Tuesday Sep 17

Better than free

The earphones that arrive with an MP3 player serve two easy purposes. They assure you that the player operates and they provide instant gratification. It won't be long before you're ready to replace them with phones that sound better than the freebies, are more comfortable, and hold up under regular use.

The problem, of course, is finding them.

I spent a lot of time auditioning in-ear phones at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show. The explosion of choices in that category was, for me, one of the more striking features of the show. It was also one of the more disappointing. In general, fashion and features trumped music and suggested prices often bore little relation to straightforward listenability and basic quality.

Obviously there are good choices and for me one of the best is the Sennheiser CX 215 earphone set that I've been listening to for the past few weeks.

The short story is that these phones are highly responsive to the music (or speech, if you're into audiobooks or old time radio) that they're called upon to deliver. The spectrum balance is near ideal as is the clarity of presentation. You can listen for hours to the CX 215 and enjoy every minute of the experience. I'm speaking musically here, but I could as easily be talking about physical comfort.

The featherweight CX 215 fits neatly in the ear canal (once you select the appropriate size of flexible rubber adapter...more about that later). It has a nice finger-fitting shape that makes inserting them a breeze and what may look like a stiff plastic tube where the cable exits from the bud is actually flexible rubber. It's officially a strain relief for the wire, but it also serves as a comforting relief to the pinna.

The Sennheiser CX 215 comes with the mid-sized ear fitting adapter in place. That was comfortable enough in my ear, but the sound was thin and bass-shy. I put on the larger size instead which gave fuller bass and held the buds more securely in place, still with great comfort.

Next let's talk about money. Sennheiser sets the MSRP for the CX 215 phones at $59.95. You can find them at reputable, even famous, web merchant sites for under $40.

By the way, there are counterfeit and black market Sennheiser phones out there. Don't dig too deep for the "best deal." I bought a set of phones of a competing major brand a while ago at an amazingly low price. They looked good, even to the packaging, but I'm convinced from their horrible performance and extra cheap feel that I didn't get the real thing in that case.

Getting back to these real Sennheisers, I have a couple of minor quibbles. The first is the angled plug at the connection end. I much prefer a straight plug for convenience and general handling. The second is the difficulty of distinguishing between the Left and Right earbuds. I've run into a few sets (Sennheiser's CX 380 is an example) in which the left and right sides are physically different. You can tell at a touch which is which. You don't even have to look. On the CX 215, you have to look and look closely at that. The L and R are barely 2mm by 1mm. And the wire tends to get jumbled up, of course. That's the way wires are.

Finally a word about fashion. Sennheiser's CX 215 has a little of that going on, too. The standard color is a gentle blue. I like it. It happens to closely match the color of my Sansa Fuze. When you go to buy your own CX 215, you'll have a choice of four other colors: an elegant bronze, a spicy red, a striking orange, and a bilious green.