Earbuds aren’t normally an item of any interest to the audiophile community. The tiny little headphones that rose to ubiquity with the iPod are much more closely associated with convenience and affordability than high fidelity. But many companies, such as Shure, Westone and Ultimate Ears have begun to change, that with high-end earbuds for more discerning consumers.
M-Audio recently broke into that fledgling market with its IE-40 professional reference earbuds, which claim to boast the same quality of sound reproduction as studio-grade reference speakers, with a price to match. They take many of the same technologies used in full-size loudspeakers and shrink them down into a portable ear-sized package.
The biggest innovation the IE-40s bring to the table, and the one that sets them most distantly apart from consumer-level earbuds, is their use of three separate drivers for low, mid and high frequencies. While this is standard practice in the world of conventional loudspeakers, the tiny confines of an in-ear headphone force many manufacturers to use only one driver for all frequencies. This is why the sound from cheap earbuds is commonly described as tinny or gutless – one driver alone just can’t cover all frequencies efficiently.
By using three drivers and a crossover to send out the proper signals to each one, the IE-40s achieve a frequency response of 20Hz-16kHz. They also use a patented dual-bore design that sends high and low frequencies through separate acoustic canals, allowing them to mix in the ear. M-Audio claims this reduces the “audible turbulence” created by single-bore designs.
The IE-40s also depart from the world of cheap earbuds with sound isolation to keep surrounding noise out while listening to music. Using an interchangeable set of silicone and foam tips, the IE-40s are supposed to fit tightly into the ear and provide 26dB of noise isolation. By contrast, most industrial earplugs for use in factory settings provide upwards of 30db of attenuation.
M-Audio includes a number of accessories with the IE-40s, including a custom-fitted metal carrying case. The 46-inch headphone cord can be replaced by the owner in the event of an all-too-common mishap, which is an important feature once you move out of the “replaceable” price range. For connecting to overly loud sources, like the headset jack on an airplane, a flexible attenuator will drop the volume down to a reasonable level. Ear loops and four different styles of in-ear molds should make sure the earphones are both secure and comfortable.
The IE-40s were designed for professional applications, like mobile recording and editing, and the price reflects the intended usage. For $499.95, not many iPod devotees will likely be picking up a pair, but those with extremely demanding tastes and hi-fi sources to match may want to look into the IE-40s for those moments they spend away from their $10,000 home audio systems.