Sunday, December 10, 2006

My "Wife-Cancelling" Headphones

This is an Amazon review, but apropos considering my dear spouse's recent blogs. Actually, I have only worn the Radio Shack cans in her presence or next to her, for reasons of safety, my duty as a householder and father to listen for rampaging sons and dogs, and for future continuation of my state of lawful matrimony. I edit this a day later after in her presence dared to put them on for the space of two-and-a-half songs on my iPod, as the construction commenced again, Sunday morning, and she was snoring. But, up she popped and accused me of deeply insulting her by my mere action. Rover stared at me until I took them off, loyal to his mistress to a fault.

I spent many pleasant hours, to the amazement of my spouse, seeking out what she now calls my "wife-cancelling headphones"! For my commute, I needed to power drivers from a regular-sized iPod. I wanted a pair that I could take with me "on foot" easily and that would fold up neatly. At the $150-and a bit plus price-range [they list for $250, sell for about $165 at their cheapest on Amazon, and I bought an open-box pair for $150 from], I expected durable construction as well as sonic fidelity. I had started out with what everyone thinks of: Bose QCs (as mentioned in this week's New Yorker article about what to get people for the holidays-- this gift being suggested along with an eyemask for harried fathers).

Reviews on Head Room, CNet, and Amazon convinced me that Bose QCs were overpriced and undernourished. Perhaps better for frequent flyers, but I needed to cancel sounds on buses and trains: a different challenge. I preferred, or so I thought, on-ear sets, so I looked into Sennsheiser's more affordable noise-cancelling folding on-ear PXC 250s: better, but their plastic headpieces seemed flimsy and prone to cracking, and their external battery cord seemed to get in the way. AKG K81 DJs tempted me at their fair price; they received nearly unanimous acclaim. But for commuting, they seemed too big and bulky, since although half-folding, they are made tough and strong for dj's to monitor music in clubs. (For the $50 range, by the way, AKG's K26 also receive high marks as a vast improvement for IPods if upgrading standard included buds.)

Still, armed with a gift card to offset some of the cost, I looked to the lower weight IEMs and higher range (in price, performance, and db's of noise suppression). The IEM decision fit best my needs; I ride the bus and subway: about three hours total round-trip. Acoustics and physics prove the point. Bose QC's use white noise to "cancel" sounds with others. IEMs isolate more sound at a deeper level of body contact, and so needed lower volume-- this saves aural damage. Also, less volume in the ear means less power drain for the iPod battery.

UE gained the most support from the hundreds of reviews I must have scanned. I purchased a pair (their price on Amazon is about the least expensive retail amount you'll find). Curiously, many vendors charge more for the black than the white model! I being cheap bought the latter, but I am pleased to note that nobody will mistake these for standard Apple buds. The wire is clear, and the color is handsome without being too attention getting: a must for us urban commuters, unfortunately. The actual earpieces do stick out, since IEMs carry more punch than buds. To my surprise the hook over the ears does markedly help in wearing them comfortably-- it was not interfering at all with the eyeglasses behind the ear. Also, this position minimizes the drag of the wire and reduces the IEM transmission of vibrations into the ear as you move or as the wire brushes against clothing or your body. This does take a bit of getting used to, but, as with the insertion of the IEMs, it can be done in a few seconds after the first few times.

For noise-cancelling, the Pros do not shut out all external sounds, nor for the sake of safety would a commuter desire this. But, they reduce it by perhaps 75%-80%. What remains on bus and train is often attributable to the vibrations and rattles that shake as well as produce sound. You cannot get rid of the discomfort as the vehicle hits the bumps in the road or on the track!

They do reproduce (especially "standard" rock) sounds well, although they so far coupled with the iPod have only outperformed my $50 Koss-Radio Shack over-the-ear cans slightly. This may improve with time, as phones need to be broken in, apparently. [Hint: the EQ set for rock reveals much more depth than the bass booster setting that I had previously as my default.] Debate at "head-fi" on-line has raged as to whether "burning" them in over a couple hundred hours to season their drivers is merely the placebo effect or an actual improvement in fidelity. Similarly, I am getting a portable headphone amp (Gary Ali at electric-avenues dot com) that should enrich the sound further on whatever headphones I use with cheaper CD boxes or digital players. Ultimately, what IEMs are at this range, I gather (as opposed to the thousand-dollar customized pairs UE designs), are "musical earplugs."

They shut out the outside, boost what sounds you program and prefer, are lightweight, enjoyable, and while not audiophile-level, fulfill their purpose. They are less expensive than competing models, the fit in the ear is not nearly as traumatic as some reviews have made UE IEMs seem, and the match of form-- plugs-- with function -- players, will never be airtight, offer orchestra-like fidelity, nor will it be able to satisfy those lucky enough to afford higher-level IEMs or phones. But, for commuting, portability, and ratio of cost to performance, they work well.

As my hearing is overly sensitive, and I could/can not ever listen to amplified sound at a rock concert, for example, the lessened volume was crucial for the IEM I chose. This does run at about a third of the iPod volume setting compared to half for other headphones (I did comparisons with a cheap back-of-neck pair and my over-ears on the commute: these by the way both do one thing: they place the music as an additional layer of sound closer to your ear, but no external sounds are mimimized at all. Conventional headphones therefore only distract you by their placement of preferred sounds nearer to your ear. Think of when you talk louder to a neighbor in public so as to drown out somebody else at a nearby table.

What remains a bit of a problem is the cord. Sitting at a desk with a computer, if you are at all tall, plugging in to the computer for playback will nearly reach if not match the limits of the cord's length. These are better used while walking along or holding the iPod. The detachable cord feature also narrowed my choice to UE. At three feet it is perfect for movement while carrying a portable player. However, I have noticed a glitch with the initial starting up of the iPod, during the shift from regular use to the hold button, and the shutting off of one or both sides of the IEMs. But, this may be my own clumsiness or lack of practice. [If not, I will update this comment.]

But, how to wind up the cord into a pocket or case? It tangles constantly, and the need for the permanence of the semi-flexible bends near the ears means the wires cannot be totally compressed as they would be in buds-- or even other IEMs, I suppose. I carry them in an eyeglass case, since this allows less folds and preserves somewhat the twist given to the behind-the-ear beginning of the cords.

I give four rather than five stars for a specific reason. Past reviews led me to believe that a small leather case was also given gratis along with the metallic box. The UE booklet now lists it for $10. What is needed in the metallic box is a winding device; earlier models apparently included this while the one I bought notes, in the booklet, that such a winder is "optional" although it is not listed on the accessory form nor is it explained with which models it would presumably come free. For the price these sell for, I expected a bit more generosity in the "add-ons."

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