A review and comparison of headphones and earphones

I bought the Urbanears Sumpan and was surprised

Nowadays I sometimes watch speech-heavy videos in the evening. That was one of the reasons I bought myself a tablet computer some time ago. I figured it'd be nice to plug in earphones so as not to disturb anyone, but I didnt't have any convenient corded ones. I own a pair of Shure SE215 LTD, but they are in-ear monitors, which I only like if I really need to isolate noise. I also have the Sony SBH70, but they aren't convenient at all for use like that. I also wanted to have something corded to use for voice calls, as I realized the Bluetooth earphones sound like a potato with the HFP/HSP Bluetooth profile, which is required for the microphone to work.

So I spotted the Urbanears Sumpan on sale. As usual, most of the reviews online were completely mixed with some people complaining about the lack of bass and the phones not staying in their ears, other people praising the strong bass but complaining about their ears hurting. But they were only 8.90 € so I figured to try them out.

Test setup

I chose the following six songs for the review. Even though I listen to classical music a lot, I never planned on listening to it on the move, especially with the Sumpan.

  1. Dire Straits - Sultans of Swing (Dire Straits): A rock classic with a very full sound, tight bass line and guitars. In the past I've easily heard differences in details using this song as a reference even between expensive headphones.
  2. Dire Straits - In the Gallery (Dire Straits): A lot of reverb in this song. If the hardware delivers details and clarity, it will sound as if there is a lot of room or "air", if you will.
  3. Mylo - Valley of the Dolls (Destroy Rock & Roll): A simple groovy song with a low, yet tight bass. Also quite a sharp hi-hat which might easily sound harsh.
  4. Mylo - Need You Tonite (Destroy Rock & Roll): Based on a sample from Judie Tzuke's Stay With Me Till Dawn, the song combines modern electronic backgrounds with oldies style vocals. Harsh treble is to be expected if the hardware doesn't deliver.
  5. nervoustestpilot - Concentrate (Frozen Synapse Original Soundtrack): An electronic song with a piano track over a very deep bass. There's also a lot of tiny details such as artificial noise and cracks, making the song a good indicator on the level of details the phones can deliver.
  6. nervoustestpilot - The Plan (Frozen Synapse Original Soundtrack): Lots of dynamics, lots of different sounds including strings, choir and all kinds of futuristic Chinese-sounding electronic stuff. There's also quite a distinct and hard snare drum, which won't probably sound nice if the phones can't handle highs nicely.

I decided to test using the new tablet I bought, Huawei MediaPad M3 Lite 10. As I'm reviewing earphones meant for listening on the move, I figured I'll try with realistic hardware and not a hi-fi setup this time. However, I was extremely surprised about the quality of the headphone jack on the MediaPad.

The comparison and review

AKG K701

These have been my go-to headphones for ten years already. I use them to benchmark pretty much everything else I put on or in my ears. I've listened to them both with a bad and a good quality headphone amplifier, and I know pretty much what they are capable of. In short, I think the audio from these headphones is close to perfection if paired with a good enough source. My pair is made in Austria, I don't know if the newer models which are made in China are as good. I would guess the manufacturing processes and quality control are satisfactory nowadays.

Knowing how good these should sound, testing with the Huawei tablet was a positive surprise for me: the headphone jack delivers. There certainly isn't any leeway at all, but I would say the tablet is capable of driving these phones - barely, but still. I've found the AKG K701 to be somewhat demanding headphones, so I trust the tablet can also handle the presumably easier-to-drive earphones. These are just my impressions though, as I don't have any scientific data to support my claims.

The sound quality assessment for the K701 will be done via the other test subjects by comparing them to the performance of these. The song introduction above pretty much describes what these phones deliver. I do prefer my Klipsch RF-63 driven by the Kingrex T20 over pretty much anything, but I think the characteristics of a song are well delivered also by the K701.

Urbanears Sumpan

Lacks bass, has strong bass, fits your ears, hurts your ears, completely amazing, unusable. With online reviews like these, how could one resist the Sumpan?

The first impression is the Sumpan earphones sound like typical non-isolating earphones. They don't have much bass response. They won't stay in your ears if you move a lot, but they are extremely comfortable. The reviewers saying they hurt and have great bass have probably forcibly pushed them deep in their ears, which is not how they are supposed to be used.

Sound quality assessment using the test songs:

  1. Sultans of Swing: Lacks punch completely, the bassline doesn't make you groove. Not that much details, either. Hi-hat and some high guitar notes sound harsh, as do vocals with loud volume levels. The overall representation is quite "thin".
  2. In the Gallery: Works much better than the previous song. Actually almost enjoyable to listen to. Sounds as if there are some details, but the feeling of room is missing. Probably because of it, the stereo image is somewhat weird. Doesn't sound as thin as Sultans of Swing, but the sound stage is very narrow nevertheless.
  3. Valley of the Dolls: Surprisingly clear bass, but everything sounds treble-heavy and harsh, making the song really tiresome to listen to.
  4. Need You Tonite: Again quite treble-heavy, but surprisingly not as harsh-sounding as I expected. This should sound like a song with an oldies effect, but it sounds like an oldies effect with a song. It's almost as if the whole song was played through a metallic pipe. Not very pleasant to listen to, even if not exactly pain-inducing.
  5. Concentrate: The bass is non-existent, as it is way too low for the earphones. As was the case with Need You Tonite, the subtle special effects of the track come right in your face, and it doesn't sound much like music anymore.
  6. The Plan: On high volume levels, not only the treble sounds pain-inducing, but also the mids. Doesn't sound that terrible with low volume levels, but "distant".

All in all the earphones seem to be only good for listening with medium volume. They are characterized by a very overly-pronounced treble and lack of bass whatsoever. The stereo image is quite narrow. All this makes them sound thin and distant when listening to music that should have presence with a rich and full sound.

So why should anyone care about these earphones? First of all, they are excellent for the use I bought them for - that is, listening to speech-focused videos. They are super comfortable, and the cord really stands out. The cord is flexible and has a nice fabric over it, so it feels nice against your skin. The innovative plug keeps the cord nicely packed. I wouldn't recommend the Sumpan for their sound quality, but the overall experience using them is something different. For the purpose I use them I would be satisfied if I had paid the 30 €, but having paid only 8.90 € it was a steal.

Shure SE215 LTD

The Shure SE215 LTD are bass-heavy in-ear monitors. The sound is definitely not neutral, but in certain situations and with compatible hardware, it could be pretty good. I especially like these while travelling on a train or an airplane.

Sound quality assessment using the test songs:

  1. Sultans of Swing: Somewhat lacks punch, probably because of the small lack of details. But the music sounds pleasantly warm and makes you groove nevertheless. Works very well with low volume levels.
  2. In the Gallery: The feeling of room is missing again, as are the details. Again with low volume levels still a pleasant experience.
  3. Valley of the Dolls: Overall a bit muffled sound, but still quite pleasant.
  4. Need You Tonite: It doesn't exactly sound like it's made to sound old in a good way, it sounds as if the recording was of mediocre quality. This is probably because of the lack of details.
  5. Concentrate: This one falls to the uncanny valley of sound. The intentional noise, hiss, cracks and pops don't sound as sophisticated, making you wonder whether they should be there or not.
  6. The Plan: This was interesting. On high volume levels for the first time with these earphones, the treble is pain-inducing. The music doesn't sound that muffled, either. With medium volume levels it's actually pretty decent even if there's a complete lack of air.

What a completely opposite experience to the Sumpan these earphones are! Where the Sumpan has hints of detail, the SE215 has none. Everything sounds muffled and smooth to the point I'm starting to suspect if there's something wrong with my old pair - after all these have seen the world on my travels. On lower volume levels depending on the music they might actually sound good. However, in a noisy environment you don't necessarily hear the details anyway, so for the "big lines" these are fine. Definitely not hi-fi sound, though.

Sony SBH70

The Sony SBH70 are all-purpose Bluetooth earphones. Without feeling out of place you can listen to them at home, on a train, in the gym, while walking, you name it. As they are Bluetooth earphones, the audio jack quality doesn't matter. That's also a downside though, as Bluetooth sets certain limitations which at home might feel unnecessary.

Sound quality assessment using the test songs:

  1. Sultans of Swing: Very easy to listen to, makes you groove. No immediate lack of or highly pronounced anything. Some background hiss is noticiable. Don't know if it's the Bluetooth audio compression or the amplifier in the earphones.
  2. In the Gallery: Similar experience to Sultans of Swing. The sound stage isn't that big, but overall a very pleasant listening experience.
  3. Valley of the Dolls: At some points there's a small lack of details, but overall the sound is balanced and easy to listen to.
  4. Need You Tonite: No big complaints here, either. Maybe a bit more presence in the bass department would be nice.
  5. Concentrate: The bass is lacking depth.
  6. The Plan: With some sounds there is a lack of details. Again hard to say if the culprit is the Bluetooth audio compression or the earphones.

I wish there was a wired option available for the earphones. It would be interesting to see if the sometimes audible background noise and lack of details are the results of the Bluetooth audio transmission/compression or just a characteristic of the earphones. It doesn't matter now, though, it's there. And it's not that bad to be a deal breaker - these are still nice open desing earphones which are suitable for everyday listening in a variety of situations.

About the importance of the source

I'm not going into the software side this time - I used foobar2000 and FLAC files for all the testing, but normally on my portable devices I use Ogg Vorbis compressed audio. If I'm on the move, the audio files probably aren't going to be the weakest link in the chain. Internet radio is one thing, though, where encoding quality actually matters.

Hardware is another thing. It's still amazes me how wildly the audio output jack quality varies between devices, sometimes being simply unacceptable. Some examples follow.

The jack on my Xiaomi Redmi 4X mobile phone is really bad, with pain-inducing highs and lack of lows and a lot of noise. There's no power to drive anything demanding.

The only mobile phone jack worse than the Redmi 4X has been that of Nokia Lumia 810. It couldn't even drive my old cheap Sennheiser earphones, or in fact even the auxiliary input on my car stereo.

The headphone jack of my Asus UX305CA can't drive the AKG K701, but with the Shure SE215 it sounds quite nice. The lack of bass of the source combined with the bass-heavy earphones even out each other. Also the Urbanears work nicely with the Asus, although they completely lack bass.

My work laptop Dell E7450 has a terrible sound quality altogether. No headphone sounds good from it. Lots of noise, no punch, no details, no power to drive demanding stuff.

The Huawei MediaPad M3 Lite 10 is really good. It sounds high fidelity without hiss or too much crosstalk for example, and it has enough power to drive even the AKG K701 adequately.

Conclusion

After listening to all these phones I came to the same conclusion as ten years ago the first time I heard the AKG K701: damn they are good. But I'm not going to use them with my head resting on a pillow listening to Youtube, or travelling on an airplane. That's why there are different kinds of headphones and earphones, and selecting one depends on what you are looking for.

AKG K701

No doubt, for hi-fi listening at home, I haven't heard anything better, and I don't exactly feel the need to have anything better. Some might say they lack bass, but that preference can be fixed with some equalizing if necessary. You just need the right hardware to drive these adequately. If someone thinks that surely no headphones can be worth a few hundred euros, I recommend trying these out. They will open up a whole new world to you.

Shure SE215 LTD

For travelling in a noisy environment, these are decent. For listening to music at home, try something else. A very bass-heavy and muffled sound, definitely not hi-fi. But these are in-ear monitors and thus made for band rehearsals for example.

Sony SBH70

Out of the test subjects, if I had to pick one pair of earphones for general use and for every kind of situation, these would probably be the choice. They have an adequate, balanced sound, they are comfortable and practical for most situations. They use Bluetooth eliminating the need for a high-quality audio jack. As always, there still are some limitations and disadvantages, so I'm still happy I don't have to pick just one pair of earphones. Especially for listening at home there is a lot of room for improvement. For more thoughts on the earphones, see my review article.

Urbanears Sumpan

What surprised me wasn't exactly the audio quality of the Sumpan itself, but the differences in quality between all the earphones I tested. Another thing that surprised me was how much I liked the non-musical elements of the Sumpan: their practicality, their feel, and the clarity for VoIP calls. For listening to music I would pick any other test subject I had. For joining a telephone conference I would definitely pick these.

Pros:

  • Flexible cord with a material that feels nice.
  • Innovative plug that acts as a cord holder.
  • Lots of colors available.
  • Adequate sound quality for watching most videos, such as random YouTube stuff.
  • Works well for VoIP, voice clarity is good both ways.
  • Somewhat detailed higher mids, again helping with voice calls.
  • Affordable.

Cons:

  • Lacks bass.
  • Harsh treble.
  • Mediocre sound quality for music - sounds thin, cold and distant overall.
  • Sound quality gets even worse with loud volume levels.

I recommend the Urbanears Sumpan for VoIP and late-night video watching. I do not recommend them for music. At this point it's also worth mentioning again how good the Huawei MediaPad M3 Lite 10 headphone jack is. The tablet isn't that bad otherwise either. The Sumpan and MediaPad make a good combo for watching videos.

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Creative Commons License  This article by Olli Helin is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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