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On Headphones.

The earbud headphones that Apple supplies with its iPod line  generally receive a negative press on the web and are invariably berated in reviews, sometimes being the sole criticism of the iPod package. I’ve always been curious of this fact as i’ve never noticed anything wrong with them and long assumed that those complaining must be true audiophiles. So when my long-serving 1st generation Shuffle’s headphones started to bugger up (balance increasingly skewed to the left, volume levels not what they were and intermittent cut-out on both buds) i took the opportunity to try some 3rd-party kit.

True to my Yorkshire heritage, i didn’t want to spend a lot on replacements but nor did i want to end up with some cheapo ‘phones that’d have sound quality akin to a yoghurt pot on a string. A quick bit of research revealed that stuff by Sony, Sennheiser or Shure would probably make good replacements. Sadly Shure kit was just far too expensive (£55 for the cheapest set – an amount which’d nearly buy two new iPod Shuffles) and Sony products seemed overpriced for the sort of customer reviews they received, so i quickly settled on Sennheiser’s CX300 headphones which got very favourable reviews and at £17 would cost less than a replacement set of standard Apple earbuds (£19).

the many layers of packaging the many layers of packaging

When the CX300s arrived i was immediately impressed by Sennheiser’s “eco-friendly” but quite stylish and novel packaging, which consisted solely of cardboard. The headphones were carefully packed in layered squares of plain brown cardboard, all kept together with a couple of cardboard wraparounds and only one of these a bleached, stiffened and printed piece of card. A delightful change and actually a joy to unpack unlike the horrendous, hard plastic, finger-cutting packaging that many-a tech accessory comes in. It was an almost Apple-esque experience, you might say.

Anyway, enough of the green, tree-hugger stuff and back to the matter at hand. Are these new earphones any good? Oh, they’re only sublime. My pleasure at the packaging was absolutely nothing compared to the joy of that first use. The improvement over the standard iPod earbuds was immediately evident and so vastly different that i instantly wondered how i’d ever “coped” with anything less. So much deeper… clearer… richer… and a lot of other adjectives that i’d seen audiophiles use copiously in the past. It was a revelation.

I’d never worn truly in-ear (ear-canal) headphones before but the soft rubber buds were surprisingly comfortable (more surprising still was that i only needed the Medium size buds – Small and Large are also supplied though) and i assume that as well as providing some (very good) outside noise cancellation the in-your-ear-canal aspect also helps to contribute to the level of bass the CX300’s achieve. Unfortunately, i also believe that being ear-canal ‘phones is the reason my elation didn’t last.

iPod Vs CX300 bud iPod Vs CX300

Thing is, i’d just been enjoying the headphones while sat still and so when i put them on for a real-world test (ie. travelling to work) one major problem became immediately apparent – noise. Not whitenoise (these things are crystal clear). Not external noise (the CX300s do a great job of blocking that out). No, just noises from inside and around me. Everytime i moved, the headphone cable moved and got knocked around – those vibrations travelled up to my ears and, amplified, sounded like muffled thuds. Likewise, my feet hitting the ground caused muffled bangs in my ears, and all the usually hidden sounds of simple things like eating and drinking become horrendous distractions. Stick your fingers firmly into your ear holes while you’re chewing and you’ll soon see what i mean. This was a real disappointment and only exaggerated by how excited i’d been about the sound quality and the fact that it was quite unexpected, having always been an ear-bud headphone user (where the device just rests in the shell of your ear, free to make tiny movements that must – it’s now obvious – prevent these sorts of distractions).

So, overal verdict on my replacement headphones? The sound quality of the CX300s is awesome and i don’t reckon you could do much better for the sort of money i paid. They’re also light, very comfortable and not unpleasing on the eye. It’s just such a crying shame about the “cable noise” spoiling things though when you’re on the move.

Purchasing these headphones has been a real eye ear-opener for me though. It made me question my choice to rip my entire CD collection in only 128kbps AAC format. It made me wonder whether audio through a £300+ set of Shures would be like sex for your ears. But the amazing difference in quality i experienced mainly had me wondering whether i’d ever experienced anything so good. Had i just gotten used-to the Apple headphone’s lacklustre sound since getting an iPod or had i always had this “grey” listening experience? In order to try and find out, I went digging through some drawers to find all the old headphones i could…

Philips, Sony, Apple and Sennheiser buds... Philips, Sony, Apple and Sennheiser buds

…and was only able to find a pair of Philips and a pair of Sonys that i probably bought in the late 90s (to use with my Sony Discman). Anyway, i gave them all a try hooked up to the Shuffle and while i was pleased to find that the Philips offered worse reproduction than the Apples, i was sort of disappointed to find the Sony buds (with, note, a small rubber “cone” to fill the ear canal) were actually better. That meant i’d probably experienced better quality audio in the past but had just not noticed the Apple ‘phones were inferior when i got my first iPod. Oh dear.