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Here’s no secret: Those white earbuds that come with Apple’s iPortable Musicians – they’re not particularly good. Fine, perhaps, for a 15 minute commute on the bus, but even then, wouldn’t you rather have earphones that shield you from the outside noise and, better yet, make the most of your music collection?

The good news is that good sound doesn’t have to cost a fortune anymore. I’ve been trying out Shure’s SE115 earbuds, and while they carry an official price tag of $120, you can often find them for half of that price. (In Europe you’re paying a little more, thanks to your country’s sales tax, but otherwise the price is similar.)

Shure, one of the best-known brands in its field, recently released a headset version of these earbuds, SE115m+, which come with a remote control and microphone for use with the iPhone 3Gs and iPod Touch. You’re currently (Sep 2010) paying about twice the price of the non-microphone version, but otherwise, in terms of handling and sound, I did not notice any difference between these siblings.

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If you want to wear these earbuds as their designers intended, get ready for some entanglement: The instructions say, “Wear cable over and behind ear”, meaning you’re supposed to insert the earbuds upside-down and then make the cable run around the back of your ear. In theory this should give you the best sound, but in my experience the cable never stayed in place, even after some wearing in. While this might be due to the shape of my ears (neither Dumbo nor Mickey but rather average, as far as I can tell), Shure’s prescribed style of earbud wearing felt awkward, and I ultimately gave up. Wearing these earbuds normally, though, letting the cable hang down in the front, did not make them sound any different to me, so whatever the designers may think, I suggest you feel free to wear the SE115m+ any way you like.

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The Shure buds come with a wide range of earpieces, making them adaptable to nature’s variety in shaping human ears. After trying out a few, I quickly found a pair that fit well and were comfortable to wear for hours. The SE115m+ does not feature active noise cancellation, neither in the earphones nor the microphone, but the buds do protect you from outside noise, simply by virtue of sitting in the ear canal like earplugs.

When they’re firmly and snuggly in place, the shielding can be almost as effective as active noise cancellation, which requires a lot of technology and an extra battery. Don’t expect to be able to listen to Chopin’s piano sonatas in peace and quiet while you’re on a plane with screaming crowds, but for rock and pop in public places it’s perfectly fine. Be aware, though, that this kind of earphone makes noise itself: whenever you’re walking, or even just touching the cord, you may hear an unwelcome addition to your music – because of the earplug effect. While shielding you off from the outside, headphones that sit in the ear canal tend to make footsteps and rustling more audible. It’s a matter of personal taste how much this bothers you, so if you decide to buy, be sure you can return the headset if you dislike the unadvertised special effect. The alternative would be open earbuds or headphones that do not sit in the ear canal.

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Paired with an iPhone 3Gs, the SE115m+ is able to answer phone calls and take control of some iPod functions, allowing for volume adjustments, pausing and skipping. The third-generation iPod Shuffle also supports these music controls, according to Shure. Audio playback is supposed to work on all iPod and iPhone models, the packaging promises. However, on my first-generation iPhone I needed to use an adapter cable, as the plug is a bit too short to provide a secure connection. While it works, I wouldn’t recommend it, as it becomes rather clumsy.

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The cable is almost 5 ft. long (roughly 1.5 meters), buds to plug, which should give even the tallest basketball player plenty of cord for putting the iPod in the pocket. In fact, it can seem a bit much for average-sized music lovers. Good thing the cord feels sturdy and doesn’t easily tie itself into knots. The microphone and controls sit on the right hand side, underneath the chin, and even if you’re not wearing the headset as you’re supposed to – with the the cable running around the back of your ear – the microphone remains close enough to pick up your words loudly and clearly.

Leave it to others, like Monster Cable with its Lady Gaga earbuds and Skullcandy in general , to turn earphones into fashion statements. But if it’s the sound – the inner values – that you really care about, Shure’s SE115 and 115m+ siblings should be on top of your list of earphones to consider. Both models have consistently delivered high-class audio whenever I’ve picked them up, dealing equally well with pop, rock, and even classical music.

Much of this is a matter of taste, of course, but to my ears both Shure models sound nicely balanced, lively and open – giving, for example, Morcheeba much room to wander in their elaborate soundscapes while being equally adept at rocking away when The Big Pink or the Arctic Monkeys demand it. In direct comparison, the Shure models seem a bit more grounded than the mobile Monster Beats Tour by Dr. Dre , which have a tendency to emphasize treble over bass (perhaps surprisingly, considering the rapper godfather). Even in comparison with Bang & Olufsen’s earphones , which remain my mobile gold standard thanks to the clarity and transparency of their sound, the Shure earbuds held up very well, just seeming to narrow the sound corridor a bit more on occasion than their Danish competitors.

Overall, Shure’s SE115 are undoubtedly a vast improvement over the earbuds that come with the iPhone, iPod, and most other music players. An alternative to the SE115m+ headset is the combination of SE115 with a microphone adapter, such as Shure’s own “Music and Mobile Phone Adapter” , which may save you money and allows you to cut down on cord if you don’t always need the microphone and controls. Either way, you may well discover some secret sounds in your favorite music – subtleties you’d never noticed when you were still wearing the earbuds provided in your music player’s iBox.

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Filed in Audio >Reviews . Tags: earphones and headset.
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