As I mentioned in my recent TAS survey of six top-tier headphones, there is an emerging high-end audio universe that runs parallel to our own- one driven by a new generation of audiophiles whose attention centers squarely on earphone or headphone-based music systems. Within that alternate universe, there are numerous sub-categories of enthusiasts, each with their own preferred listening contexts, source components, electronics, transducers, and so on.
One key question listeners face is whether they plan to listen on the go (meaning a truly portable solution will be required), or in a static location anchored perhaps by a desk or a favorite listening chair (meaning portability is not required), or perhaps a bit of both. Loosely speaking, two fundamental classes of solutions emerge: those based on earphones or in-ear monitors, which are inherently portable, and those based on full-size headphones, which-depending on configuration-mayor may not be suitable for portable use.
For this article, let's focus specifically on earphones and in-ear monitors.
Among high-end audio traditionalists and personal audio cognoscenti you will sometimes hear the terms "earphone," "in-ear monitor," and "headphone" used interchangeably, which is confusing to say the least. For our purposes, however, we will make an effort to give each of these terms consistent and specific meanings.
In this article (and in product reviews) I will use the term "earphones" as verbal shorthand for the longer, more descriptive, phrase, "universal-fit in-ear headphones."
The "universal-fit" part of this moniker is important, because it implies tacit recognition of the fact that there is no such thing as a true one-size-fits-all earphone, given that human ears each have different sizes and shapes. For this reason, universal-fit earphones are expected to provide adapters-usually taking the form of various sizes and types of flexible ear tips (often made of soft silicone, rubber, or compressible foam materials)-that enable the earphones to fit a reasonably broad range of ears.
The "in-ear" part of the name implies that earphones will be worn within the user's ear canals-not fitted loosely in the outer ear as with inexpensive Apple-type "earbuds." A further unspoken implication is that, for optimal sonic performance, universal-fit earphones require an airtight seal between their ear tips and the wearer's ear canals (if the airtight seal becomes impaired, then all sonic bets are off).
While it is true that there are many loose-fitting earbud-type solutions on the market, the overwhelming majority of today's better high-performance earphones are designed for within-the-ear-canal use.
Sadly, some traditional high-end audio enthusiasts rashly assume universal-fit earphones are little more than gussied-up versions of the cheap earbuds included as accessories with many digital music players and smartphones. Frankly, they couldn't be more wrong. Today's better-quality earphones enjoy substantial performance advantages vis-a-vis freebie earbuds, as open-minded auditions will quickly reveal. In short, today's better upper-tier earphones are very serious high-end audio components and deserve to be treated as such.