Every once in a while, I get out a box-stock pair of Apple earbuds (the kind that were thrown in for free with your iPod or iPhone) and spend some time listening to them just to remind myself how they sound. Without meaning to turn those poor, innocent little buds into Playback’s personal audio whipping boys, let me simply observe that stock earbuds don’t sound very good at all. In fact, if I were to review them (which I won’t), they would come in for sharp criticism for their thin and anemic bass, exaggerated and overly prominent mids, and for their almost unlistenable, “hot,” and sizzling upper mids and highs. But what if I told you that someone has created an easy-to-use adapter product that addresses many of the weaknesses of stock earbuds, while building on strengths not, at first, in evidence—in short, an adapter that turns stock earbuds from a bad thing (with a capital “B”) into a pretty darned good thing? That, in a nutshell, is what Yurtopia’s Yurbud™ * earbud enhancers are all about.
* For the record, Yurtopia prefers that its company and product names be spelled entirely in lower-case letters; for the sake of clarity, however, I’ve capitalized the names in this reviews.
But there’s more to the story than sound quality alone. Yurbuds, you see, not only aim to improve the sound of stock earbuds, but also to enhance their overall fit and comfort in a dramatic and—get this—semi-custom-fitted way. Yurbuds, as it turns out, are the brainchild of Seth Burgett, a triathlete and entrepreneur whose background is in the design of “minimally invasive surgical devices,” and who found that his stock earbuds kept falling out during training runs. Partly out of personal interest, and partly sensing that a viable product concept was in the offing, Burgett sought to create comfortable, easy-to-attach earbud adapters that, in a sense, would mimic some of the characteristics of (typically very costly) custom earmold-type headphones. What evolved was the Yurbud: a soft rubber adapter that slips over the stock earbud, that is offered in a broad ranges of sizes (there are 12 sizes, in all), and that looks and feels much like a custom-fitted/custom-molded product, but at a tiny fraction of the cost.
Yurtopia has developed a simple yet ingenious imaging system, called YurScan™ (patents pending) for fitting listeners with the correct sizes of Yurbuds earbud enhancers. When ordering Yurbuds, customers are asked to take a photo showing a quarter held alongside the listener’s ears (to provide an accurate size comparison). Alternatively, listeners can supply a photo showing their ears with a pair of stock earbuds in place (again, for size comparisons). The photo is then downloaded to the Yurtopia ordering site, where proprietary yurScan technology analyzes the size/shape of the customer’s ear relative to the reference quarter (or earbud) and then recommends an appropriately sized adapter. According to Yurtopia, I need a size 7 Yurbud adapter and my review samples fit me perfectly.
Those who would rather skip the whole custom fitting process can purchase Yurbuds off-the-shelf at Best Buy in sizes 5 and 7 (the most commonly required sizes), though the YurScan custom-fitting software seems to work so well that I can’t think of any good reason not to take advantage of it.
Once installed, Yurbud-equipped earbuds fit firmly yet very comfortably in the outer ear, while providing small, gently flared nozzles that directs sound into the wearer’s ear canals. The nozzles, though, do not actually extend very far into the ear canals at all, which will no doubt be a blessing to listeners who don’t care for the feel of traditional in-ear headphones. What athletes/listeners will appreciate, I think, is the fact that Yurbuds grip the ear firmly enough not to fall out during routine exercise yet are still easy to remove or re-insert when the need arises.
Consider these adapters if: you want to hear just how much better your stock earbuds can sound (hint: we’re talking about a significant—not a small or subtle—jump in sound quality). Also consider the Yurbuds if you’re an active person who wants earbuds that are comfortable to use yet won’t fall out, or if you’re a listener who likes the idea of a semi-custom fitted product that—unlike traditional in-ear headphones—does not protrude overly deeply into the ear canal. There’s a lot of value here for your $20.
Look further if: your main emphasis in on sound quality, pure and simple. While the Yurbuds dramatically improve the sound of stock earbuds, they nevertheless come in for some very stiff competition from dedicated in-ear headphones priced at (or just a little above) their price (two examples would be Skullcandy’s Titan in-ear headphones at $34.95 or NuForce’s NE-7M in-ear headset at $49)
Ratings: (relative to comparably price earbuds/in-ear headphones)
- Tonal Balance: 7
- Clarity: 7
- Dynamics: 9
- Comfort/Fit: 10
- Sensitivity: 9
- Value: 10
There is a night/day difference between the sounds of stock earbuds vs. the sound of those same earbuds fitted with Yurtopia’s Yurbud adapters. Sonic improvements appear in four important areas.
Bass: upper, mid, and lower bass frequencies all sound deeper, more full-bodied, and much, much better balanced once the Yurbud adapters are fitted. Instead of thin, anemic and ill-defined bass you’d hear from stock earbuds, the Yurbuds offer bass with real depth, power, and a measure of textural finesse. The improvement throughout the bass region is downright shocking.
Mids: midrange frequencies sound noticeably smoother and less brash with the Yurbud adapters in place. The stock earbuds exhibit a kind of false (but overly edgy and raw) midrange clarity, while with the Yurbuds fitted the sound, though still somewhat midrange forward, becomes significantly more relaxed and less abrasive.
Upper Mids/Highs: stock earbuds sound almost painfully splashy and “overheated” on upper midrange and high frequency transient sounds, while the Yurbuds smooth things out to a point where, if anything, some might find the highs sound slightly too recessed or “dark” sounding. But trust us on this one: gently subdued highs are infinitely preferable to the almost unbearable sizzle you’d hear from the stock earbuds.
Noise isolation/efficiency: the Yurbuds fit the contours of your outer ears quite closely, yet without imparting the airtight, “hermetically sealed” feel of traditional in-ear headphones. In the process, Yurbuds block out a lot of external noise while at the same channeling more of the output of your earbuds directly into your ear canals. As a result, you can enjoy very satisfying listen sessions with your iPod or iPhone’s volume controls set to about half the levels you might use with stock earbuds. Noise isolation may not be as good as with properly fitted in-ear ‘phones, but the tradeoff is that the Yurbuds do let you hear at least some external sounds, and are arguably easier to remove or re-insert than in-ear models are.
One record that underscores the improvements the Yurbudsearbud enhancers yield is Larry Coryell, Badi Assad, and John Abercrombie’s Three Guitars [Chesky], which showcases three master guitarists teaming for delicate and at times very intricate ensemble performances. A particular favorite is the album’s final track, “Timeless”, which features the distinct voices of each of the instrumentalists’ guitars, plus delicate hand percussion played by Assad. This is precisely the sort of track that highlights the shortcomings of stock earbuds, because they tend to reproduce picking and fingering noises as well as high frequency harmonics much too aggressively, making them sound somewhat hard and “spitty,” so that they detract from the overall performance. Stock earbuds also fail to capture the depth and weight of the lower registers of the instruments in play.
But slip on a set of Yurbud adapters and things immediately become much better. The guitars all sound smoother, more full-bodied and richer, with greater depth. Transient sounds such as picks sweeping across strings or fingers gliding into position over frets, suddenly sound more balanced and much smoother, so that they remain clear yet lose the piercing, hard-edged quality that the stock earbuds exhibit. Granted, some listeners might wish for a bit more high frequency extension and “air” surrounding the instruments, but apart from this minor deficiency, the Yurbud-equipped earbuds do a very nice job.
Another revealing track is “You Have Loved Enough”, from Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs [Sony], which presents a variety of challenges. Cohen, of course, has a famously low voice that makes up through rich textures and subtle inflections what it may lack in actual range. The track, in turn, relies both on female backing vocalists, deceptively simple keyboard and percussion instrumental support, plus a deep, rolling bass line that helps drive the song forward. Through stock earbuds, the sound is simply a mess. Percussion sounds loud and splashy yet lacks definition, sibilant vocal sounds (and there are a lot of them on this track) are so overwrought that they’ll make you want to turn the song off, and both the bottom end of Cohen’s voice and of the rolling bass line are more or less missing in action. Not good.
But again, the Yurbuds transform the sound of the earbuds, making significant, across-the-board improvements. Percussion smoothes out, transient sounds remain clearly audible but lose the hard, "pingy" edges they previously exhibited, while sibilant vocal sounds are tamed to a point where they no longer sound painfully overcooked. The biggest change, however, involves the lower register (come to think of it, the only register) of Cohen’s voice and the bass line down below; with the Yurbuds in place, both take on appropriate, depth, weight, and richness, representing a major improvement over the sound of the stock earbuds.
The Yurbuds fit firmly within your outer ears, yet without applying excess pressure. The outlet “nozzle” of the Yurbud adapter channels sounds to your ear canals, yet without inducing the “Help, my ears are being attacked by giant Q-tips!” sensations that some in-ear headphones entail.
You can order Yurbud adapters as a standalone product, or with aftermarket Apple-type earbuds (which Yurtopia calls Yurphones).
If you’ve been dissatisfied with either the sound quality or ergonomic of box-stock earbuds, help is on the way in the form of Yurtopia’s affordable Yurbuds earbud enhancers. You might think it would be impossible for such simple devices to make a big difference in performance, but in practice the Yurbuds work exactly as advertised. They literally transform the sound of stock earbuds while making it possible for you to listen happily at lower volume levels. They also improve fit and wearer comfort (especially for athlete/listeners), while offering a level of customization unprecedented at this price.
SPECS & PRICING
Yurtopia Yurbud Earbud Enhancers
· Semi-custom fitted left/right slip-on earbud adapters.
· (Optional) Pair of Apple-type earbuds, called Yurphones.
· Nylon carry pouch with zipper closure.
Price: $20 (adapters only), or $30 (adapters plus a set of Apple-type earbuds).