Thursday, March 24, 2005

Why choose "Canalphones?"

Recently there’s been a stash of posts around the various forums I frequent about the choice of ‘canalphones’, (earphones which go inside the ear canal, as sold by Sony / Shure / Etymotic among others), with some negative comments about their use. A lot of the posts replying don’t really take into account the needs of the would-be buyer, so here’s a few words on what I have to say about canalphones.

Myth 1: Canalphones offer much better sound than regular headphones...
No they don’t. Every canalphone I’ve had offers worse sound than many headphones of the same price.

Myth 2: Canaphones are much more detailed than headphones...
No they aren’t, although most canalphones are pretty detailed. The Etymotic canalphones are basically running the drivers at the ragged edge of treble boost, which results in a very ‘detailed’ sound, as high-frequency distortion mixes with the highs to create the impression of further detail. I think it’s fair comment to say that some components of the Etymotic detail that are raved over by listeners are manufactured by their very heavily boosted treble and the resulting issues thereof.

So, given the above, why the hell choose canalphones and why do I use one almost every day if those two things are true? It’s all about the one extra feature that canalphones offer, and also about a compromise you’re willing to make to have that feature. That is of course the extended isolation that canalphones have. If you travel a lot, then the isolation levels that canalphones offer will be… er, eye-opening. Noises around you gets pushed behind the music to an impressive degree. And they do this without complex noise-cancelling doohickies which need battery packs and whatnot to work. This isn’t just about hearing the music better. It’s about hearing it at a much lower volume than if you had to crank your phones to the max to overcome background noise... i.e. it can protect your hearing as well. And they all do this while being as portable as the earphones that came with your player.

So, in terms of portability, isolation and sound quality as well as the tone the the phones have, it's a compromise that canalphones offer, but it is probably the best compromise if your portable listening requirements involve any of the aforementioned attributes. They’re incredibly useful for travelling, and as such any tradeoffs in the sound are generally worth it in my view. If you don’t want or need isolation, then you’re better off going for an open earphones or headphones as these generally offer more sound for the buck.

Practical Consideration 1: Canalphones are easy to wear...
IF you follow the instructions. Getting the seal correct is one of the most important aspects of wearing a canalphone. An airtight seal allows the balanced armature drivers uses in the midrange/high-end canalphones to work properly. The other important consideration is how you wear them and route the cables. The Etymotic phones are pretty simple… ram into your ears, get your seal and that's it. The Shure phones were developed as stage monitors and as such they’re designed to allow more freedom of movement as well as be discreet. It’s important to follow the instructions they give you, especially the bit about adjusting the clear tube once the cable has been routed over your ear and behind the head. I route the earphone cable through the hook loops of any outer garment I happen to have on.

Practical Consideration 2: Canalphones are not maintenance free.
Humans are fairly dirty creatures and as such, anything which you stick inside where things don't normally go gets liberally covered in parts of you. Disposable foam tips pick up earwax, and bacteria multplies in a warm, moist environment such as the air pockets of foam tips. Remember for example that if you 'squish' the foam tips to put them on while commuting, you've probably transferred bacteria that was on a train grabhandle, etc onto the tips. If you use foam tips, change them regularly. If you use the silicone tips, clean them every once in a while, but do not use soap as flakes can congeal on parts of the tip, which may go inside the canalphones if you're not careful. If your phone uses interchangeable earwax filters, inspect them regularly. If your phone needs 'picking' of earwax (such as the Shure E5c), inspect them regularly too.

This is probably an ongoing document. I'll update it as I see fit.


rauer said...

Another reason for using canalphones:

You don't want people to realise your level of geekiness which would be revealed by using something like Jecklin Floaters in public.

Anonymous said...

Of all the 'canalphones' that you've used, which would you recommend to an average listener that will mostly be used with 320k MP3's played from an iPod Mini / shuffle? I've looked at both Shure and Etymotic, as well as a couple other brands, but of course each 'side' has their proponents and opponents. Thanks for any advice!

Anonymous said...

you're COMPLETELY clueless if you don't think canalphones sound better.

Connor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

I agree with comment above saying that you're clueless if you don't think canalphones sound better. Whenever I wear non-canalphones, background noise is much more audible and I have to turn up the volume, but it doesn't help much. The detail I can hear is also less because of this. And don't get me started with non-canalphones falling out of my ears every 5 minutes or so.

Plus, they generally look better as well, assuming you get a sleek pair. I'm not sure where the comment about looking geeky comes from.

For beginners to canalphones, I recommend these:

You can also try the vmoda bling bling (, which look pretty sleek and fit well, but I've had problems with those breaking too early.

John said...

I agree with the above.

bangraman said...

Thank you for agreeing with both of your posts.

The justification for canalphones have been listed in the blog post, along with their negatives.

MissAznRules said...

Well i kinda think my canalphones are better since i have rather clean ears and have really good canalphones what i'm saying is if you have really good canalphones and can hear over something rather well get canalphones.
They are kinda good but i really don't care much.

Patrick said...

These sennheiser headphones are really great. Most of important thing is that it have Velour ear pads.

oatkiller said...

I work in an office, unless the cans I'm wearing are closed off and with a tight seal, they will cause annoying noise pollution. I also have talking going on around me, I need maximum noise dampening. Typical canalphones achieve around 28-30db of it.

I wear my headphones while walking / jogging, cans are too awkward for this.

My head is very large, unless my cans have adjustable width (I bend my Grados to a huge width and that works) they won't even fit. Plastic Sennheisers don't even begin to fit on my head.

I wear glasses 100% of the time, cans push the glasses arms into the side of my head and are too uncomfortable to wear for long periods.

For these reasons, I always have a good pair of canalphones.