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Each year, millions of iPods and other MP3 players are sold around the globe. Most of them include a basic set of earbuds so you can listen to your favorite tunes right away. A lot of people keep those earbuds for years, but there are plenty of good reasons to ditch the bundled buds and step up to something better.
Audio quality, build quality, comfort, and style are all important things to keep in mind when choosing a pair of headphones. The best-sounding and most customizable portable headphones are in-ear headphones, also known as earphones or canalphones. This article will explore a variety of different options for upgrading to a set of in-ear headphones while staying within your budget. For those of you interested in a set of traditional headphones, please visit my previous article on the subject.
For this article, I tested almost a dozen different pairs of in-ear headphones from a variety of manufacturers. My testing included listening to each set for at least an hour, if not more. I listened mostly to MP3 and AAC files on an iPhone 3G, though I also did some testing with CDs when testing higher-end dual-driver headphones. I listened to a wide variety of musical artists and genres to make sure that all styles were represented.
The first upgrade option that iPod owners may be aware of is the Apple Dual-Driver In-Ear model. Released just a few months ago, and priced much more competitively than most dual-driver in-ear models, the Apple option has a built-in microphone/control unit for use with the iPhone and current-generation iPods*. The style of these headphones matches the iconic look of Apple's white earbuds, which may be a key factor in your purchase.
These headphones are beautifully packaged and easy to open. Bundled accessories include 3 pairs of soft rubber in-ear tips (small, medium, and large), hard plastic storage cases for both the headphones and the extra eartips, a pair of replacement steel mesh caps, and a pair of Apple logo stickers. The headphone storage case is very compact and will slip easily into the smallest of pockets. I did, however, find it a bit fiddly to wrap the headphones, and it would have been nice if the lid of the case were hinged instead of coming off entirely.
The earpieces on this set are pretty small. Users with smaller ears will find them comfortable, and they're definitely "sleep-worthy" (Causing no extra pressure when lying on a pillow). Noise isolation was very good, and there was very little audio leakage (audio leaking out to be heard by those around you), even at extreme volumes. The build quality is similar to the bundled Apple headphones. The cable is flexible, sturdy, and has a good length.
The steel mesh caps (designed to keep earwax and other debris away from the speakers) are well-machined and screw on and off easily. The control button on the cable also feels very similar to the bundled headphones that come with the iPhone. The control button worked well with the iPhone, controlling play/pause and track skip functions perfectly. The volume control features, however, are not supported on the iPhone, and will only work with the compatible iPod models listed above.
As for audio quality, I was pleasantly surprised, since I've never been a huge fan of Apple's bundled earbuds. As stated above, this pair of headphones offers dual drivers. This means that each earpiece contains two separate speaker elements, one to handle bass and one to handle treble. Most headphones, regardless of whether they're earbuds, in-ear, or traditional style, only have a single full-range speaker in each earpiece.
Because this is a dual-driver set, I had high hopes but was also somewhat wary. As far as I'm aware this is the only set of dual-driver in-ear headphones on the market with a price tag under $100. I wondered how Apple managed to pack in that kind of technology while maintaining a relatively low price. Nevertheless, these performed well with most genres. I could have done with a little more bass, and treble seemed a touch sharp at times. Vocals were well-represented, and volume handling was excellent. Even when cranking the volume to 100% the headphones did not distort. Recommended, especially if you own one of the current model iPods and can take full advantage of the integrated mic/remote unit.
For the budget-minded, I tested out the iLuv i301 in-ear headphones, which are highly affordable at only $13. At that price, I wasn't expecting much at all, but was pleasantly surprised. The headphones include 3 different sizes of soft rubber eartips for finding a proper fit. As an added bonus, there is a built-in volume control in the cable, letting you make on-the-fly adjustments. This control worked well and did not introduce any extra noise into the audio signal path.
The cable quality feels on-par with the Apple Dual-Drivers, and is also a good length. It includes a Y-Slider, which can be useful to help prevent tangles. The earpieces themselves are a moderate size. They're not as small as the Apple option, but they're not tremendous either.
Audio was very strong in the bass arena. If you listen to a lot of hip hop or other bassy genres, these will be right up your alley. There was a bit of mud in the vocals, but overall the clarity was good, and much better than what I was expecting for the price. There was no distortion at 100% volume, noise isolation was good, and noise leakage was more than acceptable at normal and loud listening volumes. For comfort and noise isolation alone, these would be a good step up from bundled earbuds, but they also offer improved audio quality as well. The volume control is an added bonus that easily makes the i301 worth more than the $13 asking price. These are also available in multiple colors to match your iPod nano, outfit, or mood.
Xuma, a relatively unknown name in the world of headphones, has a trio of offerings at various price ranges, the SEP-10, SEP-30, and SEP-50. Each model includes a velvet-esque carrying bag, 3 sizes of soft rubber eartips and a pair of dual-flange eartips, as well as a plastic cable winder and a clothing clip. The SEP-50 also includes a pair of triple-flange eartips for extra noise isolation.
The sound across all models is surprisingly good for the price, with good representation across all frequencies. The bass can be a little heavy in the SEP-10, but nowhere close to overwhelming, as is commonly found with in-ear headphones in this price range. As expected, audio quality increased as I continued up the line. The SEP-30 offers more neutrality than the SEP-10, so those looking for a more flat response might prefer the SEP-30. The SEP-50 offers the best sound quality of the bunch, with strong bass, but enough treble to balance it out.
Earpiece size increases throughout the line, so small-eared users may prefer the SEP-10. The volume handling was excellent on all models, with no distortion at 100% volume, and only a tiny bit of sound leakage at the same high volume, which is well beyond a comfortable or normal listening level.
Next up the line is the METRO.Fi 150v from Ultimate Ears. This particular model has a built-in mic and a control button for use with an iPhone or other smartphone that uses a 3.5mm jack, such as a Blackberry. One area where these differ from other mic/button headsets is that instead of incorporating them as a single unit on the right-channel cable, only the mic is in that position, while the control button is down near the Y-junction. I'm not saying this is good or bad, just different. Being used to the more typical styles of headsets, I often found myself reaching for the wrong place when it was time to skip or pause a track. With that said, the button is solidly built, and has a nice tactile feel and a solid click.
The 150v includes the typical 3 pairs of rubber eartips and a hard plastic carrying case that is reminiscent of a Zippo lighter. The headphones are packaged well, and easy to open. The small size makes them ideal for use as "sleepers". They feel well-built, and the cable has a nice thickness and flexibility, while color-coding on the earpieces makes it easy to tell left from right at a glance.
The sound quality on these is really good for the price. If call quality is a concern, these fared the best of the various phone-compatible sets I tried. In blind testing, my call recipients ranked these as providing the best sound on their end. There is also a non-mic METRO.Fi 150, which is priced identically to the Xuma SEP-50. (Ultimate Ears also offers lower-priced METRO.Fi 100 and 100v, as well as higher-end 200 and 200v models, which I did not test for this article.) While the SEP-50 includes more accessories, I have to give the upper hand to the Ultimate Ears when it comes to sound quality.
Another phone model I tested was the V-Moda Vibe Duo, which offers similar capabilities as the METRO.Fi 150v, though with a slightly higher price tag. V-Moda, like Ultimate Ears, also makes a "standard" model Vibe, available in multiple colors. The Vibe Duo includes 3 sizes of silicone eartips (provided in both clear and black colors) and a leatherette storage pouch. The inclusion of the different colors of eartips makes it very easy to "assign" a color to the left and right earpieces, making them easy to distinguish.
The construction of the Vibe Duo is excellent. The earpieces are metal, and the cord is covered with robust fabric. The earpieces are also small enough to be "sleepers". The inline mic/button unit is a more standard design, with both elements integrated into a single piece on the right-channel cable. The button is a bit more flush than the button on the 150v, but it has a solid click and works well.
Overall comfort and noise isolation is very good, with no distortion at 100% volume, and no sound leakage at normal listening volumes. These are a little stronger in the bass than the treble, but all frequencies are represented and detail is good.
The Vibe Duo and the METRO.Fi 150v are definitely comparable. For the extra money on the Vibe Duo, you're getting metal construction, a fabric-covered cable, and a better supply of eartips. Either set is a good buy. In blind call testing, call recipients ranked the METRO.Fi 150v highest, followed by the Vibe Duo, and then the Apple In-Ear. On my end of the line, the METRO.Fi 150v and Vibe Duo were evenly matched, and both sounded better than the offering from Apple.
Getting back to the non-phone models, we come across the Full Metal Jacket from Skullcandy. I'd been hearing a lot about Skullcandy over the past few months, but had never tried a set for myself.
The Full Metal Jacket has sleek packaging, and makes a stylish first impression. Skullcandy has clearly made an effort in regards to the look of their headphones. Included are an extension cable, the standard 3 pairs of soft rubber eartips, as well as 2 pairs of Comply memory foam eartips, and a fabric carrying bag. Skullcandy also offers a Limited Lifetime Warranty, which is an unusual perk for a pair of in-ear headphones. There are also several colors available, along with a phone version with the built-in mic and control button.
The attached cable is just shy of 2 feet long, so most users will want to use the extension. The cable has a nice thickness and feels solid. It's a little stiff for my liking, but should perform well and resist tangling.
If you're into hip hop and rap, then this is probably a set for you. The bass on these made me think I was listening to headphones made by Skullshaker rather than Skullcandy. Treble also had decent presence, while mids were a little lacking. The noise isolation is just as good as the other models tested, with only the tiniest bit of leakage at 100% volume. There was also no distortion at 100% volume. I am glad that the foam eartips are included as an option. They do offer slightly better noise isolation and a bit of extra comfort over the rubber tips. Because peoples' ears are so different, I appreciate any offering that provides so much choice in a single package, because it increases the odds of finding that elusive "perfect" fit.
If I were shopping based purely on balanced audio, I'd go for the comparably-priced Apple In-Ear or Shure SE110 (further down the page). If you're looking for something that offers cool styling and very high bass output, then the Full Metal Jackets will do the trick.
Now we hit one of the "big names" in the world of in-ear headphones with the Shure SE110. These wound up being my favorite set of all the ones tested. Their comfort, sound quality, and price are simply stellar.
The headphones are very nicely packaged, and include a small nylon carrying case with a carabineer clip, 3 pairs of rubber eartips, 3 pairs of memory foam eartips, a cleaning tool, and a 3 foot long extension cable. The carrying case definitely has enough room to hold the headphones and accessories, and there's a little mesh pouch built into one of the sides for organization.
Both the rubber and memory foam eartips provided a high degree of comfort and noise isolation, but the memory foam tips were by far the best of any that I've tried. Because they can get squished down and then expand to fit your ear just like an earplug, these offer the closest thing to a true custom fit that you'll find without going to an audiologist. They seemed to just disappear in my ear after awhile, and they provided an extremely high degree of noise isolation. If you need to block out your surroundings, these will do the job with flying colors.
The attached cable is short, only about 18 inches. It is well-built, and would serve well for shirt pocket or armband applications. For all general use, the included extension cable will be a necessary attachment. The cables plug together securely, and I never felt that the extension would accidentally come unplugged from the headphones.
For those interested in using this model with an iPhone or Blackberry, Shure offers the MPA-3C Music Phone Adapter, so owners of the SE110 (or just about any headphones, really) could easily purchase the extra cable, and then swap cables depending on phone and non-phone usage.
The audio quality on the SE110 is well beyond what I expected for the price. These blow comparably-priced models out of the water. They offer crisp, clear, natural sound with all frequencies well-represented. They're not booming with bass, but I found that there was more than enough to keep me happy. On sound quality alone, not to mention the nice bundled accessories package, I would have expected these headphones to sell at twice the price.
Moving up in the Shure line, we come across the SE420. This dual-driver model is certainly priced higher than its single-driver cousin, or even the dual-driver model from Apple, but it offers more in the realm of included accessories and sound quality.
Like the SE110, the SE420 is beautifully packaged and easy to open. The carrying case is the same size as the one included with the SE110, but it is more rigid, which should offer more protection. It is missing the carabineer clip and internal mesh pouch found on the SE110, which is the only disappointment I found with this model. Rubber and foam eartips are included, along with the addition of a pair of triple-flange rubber tips. The same extension cable and cleaning tool are also provided.
Additional accessories include a dual-prong airplane adapter, a ¼" adapter plug, and an in-line volume control. The SE420 is the only one of the models tested to include these extra accessories, and the volume control worked well without adding any noise into the signal path.
The comfort and noise isolation was up to the same high standard provided by the SE110. I simply love the memory foam eartips that are included with these headphones. There was no noise leakage at normal or high listening volumes, and no distortion at 100% volume.
I could definitely hear improvements in these over the SE110, particularly in treble frequencies. Comparisons between the SE110, SE420, and Apple In-Ears were all done on AAC and MP3 files, as well as on full CDs, in order to take full advantage of the capabilities of the dual-driver models.
Overall, these are excellent audio performers, though the difference in audio quality wasn't as staggering as I might have expected for the increase in price. The modularity of the extension cable and volume control is a definite plus, and the large assortment of included accessories is a very nice touch.
Those listening to high-end audio sources such as SACD and DVD-A may notice more of a difference between the SE110 and SE420, but if we keep the focus on the MP3-using crowd, then I find the SE110 to be the better overall value for the money.
Even from this small sampling from the vast selection of in-ear headphones on today's market, I found that there are terrific contenders in every price range. As expected, audio quality increases with the price tag, but even the most inexpensive options are a step-up from the bundled earbuds that come with an MP3 player. The personalized fit, something that no bundled earbuds offer, is a huge factor in determining audio quality, comfort, and noise isolation. If you have a favorite in-ear pair that didn't get mentioned in the article, please visit this previous article by B&H writer Ken Hamberg to see if it's been covered, or send us an e-mail and maybe we can include it in a future article.