August 23, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Headphones Are In: May The Foam Be With You

etymotic earbuds foamRemember when part of an earbud lodged in my ear and I had to go to the hospital? Etymotic, the company that made the earbud in question, sure does. Not only did that post attract a lot of attention here, but it blew up over at Gizmodo, too.

Because headphones are the most important factor in how music apps sound, they are of special concern to us, the world’s first fan-facing publication about music apps. After the above-mentioned incident, I swore off of earbuds, I thought, forever. I was wrong.

Earbuds — especially nice ones like those made by AKG, Etymotic, Grado, JH Audio, Klipsch, Sennheiser, Shure, and their ilk — offer the best sound in a small package. And now that we’re all carrying music-capable smartphones around, it makes a lot of sense to slip a pair of headphones into your pocket or purse, just in case.

That’s why I couldn’t stay away from the in-ear models. But I wasn’t about to stick another rubber-tipped earbud into my ear, because the last time I did so landed me in the emergency room. From now on, it’s all about the foam.

[Update: I forgot to mention a crucial bit of advice received during the interview below: If you use rubber eartips, and you're a daily listener, you should try to replace them every six months or so.]

The foam coverings on the Etymotic in-ear headphones pictured here not only feel unlikely to get stuck in my ear, but they block out more sound than the rubber-tipped ones anyway. In my opinion, that property, which is known in the headphone biz as “sound isolation,” actually works better than active noise-cancellation headphones at blocking outside sound — and, even better, they do so without messing with the sonic properties of your music. In other words, you can keep your Bose QuietComfort  3; I’ll stick with my tiny sound isolating model, thank you very much.

To celebrate my return to in-ear headphones, I figured I would contact Etymotic to find out more about this foam. Here’s what they had to say (edited for length and clarity, as is our custom in these matters).

Eliot Van Buskirk, How is this foam able to block out so much sound?

Rick Carlson, Etymotic product and channel marketing specialist: This foam is the same material that you would find if you were just purchasing a roll-down memory foam earplug, which, if you’re going to block out noise, that’s the earplug that you want to use. Memory foam is going to provide the most attenuation of just about any earplug on the market. What works so well with foam is that you’re rolling it down, compressing it, and inserting it deep into the ear canal, and as that memory foam expands back to its original shape, it conforms to the shape of the canal, and really creates a nice tight seal. It’s a combination of that tight seal and the properties of the foam. What’s Etymotic’s stance on active noise cancellation versus passive sound isolation?

Carlson: Active noise cancelling certainly has its place. It can be effective in certain environments. An airplane cabin is a great example of where noise cancelling headphones really shine, because you’re dealing with static [as in unchanging], low-frequency noise. As you get into environments where the outside noise is more dynamic, active noise cancelling has a harder time keeping up with it. Our company has a background in auditory research and testing, and we discovered years ago that tube earphones, inserted deep into the ear canal, was a very effective way to test people’s hearing, because you’re able to eliminate the influence of ambient noise.

There are many benefits to using passive sound isolation instead of active noise cancellation. You’re able to block out everything in the spectrum, plus it doesn’t require any batteries, and it’s compact. You can take a set of Etymotic earphones, coil them up, and put them in your shirt pocket, as opposed to having to carry around a case with batteries and such. So, the Awareness app — there’s a special version for Etymotic (available free or $15 for the pro version). How did that come about?

Carlson: A UK developer named Essency was kind enough to do a branded version of it for us for the iPhone, and we’re just now waiting on an Android version. It’s designed for situations where you don’t necessarily want to be blocking all the background noise around you — if you’re walking down the street, or you need to hear announcements. When I use it most is on the airplane. I want to block out cabin noise, but I want to hear an announcement when it comes in over the speakers. The Awareness app lets you do that. It brings in ambient noise through the microphone on your headset, so that you can hear what’s going on around you.

There are two components to it on the home screen — one has a percentage or an SPL [sound pressure level] listing, and then a little microphone icon. As your music is playing, if you slide up and down underneath that microphone icon, that controls your mix of music versus ambient noise. The little arc area, where we have the SPL, is a slider as well. It allows you to set a threshold so that only sounds above a certain level comes through. On the plane, I move that slider so that it’s right around the 90 dB mark, so if there’s an announcement, the app pauses my music, plays me the announcement, and then resumes my music when the sound pressure level drops again. The Pro version can set that up automatically. Cool.