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$150.00 – $300 plus might be too much for most of us looking the replace our Apple earbuds. While for many, the standard buds provided by apple and other manufacturers are just fine – for most semi-discriminating listeners, they just won’t do. Can you find a pair of ‘good’ replacements without spending as much as the ipod itself? The answers may surprise you – read on for more information.

My last review covered incredibly expensive and incredibly amazing earphones to replace the stock buds of most players. When you listen to the Shures, the Audio-Technicas, the Altec lansings, the Ultimate Ears and the likes – there is just no going back.

Yet, not all of us can afford those alternatives. What about buds for the rest of us. Well, I call these ‘Buds Light.’ Some are truly fabulous and others leave me wanting for my little white Apple buds. Can you find a replacement set of earbuds for under $120? Will they be satisfying to listen to? The answer to both questions is a resounding YES. First up: Koss Spark Plug


The SparkPlug features a dynamic element that is positioned just outside the ear and connected to a tubular port structure that is inserted on a soft expandable cushion into the ear canal. The soft foam cushion expands for a custom fit to improve isolation and enhance deep bass and treble clarity. Now with improved slow memory ear cushion made of hydrophilic, formed urethane, you are guaranteed a custom fit every time.

The fit enhances isolation when you want to plug out ambient sounds that interfere with the listening experience. The SparkPlug has a frequency response performance of 10Hz-20,000Hz and full Sound of Koss. The official specs are:

SPARKPLUG SRP: $14.99

  • Frequency Response 10-20,000 Hz
  • Impedance 16 ohms
  • Sensitivity 112dB SPL/1mW
  • Distortion under 0.3%
  • Cord Straight, Dual Entry, 4ft

Design:

The Spark Plug is an in-the-ear design. Unlike others which utilize a removable ear tip – the Spark Plug uses ‘Memory Foam’ as the only option. A pinch on the memory foam and the Spark Plug is ready for insertion. Because the Spark Plug is a little bigger than most in-ear earphones – I had trouble with them staying put – they popped out of my ears a couple of times. The Spark Plug is very lightweight and seems to be quite sturdy in its design.

Comfort:

The Spark Plug is definitely more obtrusive than the other in-ear designs tested. Noise isolation was good, but not great. My ears started to hurt after a while – these were just not terribly comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. Keep in mind, however, that this is a very subjective thing – if you have bigger ear openings, these might work just fine for you.

Sound Quality:

Given the fact that these were not terribly comfortable, what was frustrating to me was that they sounded so good. These little earphones sounded almost as good as ones costing five times as much! The high end was a bit muted – but the bass was strong enough for my tastes and the instrumentals and vocals sounded pretty good. For fifteen bucks, these are a definite upgrade to the included earbuds of the ipod.

Conclusion:

I would definitely recommend trying these earphones if you are looking for good sound in an inexpensive package. You really need to see if they are comfortable for you – if they are, you will pleasantly surprised at the ‘Bang for the buck’ factor of these Spark Plugs.

Overall Grade: B+

Pros: Good sound, nice bass, lightweight and sturdy
Cons: uncomfortable for extended periods of time – weak high end

Next Up: The KSC9 SportClip(tm) Stereophone


The official line from Koss on these is:
The KSC9 uses an electro/dynamic element that delivers a frequency response of 40Hz-20,000Hz. Intra-aural, or inside the ear, earbuds have been turned sideways to aim the sound directly into your ear canal for surprisingly awesome sound and kicking bass. The side firing design naturally projects the sound to your ear and also reduces the amount of physical contact to make the stereophones more comfortable. The KSC9 is big in sound, yet small in size, which allows you to store it anywhere from your pocket, briefcase or purse.

The KSC9 features a pliable molded rubber ear clips that fit directly over the ear. Designed for maximum comfort, this clip eliminates the need for a conventional headband, but fits securely enough in your ear so you can also comfortably wear the KSC9 while active and on-the-go. The 3.5mm L-shaped plug reduces strain on the cord, meaning it will last longer no matter how many times you plug it in or unplug it.

KSC9 SRP: $14.99

Frequency Response 40-20,000 Hz
Impedance 32 ohms
Sensitivity 102 dB SPL/1 mW
Distortion under 1.0%
Cord Straight, Dual Entry, 4ft

Design:

The Sport clips are an interesting design concept. The are not traditional in-ear earphones and they are not ear buds like those included with the ipod. The have an ear bud looking driver that is attached to an over the ear clip positioning the driver right in the ear canal.

Comfort:

Comfort with these ear clips was a mixed bag. The drivers sat comfortably enough in the opening to the ear canal. The problem, however, was with the over the ear clip part of the headphone. The plastic was hard and the ‘adjustable’ ear clips weren’t so adjustable. If you wear glasses (which I do) these are definitely not for you as they will push against your glasses making them even more uncomfortable.

Sound Quality:

These Sport clips, disappointingly, don’t offer any real advantage over the sound quality of the Apple Ear buds included with the ipod. Bass was weak, highs were tinny and vocals sounded dull.

Conclusions:

For the same money, the sound quality difference between these and the Spark Plug is astounding – buy the Spark Plugs.

Overall Grade: C

Pros: Sturdy design, possibly good for sporting activities
Cons: uncomfortable, poor sound quality
Titanium Sound in a Stylish Behind-the-head Design

Next up: Koss KSC55

The official line on these behind the neck headphones is as follows:
With titanium-coated elements, the KSC55 delivers high quality sound performance to active and fashion-conscious listeners who never miss a beat and always arrive in style. The KSC55’s behind-the-head design won’t mess with hairstyles or get in the way of headgear like bike helmets or baseball caps. The KSC55 features dynamic elements for a wide frequency response from 15-25,000 Hz. A 2 mil. titanium coating on its mylar diaphragms increases the rigidity of the elements*, minimizing mechanical distortion and ensuring exceedingly accurate sound reproduction. Computer-optimized neodymium iron boron rare earth magnet structures mean the KSC55 delivers excellent volume, even with low-voltage MP3 and disc players. Oxygen-free copper voice coils improve signal transmission and conduction for cleaner, clearer sound. Foam earcushions with screened earcups provide an open, hear-through sound – perfect for times when you need to be in touch with your surroundings, like while blading on the boulevard or listening at the office. .

KSC55 SRP: $19.99

Frequency Response 15-25,000 Hz
Impedance 60 ohms
Sensitivity 101 dB SPL/1mW
Distortion under 0.2%
Cord Straight, Dual Entry, 4ft

Design:

This is one of those ‘love it or hate it kind of designs.’ Let’s just say that I am not in the ‘love it’ group. They sit behind the neck and on top of the ears like more traditional over the ear Headphones. The advantages of this design is that it is easier to be active with them than with ones that sit on top of your head.

Comfort:

The KSC55’s are very comfortable to wear. It is quite a contrast to go from an in-ear design to one that sits over the ear. The foam ear cushions give a nice feel over the ears and they could be worn for hours on end with little, if any, ear fatigue often associated with in-ear designs.

Sound Quality:

I had high hopes for these Headphones since they used ‘Titanium’ so much in the official description. I’m not sure what the advantage of the titanium is in these particular Earphones except they are very light. As far as sound quality, they are better than the Sport Clips, no where near as good as the Spark plugs and way behind every other Headphone in this roundup. Bass was not as strong, the highs were somewhat weak and vocals were just not as ‘true’ as with others in this test.

Conclusions:

For twenty bucks (less on line) these are not bad if you are looking for a behind the neck design. Sound quality is seriously lacking when compared to others in this roundup – but if you are on a very tight budget, you will see improved sound over the included Apple Earbuds.

Overall Grade: B-

Pros: comfortable, inexpensive
Cons: mediocre sound quality, bigger than ear buds

Next up: Shure E2g in ear phones


The Shure E2g’s are the least expensive member of the ‘Gaming Edition’ family. The ‘Official word’ from the Shure web site is as follows:

Key Features:
Utilizing the same technology as the original E Series, the E2g combines sound isolating sleeves with high-performance Dynamic MicroDriver technology to deliver full-range audio while blocking outside noise.
Sound Isolating Technology
The E2g’s in ear design works like an earplug to block background noise naturally. This enables you to listen comfortably at lower volumes — even in loud environments.
Speaker Type: Dynamic MicroDrivers
The E2g’s speakers are constructed with studio-grade components, producing outstanding audio clarity that allows you to hear your music like never before.
Personal Fit Kit
Because every ear is different, E2g Earphones come with three pairs (small, medium, large) of disposable Foam Sleeves, and three pairs (small, medium, large) of Flex Sleeves to ensure the ideal personalized fit.
Secure In Ear Design
The soft, flexible sleeves in the Fit Kit gently contour the inside of the ear for a comfortable, secure fit so that the earphones don’t fall out while you’re exercising.
Low-Profile Earphone Cables
The E2g’s cables pass behind the ear – out of sight and out of the way — to provide a more comfortable, discreet fit.
Lightweight Construction
Weighing only 1 oz (30g), the E2g is lightweight and comfortable enough for any portable listening application — packing a big punch in such a compact package.
Earphones Carrying Case
The E2g comes with a stylish, compact carrying case. The cable spool inside provides a convenient, tangle-free way to store your earphones.
E2g Technical Specifications:

Speaker Type:
Dynamic MicroDriver

Sensitivity (at 1kHz):
105dB SPL/mW

Impedance (at 1kHz):
16 Ohm

Cable Length:
1.45m (57 inches)

Net Weight:
30g (1 oz)

Input Connector:
3.5 mm (1/8′) gold-plated stereo plug

Design:

The Shure E2g’s are the most economical Earphone in Shure’s lineup. That does not mean that they are ‘Cheap’ in any way. The design is very rugged and secure. The E2g’s are meant to go deep in the ear canal – just like the more expensive E3 and E4 models. The E2’s are substantially bigger than the E3’s and E4’s. There are several different foam and silicon Ear sleeves that you place on the end of the unit. Because they are bigger Earphones, I did have some trouble using them as advertised on the Web site – which is upside down with the cables running back behind the hear. I found that the E2g’s did protrude quite a bit.

Comfort:

This, is the Achilles heel of the E2g. The drivers are much bigger than the more expensive Shure models and they not only protrude out of the ear – they are tricky to get in place. I really liked the smaller flexi-sleeves offered on the E3 and E4 models – but they are not offered with the E2g’s. The size of the driver is too big, so only the harder silicon sleeves and foam sleeves have openings wide enough to accommodate them. Getting them in my ear was tricky. I found the foam sleeves to be the only ones I could actually get inside my ears and they were not as comfortable to wear for long periods of time.

Sound Quality:

On the one hand – it doesn’t seem right to include these Earphones in a review with earphones costing three times as much. However, after further thought – these more than hold their own and get high marks for value. Although the list price is $109.00, everywhere I looked had the E2g’s for $79 -$99 and less on Ebay. The E2g’s have amazing bass – maybe even a slightly bit better than the more expensive E3g’s. The Detail in the high frequencies was also terrific. It was not tinny and it was not boomy – it was warm and balanced. Vocals were clear and full for a wide range of musical artists. A true audiophile will certainly be able to discern between these and the top-of-the-line E4g’s from Shure’s line-up – but the average listener will have a tough time justifying the difference in price.

Conclusions:

These are great sounding Earphones and a dramatic step up from the stock buds of most players. Bass is deep, highs are clear, separation is fabulous. They are not as comfortable as more expensive Earphones – but those with larger ears who tested them found them more than satisfactory. The Build quality is great and they are definite Shure premium Earhphones and a Plebian price point.

Overall Grade: A-

Pros: Great sound, good bass, high quality

Cons: Uncomfortable for some, tricky to get in the ears properly

Next up: Ultimate Ears Super.fi 3 Studio

Product Description
For the last ten years, Ultimate Ears has been designing custom ear monitor products for your favorite professional musicians for use on stage and in the studio. Musicians put their hearts, their souls, their breakups, their memories and their passions into every song and they count on Ultimate Ears products to get the most of out of their music. Our super.fi products were developed so that you too can hear music the way it is meant to be heard.

Product Specifications
Earphone Type In-ear
Speaker Type Single driver: Full range precision balanced armature
Input Sensitivity 115dB/mW
Impedance 13 Ohms (at 1Khz)
Cable Length 46 inches
Weight 0.5 oz.
Input connector 1/8′ (3.5mm) Gold plated
Noise isolation

26 dB

Precision Balanced Speaker
Full range, high ou
put armature provides full spectrum sound without distortion

Audio Filter
Shapes the sound for maximum detail

Ultra Light-Weight Housing
Polycarbonate housing offers durability and component
protection in a super light-weight design

Replaceable Cable
Innovative design feature allows you to replace the standard
cable with optional accessory cables

Design:

The Ultimate Ears Super.fi 3 Studio’s are the little brothers to the Super.fi 5 Pro’s, which were the winners in the ‘The Battle of the Buds’ review here last month. The design of the Super.fi 3’s is very similar. The Earbuds are angled to go inside the ear canal – but not nearly as deep as others (like the Shures.) The cable then goes around the back of the ear (with a guiding wire) and the Earphones protrude outwards from the ear canal. Like the super.fi 5’s – it takes a while to master putting these in and out. The build quality is fabulous – sturdy, lots of replaceable tips to the ear buds and a nicely constructed soft case is included. Other web sites have knocked the Ultimate Ears design for utilizing a very flimsy feeling cable. My tests showed that while the cable is not nearly as ‘tough’ and thick as those on the Shures – it was plenty sturdy and more comfortable to wear.

Comfort:

My comments about comfort are almost identical as to those for the Super.fi 5’s. Thankfully, there are so many possible tips to put on the end in various sizes, some with two flanges and even foam tips that can be compressed. The problem I had is that one of my ear canals is very small and it took a while to find the right tip that would stay in and not pop out. Once the right fit was found, these were perfectly comfortable and could be worn for extended periods of time with no fatigue or discomfort.
Sound Quality:

In the end, this is what really matters, isn’t it? We are much more apt to put up with an earphone that may not be quite as comfortable if it sounds amazing. Well, these sounded amazing. The Bass was not as strong as with the more expensive Super.fi 5’s – but when a good fit was achieved the bass was plenty strong. For bass nuts, you can always put your ipod on ‘Bass boost’ – but I really don’t think it is necessary.
Vocals and instruments sounded as beautiful with these Earphones as with any tested regardless of price. The bass wasn’t as strong – but the highs were clear (not tinny in the least) and the midrange was just amazing. I don’t know how Ultimate Ears was able to achieve this kind of sound for under $120.00 – but they did. If you listen to Classic Rock, Instumental music, Classical, jazz or Pop – look no further. There is no better way (that I have found) to upgrade your ipod for under $120.00 dollars than by purchasing the Super.fi. 3 Studios.

Conclusions:

I think I said it all in my last sentence. Buy these Earhphones. Go to a guitar shop that carries them, listen to a friend’s or take my advice (or that of many others who have reviewed these Earphones.) In the world of after-market Earphones, Ultimate Ears is truly at the top of the heap.

Over all Grade: A

Pros: Amazing sound quality, great sound isolation, sturdy

Cons: Slightly uncomfortable for those with small ears, takes time to find the right fit

Next Up: Sennheiser cx300 Ear Buds
[lib align=right]cx300.jpg[/lib]
Established in 1945 in Wedemark, Germany, Sennheiser is the acknowledged world leader in microphone technology, RF-wireless and infrared sound transmission, headphone transducer technology, and most recently, in the development of active noise-cancellation. These are Sennheiser’s first Ear buds – the highlights are:
* Headphones Technology Dynamic
* Connectivity Technology Wired –
* Sound output mode Stereo
* Response bandwidth 18 – 21000 Hz
* Sensitivity 112 dB
* Impedance 16 Ohm
* Ear pads Included
* Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) 0.2 %

Design:
These are very much like the Sony Fontopia’s (not tested in this review.) they are a small form factor Ear bud with several different size tips. They sit into the ear canal and barely protrude. They were the smallest ear buds in the group. They seem to have a very sturdy design and the cables were nice and secure and comfortable to wear.
Comfort:
I loved the feel of these Earbuds. The fact that they were so much smaller was a huge plus in my opinion. They fit inside the ear so comfortably. There was no needed ‘rocking’ or ‘pulling at the ear’ which is required with other in-ear designs. I found I could wear these for hours on end. They did block out noise – but not as much as the Shures and the UE’s – so there was less of the ‘feeling under water’ sensation with the Sennheisers.
Sound Quality:
The Sennheiser name is legendary in the world of sound quality. I was initially skeptical since these were $80.00 Earphones which could be found for close to $60 online – I didn’t think they could measure up to the Shures and UEs. I was wrong – dead wrong. The Sound Quality of the CX300’s was phenomenal. The Bass was the strongest of the bunch – clear, tight and deep. The highs were very, very good – not as bright as the Shures and not as detailed as the UEs, but great nonetheless. Vocals sounded beautiful – the midrange was very good – perhaps a bit more ‘muddy’ than the UEs – but believable and nice to listen to.
Conclusions:
These are great little Ear buds. They were comfortable, sounded fabulous and they were easy to travel with. I was amazed that something so small, without protruding drivers like the Shures and UEs could deliver comparable sound for less money.
Over all Grade: A-
Pros: Great sound, small, comfortable, great bass
Cons: Highs not as detailed as the Super.fi 3’s
Final thoughts:
This was a tougher task than the original Battle of the Buds review. In that review, price was no object and I had the pleasure of listening to $300 + Earphones. Here, I kept the price down to under $120 list. Most could be found for under $90.00 on the web or on Ebay.
There was a definite difference once you jump from the $20 range to the $80 range. Frankly, if you paid over $200 for your ipod or MP3 player – this is the most significant upgrade you can make and spending a hundred bucks makes a huge difference in sound quality over the included earphones.
The clear winner was the Super.fi 3 Studios from Ultimate Ears. This is the company that musicians use and it is very clear why. The sound quality is just unsurpassed. The most comfortable ear phones in the group, however, were also the smallest and they delivered the best bass – these were the Sennheiser CX300’s. You can’t go wrong with these either. Because this is such a subjective thing I would urge you to try before you buy and see which is most comfortable and which delivers the sound you like.

Written by Gary