Posted in: Gadgets & Handsets

My Search for the Best iPhone 3G Music Headset

I am a heavy iPhone user and I can’t get the factory issued iPhone earbuds to stay in my ear. I’ve spent the last few weeks trying out different headsets to figure out which ones might work better for me. I commute using public transportation at least 5 days a week, so the ideal headphones for me have the following attributes:

-Must cost less than $200
-Must have a good snug, in-ear fit
-Preferably offer a microphone option to answer calls without having to pull out the Jawbone

I did a lot of digging online and chose two headsets to compare – the Etymotic hf2 and the Shure Se210. Below are some basic thoughts on what I liked and didn’t like about each headset based on my experiences.

Etymotic hf2
I really liked these headphones. They are not cheap – with tax they are almost $200. They have amazing sound quality and a frighteningly good sound seal. I’ve used them on several form of Bay Area public transportation (BART, Caltrain, Muni) and while walking around in fairly noisy, busy urban environments and you barely hear anything other than your music.

I am not an audiophile, so it took awhile for me to understand the difference between sound isolation and noise cancellation. The Etymotic headset does a fantastic job of sound isolation (you hear your music in very clear form without much ambient distortion – you will still hear honking cars, announcements on PA systems, and other sounds) and noise cancellation (the cone of silence experience). For personal safety reasons I prefer sound isolation to noise cancellation except for those cases where I’m on an airplane.

There is one thing that you can’t understate when it comes to the Etymotics. They have to go fairly deep in your ear canal to get a tight seal and it can be a fairly harrowing experience to get them in your ear the first few times. It is an admittedly awkward feeling to take the plastic flange and stick it that deep in your ear. It took about a week of usage before my ears became accustomed to having the earphones lodged into my ear canal that deeply. The motion required to properly insert them (grab the tip of your ear and pull up and out) is also awkward. Wearing them for more than a few hours can lead to some irritation of the ear as well.

If you can get these headphones to fit your ear with minimal discomfort and you care a lot about sound isolation, these are great headphones. There are also a few other things that are nice. The headset has an integrated microphone, which does a very good job of filtering out background noise, and a very light and small cord that doesn’t obstruct movement when you’re on the go.

Shure SE210
The other set of headphones I tested out were the Shure SE210s. I really liked these headphones as well and think I will end up keeping those over the Etymotics. The Shure headset is slightly less expensive. But it’s not an apples to apples comparison – the Etymotic headset comes with an integrated microphone while the Shure’s sell the mic as an extra option. Add that option and the Shure’s are actually a bit more expensive.

The thing I like most about the Shure SE210s is the ear fit. The Shure’s come with a wide variety of foam and rubber ear pieces (12 in total) that you can change to find the ones that best fit your ear. I found the best fit with the flexible foam inserts, but it took me about 20 minutes of trial and error to reach that conclusion. Unlike the Etymotics, the Shure SE210s do not require a deep in-canal fit to get very good sound quality. However, I found that the Etymotics gave me noticeably better sound isolation, so there is some tradeoff between a more comfortable ear fit and the level of sound isolation achieved. I am not an audiophile, so I’m more than willing to trade a more comfortable fit for some loss in sound isolation.

I have one other small gripe with the Shure SE210. Compared to the Etymotics, the cord is fairly unwieldly. The Etymotics cord comes with a convenient shirt clip and is also significantly thinner than the Shure’s cord. The Shure cord has a lot of kinks in it, is thicker, and doesn’t have a convenient way to attach it to a piece of clothing to keep it stable.

I was at the Apple store last night and one of the sales associates suggested that I try the new Apple in-ear headphones as well. They’re around $80 and supposedly pretty good. If you have a set of iPhone 3G headphones that you really like, let me know in the comments.

Comments (8) on "My Search for the Best iPhone 3G Music Headset"

  1. Hey Charles,

    I have the Shure E4C (I think that's what its called), and love it.

    The quality is a tiny bit better than the entry level series which I had before, but I got this as a gift — otherwise, I am not sure its worth the extra money.

    What I really wanted to share is the cable issue — Shure does make a pretty tight cable, what I do is I have a soft rubber cable wrapper which helps me manage my cables pretty well. I was able to find a link here:… for one.

    Anyways, hope that helps… and btw, great recent article on the freemium debate.

  2. Thanks for the tip on the cable wrapper – I will definitely check it out. I like the Shures enough to keep them. And thanks for the comment on the freemium article!

  3. hey charles,

    check out audio technica. i'm an earbud / headphone nerd (gone through sony, grado, etymotics, and audio technica buds and phones) and they're absolutely brilliant. i have the ATH-ANC3s, which are noise-canceling but do a great job when NC is turned off. i think they also have a new pair of earbuds out too… picked them up at the apple store for $150 but you can def get them cheaper online – i was leaving for argentina and needed a good pair of lightweight NC earbuds and took a flyer on them since i loved their headphones. have since sold 'em all except for the ANC3s.

    good luck 🙂


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