It’s no secret that the sound quality of Apple’s white-wired earbuds leaves a whole lot to be desired but if not those, then what?
Think different. Pay a casual visit to your local store and you’ll likely see earbuds outnumbered and outgunned by their in-ear monitoring (IEM) rivals; one could be forgiven for thinking that earbud designs have fallen out of favour with the bigger players. Some listeners don’t get on too well with the more intrusive fit of universals IEMs, myself included. I prefer the superior noise isolation and bespoke fit of solutions like the C-Ear X (review here). Going custom isn’t cheap though and is probably well beyond the ambitions of your average Apple earbud user looking for a first-time upgrade. In the other direction sits full-sized headphones; they’re not for the super-self-conscious. Not everyone digs the Cyberman look around town.
Earbuds have a couple of key benefits. Being relatively light and non-invasive to the ear canal, they’re the least physically troublesome. This is especially noticeable when moving from CIEMs and/or circumaurals. External noise isolation takes a knock but you could easily spin that into a positive: earbud wearers are able to hear more of what’s going on around them whilst listening to music. They’re the safer option when traversing the busy streets of inner city life.
Which earbuds sound better than those that shipped with your smartphone?
Down under a reasonable selection can be found at JB Hifi. I’m sure you have your own go to Mom&Pop store destination for headphones and Bluetooth speakers. Audio Technica, AKG and Sennheiser collectively each offer one or two earbud models in the $20-$80 range:
I’ve tried a good number of these budget ‘buds over the years but none have been as memorable as those made by China’s Yuin Corporation, about which official internet-sourced information is super-scarce. Yuin’s earbuds aren’t new. I’ve been using them since 2008 but a review originally scheduled for 2011 got shoulder-barged off the pitch by RMAF show coverage. Time to make amends.
Yuin’s PK3 (AU$49, 32 Ohms nominal) is the entry-level model in their trio of earbud options. There’s also the PK2 (AU$89, 16 Ohms nominal) and the PK1 (AU$159, 150 Ohms nominal) which reportedly require (modest) dedicated headphone amplification to get them sounding reasonable. I’ve previously owned the PK2 and found them trading down on low frequency action and up on overall clarity when compared directly with the PK3. If your daily musical diet positions bass slam as a non-issue for you, go with the PK2. Fans of rock, pop, IDM, EDM, whatever should opt for the cheaper PK3.
I want to bang the drum for the Yuin Corporation and I want to bang it loud. Loud enough that your average Joe hears it beyond the audiophile enclave. From packaging detail to sound quality, the PK3 stomp all over the ubiquitous Apple earbuds. You’ll find no inline remote or microphone to handle phone calls and volume attenuation. The PK3’s winning blows start and end with sound quality. When connoting the illusion of midrange transparency and top-down airiness, it’s a knockout in the first round. Robbie Robertson’s debut album illustrates just how wide and fast the PK3 is able to pan percussive action from left to right. There’s a gossamer delicacy to detail delivery, especially in the upper midrange. These are earbuds that DO NOT sound like someone is finger-flicking a piece of paper next to your ear.
Installing the supplied foam cushions don’t just lift comfort levels, they also provide a much-needed boost to bass response. There’s not much kick below the waist when the PK3 are powered directly by a Google Nexus 5 or Apple iPad 2. Interestingly, bass punch didn’t improve when switching up transports to the Astell&Kern AK120 DAP. The low end menace that makes Perc’s industrial techno so enjoyable is more implied than it is explicitly called out. Whoever designed these ‘phones is clearly well across the limitations of earbuds and voiced them accordingly — winding the wick on Moderat’s “A New Error” didn’t cause driver break-up, nor did it bring forward shoutiness.
Don’t let the PK3’s leaner delivery of low frequencies put you off though; they are well worth the money (and then some).
The entry-level Yuin are my go to choice for when backpacked full-size cans just aren’t an option and I don’t want to subject my C-Ear X CIEMs to the rough and tumble of casual in-pocket storage. When out and about, the PK3 get scrunched up and shoved in a pocket when not in use. Thankfully, Yuin’s pricing justifies this more laissez-faire approach to handling. The PK3’s achilles heel is the vulnerability of the (tiny!) headphone jack’s flex. Regular in-pocket movement will eventually see one channel fail. At least, that’s been my experience over the years. When this happens, it’s off to eBay for a replacement set. I’m now on my third pair since 2008; that’s $40-50 every two years.
For those who want to apply a little more care to on-the-go storage, the PK3 ship with a cylindrical plastic container. It won’t fit neatly in your jeans’ front pocket but it’s small enough for jackets and bags.
The Yuin PK3 are exactly what the man in the street needs to take his smartphone listening from sub-par to above-par. Got an iPhone? Buy these. Getting a PonoPlayer? Buy these. Sharper shoppers will find the Yuin PK3 being sold for less than US$40 on Amazon.com but I snagged my latest pair for via eBay for US$40, inclusive of delivery from Hong Kong.
- Google Nexus 5
- Apple iPad 2
- Astell&Kern AK120
- C-Ear X
- Moderat – Moderat (2009)
- Robbie Robertson – Robbie Robertson (1987)
- Perc – Wicker & Steel (2011)
- Nick Drake – A Way To Blue / Introduction to… (1994)