These are my new headphones, I got them about two weeks ago and have been enjoying them a lot. You may think it odd that I'd mention my headphones so specifically, I mean, headphones is headphones, right? Well, these are a bit different to any headphones I've had before. You may have already encountered the whole 'in-ear' headphones thing before- if so, this post will be no great news to you, but let me tell you, if you haven't encountered the whole in-ear headphones thing before, they actually are quite different.
So, back in the 80's, headphones sat completely on top of your head, didn't really do much other than sit over your ears, right? Then you got the ear-bud ones, the sort that come with your iPod, and these kind of sit, or kind of hang really, in your ear canal. Well, these in-ear ones go a step further- the little rubber seals actually slot right into your ear canal, so that they cover them up completely, make a seal rather than sitting on top. This is quite different from the earbuds I had before, for the following reasons:
1. They block out pretty much all other noise. They're not just headphones, they're earplugs. When I have them on, even if I am not listening to anything, I can't hear someone who is standing in front of me and talking. This is quite useful when dealing with ambient noise- with my last earphones (the iPod ones) I was always having to turn the volume up and down, depending on what environment I was in- on the train, volume goes up. Get off the train, volume goes down. Not exactly a chore, but because I was generally in motion when moving from one environment to the other, often in crowded areas, it helps not to have to do this.
2. Possibly as a result of the above, the fidelity of the music is definitely the highest I've ever had on earphones. Earphone music frequently loses the lower frequencies as they try to compete with the other noises around you, which is why earphones often sound 'tinny', or higher registered. These don't- you hear the whole song as it was meant to be heard, not just part of it. This makes a pretty profound difference, especially when listening to sonically dense music like Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails (which is pretty much all I've been listening to lately- more on this later in the week)
Now, so far this all sounds pretty good. But there are a couple of downsides: For starters, it really does feel invasive having something come right into your ear. It's not just going into your ear, it kind of goes down your ear, as well. If you're the sort that is touchy about having stuff in your ears, you will not enjoy them. Having them go so far down is disconcerting because you worry about what they might be doing to your ear drums- they're snuggled up right close. If earphones do damage to your hearing, and I hear that they do, then these are the uber-earphones in more ways than one.
You also feel kind of spacey wearing them. We all use subtle audio cues to place ourselves in our surroundings and keep track of what is going on around us, and most of us are familiar with the feeling of being a little bit displaced, or at least in a different mental space, when you have earphones on and are walking around. These amplify that feeling because now you hear no other noise- it's like your ears are in a completely different place to your body. I often walk the streets at lunchtime with my headphones on and I feel oddly disconnected from the world.
And finally, when I said they blocked out all other noise, I neglected to mention the fact that this does not include noise that directly touches the rubber wires that connect the buds to the iPod. If you touch these with your fingers, you hear a big 'wub' through the ear buds. If the wind blows, you hear the noise of the air on the wires through the ear buds, quite loudly. No joke- if you hold the wires to your chest, it acts as a rudimentary stethoscope. This can be quite annoying in the wrong conditions.
So, what's the verdict? Well, I was on the fence until yesterday. Did the improved audio quality match up against the invasive feeling? Was hearing no other noise a good thing or a bad thing? Well, yesterday I found my headphones in my washing machine, along with the jeans I'd clearly left them in. They'd had a 30-minute rinse with a 90-minute drying cycle. And they still work perfectly.