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You can stick this iPod gear in your ear

Shure rides the boom with its line of noise-canceling earphones--which have become a top status symbol accessory. Photos: Status-symbol ear phones

LAS VEGAS--Apple Computer's iPod music player had become a pop culture icon, but the white earbuds supplied with the player aren't universally beloved, drawing frequent criticism regarding comfort and sound quality.

Such complaints are music to the ears of Shure, a specialty electronics maker formerly known only to professional musicians. The company's line of in-ear headphones, priced from $99 to a breathtaking $500, have become the top status symbol accessory for the iPod, drawing approval even from Apple itself, which sells the devices in its retail stores.

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It's a business that pretty much dropped in the lap of Niles, Ill.-based Shure, which initially created the earphones for stage musicians looking for a more accurate and less ear-damaging way to hear what was coming out of concert speakers, Christopher Lyon, manager of portfolio planning for Shure, said from the Consumer Electronics Show.

"We noticed a few years ago that we were selling more replacement earphones than you could account for from breakage and wear, and it turned out musicians were buying extra sets for portable CD players and things like that," Lyon said. "That gave us the idea to start addressing the consumer market, but we never imagined it would take off like this...It seems like every time we turn around, somebody's created another portable product that needs a good set of earphones."

Shure's "E" series of earphones are different from earbuds and headphones in that they're inserted into the ear canal, where they form a tight seal that blocks out most outside noise and makes music sound more clear and crisp. Both the sensation of sliding a foreign object deep into your ear and being sonically isolated from the rest of the world can be disorienting at first, but Lyon said the weird factor wears off quickly.

"It's an experience that takes some getting used to," he said. "But after a couple of times, people pretty much get addicted to the noise blocking."

Privately held Shure doesn't disclose sales figures, but Lyon said the earphone business has grown at the same booming rate as iPod sales. That's a dizzying pace for a company whose primary product line is stage microphones, a market where a particular model can take decades to establish a reputation among musicians.

"We're not used to being this successful this fast," he said. "Nothing happens overnight for us in the professional musician market."

Shure has recently branched into mobile phone headsets, where the sound-isolating properties of its earphone design pay extra benefits. "For people who are on their cell phone all the time, this buys them all sorts of extra productivity when they're in noisy environments," Lyon said.