I am incredibly particular about my headphones. This is in no small part because of how heavily used they are when I travel. I am a fidgety person by nature and if I’m even the least bit uncomfortable, I will fidget EVEN MORE. To the point where a small, solvable discomfort turns into a massive pain in the ass that I feel trapped by. Maybe that’s dramatic.
I will put it another way: If my headphones are bothering me, I can easily have a claustrophobic fit. That can turn a travel day downhill real fast. On the other hand, if I want to keep my sanity on a long travel day, I NEED to be able to plug myself in for certain stretches of time. Particularly in airports and on long-range public transportation.
So, I learned early that headphones were one of the things I really had to nail when it came to the perfect gear. If my ears are happy, I am happy.
One of the first things I ever did to deal with this issue was get an airline adapter so that I could use whatever I damn well pleased in those double-jack seatback plugs. Luckily those are now, largely, gone. (I stopped carrying the adapter ‘just in case’ about 3 years ago.) But the headphones airlines give you are still rubbish.
I can’t wear over-ear style headphones, no matter the size. Big or small, they drive me nuts. I’m sure the sound quality is better and yada yada yada, but if I have them on for more than about 5 minutes, I freak right the eff out. They are uncomfortable in at least 3 different ways, and I have a threshold for ZERO different ways. So it’s in-ear headphones for me, always.
The main benefit of this is that they don’t take up any space. They also keep me from spending loads on them. You can easily spend over £100 on a pair of fancy earbuds, but it seems moronic to spend more than £20-£30 on something that is so easily lost or crushed or tugged out of commission.
So, my perfect pair is something with decent sound and replaceable tips and NO bloody remote or mic on the wire (getting increasingly hard to find). Currently that’s a pair of Sennheiser CX 160. I think they were £20. But what makes them amazing, what makes ANY pair of earbuds wearable for me, and what this post is really about, is memory foam earpieces.
Pretty much all earbuds you get now come with a few sizes of rubber earpieces. They are a waste of time. Toss them. About 8 years ago, I bought a cheap pair of JVC earbuds in the airport and they had the option of memory foam earpieces along with the rubber ones. I tried them and I have since never used anything else.
For a while, that was hard. I would save the earpieces for longer than was probably hygienically wise. I’d switch them from an old pair of headphones to a new one. When that particular JVC headphone disappeared from the market after my third pair, I used my leftover earpieces for 2 YEARS until I found another brand doing memory foam. Yes. That is disgusting.
I searched a few years ago online for a place to order just the earpieces, but didn’t have a lot of luck, so I muddled through for another wee while. But recently I checked the interweb again and found what I’d been looking for all these years: Comply Foam headphone tips.
Comply makes various different types of memory foam earpiece, and they make them to fit all different brands of headphone. So you go to their site, tell them what make and model your headphones are, and they point you at the right size. You can then choose the type of earpiece you want and the in-ear size (and in some cases, colour). I went with the T-500 isolation tips in medium.
One of my favourite things about memory foam, aside from how comfortable it is to wear all day, is how well it blocks outside sound. It’s so effective at this that you don’t have to turn your volume up nearly as loud as you normally would in order to hear properly, both out in the world and on an airplane. I remember the first time I used memory foam earpieces on a plane and anything louder than the first notch on the volume control was suddenly too much. The background noise on a plane is so hard to cut through, so I was super impressed with my cheap-o little JVC earbuds. I felt like I’d uncovered some massive secret answer to life. And it had cost me less than $15! Plus, keeping your volume down can only be better for your eardrums.
Comply tips are about $15 for three pairs, and I think that’s a great deal. Now I can buy any headphones I want, regardless of what earpieces they come with, and I can make them perfect with the tips I choose. That to me is well worth the extra cost, even if shipping to the UK is a bit high. Also, I can now toss my earpieces when they get manky instead of hanging onto them for as long as possible. That has to be better for my ears.
The tips fit my headphones pretty tightly, so it was a little difficult to get them on, but that’s probably good because they also seem to stay put once they’re in place. And the foam itself is pretty high quality. It’s a lot nicer than the tips that came with my old cheap headphones. And they fit my ear so perfectly I can barely feel my actual headphones. I can wear them for a long, long time with no fidget fits or feeling claustrophobic. That is a gear WIN.