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4-Way In-Ear Headphone Showdown

The Contenders

For the past couple of years, my workhorse commute in-ear headphone was the Sony XBA-3iP, packing 3 balanced armature drivers and a built-in, full-suite (playback & volume controls) smartphone controller/mic. The reason I liked it was because it was one of the few, if possibly the only, 3-driver in-ear at the time that had a relatively small casing and didn't require being worn w/the cable looped up and around the ear. I absolutely HATE wearing headphones that way mainly cause the cables never stay in place for me. It was a pretty good pair of in-ears, not the absolute best reviews, but good enough for me. Unfortunately early last year the volume control broke. But since everything else about it was still good I continued to use them, until towards the end of the year when I finally started thinking about finding a replacement.

Embarrassingly enough, by that time I had completely forgotten exactly what was broken with the Sony headphones. Just that it wasn't 100% functional thus, I should replace it. So I wound up picking up a pair of the dual-driver Puro Sound Labs IEM500s for a dirty cheap price on eBay only to eventually realize much too late that the reason I wanted to replace the Sony was for the volume control, which the Puro had none to begin with. *facepalm*

But I liked the Puro well enough to switch to it as my main in-ears. After awhile though, GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) started nipping at my heels so I started looking for yet another replacement, this time with volume controls. And so I ended up with the Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear. While this had all the functionality I wanted, I wasn't completely sold on the sound signature. So back to browsing on Amazon again for another pair that had a sound more in tune with what I like. And that's how I came across the 1MORE Triple Driver In-Ear Headphones with In-line Microphone and Remote. I had never heard of 1MORE before but the reviews on Amazon were really good and the price was insane for a triple-driver. At about the same time, Grado apparently decided they needed some of my money as well and released their new iGe. They were priced the same so I figured I'd do a comparison to see how they would fare against each other.

So that's what this post is ultimately about, a 4-way in-ear headphone comparison. Before I get started, I would just like to make clear that I am in no way a full-fledged audiophile. I don't inspect every detail of headphone specs or look at/compare measurement charts or whatnot. I don't even know what much of the specs even mean. I just plug in the headphones, crank up some tunes, close my eyes, and listen. I can distinguish between highs, mids and lows and possibly make out differences in soundstage if I concentrate hard enough. But I can't wax poetic about the quality of each sound range. As for how I tested, since I use these primarily during my work commute, I just plugged them straight into my iPhone 6S. No amp. I'll also comment a little about the physical aspects of each pair of headphones. So, with that out of the way, here goes nothing.

Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear

Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear

First up, the Sennheiser. Build-wise, it's probably the sturdiest of the bunch. Thick, smooth, oval cables that feels like they should last. The 3 button controller has separate buttons but for some reason it didn't feel that way to me in use. I found myself hitting extraneous buttons more often than I'd like when using it. I also have to take points away on the ease of distinguishing between the right and left earbuds. The tiny, indented black "R" is located on the bottom of the casing in the black plastic piece right above where the cable enters the earbud. In lower light conditions, it's impossible to find. Obviously once you finally find it and note that the mic controller is situated on the right side, distinguishing between the sides is no longer an issue. But initial impression wasn't particularly favorable in this regard. At the other end, the Sennheiser packs a right-angle plug. Personally I don't have a preference between right angle, 45 degree angle, or straight plugs. I can live with any of them. Accessory-wise, it comes with a big hard case to store the headphones in and 4 sets of ear tips of varying sizes.

As for the sound, it really is a bass heavy set of headphones. Too much so to my ears. It's an overly full bass that veils the mids and highs. And on top of that the highs sounded a little thin as well. My personal preference leans more towards clear, forward mids which is why I ultimately decided to look for alternatives to the Sennheiser. The bass on these was too intrusive for my tastes.

1MORE Triple Driver In-Ear Headphones with In-line Microphone and Remote

1MORE Triple Driver Headphones

Next up, the 1MORE. Interesting cabling on this one. From the straight plug up to where it splits into the right/left sides, the cable is thick nylon braided. Not as thick as the Sennheiser cable but good enough to instill confidence that it won't break anytime soon. From where the cable splits to the casings, the cable is just straight TPE (plastic/rubber polymer) with ridges that's thinner than the bottom half. The 3 button mic controller has separate buttons that rest right against each other but there's a noticeable (by touch) ridge between each that makes it pretty easy to tell which button my finger is currently on. The earbud casing itself is smooth aluminum which I actually quite like because when inserted in the ear, they feel cool to the touch. Also very easy to distinguish between right and left earbuds as the black R/L is stamped in a white circle on each casing. Accessory-wise, these guys make the rest look stingy by comparison. 9 sets of ear tips of varying sizes: 6 silicon, 3 memory foam. A nice, faux leather hard case with magnetic latch and a dual-prong airline adapter.

Sound-wise, this was much more my speed. Bass is present without being overly imposing on the mids and highs while still packing a good impact. The mids were nice and clear and the highs weren't shrill. Compared to the Sony's 3 balanced armature drivers, the 1MORE packs 2 balanced armatures and 1 dynamic driver. Not sure why they decided to go with that combination but it sounds very similar to the Sony. Compared to these, I thought the Sony still had a slightly sweeter, more lyrical sound that was also a bit more forward. The bass sounded tighter but wasn't as wide/deep as the 1MORE. But I'm quite pleased with the overall sound on these.

Grado iGe

Grado iGe

Physically, the iGe is the most non-descript out of the bunch. All black with a more rubbery-feeling cable that ends at an angled plug. I'm a little wary with this type of cable because it feels and looks like the type that etymotic uses with their hf series and I've had 3 pairs of them all come down with tears somewhere along the cable after over a year of use. The earbud casing itself is flat black plastic but the back where the cable connects into is also encapsulated by a thick rubbery sheath. Also nice and easy to tell R/L buds apart with the silvery-white lettering on one side of each earbud. The mic controller, which is also located on the right side, has separate buttons but it's hard to tell them apart by feel. Each button is rather small though so at least no accidental multi-button press issues like I had with the Sennheiser. These were also the most comfortable earbuds out of the 3 contenders due to it having a large, two-tier silicon tip. So when you stuff the tip into your ear, the only parts that come into contact with your ear is the soft silicon. All that rubber and silicon makes the earbuds pick up lint and dust like crazy though which makes things less aesthetically pleasing much sooner. Accessory-wise, you don't get much. Just two other pairs of different-sized silicon tips and one foam tip. That's it. Not even a case.

Historically, Grado headphones have been known for a more forward and "colored" sound that emphasizes the mids and highs. Some people find their highs too harsh. Fortunately, the iGe has no such problem with the highs, and it retains the characteristic mid-centric emphasis of its larger headphone brethren. Compared to the 1MORE, mids are a little more pronounced along with a little more impact with the upper bass. But the 1MORE's bass goes down lower. If you like music with the deep, low, stomach-rumbling sub-bass, you'll be missing out a little with these. But considering that the Grado is working with just one dynamic driver compared to the triple 1MORE and Sony and dual Puro, it compares quite well against them. They have the nice clear mids that I've always enjoyed on my etymotic in-ears but with a much beefier bass.

Puro Sound Labs IEM500

Puro Sound Labs IEM-500

And lastly, the Puro. This is probably the most distinctive looking out of these 4 headphones with its etched metal and glossy black plastic earbuds. These aren't the largest earbuds; the Grado just edges them out by a millimeter or two; but unfortunately they were the must uncomfortable earbuds for me. While the back half of the buds is where the rough, etched metal is, I find that they still do come in contact with parts of my ear periodically. Especially when I'm wiggling them around to get a good seal. Also not comfortable during the cold winter months when I break out the ear muffs. While the white-lettered R/L that's stamped onto the etched metal is a little harder to make out, it's still nowhere near as bad to find as on the Sennheiser. The TPE cable also starts with a straight plug and is the thinnest cable out of the lot. It turns even thinner where it breaks into the R/L sides. So I'm a little hesitant to take these out on my commutes too often since the cable seems rather fragile. The mic controller is smaller, but fatter, with just one big indented button since it has no volume control. It's also located a bit farther down the cable compared to the others and is also mounted on the left side instead of the right. This height placement is a little weird cause I always feel like I need to bring the mic up more towards my mouth when I'm talking into it. The mic controllers on the other headphones are all situated more towards the level of my mouth to begin with. As for accessories, it comes with 5 different sized tips and a soft cloth sock for storage.

Puro markets these headphones as neutral sounding. Which is pretty spot on. To me they sounded like a more recessed Grado. Clear mids and highs and a decent bass. But while clear, the highs and mids sounded thinner to me when compared to the others. On their own, the sound is very good. When I first got them I thought they sounded great. But when compared to the Grado and 1MORE, I find these just a little lacking.

Also, a note on the loudness of these headphones. While the Sennheiser, 1MORE and Sony all sound pretty much the same at the same volume level on my iPhone, the Grado is noticeably louder while the Puro is noticeably softer. I need to bring the Puro two or three clicks on the volume button up to match the same volume of the 1MORE and bring the 1MORE two clicks up to match the Grado. The Grado is a really easily driven set of headphones so if you like your music LOUD, the Grado's for you. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Puro seems to need a lot of power. I typically had it at like 75-80% volume just to get to my usual listening volume. As a comparison the Grados could get away with a bit over 50%. Maybe 60. The Puros are probably better amped up.

And a brief note on the sound stage differences between these headphones. Frankly there wasn't anything noticeably different between any of them. And I wasn't about to waste more time trying to nitpick between them. They're IEMs. The sound stage won't be the best, but not terrible either.

1MORE Ear Tips

So, final verdict? The 1MORE gets the overall nod here in my view. It's comfortable, easy to control, and sounds great with the clarity that I always look for in the mids and with an impressively wide bass range that doesn't skimp on impact either. My old Sony sounded a little better in the highs and mids and the bass was tighter but I enjoy the bass more on the 1MORE. Plus, the 1MORE is 1/3 of the price that I originally purchased the Sony for, which is just insane. Sony doesn't even make high-end IEMs for the US market anymore. There've been I think two more generations of the XBA line since the original series came out but they're not available here. The price/value ratio with the 1MORE is excellent. The only remaining issue I'm curious to see with the 1MORE is how well they hold up with age and use. But even if they break after a year or two, $99 for an excellent 3-driver IEM. $99. Prior to this I'd been paying $100-200 for single driver dynamics.

The new Grado iGe comes in at second place but it's really no slouch either. If you like the classic Grado sound, the iGe carries that banner very well. And it's just a very comfortable set of in-ears. Very basic and no frills though so you're getting more drivers, adaptability, and style with the 1MORE at the same price point.

The Puro comes in a respectable third with its more neutral sound. Like I mentioned previously, when I first got it, I was happy enough with its sound. But its lower comfort, thin cables and oddly poor mic placement are all negs against it. I think the IEM500 is also discontinued now as I no longer see it listed on Puro's website. Although they're still being sold on Amazon for $199 which seems a little high to me. But I believe that's what its MSRP had always been. My first encounter with it was during the 2015 holiday season when Puro was having a pretty big sale on it. Plus I picked it up as a refurb direct from Puro which brought the price down even more.

And bringing up the rear is the Sennheiser. Truthfully I was rather surprised by the sound when I first got it because I didn't think Sennheiser headphones were particularly known for their heavy bass. My previous encounters with the HD600 and HD598 made it pretty obvious that they weren't going for the bass-head market. For awhile I thought I could live with it but the ears like what they like which led me to start the search for alternatives.

Anyway, if you've made it this far, thanks for reading and I hope this has been a little bit helpful to some of you. Obviously everyone hears things differently so what might sound great to me may wind up not being the case for you. But I think with the 1MORE and Grado, you really can't go wrong with either of them.

And finally, I thought I'd link to 3 of the songs I spent most of my time A/Bing with these headphones. They weren't the only ones but I actually jotted down notes while listening to these. Everything else I listened to afterwards pretty much confirmed my initial impressions.

Flower - Akikaze no Answer

Flower - Akikaze no Answer from Yeru Jung Ji Jae on Vimeo.

Rodrigo y Gabriela - Hanuman

Pendulum - Witchcraft

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 24, 2016 11:51 PM.

The previous post in this blog was The Long and Tedious Road to 4K.

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