Everybody wants to save the earth, nobody wants to help mom do the dishes.  --P.J. O'Rourke

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sennheiser H595, Shure E4c, Bose QC15 - Three Way Shootout/Review

The arrival of the Ipod has changed the way we listen to music, you're no longer chained down to a big receiver and speakers, and many of us listen to the majority of our music on headphones.  Before the Ipod, headphones were kindof a niche/geek product that most people didn't give a second thought to, and now they are a must have item.  When choosing a set of headphones, you should take into account the following four criteria:

1. Where & When You Listen
2. Your Budget
3. Comfort
4. Sound Quality

The three headphones in this review are all very different and represent the three general types of headphones; open backed big traditional headphones, noise cancelling headphones and earphones. To see which type is right for you let's see how they each compare in the criteria set out above.


Sennheiser HD595:

Where and When You Listen - Just as their name implies, open backed headphones have nothing between the outside world and your ear and headphone drivers.  When wearing them, you can hear the outside world, and they can hear your music (albeit at greatly reduced volume).  If you listen to your music in close proximity to another person, you're gonna piss them off.  If you listen in a loud environment, you won't be able to hear your music.  The positive side of this type is that if you need to be at least minimally aware of outside noises (the phone ringing for example) they are well suited for that.

Your Budget - Despite an MSRP of $325 these can be had for nearly half that amnount if you shop carefully, as I speak they are $179 at Amazon.

Comfort - With a cushioned adjustable headband, light weight and ultra soft padded ear cups the HD595 is by far the most comfortable of the three.

Sound Quality - Sennheiser has been making headphones since Christ left Chicago and it shows in spades, easily the greatest sound quality of the trio, with an open, expansive, more natural and balanced sound than the other two.  There is one caveat here however, the HD595 needs a fair amount of current at louder volumes to sound its best.  My Ipod does not put out enough power to drive these to their fullest, it's okay, but if you can pair the Ipod with a headphone amp or stereo amp headphone jack, the HD595 will rock your world.  I use the "Total Airhead" portable headphone amp by Headroom.

Shure E4c

Where and When You Listen - The Shure E4 is an "in ear" ear canal earphone, and when I say "in ear", I mean it, to get the best sound out of these you need to jam it pretty far into your ear canal.  The obvious benefit of this is the best sound isolation of the bunch, I used these the other day while operating a belt sander attached to a shop vac and the outside noise was barely audible, for comparison I tried the Bose QC15 at the same time and the Shures were noticeably better at muffling the noise.  You can't hear the outside world and it can't hear you, period. These are the green eggs and ham of earphones, you can wear them on a train, on a bus, on a plane - you will like them anywhere.  They are also the smallest and lightest.  Although they are the best of this crop for activities, be aware that the cables can transmit a lot of sound when they rub against your body.  It's a kind of rustling sound, like wind on a microphone, but with careful placing of the cables this is minimized.

Your Budget - The E4c is not a current Shure model, but can still be purchased if you look around.  Pricing is remarkably similar to the HD595 with an MSRP of $319 and a street value of $169.

Comfort - This is a tough one, as everyone's ears are different and some people have an aversion to sticking things in their ear canal.  The Shures come with a variety of different tips to suit individual ears and preferences.  I use the yellow foam tips which closely resemble foam earplugs and are made from a similar material and I find them reasonably comfortable.

Sound Quality -  A good tight fit is imperative if you want to get good sound out of these, with a poor fit they sound like crap, but once you find a good fit, the sound quality is impressive.  Though not quite the equal of the Sennheisers, the Shures have a nicely balanced sound, with a strong tight bass, and awesome midrange and balanced, not overly bright treble.  What's especially cool about these is that with the music being piped straight into your eardrums, you notice details you've never heard before, even with the stock Itunes codec. In my opinion, these have the second best sound quality, lacking only the outright punch and soundstage of the HD595s

Bose QC15

Where and When You Listen - These are a close second to the Shures when it came to versatility, they reduce noise nicely, while still allowing you to hear conversations.  The don't project much sound into the environment and will not annoy your seat mates or room mates.  You can't jog in them, but if you are stationary or walking, these will stay put.

Your Budget - Bose products are never cheap, and I have yet to see one "on sale"  These have an MSRP of $300 and sell for $300.  On the plus side, they are very well built and come with a handy case and airplane sound adapters.  Bose customer service is also very good and they stand behind their products, but it's gonna cost you.

Comfort - The QC's are very comfortable, but their more compact dimensions leaves less room for your ears and this keeps them from edging out the HD595 in my opinion, but this is a matter of taste, there is not that much distance between the two in terms of comfort.

Sound Quality - The sound quality of these is a bit of a disappointment for $300 headphones, it's not bad per se, but to my ears they don't sound as open or as detailed as the other two.  Life is a compromise and these are not a bad compromise, they don't ultimately sound as good as the other two, but they are less finicky and intrusive than the Shures and more flexible then the Senn's when it comes to listening locations

BOTTOM LINE: For the best sound, traditional circumaural (around the ear) open back headphones like the HD595 are without peer.  Ear Canal earphones like the Shures offer great sound (although it make take some twiddling and trial and error) combined with the best sound deadening, and the ultimate in portability.  I know that Bose markets the QC15 on it's ability to eliminate external noise, but realistically, there is only so much they can do with AAA battery power, in really loud environments (like a jackhammer or rock concert) the ear canal phones excel, there is a reason that professional musicians use them as sound monitors.  The Bose QC's offer a decent amount of noise reduction (suitable for most office and travel settings), while remaining comfortable and portable, but they lack some of the sound fidelity of the other two and cost a fortune to boot.


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