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Sunday, December 10, 2006


Getting the sound right

Or perhaps the alternate title should be 'Keeping the wrong sound out'.

I have been motivated to buy better headphones to use with my computer and/or iPod because of the overloud pubic broadcasts that I wrote about here often while in Cambodia. In fact I was motivated to buy the iPod in the first place as a way of protecting myself from that unwanted noise.

When you buy an iPod you get small earphones with it. They are not too bad but they don't keep out all the noise and they tend to fall out easily. I bought a cheap set of headphones in Phnom Penh to get around these problems and to a point they worked.

I have found that if I listen to gentle music of my choice I can fall asleep. I find it difficult to sleep through loud music that I find unpleasant. The headphones or earphones don't block out all the loud music but they take the edge off it and the music of my choice gives me something more pleasant to concentrate on. My desire is to find a set of phones that cut out more of the external noise.

I have searched reviews on the net to see what better models are available. As a traveller I wasn't interested in anything bulky or heavy. I was drawn to the Shure series of earphones starting with the E2c at about $US100 through to the E5c at around $US500.

$500 is way to much for me to pay for earphones but I would consider paying $100 if they do the job I want. However, I could not find Shure, or any of the other brands I had considered, in Cambodia.

I decided to see what I could find in Thailand, then I would have them for when I return to Cambodia or encounter a similar situation elsewhere. In Bangkok and several of the larger Thai cities there are IT Malls where most of the shops are devoted to technology products. Yesterday I headed to my favourite IT Mall.

This centre has five floors with perhaps 100 shops on each floor. It takes a day to search them all thoroughly. There were one or two other things I was looking for but this was my first priority.

Early in the day I found a shop with iPod accessories that sold ibuds. These are pieces of soft plastic that fit over the iPod earphones and provide a plastic extension that goes further into the ear. This is a similar principle to the way the Shure earphones work. But reviewers were impressed by the Shure sound so I wanted to buy them if I could. I spent the day going from store to store and from floor to floor. Eventually I gave up. I decided to go back and buy the ibuds. Perhaps they would do until I get to Singapore, maybe next year. I might find Shure products there.

Heading back to the iPod accessory store, I stopped at one of the shops I'd investigated before. They had some interesting items in a glass case at the front. I looked more closely and realized that I was looking at the Shure E2c. The name wasn't in large letters. It was easy to miss.

A sales assistant came out and told me they had no stock. This was their demo. He didn't know when they would have more stock. 'Can I look at it?' I asked.

He got it out and I could see what was in the pack. There was the basic earphones and a little pack of accessories. I knew from the reviews that these accessories were to block the external noise. Then he offered to sell me the demo.

'Has this been in people's ears?' I asked.

'Yes,' he answered. I asked him this twice and both times he said 'yes' but sometimes when people are talking in a language that is not their own they say 'yes' when they haven't properly understood the question. In any case, I figured I could wash the buds to be safe. I was getting desperate. I hadn't seen another in a day of searching.

Their list price was 3,900 baht which, on current exchange rates, is over $US100. He offered it to me for 3,500 baht, just under $100. I pointed out that they were advertised on ebay for between $60 and $100 brand new in the States. I didn't want to pay so much for a demo. But I figured I would rather have one in my hands. I offered him 3,000 baht. He talked to his boss who approved.

Then he asked if I would like to try it out. Obviously it has been in people's ears, I thought. I was reluctant to put it in mine without washing the buds but I decided I would prefer to hear what I was getting for my money—still more than $100 in Australian money.

He connected it to an iPod and we put the buds in my ears. As the review said it made it seem like the sound was coming from right inside my head. But I thought the sound was a bit tinny. I tried another song. It was still tinny to my ears. Was this the earphones or is this just showing that on good earphones modern pop is in fact tinny? Also, while the reviewers said the volume could be turned right down low, I found it necessary to turn it up. I usually play my iPod with the bar about half way across. I needed to turn this up to about 75% to hear it well. Furthermore, it was not blocking out much of the external noise. Sure I wasn't using the additional noise blocking accessories but I would expect it to be better than this without them. I decided I did not want to invest $100 in something that was little better, if any, than the earphones that came with the iPod. I declined to buy them.

I went back to the store with the ibuds. When you look at what you get physically, they too are overpriced. I mean—six small pieces of moulded soft plastic, made in China. They must be made for a few cents. At a selling price of 200 baht (about $A8), someone is making a big profit.

On the other hand, this morning I put them on my iPod earphones which I connected to my computer. The smallest size bud is fine for my ears. They fit right inside and as the review said for the Shure earphones the sound seems to be coming from inside my head. Also, as the Shure review said, I need to turn the volume right down. They don't block out all the external noise. I still hear a dog bark and a mobile vendor's attention-getting noise. But from my test, I'm not sure the Shure ones would do any better. Also when I move about or shake my head, the earphones no longer fall out. Compared to $100 for the Shures, perhaps $8 for these ibuds is a bargain.


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