Upgrade Your Earphones

I’ve mentioned here before I suffer from tinnitus, a constant ringing in the ear, and part of what caused it is listening to head/ear phones for so long at really high volumes.  Part of trying to cut back on the volume has been trying to find an earphone that successfully reduces/blocks surrounding noise so that I can listen at a lower volume.

Now, I love my Grado Labs SR60’s (made in the USA!) headphones… I’ve owned them for almost 20 years, but they are not anything I would wear out on the street and most headphones are too big and obnoxious to wear on my already gigantic noggin’.  So I’ve turned to earphones.

Part of that search has been using various different brands and models of IEM (in ear monitors) with various success.  I had settled on a pair of NOX Scouts because they were durable, inexpensive and their silicon tips did a decent job of sound isolation, but never to the amount that I really needed.  If I was listening to music with standard buds at 75-80% volume, the Scouts only allowed me to reduce that to maybe 65-70%.  Maybe.

There are all kinds of IEMs, but the idea is that you insert the end of it into your ear canal.  The important part here is that you create a seal that allows the drivers of the monitor to really produce the audio with as little outside sound and interference as possible.  So, while every brand and their product all perform in different ways and abilities, the key factor for any of them to do so at their peak is the seal you create in your ear canal.   Note, the version of IEM I’m referring to is not the custom molded versions that you see musicians wear.  Those are the pinnacle in performance because they completely seal out the outside noise due to the fact that the body of the piece is custom fitted to that user’s ear.  They are also way expensive, starting at $700 and going up, and that doesn’t include the cost of the custom mold.   The version I am referring to are the more common version that rely on the tips to create the sound isolation.

After reading and researching for a long time, I ended up buying the generally highly regarded Shure 215’s.  These are at the bottom of the Shure model line, cost about $100, but for the money are outstanding little hi-fi performers.  But what I found from buying these, and is the point to this blog entry, is that you can actually buy 3rd party foam tips to replace the ones that came with your IEMs and really improve the audio quality.

Comply Foam Tips is a brand of aftermarket tips made from a memory foam that reacts to your body’s heat to expand once in the ear canal and create an outstanding seal that allows your earphones to get the best out of your IEMs.  Inner Fidelity has written up a great piece researching the effects of Comply Foam Tips, and also has a great guide to different IEMs.

Comply makes tips that work with a lengthy list of brands and they even make a slip over design that takes your cheap Apple, came-with-the-iPhone, earbuds and turns them into quasi IEMS and actually helps them sound better too.  You can go to the Comply site, find your brand and model of earphones and then purchase the tips in pairs of three or five for less than $20.  The tips will wear out over time, the length depending on how you treat them, but the improvement it will make in the audio quality of your earphones is worth the money.  The improvement in low end performance is maybe the greatest benefactor as the seal allows the driver to fully produce bass to its best ability (your milage will vary depending on IEM)

The other benefit, especially for myself, is that the greatly improved sound isolation has allowed me to dramatically reduce the volume of my device.  I am now able to leave the volume at 35-45% for most everything I listen to, and that has helped my condition considerably.  In fact, remember those NOX Scouts I mentioned earlier?  With the Comply tips on them they are so much better at sound isolation that had I known about them before I bought the Shures I would have likely just stuck with the $50 NOX Scouts with the Comply tips on them.

Comply is not the only company that makes aftermarket tips.  There are less expensive ones but I have not tried any of the other brands.  Its a lot of trial and error as everyone’s ear canals are different.  Hell, there’s a difference between my left and right canal.

If you’ve been unhappy with your earphone’s performance consider upgrading the simplest part, the tip, and I bet you’ll like them a whole lot more.