M-Audio IE-10 In-Ear Headphones Hands On

Musical hardware manufacturer M-Audio’s partnership with headphone maker Ultimate Ears has yielded what appears to be a more-expensive clone of UE’s super.fi headphone line. The entry-level M-Audio IE-10 is a carbon copy of the UE super.fi 3 Studio, which are formidable in-ear headphones. Direct competitors include Creative’s Zen Aurvana, Shure’s E2c, and Etymotic’s ER6i, and the IE-10 comes up smelling like a rose.

The IE-10 has all the features that make its UE doppelganger great, like detachable cables, an anti-tangle slider, and flexible loops that go over the tops of your ears to keep the headphones in place. They’re bulkier than rivals like the Zen Aurvana, but not so much that it’s annoying, and the clear plastic housing makes them fairly inconspicuous.

An included fit kit with 3 sets of different-size silicone tips and a pair of foam tips ensures you’ll be comfortable and that the headphones will make a good seal in your ear canal. I prefer the silicone tips because you can wear them so long you forget they’re in, whereas I need a break every so often with the foam.

The box also includes a cleaning tool get Q-Tips, will ya?!, a gold-plated quarter-inch adapter, a level attenuator for overly loud audio sources, and a soft leather carrying pouch.

The IE-10s will blow your mind if you’ve never used anything but regular earbuds (like the stock iPod whities). But even if you’re used to canalphones, these sound very good, edging out the Shure E2c and Etymotic ER6i in the bass department — especially with a little help from your music player’s bass boost. Overall detail is very good, and the highs are smooth with plenty of presence without being harsh. It would be nice to have a little better extension in the upper register, but for around $100, the IE-10 delivers very nicely.

Noise isolation is mostly about the seal that the silicone or foam tips makes with your ear canal, but it’s also about the construction of the rest of the earphone. The IE-10’s are pretty tightly constructed, so despite that the tips don’t protrude nearly as much into your ear canal as most other canalphones (except for cheaper models like the Sony MDR-EX71 and Sennheiser CX-300), they block out plenty of noise.

It helps a lot that these are unusually efficient headphones, with a very low impedance rating of 13 ohms–I never had to turn my iPod nano past halfway to get a comfortable listening level. That means, of course, that you’ll have to be extra careful not to damage your hearing by cranking your iPod past French safe limits.

The IE-10’s are every bit as good as their Ultimate Ears counterparts, which is to say they stand up very well against nearly all of the competition. They’re very well balanced in terms of sound, but the overall effect is less laid-back than the Creative Zen Aurvana. While they do isolate you from noise, I prefer more intrusive earbuds from Creative, Shure, and Etymotic for better isolation on planes and trains.

Although these are billed as “Professional Reference Earphones”, I wouldn’t feel comfortable using these for pro monitoring. But for sheer listening pleasure, the IE-10 definitely gives you your money’s worth.

One note: The M-Audio IE-10 has an MSRP of $129.95, while the UE super.fi 3 Studio lists for $99.99. Don’t let that throw you — M-Audio’s list price is just a bit higher to give some retailers a little more leeway in pricing, but you’ll find both for about $99 at most brick-and-mortar and online retailers.