Upgrade Your Ears

Take your iPod listening experience to the next level by upgrading your headphones.

Apple spared no expense when it came to designing and manufacturing the iPod. The outside is stunning and the user interface flawless. You probably remember the first time you opened up the package and gasped at the beauty of it all. Then you put the included Apple earbuds in your ears. For many of us they are too uncomfortable to use, but assuming your ears are the large size that seems to be required, you’ve probably noticed that the sound quality is, well, not good. The sound is tinny and the bass lackluster. Don’t believe me? Just try out any of the headphones or earphones mentioned in this hack. For the technical-minded, make sure to take a look at Headphone.com’s excellent headphone frequency–charting tool (http://www.headphone.com/layout.php?topicID=10), where you can compare and contrast a slew of headphones, including the ones that came with your iPod.

Over-Ear Headphones

In-ear headphones are a relatively recent craze, and the truth is that while old-school headphones might look bulky and cumbersome in comparison, no in-your-ear solution can imitate the audio experience of a good set of over-ear headphones. The ultimate headphone experience for the traveling iPod user is the Bose QuietComfort 2 Noise Canceling Headphones (http://www.bose.com; $299.00). Now, you might be thinking, “$300 for a pair of headphones?!” True, it’s a lot of money. But the iPod set you back a pretty penny, didn’t it? And you probably bought it because it blows away the competition in terms of design, features, and functionality. Well, if you’ve invested that much in the device that plays your music, investing a little (okay, a lot) more in the device that helps you hear your music should be worth it too.

The Bose headphones use an acoustic noise-canceling technology to help protect your ears, and your music, from outside noise. The technology works by electronically identifying and reducing the unwanted noise around you. They work by generating counter-noise to the white noise around you, effectively canceling out the sound waves received by your eardrums.

This means if you are in an airplane, you will hear a lot less of the engines and a lot more of your music. However, I’ve found that the Bose headphones aren’t great for cutting out the noise from chatty coworkers; if that’s what you’re after, in-your-ear earphones might be a better option.

The sound quality of the Bose headphones is fantastic, and if you are looking for a quality headphone experience to complement your iPod, you can’t go wrong with these.

In-Ear Headphones

In-ear headphones take your music as close to your eardrums as possible. The result is twofold: audio quality that is clear and, because the earphones go right in your ear, the blocking out of any incidental environmental noise.

Apple, recognizing the popularity of this kind of headphones, sells its own version. They are pretty good, but nothing compared to the ones this hack covers.

The Shure E Series.

If you want to really upgrade your ears, check out the Shure E Series of sound-isolating earphones (http://www.shure.com/earphones/index.asp; $99–$499). Shure earphones were originally developed for musicians who need to hear their performances while onstage. Yes, those earphones you see musicians using onstage can be yours! The Shure earphones work by using soft foam or plastic flexible sleeves to isolate out any background sound.

The Shure earphones contain small, high-energy microspeakers that deliver high-quality sound right into your ear. Compared to the earbuds that come with the iPod, Shure’s earphones provide a quantum leap in listening quality. Not only do they render audio much better, they also block out all the background noise. This is particularly helpful if you use the subway or bus to commute. You will actually find yourself listening to music at a lower volume than you do with your iPod earbuds. The Shure earphones are so good at blocking out incidental environmental sound that you won’t need to blast your tunes.

The Shure E Series comes in three models as described in Table 1-1.

Table 1-1. The Shure E Series line of earphones

E2C ($99)

E3C ($179)

E5C ($499)

A single high-energy driver in a comet-shaped enclosure that optimizes the acoustics environment

A single low-mass/ high-energy driver with a balanced armature technology for more efficient output

Two dedicated lowmass/high-energy microspeakers and an inline crossover that optimally blends the high and low frequencies provided by each driver

Speaker technology

Rich, full-frequency sound

Rich, full sound with an extended high-frequency response

Fully extended frequency for a clear highend sound, smooth mid-frequencies, and deep, rich bass

Sound quality Weight

1 oz

.9 oz

1.1 oz


Comes with three sizes of both foam and flex sleeves to personalize your fit

The most compact design

Comes with a memory-fit cable that shapes around your ear for a tighter fit

An in-ear earphone for your ears only.

Shure earphones come with different foam and silicone sleeves that you can interchange until you find the best fit for your ear. But what if you want a fit made especially for your ear? The next step is to get custom-molded earphones. Ultimate Ears (http://www.ultimateears.com) have made a well-deserved name for themselves by combining high-quality earphones with a seamless process for getting them in your ear. They also look pretty spiffy with the iPod, as you can see in Figure 1-4.

Ultimate Ears takes impressions made by an audiologist and creates a custom pair of earphones. This means that the earphones are made for your ears and your ears only! Apart from the benefit of not having to share them with anyone else, this also means you will experience unparalleled comfort. You can wear the Ultimate Ears earphones all day and not experience the feelings of soreness and fatigue that you sometimes get with other earphones.

The Ultimate Ears earphones

Figure 1-4. The Ultimate Ears earphones

The first step is to get impressions made. Pull out your local Yellow Pages and look up audiologists or hearing aid centers. When you call, let them know that you only want impressions of your ear made. You might hear a little pause at the end of the line; most companies are full-service and are not used to just making impressions for their customers. Explain that you are getting custom musician earphones made, and they should understand. Expect to pay anywhere from $10–$50 for the impressions.

If you’ve ever had to get an impression of your mouth made at the dentist, getting ear impressions made is very similar. Don’t worry; no needles are involved! Ultimate Ears has a document you should download and print from their web site. It gives the audiologist specific instructions pertaining to how the impressions should be made.

The audiologist will first insert a small plastic stopper into each ear to prevent the silicone from going all the way to your eardrum. Next, a nice, cool, putty-like silicone substance is inserted in your ears. You’ll have to sit for a couple minutes while the silicone hardens, keeping your mouth open the whole time. The audiologist will then remove your impressions from your ears and put them in a box for you. Mail them off to the address Ultimate Ears provides.

Ultimate Ears will build your earphones from these impressions after they receive them. Turnaround from the time they receive your impressions to the time you receive your custom earphones is about a week. At $550–$900 a set, these earphones aren’t cheap, but if your music is important to you, they’re well worth the expense. You will receive your earphones in a beautiful metallic box with your name custom-printed on it. The best part is when you put an Ultimate Ear earphone in your ear for the first time: it’s like putting on a well-worn and comfortable shoe. The earphone feels like it is made just for your ear—wait, it is! Apart from feeling great going in your ears, the earphones also feel great after hours of use. The sound quality is truly stunning, and due to the perfect fit it feels like the music is just in your head.

Final Thoughts

Whether you decide to go with the Bose headphones, Apple’s in-ear, Shure’s excellent E Series earphones, or custom-made earphones by Ultimate Ears, your music will thank you. You will hear bass you didn’t know existed and highlights that are higher than ever.

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