly set up subwoofer.
The complaint I most often hear about earphones also has to do with comfort, or lack thereof…Some people are not content with something stuck in their ears for a prolonged period of time. I must say that this is often associated with either improper fitting or, experience using “memory foam” ear plugs which can press aggressively against your ear canal and cause discomfort. Another downside with earphones is hygiene or, yes, lack thereof…Specifically, how often you clean your ears! Some of us are prodigious cerumen producers and some are not. With earphones, you’ll be reminded daily of your aural hygiene habits. More on waxy buildup later…
The last down side I’ll mention is, with earphones, I can often hear my pulse behind the music during quiet passages, especially during exercise. If you stick your little fingers in your ears in a quiet location after jogging, you’ll probably hear what I mean. Not a biggie but, something to consider.
For this article, I’ve chosen as earphone examples two moderately priced but very hi–fi products from companies with very differing views of what’s “right.” They are contemporaries, from old, very well respected firms. In the German corner, we have Sennheiser electronic GmbH & Co. KG, a manufacturer of audio gear since 1946 and maker of some of my favorite microphones. In the American corner, we have Klipsch Group, a loudspeaker manufacturer also since 1946. The first professional recording studio I worked in had a Klipschorn in each of its four corners for glorious quad playback…w00t! Each firm is quintessentially true to their home country and their products reflect that background.
So, on to the earphones themselves…First, Sennheiser’s IE7:
Remember I mentioned that earphones were first popularized by musicians for their on–stage monitoring? Well, to prevent “handling noise,” transmitting the physical vibrations resulting from jiggling, rubbing or tugging on the wires attached to each ’phone, musicians wear their ’phones with the wire wrapped over and around their outer ears, with the wires trailing off toward the back. This allow the outer ear to act a shock and vibration absorber for noise traveling up the earphone cable. The Sennheisers are designed to be worn this way: up, over and back. The Sennheisers have another small but important design detail. The plug is a right angle style, which means it lies parallel to the case of your portable player rather than sticking out where it’ll get some serious abuse.
On to the Klipschs…
As you can see from the photos, the Klipsch Image X10i looks different from other in–ear phones. Each ’phone has a curved, almost wand–like appearance. This shape is a boon since it makes the ’phones easy to grasp. Their shape and length also make them easy to wear “down,” like an ear bud, or “up and over,” like a pro. They are also, strictly speaking, a headset in that they include not only an in–line microphone but a 3 button control designed to drive around your iPod without fishing it out of hiding. The high quality microphone let’s you take calls, record voice memos or measure just how loud your subway ride to work is.
A word about comfort…Klipsch provides adapters that are oval rather than round. This seemingly simple but unique innovation means, for me at least, a very comfortable fit since my ear canals are themselves oval. Your mileage may vary on this but, it delivers for me. That said, the Klipschs are not recommended for those who are squeamish about sticking things in their ear. Due to their shape, you can really shove them in tightly. Not far enough to cause damage but, maybe a bit too far for comfort. Also, if you purchase a pair, be sure to rotate the adapters so they line up with the particulars of your ears. The IE7s, due to their shape, can’t be pushed too far into your ear canal as the outer ear prevents it.
Remember the waxy buildup I mentioned? The “throat” of the Sennheisers have a similar design to my Skullcandys. A tiny, fine wire mesh, think cheese grater for mice, is positioned in from the earphone’s opening. This may be a bit of a pain when cleaning. The Klipschs have an open throat, making cleaning a good bit faster and easier though I haven’t had to clean either after several month’s use.
Enough with the mechanics, you say, “How do they sound?” Starting again with the Sennheiser IE7s: A warm, dark timbal presentation, a plush sound with silky and deceptively extended highs. The Sennheisers have a prominent low end, with a bit of upper mid emphasis around 135 Hertz that imparts either a subjectively big bottom or a touch of tubbiness, depending on your taste. These are not your father’s Sennheisers! They do convey excellent detail, along with an outstanding balance from middle frequencies to high.
On the “Chichina” track from Gustavo Santaolalla’s The Motorcycle Diaries compact disc, there’s some brief distortion in the left channel starting at 0:51 that is easily discerned with the Sennheisers and largely lost in the mix with the Klipschs. On Neil Young’s “Southern Man” from his After The Goldrush CD, the Sennheisers clearly convey that lovely boxy kick drum and overall acoustic space the whole kit lived in. The IE 7s easily impart the texture and seductive vocal richness of Marta Gómez’s “Lucia,” from her album Entre Cada Palabra (96 kHz/24 bit FLAC). Overall, I’d characterize the Sennheiser IE7s as having a bold “Euro” sound.
Unlike the Sennheisers, which deliver at arm’s length, the Klipschs have a more forward presentation, with a less dark high end and a good overall balance across the audio spectrum. The Klipschs provide what I’d call an honest rendition of the music, without obvious hype. Some folks might deem the X10i a tad thin but I hear plenty of bottom. To me, the low end is realistic and, as such, more reserved than the IE7.
Their slightly prominent midrange response allowed me to notice, for the first time after many previous listenings, a resonant buzz in the right channel at the end of Tift Merrit’s “Keep You Happy” from her album, Another Country (44.1/16 WAV). On the Conga King’s “Tumbao de Tamborito” (96/24 FLAC), the clear mids and capable transient response telegraphs Mario Rivera’s saxophone with just the right bite and timbre. The Image X10i’s voicing reminds me of my reference “cans,” a pair of Etymotic ER•6s. The Klipschs do seem to have a slight peak around 2.6 kHz that provides either a touch of added detail or brashness, again depending on your taste. In general, the X10i delivers a thoroughly “American” hi–fi sound.
To investigate both earphones’ ability to dig into a mix, I cued up The Voluntary Butler Scheme’s cheeky track “Trading Things In” from their new release, At Breakfast, Dinner, Tea (44.1/24 WAV). It’s a fairly dense mix, dare I say cluttered, and the Klipschs beautifully rendered the synth growl and hand claps, while the Sennheisers democratically let me know where everything sat in the mix without bringing any one instrument forward except, ahem, the kick drum.
If you were expecting a clear champion, sorry, I’ll have to disappoint you. As with loudspeakers and phono cartridges, earphones are transducers. All transducers are difficult to design and always exhibit the sonic signature of their maker. Such is the case with these two products. Both are comfortable, affordable, and very high fidelity for their price. They’re both well made and rugged but do require maintenance and a bit of upkeep, though much less than your pet gerbil. Yes, for the truly obsessed or those with capacious pockets, there are even better examples but both are an infinite improvement over ear buds and also a step up when compared to many supra and circumaural headphones.
The Sennheisers are good for musicians and folks who appreciate detailed sound with a touch of extra subjective bottom, all in a bulletproof case. The Klipschs are good for commuters and iPhone/iPod Touch addicts who appreciate a clear and balanced sound with excellent convenience. Both of these little doodes are very high quality, and both provide better clarity, lower distortion, improved transient response and a greatly extended high end over less expensive earphones. Be advised: they both are low impedance and so are not a good match for some tube headphone amps that like to be presented with higher loads.
Pluses & Minuses for both ’phones:
• Have excellent isolation
• Have extended low end
• Provide single and double flange adapters in S, M & L sizes
• Carry a 2 year warranty
Sennheiser IE 7 pluses:
• Beautiful high end
• Quite comfortable
• Right angle plug
• Sturdy crushproof case
• Over–ear wire keeper “hooks” included
• No microphone, transport or volume controls
• Slightly exaggerated bottom
• Fussy case design
Klipsch Image X10i pluses:
• Very comfortable
• Microphone + transport & volume controls
• Easy to use case
• Two prong airline adapter
• Can be used over–the–ear or “down”
• Straight plug
• Mids a bit forward
• Case not crushproof
Using all headphones and earphones requires a dose of good ol’ common sense. As the Sennheiser user manual says, “Do not wear the ear canal phones in an environment that requires your special attention.” Vehicles, chain saws, Barbie dolls and other dangerous weapons require total situational awareness and earphones are not part of that equation.
Wrap It Up!
The holidays are creeping up on us and I, for one, am always on the lookout for gifts that don’t require batteries and continue to offer long lasting value. For that music lover on your list, a pair of either the IE 7 or Image X10i would be just the ticket. Though in–ear phones these days can go for over $1000, even the moderately priced choices discussed here may be too rich for your blood. If that’s the case, consider Sennheiser’s new CX 880i headset, Apple’s in–ear headset, or Skullcandy’s Titan in exchange for higher distortion, limited frequency range and more sluggish transient response.
In case you were wondering, review gear for this article consisted of Apple’s “3,1” Mac mini with 4 GB RAM, Sonic Studio’s Amarra version 2.1 beta in cache mode and, for DACs, Antelope’s ZODIAC+ and Sonic Studio’s Model 302+2d. Many thanks to Klipsch and Sennheiser for answering my persnickety questions, and to HDTracks.com and PTV Records for providing listening material.
Sennheiser Electronic Corp.
1 Enterprise Drive
Old Lyme CT 06371
Klipsch Group, Inc.
3502 Woodview Trace
Indianapolis IN 46268