Big premise: earbuds are a technical device with 2 main functions.

  1. Listen to music
  2. Hands-free phone calls

I underline technical device to remember its nature: a device who works thanks to technology, whom its features are measurable with precision and practical means. There is no need for speculations: its behavior is immediate consequence of laws of physics. There no need for “dull/high/better/worse/amazing” in acoustics: decibels, hertz and degrees (respectively: volume, frequency, phase. The 3 dimensions in which sound exists – just like lenght, width and depth).

So, now, let’s get into details about why these tools (that’s right: they’re tools – just like every other kind piece of technical equipment. Emotions come from what they create, not from the tool itself) are not an optimal approach to improve portable audio quality.

Since I’m a sound engineer with a great passion in music, I’ll just talk about my favorite feature.

Listen to music

1- Sound quality

The main problem about portable audio quality, of every kind (from headphones to earbuds), is poor speakers quality: thanks to modern excellent sampling and compression systems, if it sounds bad it’s 100% speaker’s fault. Unless, of course, you’ve purposedly downsampled your music (but, why would you guilt yourself with such a crime?).

There are 2 reasons behind a poor speaker quality:

  1. Size
  2. Poor construction

Talking about earbuds, I think you’ve already figured out: earbuds are too small to house a good speaker. Headphones are 6 times bigger, and they’re still not exactly of the best size for a high quality speaker (for the record: at least 8″ – which is why professional studio monitors are at least that big).

In a fewer words: earbuds, no matter their price, are low-fi “last resort” listening systems. They’re good if you want to listen to some music while in a bus or train, but forget what can be called “good music” coming through a speaker as large as a nail.

Higher sampling quality or more refined compression systems are not the solution

44.1Khz and 16Bit WAVE is perfect for studio quality listening. If you want a mathematical explanation of this, here’s a good read: Shannon-Nyquist sampling theorem

Which is nothing but the maths behind the choice of that standard instead of, for example, 88K 24Bit. Higher sampling frequencies are optimal for digital signal processing – which is what happens in the studio while the tracks is being made.

I’m also going to tell something you’ll find very strange coming out from a sound engineer’s mouth: 130Kbps Mp3 is totally fine in 90% of modern music. The only fields in which standard Mp3 compression doesn’t work well are classic music and really complex Progressive Metal (huge spectrum = way more difficult compression). And, also: you need a pair of professional headphones to spot the problems of a Mp3 compression – which, for the record, are very subtle. Read about how it works, it’s super smart: Mp3 compression.

The only solution to improve earbuds quality is shifting to in-ear earbuds, but this is already a quite long post…! I’ll spare it for another time.

2- Ergonomics

This is how a pair of professional earbuds (in-ear, of course) looks like:

They sound really good, they’re comfortable and used by musicians on stage. And, as you’ve probably noticed, theyare molded to be a perfect fit for your ear.

And you know why?

Because there’s no other way to let them stay in place.

I don’t think I need you to remember how many times your “normal” earbuds, or even in-ear ones, got out. And the only safety to not lose them was their cable. Which is also the same reason because keyrings exists: smaller doesn’t automatically mean “more comfortable”. But I do understand that sounds cool.

…and while I’m here, why not suggest you some really good sounding portable devices?

These ones are really economic, comfortable and perfect for high quality casual listening (train, bus…). They sound much better than out-ear earbuds because, being in-ear, they can work in bone conduction. Which is another interesting way to reproduce sound, unfeasible for a device located outside the ear canal (the “little tube thingy that goes from outside to inside your ear”).

Superlux HD681B

Ugly, big, not foldable and with amongst the best sound you’ll ever witness coming out from a heaphone. Also, look at the price. Funny, isn’it? Put them on your head, and get ready for a big, bittersweet (how much did you spend for your last “high quality” headphones…?) surprise.

Have fun, choose the right tools and listen to a lot of good music!