Juha Saarinen: High-end v budget earbuds


The pandemic has made it necessary to think about your personal digital infrastructure more than before, as chances are you’ll use it much more when working from home in lockdown.

Thanks to Zoom and audio calls, I’ve found myself using noise-cancelling earphones and buds almost daily. A good pair of those are a very worthwhile investment, especially if they come with noise-cancelling to silence domestic sound events you probably don’t want to share.

I’ve had the newish Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds for some months now, and they produce truly amazing audio through their small 6 millimetre drivers with neodymium magnets.

Audio geeks will note that sources encoded in Sony’s proprietary LDAC format can reproduce sound from a low 20 Hz to a super high 40,000 Hz, which is at the upper end of sheep and guinea pigs’ hearing range, apparently.

Add to that an adaptable data speed of up to 990 kilobit per second, 96 kHz sampling rate and 32-bit digitising resolution, and you have some pretty impressive audio tech stuffed into tiny earbuds. Well, your devices have to support LDAC of course. Apple doesn’t, but I found LDAC in the developer options panel of the Xiaomi Mi 11. Then you need a high-quality streaming music service like Qobuz, and your guinea pigs might be spooked by the soundstage and nuances in your tunes.

That’s the theory at least. Audiophiles will argue that tech specs notwithstanding, even the newer Bluetooth technologies can’t transmit true high-resolution audio. It’s all perhaps angels dancing on the head of a pin, but music encoded with lesser Bluetooth tech sounded great too. The DSSE Extreme feature that tries to “fill in” missing bits in audio didn’t seem to do much, but the microphone in the M4s worked well for calls.

Then there’s the useful Speak-to-Chat feature that drops the volume when someone invariably ignores you’ve M4s in your ears, fast USB-C wired and Qi pad charging by putting earbuds on your phones and longish battery life as well. Sony’s Headphones app is fairly easy to use, and gives access to 360 Reality Audio files from subscription services.

The downside with the M4s is the $429 price, which is discounted currently.

If that’s too much to spend, Jabra sent a pair of its new Elite 3 earbuds. They are much cheaper at $139, with decent build quality that’s not at Sony level, and you don’t get the fancy audio encoding ability like LDAC either, although Qualcomm’s aptX is absolutely fine.

While not directly comparable with the M4s, you do get pretty good sound overall with the Elite 3s, a simple to use app, USB-C charging, HearThrough volume reduction for calls, and okay microphones.

The big thing for me when it comes to earbuds is the fit. No two pairs of lugholes are the same and it’s difficult to make buds that comfortably fit all ears. This is why in general I prefer over-ear headphones, like Sony’s WH-1000XM4 despite them being bigger and getting in the way in some situations.

Apple’s AirPods Pro design is very comfortable for me, to the point that I wear them on long drives with the noise cancellation enabled. Yes, I need a quieter car. With the lockdown, I haven’t been able to repeat the in-car test with the Sony earbuds, which have a very different design to the AirPods. The Sony M4s fit me quite nicely and securely, but not quite as comfortably as the AirPods do.

The Jabras fit snugly, but I start to notice them after about half an hour or so, and want to take them out. This is probably due to the “noise isolating” design which passively blocks out sounds, with that very snug fit in your ear canal. Not active noise cancellation, in other words, but it does sort of work although the trade-off is less comfort.

Great value for money but a bit ouchie, or excellent sound and features at a much higher price? Ear you go, buddies. Those are the first-world choices we get to make.

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