Do you have trouble making iPod earbuds stay in your ears? Does the least bit of exercise make them fall out?
Do you suffer from crippling anxiety because you're the only one in the room who can't manage the simple act of wearing earbuds?
You are not alone. You, like thousands of other Americans, suffer from Earbud Cartilage Deficiency Syndrome. A Google search for “can't wear earbuds” returns only 93,800 results, but when I asked my Twitter followers who else had this problem, tons of them chimed in. (Yes, that's the kind of rigorous scientific research I do.)
If you are small of ear, you may find that those one-size-fits-all earbuds simply don't fit. They're too big — or you're too small — for satisfactory wedging.
Yet the cartilaginously well-endowed may be ECDS sufferers, as well. Too big a socket, and those hard plastic discs, ungripped, simply fall out.
Or, like me, you might have been born without an antitragus. That's the little lower-edge wall of cartilage that would hold earbuds in place. (I never knew of my hideous deformity until the invention of the iPod.)
Fortunately, there is hope. Treatment comes in all shapes, sizes, designs and materials. Indeed, these alternative earbuds may even appeal to the normal-eared, because let's face it: Standard earbuds can be uncomfortable. They are three things that your ears are not: hard, perfectly round and uni-size.
Cures for ECDS sufferers
Here are the four categories of ECDS solutions. (I didn't consider full-cup headphones, on the premise that they would diminish your reputation in public even further.)
The first approach is to fasten something onto your existing earbuds to make them grippier or more comfortable. Like EarBudis ($10), for example. (It's pronounced “ear buddies.” Ear booties would be something else altogether.) They're rubber over-ear hooks that snap onto standard Apple earbuds.
They do hold up the earbuds but do nothing for their hard, round bigness. If they weren't comfortable before, they won't be now.
Comply Whoomps ($20 for two pair) are narrow foam cylinder extensions for your existing earbuds. Again, the idea is to grip your ear canal more strongly without making you buy new earbuds. Unfortunately, although the foam is grippy, it becomes uncomfortable quickly.
Yurbuds ($20) are curved silicone funnels that snap onto standard cheapo earbuds. They make the earbuds softer, increase their grip and enhance the audio. You're supposed to send a photo of a quarter next to your ear so that you order exactly the right size. They work great. However, for the antitragus-deprived even Yurbuds aren't fallout-proof.
Another solution: earbuds with built-in, over-ear hooks. (They may interfere with glasses.)
Philips SHQ3000s ($16) are bright orange waterproof earbuds. You can run in the rain, you can rinse them under the faucet and you can sweat enthusiastically without short-circuiting. They come with a clothes clip (reduces cable strain so they won't yank out), a carrying case and comfortable rubber-dome earbud tips in several sizes. Too bad the sound is so muffled.
Sony's MDR J10 ($8) earbuds are even cheaper. Sure, they're chintzy plastic. But they hook nicely over your ear, positioning the integrated speaker bud without any cartilage assistance. The sound is surprisingly crisp and rich; you'd never guess they cost $8. (You'd guess $11 at least.)
Sony's MDR AS20J ($13), whose black rubber hook doesn't just go over your ear — it's kidney-shaped, so it goes all the way around. This design is ideal for the antitragus-challenged; heck, these would stay on even if you were also missing your tragus, scapha, concha and earlobe. They sound easily as good as the regular iPod earbuds.
Bang & Olufsen's earhook earphones ($160) aren't nearly as successful. They're stylish, of course, and they adjust in three ways: The hook opens and closes, the earbud slides higher or lower, and the earbud rotates in or out. But the actual buds are hard, round disks like iPod's, so they're not comfortable. They also take a lot of fiddling to put on.
Sony's streak of successful cheap plastic continues with the MDR AS35W ($20). It's a foldable headband that bends the earbuds right into your ears. Incredibly lightweight (and cheap-feeling), they're incredibly comfortable, and they would stay on even if you had no ears at all.
Audio aficionados reject the standard music-player earbuds not because they fall out but because they're cheap and don't sound very good. They'd much rather buy in-ear earphones, whose rubber or foam tips wedge all the way inside your ear canal.
That design does more than prevent fallouts. It also blocks external sound, giving you a bit of noise reduction on, for example, plane rides (and making them more dangerous for biking and jogging). And by sealing your ear, these deliver far better sound.
Each type comes with different tips: silicone domes, triple-flange stoppers, foam cylinders and so on. The hope is that you can find a tip type that feels comfortable for long hours and still seals your ear.
In-ear phones can cost more than the music player itself — but that's no deterrent to music fans. It's like a photographer buying a lens that costs more than the camera.
The price range is enormous. Skullcandy has a whole range of inexpensive in-ears, like the 50/50 ($45) . They come with a cool, colorful and fabric-covered cord, playback/volume controls right on the cable, three sizes of tips and even a microphone for use with the iPhone or iPod Touch. Unfortunately, the sound is nothing like what you'd get with the more expensive in-ear types.
In creating its Metal Remix Remote ($70), V-Moda pulled out all the stops to keep them on your head. You get four sizes of tips, a shirt clip and even optional over-ear hooks. (The hooks have “Active Flex technology” which, as far as I can tell, means they're a little bendy.) The only thing that would do a better job of keeping these earbuds in place would be SuperGlue.
Handily enough, you get playback and volume controls on the cord, too.
The Etymotic HF3 ($180) also has cord controls — and a microphone. These come with a bunch of tips, and you can also pay $100 more to get custom-fitted tips that are molded (by a local audiologist) to your exact ear shape.
My favorites were the Klipsch x10i. Yeah, they're $350, but they sound absolutely amazing; at half volume, you get the same sound you would at full from lesser buds. You get five sets of tips, cord controls and a shirt clip. The tips are oval instead of round, and therefore extremely comfortable.
Online, people rave about the amazing sound of the Shure SE 535 in-ear buds ($450 — ouch). They include playback controls on the cord and a whole farmer's market of tips: triple-cone, yellow foam cylinders, and five sizes of black silicone. The first inches of the cord are bendable, so that you can hook them over the tops of your ears. Oh, and they come in a gorgeous aluminum box.
These phones feature “Triple High-Definition MicroDrivers.” Whatever that means, this extra gear occupies a little lima-bean of a body that's supposed to nestle in (sigh) your antitragus. Basically, I could not make these things stay in, and it's fussy to have to thread the cords over your ears.
If you, too, suffer from ECDS, solutions are at hand. If the problem is ear deformity, Sony's over-ear, around-ear or headband-style earphones are dirt cheap and sound surprisingly good. If the problem is the discomfort or size of hard, round earbuds, consider the Yurbuds or in-ear types like the Skullcandy, V-Moda or Klipsch models. You'll face the unafflicted population with head held high, proud to have overcome your disability and entered the mainstream at last.