Replacing iPod Earbuds

iPod EarbudsOkay, I’m getting a little concerned about iPod theft on New York City’s subways, which are up 24 percent over the same period last year, according to recent police reports. It’s been a long time since I really thought that anything I carried about my person was in danger of being stolen — or would make me a candidate for a mugging — in New York, but something about the ubiquity and attractiveness of iPods make that scenario seem not quite so far fetched now. I could just stop using my iPod on subways, but a less counter-intuitive and more agreeable solution would be to replace those telltale white earbuds with something a little more discreet. As a side benefit, it will prevent me from appearing, as a commenter suggested in a previous post I wrote about iPods in New York, to be a “tool of Apple.”

What I Need

But when I searched for “earbuds,” I realized I had no idea which ones I should buy. So I scratched out a few quick requirements:

I’m not a huge audiophile, but I do appreciate decently delivered sound — to my ears, the earbuds that ship with an iPod qualify as decent. I’d like to replace them with a pair that’s just as good or better, preferably in the US$50 range, but I have no idea where to begin. I hear some good things about Sony’s Fontopia headphones, but i’m loathe to buy them, because everything I’ve ever owned from that company has broken down irretrievably and disappointingly within eighteen months of purchase.

Also, I’m pretty certain I don’t need — nor is it safe for me to purchase — earbuds with noise-canceling technology. I walk to work, and being isolated from environmental noise strikes me as potentially very dangerous; I need to be able to hear that big UPS truck hurling down the street as I step off the sidewalk.

I have this idea, perhaps outlandish, that whatever earbuds I buy will finally, after over fifteen years of dealing with earbuds and headphones of all kinds, offer some unique and usable cord management. At this year’s South by Southwest, the folks at the Playlist booth were giving away free earbuds integrated with a retractable coil device. It was the right idea, if not marvelously executed; the cords rolled up discreetly if somewhat clumsily. The quality of the sound output was pretty much what you’d expect from conference swag, but if I could find a pair of quality headphones in a similar form factor, it’d be an easy sale.

Subway Strategy

Actually, my favorite subway theft deterrent at the moment is a bit simpler and cheaper. There’s been a lot of anecdotal and empirical evidence that, lately, the subway system has been plagued with service delays, especially on the West side of Manhattan, but nearly everywhere and unpredictably. I think the city’s underground transit system, for all its shortcomings, is a thing of beauty and an immutable part of New York’s character. But for the time being, I’d rather avoid it altogether and, if possible, walk wherever I’m going, plugged into my iPod.

  1. The first thing I did when I bought my iPod a few years back was dump the white ear buds. I don’t like being an advertisement, but my primary reason was that I’ve always been hyper-conscious of being a theft target (because I worry more than I should, and like to walk through various neighborhoods with music blasting instead of paying attention to my surroundings). Anyways, the ear buds I bought and continue to use are Sony buds. I’m not sure of the model number, but for around $20 they look less conspicuous and less trendy and sound at least as good as the Apple buds.

  2. I swear by two different sets of headphones, each for a different environment.

    For general, everyday use I use a set of Koss Portapro headphones. I’m not a huge fan of using earbuds as I find they cut out too much of the sound going on around me. And they sound completely incredible – the best sounding headphones I’ve used for the price.

    The other good thing (in a way) about the Portapros is they don’t exactly look hot. This helps deter freaky people who want to mug me for my iPod. They have this 80’s DJ aesthetic that I find kind of appealing, however.

    For occasions when I want to block out exterior noise (like on an airplane, or when I’m working in a cafж), I use a pair of Sony Fontopia MDR-EX71SL/WK earbuds. They look great (very iPod-esque), are quite comfortable, and sound really good.

    The only problem with these is the cable it comes with is very short, and you’ll most definitely be using the included extension… but because I only use these when I’m not moving around, they fit the bill.

  3. Why are we not using wireless technology for something useful? Maybe it’s time for wireless earbuds? This would definetely help you roll-deep on the subway in stealth-mode. But, until Sony smartens up, I heard these are the best out there: Sony N.U.D.E’s

    And yes, they come in white.

  4. First thing I did when I got my ipod was to replace the earbuds. I hated advertising my ipod and I really can’t stand wearing earbuds. I picked up a pair of Sennheiser PX-100 headphones. They’re really light and comfortable, sound pretty decent, let in alot of ambient noise, and are pretty cheap (got mine for $40). They’re pretty no nonsense though, and they’re not earbuds of course but they worked for what i wanted them for. Don’t expect them to sound as good as your 7506s though….

  5. Contrary to your experience with Sony products, I have a set of Fontopia earbuds that I purchased sometime around 1989/1990 that are still functional and sound pretty good to my non-audiophile-yet-appreciative-of-quality ears. So, if they still make them of the same quality, then maybe they’ll do the trick for you.

  6. Just to clarify: I already have a fantastic set of Sony MDR-V6 headphones (my Sony MDR-7506s fell apart after five years, so I guess I shouldn’t knock Sony’s headphones at least). I use them at my desk, but I really don’t want to carry them around with my iPod. They’ll give me much better quality, sure, but for portability I much prefer earbuds. The less mass, the better.

  7. i also have the sony fontopia earbuds and love them! they have great playback and go straight in your ear which cancels out about 60% of ambient noise. it’s enough cancellation to block out the low grumbling sounds of the subway but not too much where you won’t hear the UPS truck. they also have a great little case just for the earbuds so that they don’t get all gunky in your bag.

  8. I’m on the same search — though mine’s a forced search since every pair of my (4) Apple earbuds have failed.

    I hope this entry produces some good suggestions, but so far looks like everything’s pointing towards Sony.

  9. I’m also a fan of the Sony earbud range – particularly in terms of value for money – I’ve used them for the past three years while running, cycling and jetting around the globe.

    The EX71s are brilliant but there’s an issue with the silver bulb where the cord parts to become a left and right earpiece. Pull said earpieces hard or frequently enough (for about a year) and the bulb will strip the wire of its casing. I’ve also got the EX81s which produce a much better sound with slightly less external noise, but the plastic over-the-ear frame is painfully annoying. I’ve not found anyone whose ears they fit properly and there’s no adjustability. Hence will be buying another pair of the 71s.

    For reference sake Khoi, I trust you’ve had a look at the recently revised Buyers Guide over at which offers reviews and ratings of a good range of headphones. Similarly, there’s a little online store here in Oz called headphonic which has a good range with, perhaps more importantly, excellent photos of all the different products – hence finding non-white should be a breeze.

  10. I also love the “black” Sony MDR-EX71’s but for a different reason. Sure they are black which doesn’t telegraph “iPod” to the thugs, but more importantly each of my ear’s orifice are different sizes! (I know…tmi!) Having different sized earbuds has helped with the constant readjusting that the old earbuds needed. The constant feeling that the left ear bud was about to fall out is now gone. Also great for motorcycling because of the earplug effect.

    I live in rural Idaho and have the same worry as you, what with all the crackheads out there. Who’d have thought NY was as scary as rural North Idaho.

  11. some non-sony options:

    B&O A8s (now called “Ear phones”) might fit the bill. They’re expensive new, but used can be found for $80. They have a fairly clean sound, weak on the bass, but really comfortable, well designed.

    Second the porta pros, they’re great for the money. More bass, less clarity than the Bangs. I own both, and prefer the porta pros, because I enjoy bass. 🙂

    There are “cups” and “sticks” from Audio Technica that are ok, too. I’ve heard some of the sticks (can’t remember exact models), and they sound better than the Bangs. Used should be in your price range. Can be ordered new directly, or through audiocubes.

    Lots of selling and trading going on at headfi. I’ve seen all of the above mentioned headphones used in your price range in the “for sale” forum. May want to read up on the rec’s there, lots of folks with the same predicament.

    A suggestion, hop over to B&H and bring your ipod; they may let you audition headphones. I’ve auditioned closed cans over there, they might let you try the small ones as well. Or J&R…

  12. Go for the Sony buds, the cheaper ones in the first post actually have less of a noise-cancelling effect than the more expensive and shiny ones. I picked up my first pair of the more expensive ones from J&R around 2 years ago, and they still work great. I decided to get another pair because the PSP headphones are also white and uncomfortable, and a backup pair is handy to have since neither are yet available in Canada.

  13. Speaking of retractable earbuds… I just bought the Apple iPod remote and think it would be sweet if they made one with earbuds that retracted back into that remote. I wouldn’t mind if it made the remote a little larger because the convenience on that would be pretty significant.

  14. Seems that those Sony earbuds are the nr. 1 replacement for the white ipod earbuds, i also have to plead guilty: MDR-EX51LP.

    About the ipod theft, a brave person is needed, one who dares to walk around with the white earbuds plugged into a $2 player. Maybe all Apple employees should do this as a thank you to all the ipod buyers. 😉

  15. Just throwing in my vote for the: Sony MDR-EX71SL/WK Fontopia Headphones, which I also happen to use. My only gripe about them is their degree of delicacy. I’ve gone through three pairs in the last two years, and at $50 they aren’t something you want to be replacing often.

    To be fair my first pair crapped out while still under warranty. But troubles aside they deliver awesome sound, with great bass response, and the rubber in-ear design makes them comfortable enough to wear all day without even being aware of them. Buds and bands tend to leave you rather tender after prolonged use.

  16. Shure E2C’s relatively cheap( I got mine for $75 shipped, ya gotta hunt for specials), they hide in your ear, and they have great sound. Unless you are listening to lossless audio anythng more expensive is a waste of money.

  17. My husband and I both immediately purchased Sony 51 earbuds because we found the Ipod earphones incredibly uncomfortable. But now we’re finding we’re losing the cups – does anyone know where to get replacements?

  18. it would be interesting for a person to have a really cheap and old, and undesirable audio cassette walkman in the pocket and when the thug says, “give me your ipod” the person pulls out the audio cassette walkman. maybe the thug will donate one of his extra ipods you, the pour soul, he perceives to still be using an old sony walkman…

    of course to make this convincing, you’ll have to tie your earbuds that run from the walkman inside your jacket, to the real pair of earbuds going to your ipod in another pocket… so if they pull the walkman out, it will pull with them the buds from your ears. cause if they were to pull it, and the earbuds were not to move, it might prove frustrating to the thug, that would be upset you tried to outsmart him.

    but oops, gee, i just gave out the secret. hope those darn thugs aren’t reading this for tips on how to make their theft of ipods in ny subways, etc., easier and more efficient.

  19. Alas, I’m a bit late to this topic, but this is what I’m saving up for. I’d rather have my headphones stolen than my iPod.

  20. I have had two iPods stolen from me, the first incident, it was partly my fault for not catching the person in the act, but I got conned out of it. It’s a long story. The second time someone had taken it out of my backpack, in between classes. I did not know who it was at first, but the next day I found out who had taken it, and I cornered them and confronted them about it, and they had already sold it, and I had no good evidence that they had been the one who had taken it, so the police could’nt do much. Now, so as to make it less obvious that I have a $399 iPod on me, I use old dark grey/black Maxell earbuds. They work great and only cost $9.99. I still don’t feel totally safe, but it’s a start.

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