One of my first fascinations in the world of technology and consumer electronics was headphones. People who know me know that I am the guy to come to when looking for headphones, earphones, speakers, or any kind of audio device. I spent countless hours on the forums of Head-Fi, the headphone-lover’s community, talking about over-the-ear, around-the-ear, in-ear-monitors, open cans, closed cans, USB DACs, portable class D amplifiers, and whether or not music sounded better coming out of an ipod touch or a sansa clip. (By the way, those of you who can’t tell the difference between 128 and 320 kbps mp3s, this probably isn’t the post for you.) The point is, I learned from the geekiest nerds and the nerdiest geeks about how to differentiate between quality and crap when it comes to audio reproduction. I’m not an audiophile, because audiophiles spend thousands of dollars on cables alone, and take up space on their precious hard drives and mp3 players with all lossless music (songs 5-10x bigger than your average mp3 file means 1/5th or 1/10th the music on the same hard drive). However, I also despise standard apple earbuds, and all bose headphones, because I know better. I’d like to think of myself as a practical audio enthusiast: someone who understands good sound quality but also practicality and the point of diminishing returns. And that is exactly why people come to me for headphone and speaker advice. I know how to recommend for them the best set-up, for their use, with their musical tastes, that gets them the best bang-for-the-buck for their price range. That is why I am writing this article: I want to highlight two sets of earphones, one relatively cheap and the other quite expensive, that I believe are a good one-size-fits-all for most modern music lovers.
Let me start with the headphones that I own: the NuForce NE-7m and the Klipsch x10. Both models have recently been updated, and so I am recommending those updated versions to you today. I bought the Klipsch x10 a few years ago in what is quite an interesting scenario. I had combed through post after post on head-fi looking for what would be my ideal earphone. I wanted something that would be great for rock, electronica, and acoustic music. I like good, deep bass, but not too much of it. Also, I wanted something small and durable. I was looking for comfort, but little did I know, these earphones would show me just how important comfort can be. After trying out a few models that didn’t quite do it for me, I decided to ask the head-fi community for recommendations — like so many of my friends have asked from me. Most came back telling me to get the Klipsch x10. This was pretty big news considering Klipsch had been making headphones for less than a year, and the community loves to recommend tried-and-true brands like sennheiser, shure, sony, and ultimate ears: the companies that have been around for a while. However, at first I was quite deterred by the $349 price tag on the x10. As a Sophomore in college, I definitely did not have a spare 350 dollars. But that very same week, head-fi users found out about a 2-week klipsch headphone sale wherein the iconic speaker manufacturer offered its entire range of earphones for a cool 50% off. So, I was able to get my hands on one of the best sets of earphones on the market for $175 instead of $350, and while that was still a bit of cash, I jumped on the opportunity knowing it may never come around again. To this day, two and a half years later, I still love my Klipsch x10, and they still sound every bit as good as they did when I bought them. But if they were to come up missing, or stop working, I wouldn’t hesitate to (begrudgingly) find a way to pay the $349 for the updated model, as I’m sure I will never find a pair of earphones I enjoy more.
Even though I had found my perfect headphones, I decided to look for another pair last January. Because I got a fancy Motorola Droid for Christmas last year, and my job washing dishes in the house I live in brought my beloved Klipsch just a bit too close to water, I decided to get a pair of earphones that had a built-in mic and that I was less paranoid about ruining. So I took to the Head-fi boards once again for recommendations. I discovered the NuForce NE-7m and even read reviews where people with lots of earphones actually sold off their x10’s because they offered little advantage over the $50 NuForce’s. The NE-7m is like a bigger, less refined version of the x10. The sound signature is similar in that both models produce a slightly warm tone which works nicely for most types of music. However, the NuForce has slightly muddier bass, a less defined treble, and overall less separation. (Separation in headphone jargon refers to how well you can make out each instrument and create a virtual arrangement of the musicians’ positions. Imagine being able to hear “air” around each individual part in the music so that they don’t blend together. Now imagine closing your eyes and pointing to where you think each musician was sitting or standing during the recording. With good headphones, both of these should be possible.) Now to the untrained ear, or someone who has never heard the high-end models of headphones, the NE-7m are astounding. Even to someone with a really picky ear, the NE-7m are a steal at $50.
The major difference between the two models (other than price and sound quality–to the trained listener) is comfort and wearability. The tiny x10 actually fit deep into the ear canal while the NE-7m plug the canal but rest outside of it. The result is that you actually forget you are wearing the x10 whereas with the NE-7m you have to adjust them from time to time during extended listening sessions. Also, the NE-7m weigh a good deal more than the x10, so they pull on the ear a bit, but I’m really nitpicking here. Aside from the size and weight of the headphones, the biggest difference in the comfort between the two models comes from the tips included by both manufacturers. Like almost all headphone companies, including many of the “best” manufacturers, NuForce includes several different sizes of round silicone tips that are meant to fill the opening of the ear canal and create a seal, allowing for noise isolation and deep bass. Klipsch also includes silicone tips, but they use a very revolutionary design. First, the Klipsch tips feature a small padded section of malleable silicone gel at the very end of each of their tips. These gel-tips provide extra cushion and protection for the ear end the earphone. Second, and more importantly, the Klipsch tips are designed with your ear canal’s ergonomics in mind. The reason most earphones make our ear canals sore, or cause irritation and fatigue with prolonged use, is that round tips actually change the shape of our elliptical (oval) ear canals. Klipsch understands this, so they actually make only elliptical-shaped tips. This means that the tips actually fill your ear canal without pushing against it and creating uncomfortable pressure points. Combined with their small size and light weight, the elliptical shape of the tips allow the x10 to comfortably and safely fit deep enough into the ear canal. I can lay my ear flat against a pillow and not even notice the earphones. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen asleep forgetting I’m even wearing them. Try that with any other earphones.
Both NuForce and Klipsch did update their earphones recently. As you can see, the new NuForce NE-700m model seems to slim the entire earphone down quite a bit. I can’t attest to any differences in sound quality as I haven’t heard the new model, but it looks likes the smaller form-factor and lighter weight would actually make them a bit more comfortable for long listening-sessions.
The new Klipsch x10i are exactly the same as the model I own, but the company has added a microphone and remote to the cord. Not only can you use the headphones for making and receiving calls, but also you can play/pause, skip/rewind, and adjust the volume of your ipod, iphone, or smartphone without needing to take the device from its pocket. If I were buying these now, I would likely forego the NuForce model, as the new x10i has everything I need all in one (and I no longer wash dishes). However, most people don’t require (or can’t discern) sound quality differences like me post head-fi browsing.
There is a bit of a price increase on the new NE-700m, which run for $79 from NuForce’s website. You can check out amazon, to still get the NE-7m for $44. The updated x10i model has the same price tage as its ancestor: $349, but you can save yourself $10 by ordering them from Amazon. If you don’t need a mic and remote with your earphones, you can pick up the original Klipsch x10 for $244 from Amazon. I seriously recommend any of the aforementioned models as well as any Klipsch headphone. If comfort is your thing, check out Klipsch’s entire line of headphones ranging from $49 to $349. All Klipsch earphones come with their patented silicone ear gels, the best in the industry. If you care to widen your search and find the perfect headphone or earphone for you, check out head-fi.org. Those guys and gals will get you set up with a better audio experience than you can imagine, at whatever you can afford.