Headphones

Some of my most prolific writing gets done in the air. Perhaps it’s because I have so much free time (at least until they install in-flight internet connections) – or perhaps it’s precisely the opposite; that I have plenty of work to do but can’t bring myself to start it on the plane. Either way, there’s always a lot to write about for such an apparently uneventful few hours.

REVIEW: Shure e2c noise-isolating headphones

I own the newest generation iPod, and was one of the first people in the UK to buy the first generation. I can tell the difference between 128 and 192kbps encoded mp3s. The fact that I even know what 128kbps means puts me aside from most consumers. The industry term is ‘early adopter’. That said, I’m by no means an audiophile; I don’t use non-lossy compression formats and until now I’ve happily used headphones that could be bought for less than £10 at any electronics shop. In other words, I’m writing this review as someone who has an above-average awareness of music technology, but not as someone who spends hundreds or thousands of pounds on hifi systems – or even wants to.

It first occurred to me that I might want to replace Apple’s standard iPod headphones after listening to music on my iPod for about 30 hours in a single week; you can say what you like about PhD students, but they’re certainly capable of putting the hours in when necessary, as long as they have adequate musical distraction. The headphones seemed acceptable to me but they became a little uncomfortable after a few hours, and after hearing legions of musicians slate their quality, I was convinced that there must be some better way of listening to music.

Portability is a must for me, so I immediately ignored the usual earmuff-style headphones. This limited my options to the in-ear headphones, headphones which you insert into your ear canal. This is not as horrible as it sounds, and in fact it’s a much more comfortable and secure solution than normal earbud headphones. It’s also necessary if you want to get decent isolation from outside noise without using earmuffs.

There are a few companies that make in-ear headphones. Sony is the most obvious choice with their MDR-71SL headphones. Reviews are generally positive of Sony’s offering given the low price, but they’re agreed to be on the low end of the range. Higher-end manufacturers include Shure and Etymotic, who sell headphones costing up to several hundred dollars; now, I might be gadget-mad but there’s no way I’m going to spend more than, say, $100 on a pair of headphones.

This condition limited me to just one option, Shure’s e2c headphones. Lest it seem that I bought those particular headphones out of necessity, Shure are a very well regarded company that sells professional-grade studio equipment such as microphones, so I wasn’t exactly upset. The headphones, at a bit under $100, are at the low end of their consumer-grade in-ear headphone range, which also includes the e3c and e5c (the ‘c’ stands for consumer. I have no idea how much the professional headphones cost). The entire range is reviewed very favourably, and inevitably the e3c and e5c are rated higher than the e2c, commensurate with their inflated prices.

Enough of the other reviews though – what do I think of them? Well, I received the headphones a few weeks ago and have been using them on and off in various surroundings – at home, on the train, on a coach, in a noisy airport lounge and now in a plane. In short, I’ve been very satisfied with them. I did not put them on for the first time and immediately exclaim, ‘Why, it’s like a whole new listening experience!’ (as I was admittedly expecting). However, I did put them on and fail to hear anything else whatsoever other than the music. These headphones might not be noise cancelling, but they are noise isolating and as far as I’m concerned they amount to the same result for far less outlay.

I’ve sat at home using the headphone at a normal volume and completely failed to notice one of my housemates moving in. In every single situation I’ve used the headphones other than the plane*, I haven’t been able to hear any noise. What’s more, the sound is much crisper and the bass more distinct than on other headphones I’ve used.

*Sitting here above the Atlantic, I am aware of a low-frequency rumbling. I find it difficult to believe that any headphones could stop the conduction of noise from the plane, through my seat and my spine up to my ears.

Clearly the ability to shut out all external noise is not always desirable. I wouldn’t recommend wearing the headphones while cycling or driving or in any situation where it might be useful to hear what’s going on around you. I would recommend them for anyone who does a reasonable amount of commuting and wants to be able to shut out the voices of the noisy tourists in the row ahead talking about how quaint Oxford is. The Shure e2c in-ear noise isolating headphones are aimed at a very specific niche market – those people who care enough about their music to pay more than usual, but not quite enough to pay for the really good headphones. In other words, they’re very good mid-range headphones that are ideal for commuting and produce excellent isolation and respectable sound quality.

PACKAGING

The headphones come in a plastic container that is impossible to open without physically destroying it. Once opened, you have the headphones and three different sizes of earbud that you place on the head of the headphones, depending on your ear size. I find the small size fits me best although I hear the medium size is more average, and indeed some people apparently have different sized ears. There are also three pairs of foam ear buds, made from the same material as earplugs (the spongy stuff). I haven’t used these yet since they seem a bit of a hassle to me and I’m fine with the normal rubber buds, but I imagine that they provide slightly better isolation since they expand to fill the diameter of your ear canal.

A fabric-covered plastic carrying case is thoughtfully supplied with the headphones and is a very compact way of carrying the headphones around safely.

Putting the headphones on for the first time is an interesting experience. You loop the headphone cables behind your ears and then slide the earbuds in. This may take a few attempts, and it will feel weird. After that it becomes very easy to pop them in and out and you begin to feel a real sense of auditory superiority as you walk around in them, narrowing avoiding buses and taxis blaring their horns at you. As you can see from photos, the headphones have an external driver that sits outside your ear canal. They are no less comfortable for this, but they are definitely much more stylish. Plus, it sets you apart from the crowd of iPod users (who to this day still persist in ostentatiously waving their iPods around and wearing their headphone wires *outside* their T-shirts).

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