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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 Headphone.com 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 headphone.com 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.