Although music is generally considered a social activity, I also treasure the personal experience of private listening. One of my favourite times to listen is when I’m out walking. Music always takse me to another emotional place, even while strolling my familiar neighbourhood. It’s only by consciously reminding myself that I’m still in the urban jungle that I’m not completely in some alternate world. I also use my earbuds to meditate to music.
For the most immersive experience, I think sound quality makes a big difference. The quality of those tiny earbuds can make a huge difference to the listening experience, and that doesn’t necessarily mean committing to costly hi-fi units, because, in my experience, the single biggest factor in the quality of the listening experience is the way they fit in your ear.
Before I get into that, a couple of warnings:
- Be careful about volume. Your ears are amazing little transducers that use intricate, delicate parts to convert tiny changes in air pressure into electrical impulses. They are easily damaged! That means first, that you should always exercise care inserting your buds into the ear canal. Secondly, with earbuds, that sound is drilling straight into your ear. From that perspective, I would argue that properly fitted in-ear buds allow you to hear the music well while keeping the volume at a reasonable level. Buds that dangle around the ear opening are competing for your attention with all the other sounds in your environment. It’s tempting to crank it up to drown out everything else. If you can hear a noticeable ringing in your ears after using your buds, you may be doing damage. If you’re listening for long periods, I recommend taking a break every half hour or so.
- Be careful about everything else while you’re listening! You may not be aware how much you use your hearing to be aware of your surroundings. If you’re out walking, compensate for that lack of environmental information by using your eyes more consciously. As for when driving, just don’t! For me, the same goes for riding a bicycle and even running.
So, to elaborate on my initial point: I will make the bold claim (partly because it’s hard to test for) that a $50 pair of buds properly fitted will sound better than a poorly fitted $200 pair.
The bass is most obviously affected. Earbuds are just very tiny speakers, and low-pitched sounds usually need big speakers in specially designed cabinets to generate the needed sound pressure. When your earbuds are fitted so they form a seal, the ear canal works as a version of a speaker box. With properly fitted tips, it’s astounding how strong and clean the bass can be on tiny earphones (in fact, some earphones may be set up to over-emphasise the bass. Once you have your buds properly fitted, if you find the bass is too much, play around with your EQ settings until it’s to your satisfaction).
So let’s see how we can get the best musical value from our humble earbuds.
To get that all-important seal, two things are needed:
- In-ear buds. Commonly, the earbuds that come with your phone or tablet will be designed to rest on the outer rim of the ear. Buds that sit inside the ear canal, often called in-ear headphones, will usually give you a far better result.
- In-ear buds on their own may not be enough to effectively isolate the sound. They will probably come with interchangeable tips, and for best results, you need to find tips that will form a good seal.
This use of snugly-fitting tips is called noise-isolating design. You can also get noise-cancelling devices, which use clever technology to separate outside noises from the mix. These can be expensive, and many people feel the fidelity of the music can be affected, or simply that they don’t always remove enough non-musical signal. I’ve never explored these, because for me noise-isolating devices have always done the job. In a way, though, the fact that noise-cancelling devices don’t remove all noise can be a good thing. They tend to work best on relatively constant, background sound like distant traffic or aircraft cabin noise, and let through more transient sounds that might be helpful to hear, like sirens or car horns.
So let’s assume you have some noise-isolating buds and you want to find the best-fitting tips. They will probably have come with a choice of silicon rubber tips in various sizes. Some may have two or three flanges to multiply the seal. You may also find one or more pairs of tips made from squishy material called memory foam.
Now, everyone’s ears are different, but unless my ears are somehow very weird, you may have the same experience I’ve had of finding none of the rubber tips quite right. If you insert the tips into your ear and they feel like they are sitting there firmly, that’s a great start. But if you find that after a few minutes they start to work loose, they may be too small or just the wrong shape.
I’ve had better success with the memory foam tips. The idea of these is that you compress them so they can fit in the ear and over several seconds they expand and form themselves into the shape of the ear canal, pressing gently outwards to stay in place. I have to say, though, that I often find the foam tips that come with the buds to be a little unsatisfactory, and they may still end up working their way out of my ears.
For some of the earbuds I’ve had over the years, I’ve had to resort to purchasing third-party foam tips. It’s turned out that the $20 or so investment in the right tips has been just as worthwhile as the amount I spent on the buds.
It may take some trial and error before you find the right tips for your ears, but in case my experience helps, I have settled on Comply Foam Sport tips. Don’t be put off by the sales pitch that these tips are for sport – you don’t have to be an olympian to qualify! Their key feature is that they grip well, and their sound quality is not compromised in any way as far as I can tell, and, again for my ears, they are perfectly comfortable.
Then, Grasshopper, you must master the art of correctly fitting your buds. You need to make a nice firm seal without getting too close to your delicate eardrum. This is how I fit buds using memory foam tips:
- Compress the sides of the tip with your fingers so it’s narrower;
- With your left hand, reach around the back of your head and gently pull the outer ear backwards to open the ear canal a little;
- insert the tip fully but not forcefully. If they are properly designed buds and tips, they shouldn’t be able to go too far in;
- hold the bud in place with a fingertip for a few seconds until the tip expands and makes a firm fit. If you pull gently and you feel them resisting, that indicates a good fit;
- To remove them again, reverse the process, twisting them a little as you pull them out. And never pull them out by the cables!
If you want a visual guide, check out this video from Etymotic (who make some very nice earbuds, by the way).
The process is the same for silicon tips except for the compressing bit. Keep in mind that the longer the tip, the more careful you should be.
Lastly, other than reminding you of my earlier warnings, I would also say that even though I love my musical walks, I make a point of sometimes not listening to music. There’s a world of beautiful sounds available even in urban environments if you tune in to them. If you’re looking for composition ideas, aural inspiration can be found everywhere.