Which Earphones Are Right For You?

Apple may have a great track record when it comes to earning design awards for their products, but the s that are included with every iPhone are not the most innovative. My experience is that they don’t fit very well and the sound quality is mediocre. Because of this, one of the first accessories that you should buy for your iPhone is a pair of earphones.

Fortunately, many excellent alternatives are available from third-party vendors. Like the earphones that shipped with the iPhone, they include the built-in microphone and one-push button to control your music. This review evaluates six products using the following criteria:

  • Sound Quality: Probably the most important factor when selecting earphones.
  • Comfort/Fit: A close second to sound quality; if the earphones don’t fit comfortably in your ear, you won’t want to use them.
  • Included Extras: Does the product ship with spare/replacement ear tips, adapters, and a carrying case? Not all companies provide these extras.
  • Price: What price range are you comfortable with? Note that higher price does not always mean better quality.

In addition to these criteria, I’ve divided the products into two categories: high-end & consumer-based. High-end earphones tend to be more expensive and are marketed to music professionals and audiophiles. Consumer-based earphones are less expensive and are marketed to the general consumer. Both high-end and consumer-based earphones can have excellent audio quality.

High-end earphones

Shure SE420


ShureSE420Sound Quality: Produced by what Shure calls “Dual TruAcoustic MicroSpeakers,” the sound quality on these isolating earphones is outstanding. The SE420 has a dedicated tweeter and woofer to produce solid mids, great highs, and good bass. It’s no wonder that Shure is one of the leaders in professional audio products for musicians.

Comfort/Fit: The SE420s are the only pair in the bunch that you have to wear with the wire hanging over your ear, which may be uncomfortable for some. The main body of the earphone is rather large, but they come with three different styles of earphone tips for the right fit.

Included Extras: z One 3-foot extension cable. (The earphones themselves have a 1.5-foot cable attached to them, so you can attach this 3-foot cable to the end of it to give you a 4.5-foot cable. You can also purchase an additional Music Phone Adapter cable, which includes a built-in mic and control button.) z Airline audio output adaptor z Volume control adaptor z 1/4” plug adaptor z Flex ear tips (small, medium, & large) z Foam ear tips (small, medium, & large) z Triple flange tips (one universal pair) z Zipper carrying case (can carry most of these extras)

Price: The SE420 is priced at $399, making it the most expensive set of earphones in this review. The optional Music Phone Adapter cable (MPA-3C) with mic and one-push button costs an additional $50.

Etymotic hf2


EtymoticHf2Sound Quality: These high-fidelity, noise-isolating earphones produce excellent sound. Although there isn’t as much thump in the Bass, the crystal clear highs and mids more than make up for it.

Comfort/Fit: The hf2s had the most comfortable fit out of all the high-end earphones. They don’t have much bulk to them and the flanged tips fit snugly inside your ear, isolating the audio from the sounds of the outside world.

Included Extras:

  • Soft storage pouch
  • Filter changing tool with extra filters
  • Triple flange ear tips (large & medium)
  • Foam ear tips (2 shapes)

Price: The Etymotic hf2s are priced at $180. They are available in black and ruby red and can be purchased on the vendor’s Web site (Etymotic.com).

Ultimate Ears SuperFi 5vi


Sound Quality: Ultimate Ears is another company that specializes in earphones for music professionals, and their SuperFi 5vi produces crisp and clean mids and highs, and just enough bass to make hip hop music enjoyable to listen to.

Comfort/Fit: These earphones are customizable, allowing you to wear them with the wire down for casual use or over the ear for active use. The earphones come with silicon tips in 3 different sizes. In addition, they ship with two Comply foam tips, which help create a comfortable, noise isolating experience.

Included Extras:

  • Silicon tips (small, medium, & large)
  • 2 Comply foam tips z Hard plastic carrying case
  • Cleaning tool

Price: SuperFi 5vi is priced at $190 and is available in a liquid silver color only. It can be purchased directly from the vendor’s Web site (UltimateEars.com).

Consumer-based earphones

V-Moda Vibe II



Sound Quality: Even though it’s small in size, the Vibe II has good sound quality and very solid bass. It features what V-Moda calls BLISS (Bass Level Isolating Soft Silicone) noise isolation, which reduces outside noise and enables deep bass. These earphones produced very full audio and the overall listening experience was good.

Comfort/Fit: Vibe II comes with four different sized tips, which makes it easy for the listener to find the right fit. The actual body of the earphone is lightweight and small, allowing it to tuck snuggly and comfortably into your ear. Vibe II ships with “sport earhooks,” which are supposed to allow you to use the earphones during exercise and other activities. I didn’t find these earhooks very comfortable or useful.

Included Extras:

  • 4 pairs of black silicon tips (extra small, small, medium, & large)
  • 4 pairs of white silicon tips (extra small, small, medium, & large)
  • Sport earhooks
  • Leather carrying pouch
  • V-Moda VIP card for special offers and events

Price: At $120, the Vibe II is the most expensive consumer-based product reviewed in this article. They can be purchased directly from the vendor’s Web site (V-Moda.com) and are available in two styles: Nero or Chrome Rouge. They’re handcrafted from stainless steel alloy with durable fabric cables. They look like a piece of fashionable jewelry.

Zagg Z.Buds


ZaggZBudsSound Quality: The Z.Buds produce rich sound and have adequate bass. I had to use the triple flange tips to experience good quality sound; the other tips didn’t isolate the sound very well.

Comfort/Fit: These earphones are a little longer than the others in this article and it was difficult to fit them snugly in my ear canal. They worked well when outfitted with the triple flanged tips, but the other tips did not stay in my ear very well.

Included Extras:

  • Fabric carrying bag
  • Triple flanged tips (one pair)
  • White silicone tips (small, medium, & large)
  • Hard cone shaped foam tips (medium, & large)

Price: The Z.Buds are available in black, red, yellow, and pink colors and are priced at $80. They can be purchased on the vendor’s Web site (Zagg.com). The Z.Buds were the most innovative earphones of the bunch. They utilize a unique system of multiple sliders for better cord management and also have a fabric cord similar to the Vibe II, which reduces tangling. They also feature in-line volume control, which was missing from the other earphones in this article. (In-line volume control can be added to the Shure SE420 via the optional Music Phone Adapter cable—see review on previous page.)

Radius Atomic Bass


Atomic BassSound Quality: This product definitely lives up to its name—it has the deepest and clearest bass of all the consumer-based earphones reviewed. The mids were strong and the highs adequate.

Comfort/Fit: Atomic Bass were the most comfortable earphones I reviewed, including the high-end contenders. They can be inserted into the ear from many possible angles, and the bulbous sound chamber responsible for the quality bass also allows for a snug fit in your ear canal.

Included Extras:

  • Silicon tips (small, medium, & large)

Price: The Atomic Bass earphones are available in black, pink, red, and silver aluminum and are priced at $50. They can be purchased directly from the vendor’s Web site (RadiusEarphones.com). Even though they don’t include a lot of extras, their unique style and comfortable fit make them one of my favorite earphones.


Reviews of high-end consumer earphones
Summer 2009
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