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Separate the sound from the fury: 5 in-ear headphones for your smartphone

Mark Sullivan | Feb. 3, 2014
We found lots of things to like, and some things to dislike in popular new in-ear headphones from Beats, Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, Harman Kardon and Shure.

Still, you do have to watch the volume on these phones, because they sound so good you will want to turn them up, and they will deliver excessive volume if you push them.

I have one criticism of the SE215: Its jack is so large that I can't plug it into my phone via the opening in my phone case. And I suspect that my case won't be the only one with an opening that doesn't fit the SE215. It's no showstopper, but it's a feature you'll want to keep in mind when choose your set of in-ear headphones.

Bowers & Wilkins C5 ($179)

The C5s from Bowers & Wilkins are certainly eye-catching. They look like little sawed-off black pipes sticking out of your ears, with little silver grills on the ends. Those pipes are made of plastic; just underneath, you'll find a solid metal construction around the actual driver.

A small tube around the cable has volume buttons, a call/pause button, and a microphone. This seemed to work as advertised in my tests.

As with the Shure SE215, the three inches of cable next to the C5's earphones is covered by a bendy material that holds its shape. Part of this loops up above the earphone, and can be pushed to wedge up against the cartilage ridge in your ear to keep the driver solidly in your ear canal. I had some difficulty getting the earphone wedged in place using this loop, but eventually got it to work.

The original rubber earphone stuck too far inside my ear canal, which affected the sound, so I used one of the supplied replacements, a shorter one, and got better results. I listened to a couple of recent hip hop recordings to check out the bass response of the drivers: it's nice and round and full, if not quite as punchy as in some of the other in-ears I've listened to.

The mids and highs were a bit more in-your-face, which was fine until I pushed the volume up past the 80 percent mark on my iPhone; then they began to sound a bit jarring and shrill. The gain on the bass frequencies didn't seem to ramp up as quickly.

Overall, the C5s create a spacious and dimensional sound environment inside your ears. It's not the most accurate representation of music I've ever heard in a pair of in-ears, but it is a pleasing sound--provided you position the earphones in your ears correctly using the right size rubber tip.

Bose MIE2i ($130)

The Bose MIE2i earphones are an inexpensive set of in-ears, but they don't sound or look as good as many less expensive models I've tried.


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