I bought my pair of Shure SE115’s in 2010, 5 years ago. I have always been a heavy advocate for good sound. Throughout my high-school years, I would bring my own 2.1 speaker set to our enriched-school trips (Strathcona, Whistler). Was it awkward and heavy? Yes. Did I like making a party? Yes. As the years went by, I started demanding more from my portable music players and, as such, the products with which I listened.
My first pair of aftermarket headphones were Skullcandy GI’s (winter 2006). They were black over-the-ear, with winter-camo detailing on the earpads and headband. I thought they were the coolest, and they sounded amazing to 15-year old me. I wore these headphones practically everywhere. Although I liked having better sound on the move, the headphones were proving a little unwieldy when moving about the city.
It was around this time that I had discovered the joys of listening to music while skiing. I was carving turns down the slopes to haunting soundscapes of In Search of Sunrise 5 (Tiesto), but I was having issues with the factory earbuds that came with my Olympus m:robe music player. I decided to upgrade to some Skullcandy Smokin’ Buds.
The sound isolation provided by the silicone tips was streets ahead of the friction-fit plastic OEM earbuds. For $25 or so, they were a great buy and soon started to replace my use of the GI headphones when on the move off the slopes. I was able to run with these earbuds in, I was able to squeeze between people on the bus with these earbuds in. I wasn’t dragging around a large headset that had a tendency to slip, or the accompanying cord that had a tendency to get snagged in every inconvenient scenario. I could wear the earbuds while waiting for the bus, and be totally unencumbered when I walked into a party. The Smokin’ Buds saw so much travel that the wire started to become frayed, and after almost a year of steady use I lost sound in one side.
With the demise of my Smokin’ Buds, I returned to using my GI headphones. Though it was refreshing to have a fuller sound, I wasn’t afforded the same sense of freedom that came with the lightweight in-ear buds. The GI headphones had been previously relegated to gaming, home listening, and djing duty. As I considered new market additions, I hoped to return them to that purpose once more.
Through this timeline of accelerating audio-appreciation, I was also (unknowingly so) developing my design sensitivities to aesthetics and ease of use. After surveying the plethora of intra-aural products available in my price range, I decided to buy V-Moda’s premiere Vibe earbuds ($75-$100). They were everything I wanted in an aftermarket mobile audio package. They were a beautifully minimal turned aluminum casing with a poly/vinyl coated aluminum braided cord. The colourway I chose was chrome with black detailing. The sides of the casings had a diamondback pattern that facilitated easy insertion and removal. They were small enough to use while lying on the couch or with my head on a pillow. They fit between my ski helmet earflaps just fine. All of this and they sounded amazing (during this part of my timeline I determined audio quality by bass-response).
The V-Moda Vibes lasted for a solid year. Unfortunately, such promises could only be kept for so long, and untested properties of construction started to fail under stress. Specifically the oh-so-attractive vinyl/aluminum braided cable revealed itself as a point of weakness. The plastic coating became brittle with the change in temperature from summer to winter and back again. This made the cord maintain a positional memory, which added stress to the connections on each earbud. Fortunately before those areas could secede defeat, the point of failure was at the meeting of the connector and the cord. Days of plugging in and out of my music player (1st generation iPod touch) frayed and loosened the connection.
While this is a rather common occurrence for a lot of price-conscious consumer headphones, this was not a development that I had anticipated. While I am not the only one this has happened to (far from it) V-Moda agreed to send me a new pair of ear-cans. These buds lasted another year or so for me, and I can still consider them one of my best purchases, as far as athletics & sound are concerned. Yet, I found myself once more in the market for a new product.
Although my Skullcandy earbuds had come to an early end I decided to try the brand for a third time and purchased their newly released (as of 2007) Full Metal Jacket earbuds. As my GI headphones were also starting to falter, these new earbuds provided a new opportunity to visit the company once more. I subjected the Full Metal Jacket earbuds to the same treatment as my previous Skullcandy pair of mobile sound and determined that the new product line incorporated sports-oriented design improvements.
What likely initially drew me to the Full Metal Jacket product was the detail similarities with the V-Moda Vibes. The cable reinforcements attaching to the earbuds themselves looked similar (plastic half-domes), as did the 3.5mm connector. The design had changed from the blob-like curves of the previous buds to a precision-turned aluminum casing form. The cable was braided aluminum (similar to the V-Moda’s but with a softer plastic coating), which matched the colourway of each set. The FMJ’s also had 11mm drivers, which promised better response across all frequencies, and a fuller bottom-end sound.
While the form factor of the Full Metal Jacket’s was visually appealing, they had a larger footprint when compared to the V-Moda Vibes. This proved to be beneficial when using the earbuds while skiing, as they fit more snuggly between my ear and helmet flaps. The FMJ’s also kept their promise of bass, fulfilling my criteria of “good sound” where I wasn’t chasing quality sound.
Unfortunately the Skullcandy Full Metal Jacket’s, with their larger footprint, had a weak point in the casing which eventually caused the earbud to split in two. While this is normally not an issue (a simple glue job would typically suffice), when it happened the wires inside became dislodged from their solder points—rendering the earbuds less than useful.
The V-Moda Vibe’s inherent design flaw came in their faulty cabling connections. Their can design was robust, with a small footprint that allowed their product to be my personal benchmark for mobility. The Skullcandy FMJ’s inherent design flaw was not due to their cabling connections (though with the weather, much like my previous earbuds, the cord was becoming brittle) but rather to their manufacturing design of thin-walled press-fit cans.
From then, I made a decision to separate the duties of daily listening and sports sounds. I would use cheap, disposable earbuds for my active sports (running, biking, skiing) and investigate a better sound for away-from-home listening. My first foray in the latter category was Shure’s SE110’s.
My head was filled with a beautiful aural space where I was able to clearly distinguish individual instruments
The SE115’s were a major investment (retailing at $130 at time of purchase), and one of my less-informed ones at that. I was coming at sound from an aesthetic area first-and-foremost, where my sound appreciation was qualified by the amount of bass present. When I put the SE115’s in my ears (backwards, because I knew no better) that whole perception changed.
My head was filled with a beautiful aural space where I was able to clearly distinguish individual instruments. I was hearing things in songs that I had never heard before. My commute back home on the train changed from a thing of dread to something to look forward to. From then on, I determined that I would never be truly satisfied with sub-par sound.
Fast forward five years and the SE115’s have been dutifully performing day-in and day-out, five years is a long time for a consumer electronic and the use is starting to show. The memory in the cord is firmly planted in a continuous clockwise helix. The placement of the headphone extension connector is odd, and gets frequently in the way. The wires themselves are starting to crackle with movement. The Shure SE115’s are a fantastic product, and although they were still performing marvellously, it was time to start another search.