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3 February, 2008

How to use in-ear canal headphones

I upgraded my iPod's headphones a few weeks ago.

I hadn't been using the ugly and notoriously mediocre ones which came with the mp3 player, of course, and I wasn't exactly dissatisfied with the Sony 'outer-ear' earphones (these, I think) which have served me well for years, but I'd become aware that their output was audible to others and I suspected their quality could be improved upon.

I specifically didn't want 'proper', ear-enclosing headphones linked by a headband, partly for carrying-conveniece, partly because I don't like wearing them and partly because I simply don't need expensive hi-fidelity headphones: if I listen to music through headphones, it tends to be 192kbps mp3s at work, in the street or whilst moving around my house, rather than CD-quality tracks given my full attention in a darkened room.
Hence, taking advice from experts at the Porcupine Tree Forum (PTF), I selected a pair of Sennheiser CX-300 in-ear canal headphones.

My immediate impression was split:

  • "Wow, these are clear!" Even in the limited circumstances described above, I was inside the music, clearly hearing nuances I hadn't even noticed before. Wonderful.
  • "Wow, these are tinny!" Despite the claim of 'bass-driven sound' on the packaging, my new headphones had a drastically weaker bass response than my (far cheaper) old ones. Disappointing.

Which brings me to the point of this entry: things can be done to optimise the experience, and I'd have been mistaken to dismiss the Sennheisers as a bad buy.

Firstly, speakers need to be broken-in. The effect on in-ear headphones won't be as dramatic as on over-ear headphones or full speakers (i.e. items with larger drivers), but audio quality will increase a short while after one starts to use them, not immediately. The PTF gurus suggest that 20-30 hours should be enough. A recommendation is to leave new headphones attached to a CD player (on repeat) for a few working days, but not to break them in with one continuous session.
Actually, I didn't do that, but I've certainly noticed an improvement with time, and the initial, attention-grabbing tinniness has gone.

Secondly, the fit in one's ear canal is particularly important. Three sizes of rubber sleeves were provided; I found the medium most comfortable, but the larger size provided markedly deeper sound (and isn't uncomfortable). There is a risk of overdoing the effect, and introducing a subtle 'dullness' which might be merely mistaken for a proper bass response. Be careful. I might continue to experiment.


I prefer in-ear headphones for my iPod, but this is mostly because standard earbud headphones don't stay in my ears very well. I assume my ears are non-standard.

The breaking-in is very true - my Philips in-ear headphones started out very tinny but have improved over time. The others that I'd recommend are the Griffin Earthumps (brand name may have changed) although I've found the jacks tend to fail after only a few months.

Posted by Neil T. at February 3, 2008 11:03 PM

Griffin EarThumps! I'd forgotten about them!
Yes, they've been renamed; boringly, to 'TuneBuds'.

Posted by NRT at February 3, 2008 11:47 PM

I have exactly those earbuds and I've found that over time the left earbud starts to become quieter and quieter.

Posted by AKALucifer at February 4, 2008 05:06 PM
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