As many of you know, Playback reviews a lot of in-ear headphones since the product category generates considerable interest among our readers. If you stop to think about it, it’s easy to understand the appeal of in-ear ‘phones. They’re light, small, convenient to use, and are, in the global scheme of things, relatively affordably priced. More importantly, they can in principle offer superb sound, essentially giving many listeners their very first taste of true high-end sound.
Unfortunately, there’s one small catch; some listeners (especially those who are more familiar with traditional Apple “earbuds” that ride in the wearer’s outer ear) find it an uncomfortable and downright disconcerting practice to insert headphone earpieces within their own ear canals. As one of my office mates so aptly put it earlier today, “I can understand putting Q-tips inside my ears, but headphones?!? I don’t know how I feel about that.”
If you find yourself it that camp, then you may want to know that there’s at least one company out there that feels your pain (or, to be fair, let’s call it your “uneasiness”), and whose products aim to make in-ear headphones easier and more comfortable to use. The company is called Hearing Components (it’s a spin-off from the giant 3M Company), and its products are called Comply Foam Eartips, which are offered in a broad range of “shell sizes” (to fit different ears) and with different mounting sleeve diameters (with sizes designed to fit most popular brands of in-ear headphones).
Interestingly, Hearing Components holds core patents involving use of compliant foam materials for headphone eartip applications, so if the ‘phones you now own came with foam tips, odds are that their designs were licensed from Hearing Components (or should have been).
What’s the draw for using Comply foam tips? A company spokesman told me the Comply tips are designed to achieve four objectives (which are thoughtfully outlined on Hearing Components’ packaging materials. Specifically, Comply tips aim to provide:
• A more comfortable fit than is typically possible with traditional eartips.
• A more secure fit, so that wearers don’t need to worry about their earphones accidentally being jostled loose or falling out.
• Better sound (particularly in terms of deeper, more solid bass response), which is achieved by fostering a better seal within the wearer’s ear canals.
• Increased noise isolation, which is again related to achieving a superior seal to help block outside noise.
Several grades of Comply Foam Tips are offered. The standard models (known as the T-series) include the T100, T400, and T500 eartips (three pairs for $14.95), while the deluxe models (known as the TX-series) include the TX100, TX400, and TX500 eartips (three pairs for $19.95). The only difference between the T and TX models is that the TX tips provide thin, acoustically transparent Wax Guard screens the prevent ear wax from clogging the earpieces of your headphones.
At the Can Jam 2010 industry event several weeks back, I obtained review samples of the TX100 tips (which fit the Klipsch Image X10i in-ear headset I use with my iPhone) and the TX400 tips (which fit my reference Monster Cable Turbine Pro Copper Edition in-ear headphones).
I only recently had an opportunity to unpack and test the Comply tips last night, and when I did I discovered I had inadvertently picked up sets that were a size too small for me (meaning that—through no fault of the tips themselves—I couldn’t consistently achieve a proper in-ear seal). Therefore, I’ll have to wait until I can get larger samples before I can give you an accurate assessment of the performance of the Comply tips. Stay tuned.
However, on the basis of a brief test session conducted at Can Jam, I can report that the Comply tips do achieve their stated goals of enhanced comfort and noise isolation. The cool thing about the tips is that you simply roll them between your fingers (which causes them to compress down to about two thirds of their fully expanded size), then gently hold them in place near the entrance of your ear canals and wait a few seconds for the foam to expand, neatly sealing up the air gaps without putting overly firm pressure on your ear canals.
What I think potentially squeamish earphone users will appreciate is that the physical sensation is less one of “forcing” an object into your ear canals, but more one of waiting for the much gentler caress of the expanding foam to block out noise while quietly holding the earpieces in place. It may seem like a small distinction on paper, but I think it’s one that could make all the difference for wearers who might otherwise choose to avoid using in-ear ‘phones.