How to get the best sound from in-ear headphones

Getting a perfect fit with in-ear headphones is crucial to getting the best sound. The Audiophiliac offers tips on how to minimize cable tangling as well.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

I love in-ear headphones--the ones that fit inside your ear canals, as opposed to ear buds that rest on the outer ear. I'm a big fan because in-ear headphones' ultraclose proximity to eardrums offers the potential for the highest-resolution sound quality.

The better in-ear headphones also do a great job of sealing out external environmental noise so you can listen at a lower (safer) volume and still hear all of that amazing detail. The problem is, unless both earpieces are sealed tight, you're not going to get the sound you paid for.

Everybody's ears are different, so achieving a perfect fit can be a tricky exercise. Most in-ear headphones come with a selection of differently sized and shaped eartips. Try them all; the goal is to produce a the best possible "seal," which reduces the amount of outside noise you hear and delivers the headphone's fullest-possible bass response.

The difference in sound quality between a good seal and an iffy one isn't subtle. It's definitely worth a little extra effort to maximize each tip's seal. Remember, too, that poor sealing makes for a less secure fit, so the earpiece is more likely to fall out of your ear.

Tip: Your left and right ear canals may not be exactly the same size; you might need, for example, the smallest eartip for your right ear and a medium tip for the left ear.

How to get the best sound from in-ear headphones

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I've included a gallery of images to help perfect your in-ear insertion techniques. First, try rotating/twisting the tip slightly as you push the headphone inside the canal.

Gently push it in, and when you hear less external noise, you're done. The quieting effect can be at least as powerful as the better noise reduction headphones. If the tip still feels loose or the external noise level is about the same, try using a larger or different type of tip, if it's provided by the manufacturer (foam, silicon, or flange tips (see gallery). If the tip feels too tight or uncomfortable, try a smaller or different tip type.

If the push-in technique doesn't work, try the "lobe tug": Before you push the headphone in, gently tug your earlobe down and/or out, then push the headphone in, then release the lobe. I use this technique with my Monster Turbine headphones. Again, experiment with the tugging direction, as it might take a few tries before you get it right.

If that doesn't work, try the opposite approach: the "ear pull." Before you push the earphone in, reach over your head with your other hand, and gently pull you ear up, then push the headphone in. Release the ear. If it's not working, try different pulling angles before pushing the headphone in.

If you're using silicon tips or flanges, you might try moistening the tips in your mouth before inserting them. That trick can work wonders. In any case, don't be afraid to really push the ear tips into the ear canal. That's how you get the tightest seal, but if any of these techniques hurt or cause discomfort, STOP!

How to avoid tangling your headphones' cable

This tip may work with any headphone with skinny tangle-prone wires. We've all been there: you reach into your pocket or bag to get your headphones, and then spend a few minutes untying knots and tangles. You either just jumbled up the wire before stowing the headphones--or wrapped the wires in a circle around your hand.

Try this technique: Simply fold the wire into an alternating series of U's and upside down U's (see gallery). Then fold the cable to fit inside your bag. I'll readily admit that this technique doesn't always work, but give it a try.

The best-sounding headphones are the large over-the-ear models, but in-ear headphones are the next best thing. And they're certainly more practical for music on the go.

Of course, if you have any headphone tips or tweaks, please share them here.