In which I gush about some headphones like the filthy snob I am.
Mark Cohen, October 3, 2019
I recently became aware that not everyone has the luxury of absolute dead silence when listening to music out in the world. I’m an incorrigible audiophile; I realized I’ve spoiled myself in this regard for a very long time, and had begun to take it for granted.
A week ago, I decided to try out the Bose NC700. It had been a while since I had used a pair of noise cancelling headphones, and I wanted to see if the technology had improved. And improve it had! The NC700 is a really good product. The noise cancellation is surprisingly powerful - toggling it on with the integrated button is like turning down a volume slider in a video game settings menu. The sound quality was decent if unimpressive, certainly not reference grade. Easily bested by more audiophile-oriented headphones at half the price.
Very early in my trial, however, I discovered a dealbreaking problem with them: they gave me vertigo. Literal vertigo. From the start, I felt a strong “sucking” sensation in my ears, like I was on a perpetually rising, super-fast elevator. Initially I felt this was something I could get used to, but about an hour later I developed a pretty bad headache and some nausea. The final nails in the coffin were when I realized I was getting dizzy while walking with them on, and then when I sat down and took them off, I realized they had triggered a noticeable nystagmus in my left eye.
So obviously, the trial was coming to an end. But by the end I realized just how much I had taken my real setup for granted.
For reference, I use the Shure SE846, with the Shure BT2 Bluetooth adapter and these triple-flange silicone tips. Relative to this setup, the NC700 has substantially worse sound quality, which is not surprising. What was surprising to me was that they also had substantially worse sound isolation with their active noise cancellation at full strength! The SE846 doesn’t even have active noise cancelling. What I’ve realized is that the last key to my setup is those triple flange silicone eartips - since they go past the second bend in your ear canal, they can form a perfect seal (in my experience, as good as customs) despite being a little painful for the first ~week of using them. They also really improved the bass response and impact relative to the Comply tips I had been using previously, which was a welcome surprise.
After thinking all this through, I have a new appreciation for the SE846. They sound astoundingly good. They’re fast and dynamic - tons of bass impact without much boost, good imaging for an IEM, very pleasing vocal ranges and extended and present treble. Without stepping into the territory of custom IEMs, for my money, you just cannot get better sound out of a portable setup.
Of course, for a portable setup, it doesn’t matter how pleasing the sound is if it’s drowned out by the subway, jet engine, or whatever other noisy environment you happen to be in. Not just that, but in noisy environments, it’s actively harmful to your hearing to not have perfect silence, because you tend to turn the volume up to drown out the outside noise. The triple-flange tips, at least for me, definitely have a painful break-in period of about a week. But when the silicone packs down and forms a little bit, you’re left with a such a good seal that outside noise is negligible when listening to music, podcasts, etc. I can listen to music at a low-to-moderate volume on the CTA Red Line, and not hear a peep of train noise (Chicagoans will know just how loud it is). I can listen to a podcast on a plane and not notice the engines. And they’re comfortable enough after the break-in period to comfortably wear for basically an entire work day with only short breaks.
From a product standpoint, the BT2 is a breeze. Bluetooth 5.0 means fast pairing and much higher sound quality thanks to newer codecs. 10 hours of battery life is a little short, but far from fatal. Plus, thanks to the SE846 having removable cables, the adapter can just be popped out and replaced with a normal cable (e.g. for long international flights).
This setup is… rather expensive, to say it lightly. For me, and for those who really care about sound quality, it’s worth it - I’ve had these headphones (at first wired, then with the BT1, then with the BT2) for about 6 years now, and would estimate that my use averages out to at least a few hours per day over this whole time.
But fear not! If it’s not uncompromising sound you’re after so much as a better experience, Shure makes a whole lineup of in-ear monitors with the same indestructible build quality - all of which are compatible with the BT2 and the triple-flange silicone tips - at a range of price points.
Does this make me a Shure shill? Maybe. To me it’s less about the specific product and more about the sheer bliss of never hearing the train, the pleasure in the sound signature, and the comfort in knowing that I’m actively protecting my hearing in the long run.