It's more than a little unfair that all that money spent on your MP3 player often yields a pair of earphones so uncomfortable they should come with a health and safety warning. Not only that, they can be tinnier than a Heinz can and do absolutely nowt to keep the noisy outside world at bay.
So it's a good job there are loads of upgrade options to choose from. We've tracked down six in-ear models to see which will give your ears the best service when you're out and about.
Bose TriPort In-ear
These are Bose's first foray into in-ear territory, and as such, there are a few teething troubles. Things start well enough though, with a neat case and ultra-soft earbuds that make them easy on the ear.
But while they may be as comfy as old slippers, they're also about as exciting too. Although their semi-open nature doesn't cause noise leakage - essential for hiding any musical guilty pleasures from your fellow commuter - neither does it help to create a more natural sound. Quite the opposite in fact - although the bass response is decent enough, tones are muffled and desperately lacking in clarity, adding up to an unengaging listen that never feels quite loud enough.
None of this is helped by the fact they don't block out external noise that effectively either. All in all, a disappointment and at this price there are better alternatives.
Muffled sound, low volume output, don't block out noise particularly well
Creative Zen Aurvana
They may bear more than a passing resemblance to Shure's model, but that's no bad thing - the Zen Aurvanas are compact and look great, bar the cheapo cable. The large range of rubber earbuds make for a snug fit and offer effective sound isolation, although they tend to pop out rather too easily. While the hard storage case is quite bulky, at least you know it'll keep the earbuds safe.
Sound quality is generally impressive. Bass response is extremely potent, although at higher volumes they occasionally distort. They also lack the separation and tonal clarity to compete with the best in the group. The über-powerful audio output makes for a gratifying listen though, giving enough oomph to drown out even the loudest nattering fishwife.
The Zen Aurvanas are a decent pair of earphones, however the supreme Etymotic ER6is are only a tenner away.
Well designed, powerful output
Others offer superior audio performance, earbuds tend to pop out
Designed specifically for the iPod, these little fellas are extremely lightweight and discreet. The scrawny cable looks like it could do with a good meal, but at least you get a padded storage pouch to keep them from snapping. The drill-shaped earbuds burrow into the ear to excellent effect, staying firmly in place and blocking out noise better than any here.
For sound the ER-6is are plenty loud enough and high-end frequencies are extremely clean and bright. On first listen the bass was as non-existent as All Saints' comeback album sales, but pop in the correct sized earbuds and the sound is transformed - it's beautifully warm and full with superb separation and an ocean-wide soundstage.
The Shure E4Cs arguably offer even more in the audio quality stakes, but the ER6is stay in your ears better and are much more realistically priced.
Excellent sound quality, well fitting, good noise isloation
Price comparison:Shure E4c More info: Shure Weight: 18.1g Accessories: Carrying case, volume control, 1/8in to 1/4in jack adaptor
Whether in black or mugger-magnet iPod white, the stylish E4Cs look fantastic. And like all Shure in-ear 'phones you get more earbud fittings than you will ever need. Getting them to fit and stay in the ear is a needless fiddle though.
However, separation and tonal presence is second to none - bass is punchy without being overwhelming, while the mids and trebles are crisp and warm but never too bright. The loud volume means you don't need to crank your player up to tinnitus-inducing levels and sound isolation is excellent without leaving you dead to the world.
Okay, you'll probably have to skimp on the kids' Christmas presents to afford them, but it could be worth the guilt - the E4Cs are one of the best in-ears we've ever heard.
Class leading sound quality, stylish, well made
Ludicrously expensive, fiddly to fit properly
These classy earbuds sit at the higher end of Sony's in-ear range and for style, they're one of the best of the bunch with a smart brushed aluminium finish. Although the scarily shaped ear-buds look like they've suffered genetic mutation, they're actually pretty comfortable. A choice of three sizes means you're sure to get a good fit that'll block out those raucous Christmas shopping crowds well. The supplied case is decent too.
The EX90s offer a warm, well-rounded performance, with the balance between deep, full bass and subtle trebles pretty much spot on. They can't match the presence and separation of the Etymotic or Shure earbuds, but the EX90s sound great nonetheless.
While not quite as comfy as Bose's equivalently priced pair, for everything else they're a much better bet.
Warm bassy sound, good noise isolation
Audio quality isn't quite top notch
V-Moda Bass Freq
Available in a range of colours to match the iPod nano, it's clear the Bass Freqs are as much about style as audio quality. Nevertheless, even at this budget price it's good to see a choice of earbud fittings meaning you should get them to fit fairly well in your lugholes even if they don't block out noise brilliantly.
Sound quality is about par for a thirty quid set of 'phones. As the name suggests, the emphasis is on bass, which is punchy and full. Higher-end tones don't fare quite so well, with a muddy, dead sound that's akin to listening to your next-door neighbour's hi-fi. Nevertheless the output volume is pretty high so they're good for using about town.
While obviously not class-leading, the Bass Freqs are a good budget option and certainly a step up from most bundled in-ear 'phones.
Good bass response, cheap
Lacking in tonal clarity, little separation, don't block out noise brilliantly
While the age-old adage of you get what you pay for pretty much rings true here, we found a couple of exceptions. Bose's TriPort in-ears were the only ones that really failed to impress even though at seventy quid they're not exactly cheap. Shure's E4Cs sound fantastic, but if you're seriosuly willing to squander over £200 on in-ear 'phones we advise it might be better spent towards medical treatment.
Sony's MDR-EX90s and Creative Zen Aurvanas are both solid performers, but the real star of the show is the Etymotic ER6i. They're just about affordable, sound great and fit better than all the others, making them the perfect partner for your journeys.
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Discuss this article, 1 of 13 messages, read more:
Posted: 03/12/06 14:40:51 51
I would actually pay £200 for a set of headphones if I thought they would deliver peerless quality. It sounds like the Etymotics run them pretty close at half the price but I'm concerned about getting them to fit - how did they not fit right the first time?