As I mentioned recently, I purchased an iPod.
The sound was disappointing, mostly due to a lack of midrange and deep bass. I thought it might just be the ear phones that came with the iPod, but in bench testing, I discovered that the iPod had its share of fault in this matter, rolling off the midrange, and especially the low frequencies.
So, I decided to get several sets of ear phones from other manufacturers for review, to see if using a better set of phones than the ones that came with the iPod would improve the situation.
Shawn McGloughlin, of Full Compass, sent me a big box full of them to try out. Decades ago, when I bought my first set of headphones (Koss, for $15), that is all there was: headphones. Although the Koss cupped over my ears, there were some headphones that sat "on" the ears. Now, the phones are actually classified as over-ear phones, on-ear phones, in-ear phones, and ear buds.
The current article is a review of six phones that Shawn sent. These are (1) Denon AH-C700 (in-ear), Shure E3G (in-ear), Shure E500-PTH (in-ear), UE Super.fi 5 Pro (in-ear), UE Super.fi 5 Pro EB (in-ear), and Ultrasone iCans (on-ear). Jason Serinus reviewed Shure E4s and E5s last year, but there were no bench tests.
I listened to all of the phones using an 80 GB iPod, with or without various types of EQ that are included in the iPod menu. I used mostly classical music, but some popular as well.
I also bench tested each set of phones using a calibrated microphone. I used a 0.5" section of silicone rubber tubing for this purpose, by placing the tip of the microphone in one end, and the tip of the ear phone (ear foam removed) in the other end. This provided a tightly sealed 0.25" canal between the ear phone and the microphone, approximating the ear canal. Test signals were generated by the precision Lynx sound card in our test computer, rather than my iPod, so the rolled off frequency response of the iPod (published in our previous report) was not a factor.
In alphabetical order then, let's begin with the Denon AH-C700.
These are in-ear phones, with an MSRP of $200. As with all the ear phones, they come with several sets of foam plugs with which you can replace the existing ones as they wear out, or depending on the size of your ear canals.
These ear phones weigh 0.3 ounce and are 16 ohms impedance. Their sensitivity is 104 dB/mw.
I will say right now, that the Denons were my favorite phones in terms of fit. They are very lightweight, and stayed in my ears perfectly, never falling out. I found that there was a huge variation in this regard, with some of the phones coming loose right away, because they are heavy, or oddly shaped such that I could not push them deep enough into my ear canal to hold tight, due to the body of the phone hitting the pinna (those are the external flaps of skin that we all refer to as the "ears", which in my case, are starting to look like a pair of shoes as I grow older).
So, right away, I will be giving the phones a rating based on fit. The included set of various sized foam plugs can help, but they do not ameliorate the problem of shape, size, and weight of the phones themselves.
And, don't underestimate the value of fit (which includes comfort). Regardless of their sound quality, if they continually fall out of your ears, or if they are loose in the canal (reduces bass significantly), you won't be able to hear all the music. Some of the foam plugs will hold an awkward shaped phone in your ear, but they are uncomfortable because they press so hard in the ear canals, and if you are trying to doze on a long flight, listening to music, you won't enjoy yourself with tight plugs. Note that the ratings on fit are based just on my own experiences. It would not have been hygienic to pass them around to numerous people.
Now to the sound.
Well, all of the phones tended to sound light in the midrange and bass. I think that this is due to the almost impossible task of keeping the phones tightly sealed in the ear canals. Even the Denons, with their great fit, would become just a little bit loose as I listened for awhile, due to perspiration (like a lot of people, I use my iPod when I go for long exercise walks), but also just to the slippery surface of the ear canals.
There is no way to get around this problem, other than to just push them back in every few minutes or so.
The Denons are very detailed, with no harshness or extra sibilance at all. The mid-highs are a bit forward, so I ended up using the "Deep" EQ setting on the iPod as a preference. (EQ adds distortion, but sometimes, it is worth it to get an overall, improved sound.)
The frequency response of the AH-C700s is shown below. You can see that it rolls off below 40 Hz, and above 300 Hz, then has a peak at 3.6 kHz, and finally rolls off above 8 kHz. So, the Deep EQ probably flattened out the response at the low end, with respect to that peak at 3.6 kHz, and that is why I liked it. (All of the graphs are taken through the sound card, not the iPod, so there is no EQ in any of the graphs.)
Distortion graphs are shown below.
At 20 Hz, and 90 dB output, THD+N was relatively low, at 2.1%.
At 1 kHz, distortion, again, was low.
At 10 kHz, THD+N approached 1%, but the noise is a significant part of this. So, the important number is the relation of the harmonic at 20 kHz to the fundamental, which in this case is - 78 dB.
IMD was very low. Note the lack of peaks around the 2 kHz fundamental. This is excellent performance, and the best of the phones tested in this set.
The Denon AH-C700 ear phones receives a 7 out of 10 for sound quality, and a 10 for fit. Using the "Deep" EQ setting on the iPod made a big difference, but I have to rate them based on no EQ.
(The scores are based on 1-2=BAD, 3-4=MEDIOCRE, 5-6=FAIR. 7-8=GOOD, 9-10=Excellent.)