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A Sound Approach to Earphones

By Cliff Edwards


Reviews below)

Editor's Review

The Good Multiple earbud moldings fit any size ear

The Bad More expensive than many digital music players

The Bottom Line Audiophiles will love these pricey units for their sound quality and light weight

Over the past few months, I've been on something of a headphones hunt. Not happy with the sound or fit of the headphones that came with my Apple iPod, I've been keeping an eye out for a good alternative.

My criteria: Lightweight headphones, capable of delivering great sound, yet sturdy enough to go anywhere. Life can be hard for headphones, which tend not to last too long, at least when I'm using them. With that in mind, Shure's E4C ($299) headphones so far have fit the bill.

A follow-up to the closely held company's E3C headphones for the iPod, and a step below the uber-pricey E5C model, Shure gets the E4C just right for all but the most discerning audiophiles.

EARS, ALL TYPES. Like other "sound isolating" earphones, the one-ounce E4C works by using soft foam or rubber sleeves to seal out background noise and deliver sound directly to the ear. This passive approach differs from that provided by the noise-cancellation technology used by the likes of Bose, whose models use active electronic techniques to screen out background distractions.

Emulating the experience you get from buying an Apple (AAPL) product, Shure delivers the BMW of headphones in a stylish, brushed-metal case containing an assortment of rubber sleeves (in white and dark grey) that fit on the earphones and are placed directly into the ears. The selection includes two for smaller ear canals, two medium ones likely to fit most users, and a pair of large sleeves. A triple flange type more firmly seals in the sound, but requires a larger ear canal.

I tended to use the set of sleeves that come in a yellow foam that molds to the ear canal and seems to offer the best sound. They still require a bit of work, however. You have to compress the foam before inserting, then hold it in place for about a minute as it expands to fit the ear canal. Although I thought these were the most comfortable of the several choices, the process can become a bit tiresome when done over and over again.

NO DISTRACTIONS. Also, movement tends to make the earbuds pop out, so I'd recommend using the foam sleeves only when in a relatively inactive position, such as on long flights. (The foam also tends to look pretty dirty after just a few uses, even with the included zippered carrying case).

So how does music sound? Shure took to heart criticism of the earlier E3C model by improving bass, midrange, and treble sounds. Of course, you could have stepped up the E5C, but a test proved their dedicated low-mass, high-energy drivers highlighted too much of the compression sounds common to digital music files.

With the sound isolation, music recorded to my iPod sounded great. And with far fewer distractions from external sources, I found myself actually hearing the lyrics to songs by The Killers for the first time. Subtle sounds also were much more evident. What's more, I never had to move the volume above the midway mark, even over the blaring music at my gym.

WINNING NOTE. There were a few downsides. One of them: The 60-inch cord, which hangs over the ear and dangles behind the back is overly long, making it more prone to becoming snagged. When this happens, the plugs are immediately wrenched out of the ears.

And at around $300, you'll be paying more for the headphones than for most music players. To help alleviate that concern, Shure offers a 30-day money-back guarantee and a two-year limited warranty. It also offers free shipping with purchases from its Web site,

For a great pair of earphones that deliver music clearer than ever before, I recommend the E4C.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Los Angeles bureau

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