I am NOT paid or affiliated with any of the productions linked/mentioned/etc in this post. I did NOT receive review units, perks or any contact from these companies ahead of writing this post.
If you work for one of the companies who's product I mention below, feel free to reach out. Just be warned I deal in honesty and not paid shilling. Shit product, shit review is my Modus Operandi.
I <3 Music
People in my life know that I don't go long without my music. I listen to an average of 4 hours of music per day. I'm also a big fan of ear buds and comfortable headphones. So much so people in meat space tend to seek me out for ideas, especially if they are thinking about buying some 'ear buds' like the [redacted]Pods or [redacted]Buds.
Currently I use 2 sets of in ear monitors (ear buds but branded for musicians) daily. I use [redacted] and FiiO UTWS1 for wireless audio, exercise and similar duties. I also use [redacted] and a 2.5mm balanced wire with a FiiO M11 for DAC, desk music, car music and work music. [Editors note : redactions because BOTH sets of primary headphones failed/broke during the initial composition of this post. See the Shure warranty frustrations below for additional detail.]
I previously used a set of Sony MDR-1000X over the ear headphones. However, the active noise cancellation gives me a headache and they are just too darn warm and heavy for me to wear outside of brief periods. They are great headphones and have lasted years. I tell people to look at them and similar models if going over the ear for headphones but they just aren't for me. It has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with personal preference.
Because I have a strong preference for in ear monitors (ear buds); you'll have to look elsewhere if you like over the ear headphones.
Shure SE215 and SE425
Simply put I adore the flat profile of these headphones, they are designed as in ear monitors for musicians who actually perform on stage and the sound isolation (aka: really good foam ear pieces) are lovely. I don't need a battery or anything else to keep to my own little music bubble. The sound also doesn't leak so I can listen to my preferred, not so safe for work, music all day and in any situation. [Editors note: the sound isolation aspects of the Shure headphones also apply to the non Shure options outlined later in this post]
That said, I have some serious concerns about keeping the Shure headphones long-term. I can NOT recommend Shure headphones to others at this time. I reserve the right to change my mind re Shure recommendations but their warranty process frustrated the shit out of me and I'm still not thrilled with the process. They did replace both of my broken ear buds for free but the whole process was lacking. See below for additional details on my experience with their warranty return process to date.
The Shures have been great but recently both sets of my Shure's died. Like died while I was writing the original version of this post. My SE215 left earbud just stopped working and my Shure SE425 right ear bud post for the ear piece snapped off when I was swapping ear pieces.
My SE425's broke 1 week shy of being 1 year old and the SE215's aren't even 8 months old.
Given my music gets me through the day and has a calming effect, being without gets my blood boiling real quick. More so when you consider the cost of the Shure setups I have (hint: NOT cheap).
When I tried setting up a warranty account via their website, I couldn't. Just a generic 'failed to activate account' error. On top of that, I contacted their customer support folks who told me to GOOGLE a specific form name and fill it out for warranty. They didn't even bother sending me the damn form.
Shortly after being told to Google a warranty form (seriously, just send me the PDF asshole) I got a bunch of notices related to my attempts to setup an account on their warranty site. Turns out the password I generated didn't meet their very strict password requirements (good on them for making me use 4 character classes, but requiring symbols is reserved for banks IMO).
I re-contacted their support folks asking which warranty form/approach I should use. The form I eventually found and confirmed was correct or the website. I was politely told to use the website as that's the better option. What blows my mind is they say to use the website but if it's broke to Google a form. Why the hell wouldn't you apologize for the warranty site being down and have me hold off until it's fixed? The whole process of dealing with their customer service is mind blowing.
The only solace I have in this situation is the fact both sets of my Shure's are within warranty and they were fixed without charge.
For now I'm just frustrated, angry and generally annoyed at the Shure warranty process. The above is the most frustrating aspect of the whole process I went through.
Alternatives to Shure
FiiO F9 Pro
I decided to buy a set of FiiO F9 Pro's thanks to the Shure's being dead. I have a FiiO M11 already and I really like their UTWS1 Bluetooth setup that uses MMCX connectors. I also know many folks who have recommended the FiiO products and the products I have are great.
The F9 Pro's use the same MMCX connector as the Shure's and are a titanium case. They also [on paper] have the same general specs as the Shure SE215 special editions and will be good daily or backup headphones for my Shure SE215's. They are also price competitive with the SE215's (NON SALE price) which is great. Having another 'about 100 US dollars' option is a good thing and makes recommendations easier for those looking for solid headphones that won't break the bank.
I'm looking forward to giving these a proper shake down and listen. I had found them last year when researching a 'can break without much worry' set of headphones and landed on the Shure SE215's at the time. This time around I'm going with the F9 Pro's and we'll see how they hold up.
[Editors note: they arrived prior to publication. A dedicated mini review should be posted 'soon'. Consider these headphones for purchase, they do have more pronounced bass so keep that in mind when considering a purchase.]
Westone UM Pro 20
I also reached out to some 'higher end' audio folks I know to find out what other products they know of in the ear bud / in ear monitor vein of products. They recommended the Westone UM Pro 20's as they are similar specs to the Shure SE425's.
I have these on my wishlist for the future. Based on the pictures and specs they appear to be the alternative to the Shure SE425's I am looking to purchase.
Like the Shure's and FiiO F9 Pro's they have an MMCX connector and are designed as in ear monitors. Nevermind they are designed for musicians who spend time on stage and should hold up with regular use, time is the only tell with durability sadly. Some folks I know online have the UM Pro 10's and love them. I take this as a great sign, more so as the one person clearly has had their UM Pro 10's for over a year or two.
If I can save enough pennies and dimes I'll be buying these and posting a mini review but I don't expect that to happen anytime soon. I buy headphones that should last 3-5 years minimum and unfortunately that didn't happen with the Shure SE425's. Presently I'm stuck waiting a bit before I can afford these Westones unless something major changes for me.
I need to call out Bluetooth Audio. It's a disaster piece of codecs, support and more. Basically it just sucks. Nevermind the audio quality suffers due to the bandwidth limitations Bluetooth brings to the table.
I personally love the FiiO UTWS1 as it allows me to use the original Bluetooth audio codec, LDAC, aptX, aptX HD and the like all from one set of headphones. The UTWS1 is also 100% wireless and no wires.
Even better is they look like hearing aids that wrap around/over your ear and are comfy as can be. They even included a base waterproofing so you can get them all sweaty or mildly wet at the pool without issue. Per the specs, I'm not testing this until it happens naturally.
I also like how they take away the need to think about audio codecs. They just work and figure out what codecs to use reliably with my current set of Bluetooth devices. The quality is lower than wired but holds up to any other Bluetooth headphones I've used to date. Exactly what I want in my Bluetooth Audio stuff.
I also have the Shure BT1 wire and Shure BT2 wire. If you go with the Shure wires, get the BT2 as it supports LDAC and aptX. The BT1 wire does NOT support aptX which will reduce your options in the land we call Android (another mess of it's own audio wise). The Shure wires are fine but I don't like how it sits on my shirt or the need for a clip point to make it less heavy.
I go topless just enough where a full wireless setup is a big help and win for me. Full wireless is also more in line with the various [whatever]Buds or [whatever]Pods that are being hawked by more common brand names these days and the FiiO UTWS1's help some folks re-think the specs those [whatever]s bring to the table. Specifically universal support, battery life and longevity.
Time to take the path less traveled.
Ear pieces are an often overlooked aspect of ear buds / in ear monitors. There are a ton of varieties, options and approaches. Do you want foam? Silicon? Other? Situational awareness? Full isolation?
I personally prefer foam ear pieces that expand in my ears if using whatever comes in the box. I don't generally want full situational awareness and prefer to be in my own little bubble of music with a 6 to 10 foot radius. That means foam and I'm ok with that.
What's interesting though is you can get custom molded ear pieces from AverySound (link below). They offer up 3 (one of these is 'hidden') options for ear pieces. Shallow, medium (special request), and deep ear pieces.
Basically they make an ear piece for your headphones from a mold of your ear. You can do an at home impression kit (shallow) or have an audiologist take a proper impression of your ear (medium, deep) for making the ear pieces.
I have 2 sets of the AverySound ear pieces: one shallow, one medium.
CANNOT BE HAPPIER
These ear pieces work like the foam ones but are far more comfortable, isolate more sound than foam and were totally worth it. I can wear my headphones for 12 hours straight and not notice thanks to these ear pieces.
This is definitely something to consider only if you're like me and listen to what could be called 'too much music for your own good'. I've had mine for a year and they look brand new, clean easy and solve any gripes, quibbles or nits to pick I have with foam ear pieces.
I found AverySound by accident via a 'hold my beer' moment last year and... I'm not upset in the least.
No audio post would be complete without a mention of DACs. I included the NextDrive Spectra, FiiO M11 (it pulls duty as a DAC), the FiiO M5 (it also pulls duty as a DAC) below. These are DACs I have some amount of experience with and there are other options like the Dragonfly's and others. However, I've found the FiiO options (their site has many) and NextDrive Spectra to be a good balance between price/performance. The ratios are key and I highly recommend looking close at the main chips used in a DAC as part of the purchasing rubric. You'll be surprised how much overlap there is and how the price isn't reflective of what chips are in a DAC. Pricing has more to do with how those chips are integrated, customer service and other 'soft' concerns when it comes to quality.
On my computer/laptop/etc I use a USB DAC instead of the motherboard's sound card. I've had issues with motherboard soundcards in the past and ultimately gave up on them. Nevermind giving up on the computers built in sound card opens me up to better audio output that can properly drive my 'nice' headphones.
The FiiO DAC products are almost universally recommended in my audio circles and the NextDrive Spectra I've been using for about a year with good success. It's cheaper than some of the nicer FiiO stuff but at the same time damn near any DAC you find will be using one of about a dozen dedicated DAC ICs (integrated circuit).
Some companies coughFiiOcough get fancy with things like FPGA's and other pre/post processing in the audio path/pipeline but overall the audio chips are a limiting factor and there are only so many available to companies to integrate around.
This is a wholly optional part of a setup but it bears mention as I use USB DACs daily and at this point I won't go back to a sound card. I'd be more inclined to buy a high end mic that functions as it's own USB device and keep the audio out/in wholly separate and via dedicated hardware.
Given I have a lot of audio 'stuff' at this point, I'm usually never without my music. This includes shuttling my player, headphones and some accessories with me to/from work, while traveling and other scenarios.
To keep this gear safe I went ahead and risked buying the Pelican RK20 case. It's a typical Pelican case (near indestructible) but with some interior organization that helps a ton and no foam (also good for my preferences).
I highly recommend the Pelican cases, just be warned they can be fairly large. I don't mind the size of the cases because I've yet to have something in a Pelican case suffer water damage, crush or drop damage. I've been using Pelican cases for over a decade and they have yet to let me down.
Adapters and Accessories
No post about gear would be complete without a nod to accessories, adapters and related secondary purchases.
- Extra charging cables
- 2.5mm -> 3.5mm adapter (or the reverse)
- Balanced 4.4mm adapter
- 1/4" adapter
- Airplane arm rest adapter
Just some ideas, buy these sorts of things as you see fit. I just couldn't skip a little bit of a nod to accessories that can make life easier.