I’ve never been much of an audiophile. Maybe something to do with growing up with cassette tapes, and early music collections largely consisting of C60s full of stuff taped off the Top 40 (listening in, Record and Play depressed, Pause button on, finger poised, hoping they’d announce the track name before the intro so you’d have some warning, isn’t it? Wasn’t it? Jumpers for goalposts etc.)
For wandering-around-style audio I stuck with a tape walkman for a long time, up to the late 90s, but eventually getting tired of taping my CDs just for the walkman I tried a portable CD player for a bit. It was bulky and vulnerable to skipping when jolted (or knocked, or tapped very gently), necessitating balancing it on top of the head and walking around like a girl at a Swiss finishing school. Excellent for posture, I’m sure, but a touch inconvenient. Fortunately MP3 players were just starting to take off, so I soon ditched the CD player for a Rio 500. With a massive 64Mb of onboard memory, I tinkered around with bitrates when encoding MP3s to squeeze as much as possible onto it, and found an audiophile-horrifying 112kbit/s fairly listenable (though even my tin ears couldn’t take 96kbit/s). With such a range of not-especially-high-fidelity sources there’d never seemed much point getting earphones of stunning clarity, so my prime criteria was “whatever happens to be cheap at Dixons/Argos/Poundland/Some Random Market Stall”, which would invariably get a dodgy connection within a few months, and when eventually no amount of twiddling would get sound back in the left ear it was on to the next bargain set. Moving on from the Rio to hard-drive based Archos and Creative units, space was no longer an issue so I went crazy with higher bitrate MP3s, but stuck with cheap headphones, until a few years back I got an iPod, and with it a rather splendid gift of Shure E2c earphones.
As opposed to the “sort of nestle in the outer ear”phones, like the set that come with the iPod, the E2c are “sound isolating earphones”, or “canalphones”, or “shove ’em right into your lug ‘ole”phones. They come with no less than nine types of sleeve (three sizes of each of three different types) to get a good fit in the ear, and it took a fair amount of fiddling to sort out the most comfortable set of sleeves and to adjust to the sensation of having something wedged in the ear. Once used to them, though, they were excellent; they substantially cut down on background noise, making it much easier to listen to spoken word like stand-up comedy or podcasts while out and about without cranking the volume up to crazy levels, but it’s not total isolation to a dangerous “not hearing traffic” level, you still have awareness of what’s going on. In an open plan office they’re perfect for cutting down general background chatter, likewise on planes, trains (and automobiles, if you’re a passenger and not keen on the driver’s musical selections). Piping the music directly into the wearer’s skull cuts down on the noise for everyone around them as well; I used to sit near a chap, and while it was fun identifying the CD he was listening to from the tinny version emanating from his earphones, the Shures would have been most helpful (to replace his earphones, not to strangle him with the cable, why would you possibly think that?) Speaking of the cable, it’s nice and long, long enough to stretch from an iPod in cargo trouser pockets without having to wander around with a permanent hunch. Sound quality, as I think we’ve established, isn’t my strongest point, but for what it’s worth I’d say it’s very good. Better than Poundland Deluxe Specials, at any rate; I’ll leave in-depth debates to the expert Amazon reviewers (LAWL TEH BASE SU>< ).
Three years on, the original set are somewhat battered from almost daily use, with several bits of tape covering breaks in the cable shroud, and the jack bends at a curious angle, presumably from a time when they were connected to a PC and I decided to wander off without removing them… Despite all that they still work, but when I was buying a bunch of stuff from Amazon and poking around the site, as you do, I noticed they were doing Creative EP-630 shove ’em right into your lug ‘olephones for all of seven quid, so I thought I might as well grab them as a backup, just in case. The Creatives aren’t bad headphones at all; sound-wise, I can hardly tell the difference between them and the Shures (unsurprisingly), but the cable’s just a smidge too short to be ideal, they’re not quite as easy to fit (less to get hold of when shoving them into the ear), and the Shures are designed so the cable loops over the top of your ear, so if an earphone comes out it helpfully dangles there rather than plummeting to certain doom. I’ll keep the Creatives as spare backups, but I’m really comfortable with the Shures now, so I got another pair of E2cs. Just in time, it turns out, as they’re now discontinued in favour of the SE range.