Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5Pro and Shure E4c canalphones

Review date: 15 December 2006
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Canalphones are a kind of headphone. A weird kind of headphone. A kind of headphone which many people don't like.

If you can stand them, though, they're great.

The reason for the problems is right there in the name.

Canalphones don't sit over your ears, like conventional big headphones, or over your earholes, like the "earbuds" that've taken over from the old orange-foam-pads kind of portable-player headphones.

Canalphones go in your ear canal.

Well, technically, the actual audio transducer still hangs outside. But it's got a tube attached to it that pipes the sound through some kind of rubber seal into your ear. The simplest and cheapest canalphones really are just an earbud with a tube attached; the nicer canalphones have much smaller transducers with much higher audio performance.

The advantages of an audio transducer in your ear canal are many. You can get both big bass and very little noise interference from the outside world if you seal transducers into your ears. A well-engineered canalphone can, therefore, sound very good.

In a lot of real world situations, decent canalphones sound better than any other kind of headphone. This explains their more pretentious alternative name, "in-ear monitors".

Likewise, very little of your music can escape into the outside world, so the other people on the bus don't have to hear the tss-tss-tss mix of whatever you're listening to.

Canalphones are also, usually, very efficient - they lose efficiency from the mechanical design needed to give their tiny transducers good bass response, but like crystal earphones and stethoscopes, they more than gain it back again from the very low amount of their output that goes somewhere other than straight to your tympanic membranes.

This high efficiency means canalphones work well with the (usually) gutless headphone outputs of lots of portable music players.

So that's all great.

Canalphones don't even have to be very expensive. Good-sounding models start from about the same price point as good-sounding full sized headphones - about $US100, say.

The only down side, besides the fact that good outside noise blocking and high efficiency can combine to cause the merry canalphone-wearer to be hit by a car that he or she did not hear coming, is that sticking things in, rather than on, your ears is not comfortable.

Believe me, I know.

Like all normal humans, I almost always wear foam earplugs when I sleep. They allow me to sleep when I want to despite the infuriating enthusiasm of the rest of the world for mowing lawns, delivering mail and generally being all awake and chipper during the hours when civilised people like me want to hang upside down in our caves.

I am not, therefore, squeamish about stickin' things in my ears.

But canalphones are less comfortable than your standard expanding foam earplugs, because (a) they have to have some kind of solid plastic spigot in the middle for the sound to come out of and (b) they have cables. The cables wiggle the earpieces around, causing further irritation to the sensitive skin inside the ear canals.

Canalphone makers figured out a decent solution for this second problem some time ago.

Early canalphones were made to go in your ears like ordinary earbuds, with the cables hanging straight down. But you can fit the things in there better if the cables exit forward, towards the front of your head. That way they can neatly pass out around the front part of the outer ear which I just found out is called the tragus, then turn upward and loop around the tops of your ears, before either dangling down over your chest in the normal way, or heading to the back of your neck. Whereupon you can do with them what you will.

I could take pictures of my head to illustrate what I'm talking about, here, but fortunately Shure have a how-to page that illustrates the principle.

There are a few different approaches to this scheme, with solid hooks or stiff wires or completely floppy cables.

The cable-loop idea is a good one. Apart from avoiding constant tugging on the ear plugs, it also greatly reduces "microphonic" problems, when things touching the cords cause sound to be conducted up the cord to your ears, like a tin can telephone. You can still get microphonic noise from hair rubbing on the cables as you move, but that's quieter.

Ear loops also provide some strain relief for the cables. So if the cord snags on something, you're less likely to have the snug-fitting plugs yanked agonisingly out of your ears.

Modern canalphones also generally come with a selection of different squishy rubber tips that you can switch between until you find the ones that fit your personal ear canals best.

(The exceptions are the very cheapest models, which can't afford frills, and the most expensive ones, which are custom-fitted like hearing aids.)

OK, then. What to buy?


Behold - two fairly upmarket canalphone offerings.

The black ones (also available in white, and allegedly also cherry red and clear, though m'verygoodfriends at HeadRoom don't stock those ones) are Ultimate Ears' Super.Fi 5 Pro.

Ultimate Ears apparently want the name of this product to be rendered without capital letters in it, but I'll allow them no-caps or a full stop in the middle of the product name. That's as far as my tolerance for stupid typography extends. Heck, Ultimate Ears can't even decide whether these things should be called "5Pro" or "5 Pro"; they render it both ways on their Web site and in the packaging.

Oh, and it's also a barrel of laughs figuring out whether to talk about headphones in the singular or the plural. I apologise in advance for inconsistencies in this review.

The 5 Pros list for $US250, but they're sold by m'verygoodfriends at HeadRoom for $US189 - or only $US169, if you buy the acoustically identical white versions. I presume the white ones are cheaper because of people's desire to avoid IPod Dork Syndrome, and its possible connection with street crime.

The white canalphones in the above picture (also available in black, or dark grey at least) are Shure's E4c. They list for $US319, but HeadRoom sell them cheaper. You have to call HeadRoom to find out just how much cheaper (on account of one of those silly distributor policies), but I think it's actually only $299; that's the price Headroom "accidentally" list as the MSRP for the E4cs, and it's also the price Amazon sell them for.

Price aside, these two canalphones are superficially quite similar. Both have a right-angle design with an angled tip, both are meant to be worn in the over-ear-loop style, both come with a selection of little rubbery things to suit ear-holes of various dimensions, and both are claimed by their manufacturers to give the most incredible audio experience ever experienced by anybody who hasn't... bought a more expensive model from that same manufacturer.

The Ultimate Ears use the stiff-wires ear-loop design, to reinforce the first couple of inches of their thin, roughly 1.3 metre (4.25 foot) cables (that's long enough to reach an MP3 player in an adult's pants pocket, but not much further).

The Shures have sturdier cables that're floppy all the way to the ears. The wire's about 1.6 metres (5.25 feet) long, which makes it easier to plug the Shures into something other than a personal player, but you'll still probably need an extension lead to reach the back of your computer.

Both ear-loop arrangements work about as well as each other. The Shure cable feels flimsy, but quality headphone cables have strands of nylon or even aramid fibre braided in with the copper, so they can take a lot more abuse than you'd think.

Bare earpieces

Remove the rubber tips and there's a more pronounced difference. The Shures have a simple tube connecting the transducer inside to your ear; the larger Ultimate Ears have a wider, two-channel tube to match the two physical drivers inside them.

At first glance, neither design looks like a very good idea, acoustically speaking. Loudspeaker and headphone designers aim to carefully control the acoustic resonance of the contraptions they build, because a speaker that rings like a bell at some particular frequency isn't going to sound good. Little hard plastic tubes like the ones in these earphones definitely have a clear and fairly powerful resonance.

The frequency of that resonance, however, is too high to worry about, for earphone designs. It depends on what kind of tube these earphones behave like, but the lowest possible primary resonance for even a 10mm long tube - which is a bit longer than these ones - is about 16,500 Hertz (Hz).

Human hearing is usually specified as ranging from 20 to 20,000Hz, but those are the extreme limits. Very few adults can hear a 20kHz tone, and very few recordings even contain such frequencies.

The high treble response of all kinds of expensive and highly-regarded speakers and headphones is up and down like a polygraph plot anyway, and nobody seems to mind.

(Yes, I know about SACD and goofy audiophile ultra-tweeters, but the Ultimate Ears canalphones sound great and only officially go to 16kHz. Shure don't even bother quoting a frequency response range for the E4cs. Don't sweat it. It doesn't matter.)

Both of these canalphones are meant to have "tuned ports", but I don't see how there's enough room in there for the "ports" to be tuned anywhere below the high treble range. I suppose the lower frequency driver in the UE 'phones could be using some kind of Bose-ish bandpass enclosure design, and there's a piece jutting out of the back of the earphone that could be an extension of one or both of the tubes, but the "enclosure" volume still can't be more than, oh, half a millilitre, which is four to six orders of magnitude away from the size of more typical bandpass designs.


The canalphones both come with hard cases. The Ultimate Ears one has room for the earphones and some spare tips and adapters and such, and looks like half of a glasses case. The Shure one is a bit smaller and rounder and more of a "stiff" case, being made of heavy woven synthetic rather than aluminium. But you'd have to tread on it pretty firmly to squish the earphones inside.

Shure extras

The Shure earphones come with a mushroom-farm of different tips, all made from silicone rubber so they'll last a long time and can easily be cleaned.

The dark grey ones are soft and floppy, as are the three-stage Christmas-tree ones. The translucent ones are firmer.

On top of that, you get a couple of replacement output tubes in case your earwax dissolves the stock ones, a little pick tool for removing fluff and wax from tips and tubes, a standard 1/4-inch to 1/8th inch plug adapter, and an inline volume control doodad so you can wind down the output power of any device whose own volume control is inconvenient (or nonexistent).

Ultimate Ears pads

The Ultimate Ears tip kit is not quite as impressive (there's one more set of tips that I forgot to photograph because they were still on the earphones), but it still ought to be enough to give a tight seal in anybody's ear-holes. And the UEs are cheaper, anyway.

Ultimate Ears extras

You also get another pick thingy, a little soft case (easier to pocket than the chunky hard case), another standard socket adapter, and a 1/8th-to-1/8th volume attenuator. If you plug the earphones in through the attenuator, it makes them quieter.

There's a good reason for the inclusion of these fixed and variable volume control devices. Without them, it's easy to damage your hearing with canalphones.

It's easy to damage your hearing with practically any headphones, of course; you'd be surprised how low a noise level can be and still do permanent harm over time. There are several factors involved, not least of which is sound frequency - bass is much less dangerous per watt than midrange or treble, which is why hair tricks and experimental subwoofers don't leave trails of deaf people in their wake. I think there's also good reason to not get too terrified about the most conservative estimates of harmful sound levels, if only because according to the worst of them there's practically no modern environment quiet enough to keep you safe.

It is, however, very easy to achieve serious industrial-equipment noise levels with all sorts of "personal stereo" equipment. Just because the noise you're hearing is more enjoyable doesn't mean it won't wreck your ears, given time.

There are two things that make earbuds and canalphones particularly dangerous.

One: Their maximum volume level is generally higher than that of full-sized headphones, mainly because big headphones, even sealed-back models, aren't as directly coupled to the eardrums. Even weedy portable player headphone amplifiers can drive most earbuds to alarmingly high volume levels, especially if the wearer doesn't care (or know...) about distortion.

Two: People usually wear these tiny headphones in noisy environments, so they turn 'em up to cut through the sound of the train or city street or whatever. Earbuds are far worse in this department, because they don't seal the ear canals and thus let in lots of outside noise.

Result: Possible hearing damage, definite lawsuits, and software and hardware to limit volume.

Is he ever going to talk about how they sound?

Yes, he is.

These canalphones both sound very good indeed.

I expected them to, of course. Modern canalphones practically all sound good. Even the super-cheap ones that're basically just earbuds with canalphone noses stuck onto them sound rather better than normal earbuds, mainly because the high quality canalphone seal vastly improves bass response, and it's bass that earbuds most noticeably lack. Unless you press 'em into your ears with your fingers, anyway.

(There's a subvariety of earbud that sits in your ear with its driver facing forward, rather than inward. They usually need some kind of ear-loop or headband to keep them in place, but they can deliver surprisingly good bass response, and can be very comfortable as well.)

Swapping between the Shures and the Ultimate Ears - which was an adventure in itself, but I'll bore you with that in a moment - made me think that either the Ultimate Ears had a low-midrange response hump, or the Shures had a bit of a hole in the midrange.

Inadequate midrange is the same as excessive bass and treble. Either way, you get a "loudness button" effect which makes music, through the UE canalphones in this case, sound superficially more impressive.

Stereos usually don't have loudness buttons any more, which is a shame - though some of them just do it in a cleverer way, applying automatic loudness equalisation when the volume's low.

Loudness EQ is (meant to be...) a simple "smile curve" equalisation effect, and it's genuinely useful for making low-volume music more natural sounding, because the human ear responds better to quiet midrange than to quiet bass or treble.

Oh, and some crappily recorded albums are apparently mixed with the assumption that the cloth-eared audience will have the loudness button pressed all the time, so the music sounds both thin and muffled without it.

Anyway, I didn't hear a "loudness" effect from the Shures compared with the Ultimate Ears. If anything, it was the other way around - the Shures sounded flatter and vaguely transistor-radio-ish when I first switched back to them, which either meant they really did lack some of the response of the less expensive Super.Fis, or meant that the Super.Fis were the ones with artificial tizz and/or boom additives, and the Shures were more neutral.

My feeling that something was missing in the Shures' sound certainly didn't last. After a few minutes of listening they sounded smooth and natural and didn't seem to be missing anything.

When you switch straight from one pair of headphones to another, the differences are often disproportionally obvious. There are two possible reasons for this.

One: The human brain is good at compensating for the shortcomings of audio reproduction systems. Listen to something for a while, whether it's a bass-heavy boombox or a midrange-only transistor radio, and your brain starts to pick out the less-audible stuff that you know you ought to be able to hear. Switch to something with a different set of problems - or no problems at all - and your mental graphic equaliser is still set for the last source.

Two: You're fooling yourself. Psychoacoustic effects are powerful, and real, and ridiculously easy to elicit in suckers customers pretty much anyone.

Unlike me, HeadRoom actually have hardware with which to quantify the response of headphones and earphones, and they also have a nifty online make-your-own-graph thingy.

HeadRoom's test results are sometimes peculiar - like when they measure the left side of a set of headphones as being substantially more efficient than the right side - but they're still worth looking at.

Frequency response graph

This graph compares the frequency response of the Ultimate Ears, the Shures, and the AKG 271 Studio circumaural headphones that I normally use.

Note (a) the flat-to-DC bass response of both of the canalphones, (b) a smooth low-midrange-to-bass hump in the response of the Ultimate Ears, and (c) everything going to heck from the high midrange on up.

The all-over-the-place treble portion of the graph is normal, and much less of a big deal than you'd think. In case you didn't believe what I said above about the unimportance of high treble, the universally worshipped $US15,000 Sennheiser Orpheus ultra-headphones are pretty similar (though much flatter in the midrange) to these much cheaper units. Any loudspeakers you care to name will test far worse, if they're set up in any normal room. Yet people like those, too.

I'm ignoring the elephant in the room, though, and that is the huge, spectacular, obvious difference in bass response between the K271s and both sets of canalphones.

The K271 bass plot looks so miserable compared with the canalphones that I took the time to do my own subjective tests, using signal generator software and my Mark 1 Ears.

You know what? That plummeting bass graph for the K271s is perfectly fair. They really do start getting very noticeably quieter around 80Hz.

They still have reasonable output at 50Hz, so people who want flatter low bass response and don't need thunderous volume can use equalisation to boost the low end. But there's really no comparison between the K271s and the canalphones.

The AKGs actually are a bit weak in the bass compared with various other headphones I've reviewed over the years, but they certainly don't sound "thin". I've never actually found myself wanting to boost the bass when listening to anything through them, and that includes organ music and tracks that aren't afraid of the 808 kick drum.

This is partly because the low bass content of a lot of music actually isn't that great. All you need for fine reproduction of the average bass drum is response at 60Hz.

A lot of cheap stereo systems can't reproduce even that particularly well, of course, and deal exceptionally badly with even lower frequencies, so quite often popular music is mixed to make sure there's no low bass content at all. So you may hear a really low bassline faintly through your low-bass-response speakers or headphones, and then discover to your chagrin that upgrading to, say, a big-ass subwoofer, makes no difference at all.

(Every now and then you'll come across a piece of popular music that actually uses low bass for its bass drum. To pick a couple of examples you might have to hand, Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" has a 30Hz bass drum, though it's not very prominent in the mix. Metallica's "One" has a quite prominent, practically subsonic kick drum; if your speakers or headphones don't have good low bass response, you'll hardly hear that drum at all.)

The other reason why the AKGs' bass response has been fine for me is that headphone low bass response really isn't that important, no matter what you're listening to. Low bass is felt more than heard, and you don't feel it too well when a headphone's outputting a few tens of milliwatts - at most - directly into your head, versus a big set of speakers outputting some tens of watts into a whole room.

But none of this means the canalphones sound worse than the AKGs. They don't. They sound just as good for a lot of program material, and quite clearly better for some, especially stuff with genuine low bass content.

And they are, of course, streets ahead when there's significant background noise. The AKGs are sealed headphones and so block a significant amount of noise, but the canalphones are earplugs and headphones combined - they're vastly more effective. Yeah, I know about active noise cancelling headphones; they're awfully clever, but they (a) need batteries and (b) don't block transient noise very well at all - they're better at blocking constant drones.

(You can, by the way, get noise cancelling canalphones, which keep their batteries in a separate box, like other lightweight noise cancellers. I'm not sure why they exist.)

There's only one department in which the canalphones aren't, sonically, as good as the AKGs. All canalphones, because they remove the outer ear from the sound path altogether, give you a very, very inside-your-head sound. This makes it even harder to imagine a normal stereo soundstage than when listening to normal headphones.

This direct audio injection can be an advantage, if you're listening to binaural recordings, or to movie soundtracks or game audio that's been psychoacoustically twiddled for headphone-specific surround effect.

For most listening, though, it's a minus. Not a serious minus, but a minus nonetheless.

Earbuds have this problem too, but they seldom sound good enough in general that it's an important consideration. Quality canalphones have so few other flaws that the middle-of-your-head sound is about all you have to complain about.

Except, of course, for how they feel.


Ay, there's the rub. Literally.

I am not unfamiliar with sticking rubbery things in my ears. As I said, I almost always wear earplugs when I sleep.

Perhaps this makes it worse, though. Perhaps my ear canals are constantly in a mildly chafed state.

Whatever the reason, I just can't seem to deal with canalphones for more than a little while. I've tried a few models now, with all of the different tips available, and the results have always been pretty much the same. Any tip big enough to seal properly will always, after a few minutes, start to become uncomfortable.

These loop-around-style canalphones, with no dangling cable pulling on the earpieces, are better. But they're not better enough.

The Ultimate Ears' medium-sized earpieces are about the best I've found so far. I can tolerate them easily for half an hour if I haven't been punishing my ear-holes with other canalphones beforehand, and I can put up with them for another half-hour if I have to. But that's about the limit.

Top-of-the-range canalphones have tips that're hearing-aid-style moulds of your ears, generally made to order by an audiologist, unless you're talented in that department.

If I had a set of those then, perhaps, I'd be OK. But there still wouldn't be zero friction between earphones and ears as I moved around, so I wouldn't be surprised if even then the darn things started hurting after a while.

Once they become ouchy, even slight movements made them more ouchy. Heck, just moving your jaw can change your ear canal profile a bit and cause a little more friction.

The entire world is not, however, up in arms about the unconscionable discomfort of canalphones. So I'm willing to believe I'm unusually touchy.

This still leaves me with the problem of how to review the things properly, of course. It's hard to listen critically when you're in pain, and trying to remember to avoid tilting your head or yawning.

Accordingly, I would like you all to see the following evidence of my commitment to objective reviewing.

Ominous medicament

Xylocaine is a brand name for the popular local anaesthetic more generally known as lignocaine or lidocaine. In this gel form, it's used to numb various... damp... bits of the body.

Note the ominous nozzle applicator.

The other side of the tube has some suggestions involving wangs.

This stuff is only 2% concentration, but it worked just fine when I, like any perfectly normal person, put some on the tip of my tongue. An odd sort of "oiled" sensation, as if there was a thin, slippery, resilient layer between the end of my tongue and the world.

And it worked pretty well in my ears, as well, when I daubed it around in there with a cotton bud (screw the National Center for Biotechnology Information; what do they know, anyway?), and spread a bit more on the canalphone tips, for good measure.

The low potency of the gel, plus the fact that ear canal skin is not as permeable to the drug as the mucous membranes this formulation's made to work on, meant that even the gelled-up canalphones weren't perfectly comfortable. But they were good enough.

With the help of the gel, I found it easy enough to listen to the canalphones for long periods and - more importantly - to swap one set for the other.

That's the real killer, comfort-wise; changing earphones, and changing the tips on one set of 'phones, greatly increases the abrasion of my poor sensitive ear canal skin. This is not going to be a problem for normal users, unless they have to keep yanking out their canalphones to hear what's going on around them, or something. If that's how things are for you, and you do not find pain pleasant, then you should not buy canalphones.

On the plus side, the loop-the-wire-around-the-ear design really does help a lot. It made things even more fiddly for me as I swapped back and forth, because I had to disentangle and re-entangle myself and my flowing locks every time. But for a normal user the looped wire gives almost no weight dangling off the earpieces, which is a good thing. If the earphones fit you comfortably - and for some people, they really do - then over-the-ear cables bring you as close as you're ever likely to get to music directly connected to your brain.

Well, until you can sign up to have music directly connected to your brain, anyway.

It's now possible to buy a few models of canalphone that have whole electronics modules, or just decorations, sitting there right outside the ear like Uhura's earpiece. The most notable of them is Etymotic's frankly ridiculous looking " ety8" Bluetooth headset, which allegedly does not suck. I remain unconvinced.

(And I don't know what to make of these things.)

Funny numbers

There are two headphone specifications that most people never think of, but which can matter quite a lot. Impedance, and efficiency.

Impedance is the resistance of the headphones; it determines how many volts you need for a given current to flow. Headphones, like loudspeakers, have impedance that varies widely depending on the frequency of the input signal. Most of the time it doesn't matter, except for the fact that the overall rough-average impedance value, as printed on the specification sheet, puts a ceiling on how much power you can get out of a given transducer - headphone or loudspeaker - from a given source.

A given headphone output can only deliver X many volts. Portable players, in particularly, are renowned for having wimpy headphone amplifiers that can't deliver much voltage or much power.

Efficiency has to do with volume as well. It's how loud a given headphone (or, again, loudspeaker) plays from a given input power.

High quality canalphones often have fairly low basic transducer efficiency, because of the tricks the manufacturers need to pull to make those teeny drivers produce bass, but the fact that the transducers are sealed into your ear canals means you get virtually all of their output delivered directly to the ear canal. So the final efficiency figure is actually very good.

If you plug a really high impedance headphone into a weedy portable player, you may not be able to turn it up far enough to achieve decent listening volume - well, not without horrible distortion, anyway. You'll have similar problems with low efficiency headphones - you may be straining the headphone amp's current delivery capability rather than just turning it up until it clips, but the effect will be similar.

The Shures are specified as having an impedance at 1kHz (somewhat more informative than the usual DC measurement) of 29 ohms; I measured their DC impedance at 23 ohms. The Ultimate Ears are meant to be 21 ohms (frequency unspecified, so I presume DC); I measured them at 20.5.

These exact values are unimportant; I only include them in order to justify my tax deductible multimeters. All you really need to know is that both of these sets firmly qualify as "low impedance" headphones, which means you don't need a lot of volts to drive them.

Of these two, the Super.Fis have noticeably higher efficiency than the Shures, but both were well ahead of my usual big headphones - as you'd expect. The spec sheets say they're something like 119 and 109dB, respectively (at the eardrums, from a meagre one milliwatt of input power). Those numbers qualify as "ridiculously high" and "very high", respectively, so it's hardly surprising that I had to turn the Gain switch on my fancy headphone amp (which, I've discovered, can actually drive speakers to moderate volume levels, not that this is a recommended activity) to the Low position to avoid damaging my hearing.

All of this is good news. It means that there's a good chance that even quite fussy listeners will be able to use these canalphones with the standard output of their MP3 player (or whatever), and won't have to spring for a separate amplifier to get decent volume.

If any "audiophile" headphone is going to sound good with a given portable player, it'll probably be a canalphone.

Note that the headphone outputs of many MP3 players sound pretty dodgy at any volume level. An add-on amplifier drops the load on the player's own amp to effectively zero and can make a big difference to the sound quality, if that's the case.

But that's all you'd need an amp for, if you chose these headphones. They're not high impedance or low efficiency weirdoes.


I like both of these canalphones, but the Ultimate Ears Super.Fi 5Pros sound, maybe, better, and are considerably cheaper than the Shures, so they get the nod from me.

If you don't know whether you can stand canalphones, of course, it would seem rather unwise to buy them sight unseen.

HeadRoom, I'm happy to say, have a 30 day satisfaction guarantee; if you find your new canalphones don't suit you at all, send 'em back for a refund.

Actually trying before you buy could, of course, be a bit of a problem, given that not many people are likely to want to even touch wax-crusted demonstration earphones, let alone stick 'em in one of their orifices.

A headphone shop that wanted to let people test these things out, given the number of ear-tips people have to go through when seeing what they think, would either need to stick with a very rugged and manly clientele, or go broke buying spare tips, or need a jar of alcohol to drop the used tips into. Or something.

This isn't to say there's no way to find out if canalphones are for you without buying from a place like HeadRoom, though (customers outside the USA might not be too crazy about paying to send stuff back to them, guarantee or no guarantee).

By all means buy some $20 canalphones (Koss's popular "Plug" and newer "Sparkplug" models now start from around the $US10 mark) to see what you think of them. If the cheap ones - which are basically earbuds with canalphone-ish nozzles stuck on 'em - are even moderately comfortable for you, then you can be pretty confident that at least one set of tips for a more expensive set will feel better (and they'll sound much better).

If you don't normally use earplugs for anything, you might like to try buying a few different styles of those, too. Silicone rubber earplugs give a reasonable approximation of the feel of canalphones. They also give you a portable Cone of Relative Silence, which can be a surprisingly pleasant thing for many situations - not just sleeping and rock concerts.

Most earplugs are a lot more comfortable than any canalphone, because earplugs only need to support themselves, not electronics and wires. The most comfortable earplugs I've found are the silicone putty type; regrettably, using that stuff for canalphone seals would (a) goop up the little sound-tubes and (b) cause the 'phones to fall out of your ears after a while.

The top of the canalphone range avoids all of these problems, by using made-to-order earpieces. It's the same as being fitted for a hearing aid - an audiologist squishes rubbery moulding goop into your ear, and earpieces are made from that. The earpieces are cast around the electronics of the canalphone, though, so it's not something you can do at home.

Hence, top-flight canalphones are comfortable, but also expensive. A mere $US550 will get you some, though the nice ones cost $US950.

You can have custom earpieces made for lesser canalphones, though. Shure, for instance, recommend people apply to this outfit (who also sell those fancy flat-frequency-response earplugs that make everything quieter without making it sound muffled) if they want custom ear moulds made for their E4cs. You still have to visit a local audiologist to have the moulds made, though; don't expect this to be a budget option.

If you're not made of money, and you find standard canalphone tips horribly uncomfortable, then these kinds of headphones are not for you.

If only a bit of discomfort is the price you must pay to have studio quality audio reproduction on the move, though - even if you're on a freakin' bus - then so be it. There's just no other way to get sound of this quality from unobtrusive headphones, and there's no way at all to get this kind of background noise rejection.

(And if the stock tips don't suit you, you could always try do-it-yourself upgrades.)

And, as I said, HeadRoom are cool with you sending canalphones back if you just don't like them.

Taking all this into account, the Shures get a Recommended from me, and the Ultimate Ears are Highly Recommended.

Review canalphones kindly provided by HeadRoom.

HeadRoom's list of canalphones.

Give Dan some money!
(and no-one gets hurt)