The secret to great sound in a tiny package is a microspeaker that doesn't sit on your ear but inside your ear canal. I tested several of these "isolating" headphones as well as a couple of cell-phone headsets from Etymotic Research (etymotic.com) and Shure (shure.com/earphones). At prices from $99 to $499, the headphones produced audio ranging from very good to concert-hall live.
The basic design of all these products is similar. A tiny speaker mechanism is enclosed in a plastic capsule that rests just outside your ear. A silicone rubber or expanding foam earpiece -- the headphones come with an assortment -- fits over a tiny tube that carries the sound into your ear canal.THE EARPIECE SERVES TWO PURPOSES. It forms a seal over the ear, which acts as an effective barrier to external noise. The foam type blocks all but the loudest noises while the silicone variety lets a bit more sound in. The foam plugs are so effective that they could be dangerous, say while running, because you are almost completely cut off from environmental sound. But in an airplane, they can put you in your own blissful world (you'll have to watch the seat-belt sign because you probably won't hear any announcements).
A motivation for the development of these headphones was the need for rock musicians to hear a semblance of what concert audiences experience. Traditionally, this is done by setting up speakers facing the stage, but these only add to the general din, and many musicians wear earplugs to save what's left of their hearing. Headphones that isolate sound serve both purposes. The Shure E5c was designed to meet rockers' needs. They are bigger than most isolating headsets because the capsules each hold two microspeakers, one for treble and one for bass. But the sound is just about the best I have ever heard. The E5c, however, is not really practical for most uses. For one thing, the $499 price tag is a tad steep. For another, they're intended to be worn with a stiff section of wire looped over your ears and the cord coming down the back of your head. This keeps the headphones in place on even a bouncy performer but makes it impossible to whip the E5c on and off quickly.
Good compromises, in both price and practicality, are the $139 Etymotic ER-6 and the Shure E3c, which will hit the market in January at $179. While not up to the standard of the E5c, these are excellent headphones. I found Etymotic's soft silicone earpieces more comfortable than the harder ones on the Shure. And if these are still too expensive, the Shure E2c offers very good sound for just $99.
The companies use the same technology to make headsets for cell phones. Both the $50 Shure QuietSpot and the $69 Etymotic Cell Phone Headset use a noise-canceling boom mike, and the in-the-ear design earpiece eliminates the need for an ear loop or head band. Both made it possible to hear calls clearly even in noisy environments.
The isolating headphones also have a benefit for people who are not wearing them: Because of the way they seal sound in, you can crank the volume way up without everyone within 15 feet hearing a tinny version of the bass track. Switching from ear buds may provide freedom from unwanted noise both for yourself and everyone nearby.
Corrections and Clarifications
In "Headsets that will be music to your ears" (Technology & You, Dec. 15), the price for the pictured Shure E3c device was misquoted. It costs $179, not $99.
By Stephen H. Wildstrom