New headphones

30th May 2008 – 5.19 pm

I must have little ears. Or, at least, ear-holes. Nearly all the in-ear headphones I've bought myself for years have never fit properly and kept on falling out. I suppose I should have taken the hint and stopped buying in-ear headphones, but that one pair I bought years ago that were snug kept me optimistic that I just needed to find the right pair again. I had come close recently, when a pair I bought came with foam covers that effectively worked as velcro against my voluminous ear-hair. But the foam covers were subject to impromptu removal when pulling the headphones out of my ear, such was the velcro resemblance, and this just happened to occur one day when out and about. I didn't realise immediately that one of the foam covers had dropped off, and by the time I had noticed it could have been anywhere on the pavement or in the road and was lost. I thought about trying to buy some more foam covers for the headphones but decided to try the Apple headphones I got when I bought my iPod Touch.

The headphones I got with my third-generation iPod were the original and far-too-large variety, and I never used them. The headphones I got with the Touch were the newer, smaller buds, although I had to check because they still seemed rather large for my freakishly small ear-holes. I persevered though, and the sound quality seemed okay, but they refused to stay secure in my ears. It was frustrating, and I kept on telling myself to get some new headphones, but I never knew what to get. All the headphones seemed much the same, and I didn't want to waste money just to get another set that wouldn't stay in my ears either. So I kept on tolerating the ever-shifting Apple headphones, taking time every few seconds to readjust them so that I could hear my music.

Recently, Zoso posted a review of his Shure E2C headphones, raving about their comfort and sound. Excellent, I thought, a positive review from someone I know and trust, I shall investigate these headphones. For a discontinued product they are satisfyingly impossible to find for sale, and I was left browsing similar headphones of the same brand but still not really knowing if they would be any good. I didn't want to rely on internet browsing for headphones, I'm not going to trust most internet strangers who write reviews on internet shops' websites, and I never really went anywhere in meatspace that would have anything but budget headphones for sale. Again, I put my search on hold and tolerated my Apple headphones.

I got thoroughly sick of continually adjusting my headphones just so that they felt somewhat in my ear and I could just about hear the music, particularly in my increasingly aggravating open-plan office area, which is rarely quiet, and I took the opportunity today, with a day off, to look for some new headphones. I found a shop that offered some relatively expensive headphones, including some from Shure. I am of the general belief that you get what you pay for, understanding that it is a generalisation and there are always exceptions, and after Zoso's assurance in his sense of worth in a decent pair of headphones I decided that I would take the plunge. With some money built up in my kitty to treat myself I ignored the cheaper options for the first time in my headphone purchasing plan.

I looked at the Shure headphones alongside a pair of Denon's. I was pretty much ignorant about both of them and had to judge them by the packaging, price, and blurb, which isn't really a good position to be in. Even so, with the Denon pair having a better frequency range and looking better I decided to opt for them, even if I didn't know how much the frequency range would matter when listening to MP4s. I headed to the cashier, who did a double-take when the price came up on the register for a pair of headphones and, taken aback, remarked that she hoped I had good hearing to buy something like this. Because of the industrial environment of the laboratory work I do I have my hearing checked every two years, and my hearing remains pretty good so far, so hopefully I can still take advantage of the sound quality the headphones are supposed to afford.

When I got home I tried out my new Denon AH-C551 headphones. I plugged them in to my iPod and, as I had been listening to Badly Drawn Boy previously, started playing My Friend Cubilas, from How Did I Get Here? Hmm, the sound was okay, but nothing special. The headphones may not have been seated properly, as they were packaged with the medium ear pads fitted. I changed the ear pads over to the small ones and gave them another try. Blimey, what a difference! The music came through wonderfully clear, with superb fidelity! I have never heard such sound quality through a pair of headphones before. There was plenty of bass, with a crispness in the higher frequencies as well.

Still playing My Friend Cubilas I played around with the iPod's equaliser settings. I have played with the equaliser in iTunes before and have settled with the 'acoustic' setting as the one that sounds best to my ears. I went through a selection, even trying out the 'bass reducer' setting, before settling back with 'acoustic' as being the best sounding for me. I then tried a different song, one that always sounds good to me. Still with Badly Drawn Boy I played The Shining, from The Hour of Bewilderbeast. When Damon Gough's vocals are first heard I was stunned by the clarity I was hearing. There was some distortion in the music, but as the vocals were clear of any distortion I reasoned it was deliberate within the recording. I picked another couple of tracks to make sure, first choosing Tender from Blur's album 13, because the album has amazing production values, and the song was beautifully reproduced. After that was Add N to (X)'s Metal Fingers in my Body, from Avant Hard, letting me revel in the squeaks, squawks, booms and beats. Throughout this not once did I feel the need to adjust the position of the headphones in my ear, although I reflexively checked them a few times.

Of course, this was a benign test, sitting in my quiet living room with no distractions, but I wanted to hear how good the headphones could be. I wasn't disappointed. Indeed, my expectations were significantly surpassed. I may be heading in to London tomorrow, where I can try the headphones out on the Tube, and next week I can test them in the harsh environment of the office. With their noise isolating effect and ability to stay in my ears I am hoping for good results, and I would be quite disappointed if I couldn't appreciate the sound quality that the headphones offer. I am quite optimistic though, and believe that I have made a good investment.

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