Many of you out there undoubtedly own MP3 players. And, judging by the sales numbers, many of you own iPods. Regardless of your brand of MP3 poison, chances are the headphones that shipped with your device are not the best-sounding option out there. That's certainly the case with my iPod, so I went looking for a replacement set of earbuds that might fit a little better and sound a lot better.
The earbuds that shipped with my iPod are passable, but they just don't have the clarity and richness I'm looking for. About 20 years ago I bought a high-end Walkman (AM/FM and cassette, baby!) that came with a very nice set of headphones for the time, but I guess Apple is more interested in saving a few bucks than providing a high-quality set of earbuds. I figured I'd be able to find a good pair of replacement earbuds relatively easily. Boy, was I wrong.
The first thing I learned was that there are 4,295,352 models of headphones, earphones, and earbuds out there, ranging from $5 to $500. Since I'm the type of person who generally believes that you get what you pay for, and because of their stellar reputation for in-ear monitors for musicians, I decided to try Shure's $199 (MSRP) E3c Sound Isolating Earphones (see Figure 1). While the E3c earphones aren't the top of the line, I couldn't justify spending as much for earphones as I did for my iPod. (The E4c lists at $299 and the E5c at $499. I'm sure they're both excellent, but at those prices I'll never know.)
Figure 1 The Shure E3c headphones.
I started out with mixed feelings about the E3cs because of fit-related issues, partially because of their design and partially because of my own physiology. But in the end I was impressed with the earphones' engineering and overall performance. Let's consider a few of the details.
Why would I talk about fit before sound quality? Because, before sound quality means anything, you have to stick these things in your ears. After many hours of listening, I realized how important positioning and fit are for getting good sound out of the E3cs.
The E3cs were rather difficult to insert into my ears at first. They're kind of small (remarkably so, actually) and hard to manipulate with my big fingers, and they're designed to be inserted with the cord over the ear. (By contrast, the cord for the default iPod earbuds simply hangs down out of your ears.) It takes some maneuvering to get these things in with the cord flipped just the right way over your ear, but actually it's a good way to keep the cords out of the way. With practice, the act of putting the E3cs into my ears became second nature and was really no effort at all, but there was a learning curve.
I wasn't inserting the earphones fully into my ears on my first few attempts, and the resulting sound was tinny and transistor radio–like. I soon realized that they weren't inserted properly, so I jammed those bad boys all the way in. Again, the sound was sub-par, but I just couldn't find the sweet spot no matter how much I fiddled with them. I took them out and tried again, and the third time was a charm. I inserted the earphones a little farther than the user manual diagram showed—but not as far as they could go—and was rewarded with amazing sound. I then realized why the E3cs cost almost $200.
The problem was, I couldn't get them to stay in place for very long. After only a few minutes I'd have to adjust them, and sometimes I'd have to pull them all the way out to reinsert them. I tried a few of the extra sleeves provided in the package (see the section "The Goods" for some details) until I came across a size that was a better fit than what I had originally been using, and things became quite a bit better.
Even after weeks of testing, however, I never had a completely trouble-free listening experience. I found the E3cs often needed to be adjusted, especially during any kind of physical activity. I don't know if it was the result of my grimacing, but I couldn't keep them in properly for more than 10–15 minutes at a time at the gym. They mostly stayed put when I wore them around the house, though, or whenever I wasn't lifting heavy objects.
Since I've had trouble getting other earphones and earbuds to fit me correctly, I'm going to give Shure the benefit of the doubt and guess that my own ear shape had something to do with my experience. (Maybe my head is just better suited for headphones.) Still, after using these for a while, I did get much better at putting them in and adjusting them. And after hearing how they sounded when they were inserted correctly, it was worth tinkering a bit to keep that sound.
I also have to say that the long-term comfort of the E3cs was very good. I could wear them for an hour at the gym with no discomfort, and I even wore them for several hours while doing yard work, with no complaints about comfort. Their cord often got in the way (more on that later), but my ears never became sore.
Bottom line: Proper fit is crucial to getting the best sound out of the E3cs, but don't expect to get it perfect right away. Shure offers a 30-day money-back guarantee for their earphones, and I'd recommend taking at least a week to get the hang of inserting these things properly. If you give up too soon, you might miss out on hearing just what they can do.