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Shure vs. Bose vs. Sony Headphones/Earphones

I’m a headphone junkie. Somewhere around here I have a photo of me at 7 years old with these huge headphones that came from the 70’s.

My quest for the perfect set continues, and the biggest problem I’ve had when looking to upgrade is to find information about how models compare. Here are my firsthand experiences, complete with Amazon affiliate links if you are in a buying mood.

I’ve found that headphones are sort of like car tires – none are perfect but once you weight the factors that you are interested in there is a best choice. Four factors that I consider: Comfort, Sound, Noise Reduction and Price.

The first upgrade I bought for my iPod was a set of Sony MDR-NC10. They have been replaced with the NC11’s. They are earbuds, but you have to push them down into your ear canal. When they were all I owned I liked the sound, the noise reduction and thought they were expensive at $140 (prices have dropped and the NC11’s are only $65). Comfort was a problem, I could only wear them for about 2 hours before my ear started to ache.

From there I got a set of Bose QC2s, which are over the ear headphones. If you are looking for some serious bass over-the-ear headphones are in a different league than earphones. They are also more comfortable, I have no ear pain, but there is the stranger problem of getting hot ears after more than an hour. I had a problem with the joint above the ear cup cracking, and Bose replaced them on the spot at the store, no questions asked. However, after learning more I see that most hardcore audiophiles aren’t Bose fans, they tend to perform well, but not superbly, and I’ve seen some posts accusing them of using sample discs that are “juiced” so that they sound better than the original recordings. I’m not that critical, every other major audio company out there makes everything from crap to studio level stuff, everything from Bose is above average. You may pay more for Bose, but you’ll never be disappointed, so if you are not the kind of person to spend hours comparing audio equipment, cough up a few extra bucks and then go back to having fun.

I went back to earphones to try some Shure E3c, the big selling point was that I was tired of carrying my Bose around and these rolled up into a case bigger about half the volume of a bagel. They have no active noise reduction, but because of the airtight foam seal, they cut out more background noise than my Bose.

I was fine with this for a few months until I went back to the Sony’s and found that I liked the sound from them more than the Shures. This lead to my Christmas present/year end bonus – Shure e500’s. I was able to get a set for under $500, but the sound is in a different league than the E3c’s. The E3c’s have one driver (tiny speaker), while the 500’s have 3 in each ear. For raw sound the Sony’s stand up well to the 500’s, but there’s a clarity in the 500’s that set them apart from everything else, but if you’re not an audio addict the Sony’s can do the job for you. The biggest shock in the clarity is that you can often hear things that you never heard before in recordings, even things not intended by the artist, such as breathing, the clicking of saxaphone valves as they close, etc.
One last thing on the comfort front – Shures allow you to choose from a number of rubber ear flanges, or you can use compressible foam (these are my choice). If you are even crazier than me you can cough up another $500 or more and get custom ear molds for a perfect fit. I may get around to that one day if I managed to hit big.

And just to be complete (since the draft of this post has been kicking around for months), I also have a set of Nike headphones (actually made by Phillips) that are specifically for running. Although they don’t sound very good compared to any of the above, they are far lighter than any other and the cord runs down the back so that it doesn’t interfere with my stride. I can put up with the so-so sound in exchange for not having to worry about them as I run, or getting ruined by weather, etc.

I blame a large portion of my headphone addiction on Scott McGrath who turned me on to and crazy people who by mini-amplifiers for their headphones. The site is great and has some cool comparison tools, check it you if you are into audio. The following graph shows some of the headphones discussed. The vertical axis shows how accurately a sound is represented, if the headphones reproduced the sound perfectly, the graph would be a flat line at 0. Negative numbers mean that they are coming up short of the sound and positive numbers mean they are juicing it up beyond the original sound. The horizontal axis is showing frequency, the left end is where bass and lower sounds are, around the middle is human voice, and at the end are high pitches like flutes and cymbals.

Update: The headphones this article covers are no longer available for graphing from so I have included and updated graphic (that is now static so it won’t break again).¬†As you can see, the green line of iPod earbuds show that they are about as accurate as my cousins from Michigan when they get a few beers in them (now replaced with some lower end Sonys). They can’t hit the low frequencies, but then juice the higher frequencies to give them a “shiny” sound. Notice how all of them do freaky stuff at the high end, I have heard that some of that has to do with the shape of the ear and how high frequency sounds are heard, but that’s beyond my jedi skills.

Notice how the Shure E3cs are fairly accurate at a good price, many musicians use them to monitor themselves while recording or performing. Both the Bose and the e500s juice the bass.

I’d love to hear any of your experiences with listening…

Update 2: An update in 2013, click here for the latest.

5 replies on “Shure vs. Bose vs. Sony Headphones/Earphones”

Wow, that’s quite a set of headphones! A few months ago I picked up a used pair of Bose QuietComfort 3s, which were my first real pair of noise cancelling headphones. Really liking it for blocking out the computer-humming white noise, and great sound to my ear, but I’m not an audiophile quite like others. And I have a cheap pair of Sony over-the-head style ones for running. Earbuds never stay in my ears very well…

You hit upon a key point there that I didn’t mention – while audiophiles tend to bitch about Bose because they tend to juice the sound up, it often does make it sound “better”. The bass hits a little harder and the highs have a bit more shine so it’s more fun to listen to – kind of like the airbrushing on a supermodel. Used QC3s are a good bet, you could save a little more with some Seinheisers, but it’s better to support the home team….

After much shopping my favs are the Sony Inner Ear headphones:

Sometimes labeled as High Performance. They go for $100 at Best Buy/Circuit City

The inner ear cancels out most noise and they push in deeper for better bass, highs are really clear.

To me the absolute biggest feature is the width of the frequency response, the wider it is the more detail you will hear on both high and low ends, as well as mids. The headphones have to be well built of course, but most with higher specs are. Unfortunately all iPods have a rather limited frequency range, 20Hz to 20,000Hz, which makes testing headphones a tough experience. Kinda like judging HD video on an SD TV.

I did not realize this until I got a Sansa Rhapsody e280R, which has a wider range, and a different, bigger, audio chip…it was like night and day. This started me on a quest to find the best sounding portable mp3 player. After lots of different brands, including the Zune, the Sansa e200 series sounded best. Most companies don’t list their specs, so it takes a lot of digging.

The issue popped up briefly on the web when people got the new higher bitrate DRM free songs from iTunes – most could not tell the difference from the standard versions on their iPod. Which according to Apple’s specs, makes sense.

Higher end headphones typically list the specs such as frequency response, my opinion is the larger this is, the better sound. I think of it as 256 colors, to 4096 colors to 16 millions colors. Wider range is more “colors”

My problem is that even though I love my Sansa, I am an iPod junky, buying almost every new one as it comes out, currently with the iPhone as my official player. And ironically I stick with the apple earbuds now because it has the phone/talk features.

I envision that Apple, after it has tapped out various ipod variations, will introduce the “better sounding” ipod, for audiophiles. The specs will be a big jump in quality and frequency range for the sound. By then the higher quality chips will be lower in price and small enough for ipod size. You heard it here first…

Frank, great comment, I hadn’t considered that I might be getting burned out of some of the spectrum by the player itself. There’s also the issue of older low quality Mp3’s I have, no matter what they’re not going to sound any better.

Here’s looking forward to my Audiophile iPod…

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