Hi Murph, Ken, and all,
I entirely agree with you, Murph, on the ear-canal earbuds and the peculiar feeling of isolation as well as trying to compare them to speakers, although if they fit your ear canals and you get a good seal, you can certainly judge the tonal balance and lack of coloration--bass, smooth midrange and treble--and compare that to a neutral speaker like Axiom.
I reviewed some ear-canal earbuds some years ago and liked the Shure SE310, which was wide-range, smooth and uncolored, albeit fairly expensive at the time.
I got into an argument with the Etymotic folks because none of the supplied flanges fit my narrow ear canals, and I felt in a $139 earbud, they should have supplied a good range of flanges. So they sent me some narrower ones which still didn't fit well and I downgraded the Etymotics because I heard no bass. I've had a good-natured argument with Dr. Floyd Toole over this (he is a big Etymotic fan). Anyway, I bought some new "Baby Blues" hi-fi ear protectors from Etymotic and the narrow flanges do fit my ear canals great, so if they're now supplying those with the ear buds, then I could become a fan, of sorts.
All this ramble is meant to suggest that getting the right fit to your ear canals is crucial to getting good performance. During my discussions with some of my colleagues, I pointed out that a $20 Koss ear plug came with a big range of flanges and I got a perfect fit, plus the Koss had plenty of bass, a tad too much in fact, and was quite neutral.
I still don't like those things stuffed into my ear canals, but they are effective.
Axiom Resident Expert