Shure i4c Sound-Isolating Earbuds
Cynical Steve Jobs is marketing one of the worst-sounding audio products ever. As an audiophile, I can view this only with alarm and outrage. No, I'm not talking about the iPod, you foolish thing. I enjoy my nano as much as the next person. I'm talking about the earbuds that come with the iPod. They don't even come close to taking advantage of the sound quality that the deliriously popular music player is capable of delivering.
A lot of you may react with equivalent alarm and outrage if I suggest that a good headphone upgrade might cost as much as the iPod itself. But when you're putting together a good surround or stereo system, it's not at all unusual to spend as much on speakers as on amps and signal sources put together. So it wouldn't be unreasonable to spend the $319 Shure demands for this product—as long as it gives you precisely what you want in a companion for your iPod or other music player. And, in this case, for your cell phone.
I'm going to assume what you want is (1) a set of earbuds, with (2) a variety of ways to fit the buds to your ears, along with (3) accommodation for a mobile phone, and of course (4) good sound quality, at least compared to other earbuds.
The full model name of this Shure product is i4c Integrated Sound Isolating Earphones + Mobile Headset. Another variation, the i4c-t, is designed for Treo 650 and 700W phones. The product comes with hard carrying case, many types and sizes of earpad, and a pointed device for cleaning earwax out of the buds. Let's travel the i4c from end to end.
At one end are of course the earbuds. Build quality is impressive, part metal, part plastic. Move 8.5 inches down the righthand bud's cord and you'll come to a small bulbous microphone. Fifteen inches from both buds is a Y-shaped piece that combines the two cords into one. Move 25 inches farther and you'll come to a 3.25-inch-long in-line switch control that holds a sliding music/phone switch, volume dial, and a button that mutes the mic. Large legends are easy to read and even elegant. The mic-mute button shows a classic 1940s ribbon mic with a diagonal line through it. At the other end of the in-line switch control are two cords, 10 inches for the cell phone's 2.5mm sub-mini-plug and 27 inches for the music player's 3.5mm mini-plug (both gold).
One problem many people have with earbuds—other than their generic inferiority to larger headphones—is that they fall out so easily. The size of the ear canal's opening varies from person to person. You might even find that one side is larger than the other. How can you be sure you're buying something that will actually fit your aural orifices?
Shure goes further than any other manufacturer to keep everyone happy. For starters there are large, medium, and small pairs of flex sleeves made of translucent plastic. If you want something softer, there are also three sets of flex sleeves made of more pliable opaque grey rubber. Triple-flange sleeves, supplied in a single set, look rather like white rubber Christmas trees, and try to hold their ground by covering a greater length (half an inch) of the ear opening.
But the ones I used, at the suggestion of Shure's Chris Pyle, were the foam sleeves. These soft yellow cylinders are slightly larger than most of the places they'll fit into, and that's what makes them fit so well. Squeeze one evenly around the perimeter. It will hold its compressed shape just long enough for you to insert it into the ear. Then it expands to fill the hole, not only anchoring itself in place, but also isolating the ear from outside noise. Shure claims 30-37dB of isolation.
My subjective experience suggests that even good sound isolation has its limits. While I was walking through New York's Riverside Park, my route took me right up against a cloverleaf exit of the Henry Hudson Parkway, which runs through the park. Cars whizzing by within five feet were loud enough to overwhelm the music with motor and tire noise. Admittedly, I had set a low volume before leaving home, and could have turned it up, but I'm old enough to know better.
Anyway, once I got away from the cars, and sat down in the West 92nd Street Community Garden, the i4c sounded at least as good as any noise-canceling earbuds and far better than any non-noise-canceling earbuds I've tried in similar circumstances. It has, by earbud standards, a reasonably neutral tonal balance. A good set of large or midsized headphones would provide better bass but most other earbuds would not.
Having used the i4c for several months now, I like them well enough for regular use on the street, where larger headphones would be awkward. The pads and cords seem fairly strong and I never hesitate to roll them around my hand and thrust them into my jeans pocket. They reduce a wider spectrum of noise than most noise-canceling headphones. That gives them an edge when I'm confronting a fleet of honking taxis, city buses, and other broader-spectrum urban noises.
I've also used the i4c in flight, and have been impressed by how much relief it can provide. It's not as effective as the very best noise-canceling headphones, which cover the ear, and have circuits engineered specifically to cut jet-turbine noise. However, not all NC 'phones do equally well, and the i4c out-isolates most of the cheaper ones.
Shure's extensive earbud line also includes the less expensive i3c ($199) and i2c ($119), which are based on different diaphragm technologies. There is also a large E-line that ranges from the E2c ($109) to the top-line E500PTH ($549). The latter fits three drivers—two woofers and a tweeter—into the tiny earbud assembly. I can't wait to try that!
Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.