Why the Apple In-Ear Buds Suck (and the Griffin Ear Jams Too), but the Shure E4Cs Rock

by James Bain May 30, 2006

I love my iPod and I use it out in the world all the time—at the gym, while I’m jogging, on the bus, and even when I’m just puttering around the house doing things. I like to use my iPod everywhere. That’s what I bought it for, and that’s what maybe 95% of the universe bought their iPods for as well, for Audio on the Go.

Now, the world is a noisy place and my hearing ain’t what it used to be. Too many years listening to loud music from the very first Walkman on haven’t been too kind to me. I’m not looking for a hearing aid or anything yet, but I do like to listen to stuff at less than 140db. The shipping Apple Ear Buds, however just do not cut it over ambient noise any louder than a kitten snoring.

Yeah, I’ve cranked my volume up to drown out street noise while walking. But I don’t like it. That quasi-parental voice deep inside me knows that it’s a bad thing.

I am not sure when I first got the idea of buying in-ear headphones. Probably right after my late and unlamented Sony MDRNC5 Noise-Cancelling Headphones proved that they were a great big fat waste of money.

When the Apple iPod In-Ear Headphones were announced (January 2004), they seemed like a great idea. Despite mixed reviews, I bought a pair.

Apple made them, right? They had to be good.

However, I Lost that enthusiasm pretty quick.

On a positive note, they had a nice case.

They even had three sizes of earpieces. You were supposed to be able to fit these things to your own peculiar size of ear canal. Sounded like a great idea.

I’m a medium, apparently, but not always.

That was the problem.

Sometimes when I was, oh, say, MOVING, they’d pop out or work their way loose. I tried the small ones. They stayed in, but let more noise past than I was comfortable with. Other times, sitting in a noisy place like a bus, I’d have to ram the large ones and pretend that the resulting discomfort, which I never got used to after weeks of doggedly trying, was worthwhile due to the resulting improved sound quality.

So, I was always changing these earpieces, flipping them in and out of my aching ears, and had to keep all three sizes with me, always. I never knew what I was going to need. Frustration AND agony, all in a cute little plastic hard case!

Long and the short of all this is that I didn’t like constantly messing about with the things. I still used them—I had bought them after all—but never liked the damned things and was almost relieved when one of the buds died. I finally had an excuse to ditch them.

So, I Googled in-ear phones and, after wading through the resulting swarm of links, ads, reviews and recommendations, finally settled on the relatively cheap Griffin’s Ear Jams. I’d bought other stuff from the company and decided to give them a try. At $20 Canadian, I figured that if I didn’t like them I wouldn’t feel too bad.

Snapping them onto the existing Apple Ear-buds was easy enough, and they had a cheap sort of carrying case so you wouldn’t lose them or their three (again) sets of ear pieces. Though it looked like I had white plastic mushrooms growing out of my ears, the sound was okay. Neat idea and the rubber ear things didn’t hurt. Big plus. Maybe my ear canals were alredy numb by then, but that was a pleasant surprise.

Oddity was that no matter which size earpieces I used, they all worked the same. Sometimes I’d lose one rubber bit and put another size on until I found the lost one again. I never noticed a difference in fit or sound with the different sizes.

They didn’t pass the bus test though. Too much noise got through, despite the comfy fit, and though I wore them for six months, I was never really satisfied.

When they broke, I was left all alone in a noisy world once again.

In the end, neither the half-baked Apple In-Ear Buds nor the Griffin Ear Jams really delivered all the way. Kind of like pizza delivery only half way up to your apartment, both sort of worked, both sort of didn’t.

I’m not a pipe smoker. I drive an automatic. I don’t like fiddling constantly with things I use. I want to put something on or sit in it and not be worried with changing things all the time. I’m a Mac user. I just want things to WORK.

So, to be fair, maybe the In-Ear buds and the Ear Jams are 70% solutions, but at my Prep School that was just a passing grade and that’s what I’ll give these both, just a passing grade.

Better than the shipping ear buds, definitely. Apple regular ear buds are 60% solutions. And I’ve NEVER seen anyone use the included foam pads for those. I’ve looked—I’m an ear watcher—but I’ve never seen a single pair in use.

After all that, I wanted better and went looking for it.

I scanned the hard-core audio review pages. Read article after article about this brand or that model and went away even more confused than ever. So many choices. So many differing opinions. But I still wanted really amazing headphones to go with my really amazing iPod.

In the end I found my 99% percent solution: the VERY expensive Shure E4Cs.

Rather than nickel and diming myself for months, maybe years, trying substandard, cheap consumer earphones, I decided to cough up the big bucks and buy what the pros use. Well, at least the wealthier pros. At about $329 US MSRP, they definitely provide full-body sticker shock. But they had EIGHT different sizes and types of ear pieces. Talk about thorough!

Now they’re all I ever use.

So sweet! And they passively cut out not 10db, not 20db, but 30db of noise! And the medium clear soft rubber earpieces fit fine, don’t hurt, never fall out and I’d forget I even had them in except everything goes so very quite when I do.

If I can hear Sol Invictus so well that I can pick up Tony Wakeford moving around in the studio and adjusting his guitar strap or Andrew Eldritch rubbing his nose during Sisters of Mercy live sets, maybe they’re too good. But if I can’t hear my wife shouting at me from six feet away to get my attention as I sit at my desk or miss my cell phone going off right at my hip, I’m sure they’ve done their job. I love them.

And I’m happy now. A bit poorer than I was before, but very very happy.

More about the Shure E4Cs later.


  • Everybody’s ears are different. Case in point: I’ve spend 100s of dollars on various in-ear headphones (Original Apple Ear Buds, Griffin Ear Jams, Apple in-ear, Sure E3C) and they either hurt my ears, didn’t seal, or fell out. What has worked PERFECTLY for me is…. drum roll…....

    Griffin Ear Jam rubber on Apple in-ear headphones!

    Yep, you got it. A combination James’ worst of all possible products is my audio Nirvana! Isn’t this fun?

    DrPete had this to say on May 30, 2006 Posts: 1
  • If you’re looking for superior sound quality, check out Ultimate Ears (http://www.ultimateears.com) UE10 Pro’s.  These are the quintessential inear phones out there. 3 separate drivers (low-middle-high) give you all the frequencies you can possibly hear.  When properly fitted the highs are crisp and the lows are deeeeeep (for bassheads, these are unrivaled).  UE10 Pro’s also have an amaizing ability to suppress background noise.  Generally, what background noise is heard is a result of sound waves bypassing the ear canal through the skull to the inner-ear. Thus, there’s little need to crank up the volume to dangerous levels in order to compete with outside noise.

    Two notes of caution, they’re not easy to come by at~$1,000 a set (with a special visit to the Audiologist, plus 2 weeks to manufacture), and you need proper amplification for the best results.  Their low impedence makes them ideal for iPods, but the iTunes EQ falls short.  A work around would be to purchase a portable amp, but this contradicts the iPod’s simplicity.

    Morgan had this to say on May 30, 2006 Posts: 2
  • I have the same problems. I listen to my tunes at a pretty good volume and was recently asked to please lower it. I was of course using the Apple ear buds. I also tried (and am presently using) the Griffin EarJams and yes THEY SUCK. I looked into the Shure phones too and have yet to make the plunge but I wanted to ask why you didn’t get the less expensive E2c’s? Maybe not as great sounding but I can’t imagine being too much different.

    MikeD had this to say on May 30, 2006 Posts: 3
  • DrPete: Good point. Everyone’s ears are different. I wish I’d thought of combining the EarJam earpieces which were so comfortable with the Apple In-Ear buds. By the time I bought the Jams, my Apple In-Ears had died, so never occurred to me. Neat idea!

    Morgan: I looked at the Ultimate Ears, but ruled them out. For now. Maybe later.

    MikeD: I decided to just find the sweet spot and buy that. Hop from E2Cs to E3Cs and then to the E4Cs weren’t too big. Hop from E4Cs to E5Cs was huge, and Ultimate Ears were just scary scary expensive. Would maybe have bought E5Cs, but hard to justify.

    James Bain had this to say on May 30, 2006 Posts: 33
  • MikeD, I have the E2Cs and my experience is that for my ears they certainly aren’t perfectly comfortable. They come with 3 sizes of foam, 3 of rubber and 3 of plastic sleeves all of which hurt my ears somewhat.

    Of course, the comfort difference between my E2Cs and James’s E4Cs might be down to the 4s’ superiority, or a difference between our ears…

    Unfortunately the hard way seems to be the only way to find your solution.

    Benji had this to say on May 30, 2006 Posts: 927
  • (Oh and their sound is very good to my non-expert tastes, though they have to be adjusted properly in your ears.)

    (I realise all of this is probably no help at all)

    Benji had this to say on May 30, 2006 Posts: 927
  • Actually Ben it kind of is. I love music and need to listen to it on my daily treks into Manhattan from South Jersey. So you can imagine how nuts I am about getting something comfortable that sounds good. I was wondering if anyone had any experience with those headphones that go over and enclose your ears. I know even though they’re smaller than traditional stereo phones they’re still kinda bulky but I imagine they might keep out noise while keeping the music in. Of course I’m just considering those of us who listen motly on the bus or train who aren’t moving aroud alot ,Joggers walkers etc.

    MikeD had this to say on May 31, 2006 Posts: 3
  • I’ve got the E4Cs and they are the shiznit. Plus, if Apple releases a new iPod, they’ll still work with it.

    El Payo had this to say on May 31, 2006 Posts: 12
  • I should mention that to really enjoy the E4Cs, try reripping all your music in Apple Lossless, a higher bitrate AAC or MP3 format or uncompressed AIFF.

    El Payo had this to say on May 31, 2006 Posts: 12
  • one day, when i’m not broke, el payo i will do so smile

    Benji had this to say on May 31, 2006 Posts: 927
  • You should try ACOUSTIBUDS! \They are silicone earphone adapters that mount to the majority of the generic-style earbuds. $13 to make your crappy earphones stay in and sound better.


    mlad had this to say on Oct 28, 2008 Posts: 1
  • Page 1 of 1 pages
You need log in, or register, in order to comment