If you see a pair of white earbuds on the street, it’s a safe bet that the attached ears are listening to an iPod. It’s also a safe bet that the listener isn’t getting the most out of their iPod. As cute and identifiable as the iPod’s stock earbuds are, they’re no match for the quality of sound the iPod is capable of producing. We've reviewed some of the top headphones on the market and are here to help. If you’re interested in upgrading your iPod’s audio, or if you need to replace a broken or lost pair of 'buds, listen closely—we’ll help you get the best cans (that's slang for headphones ) for your cash. (And if you don't have an iPod, don't worry—our recommendations are safe for any portable player.)
We’ve split our coverage into three categories—Lightweight, Travel, and Full-Size—and suggested our favorites for each type of buyer: the el-cheapo bargain hunter, the bang-for-the-buck value shopper, the chic-style wearer, and the ultimate-sound audiophile. Whichever model you choose, you’ll be taking a step up the audio ladder.
These are the portable styles most people are familiar with: earbuds and small over- and behind-the-head models that use a plastic or thin metal headband. Our choices may look similar to the cheapies that come with most portable electronics, but they sound much better.
Sennheiser MX400 ($15) and MX500 ($20). If you like earbuds but just want better ones, start here. For the extra $5, the MX500 gives you an inline volume control. They won’t match your white iPod like Apple’s 'buds, but you get better sound and (on the MX500) an inline volume control. (If you’re after bass, keep in mind that earbuds tend to be weaker in the low end.)
Koss KTX Pro 1, KSC-50, KSC-55, and KSC-75 (all $20), and SportaPro ($30). These models are variations on the same design and therefore sound fairly similar. But that’s a good thing—you won’t find better sound for an Andrew Jackson bill. The KTX Pro 1 are your standard over-the-head portable phones. The KSC-50 and KSC-75 are earclips —they hang over each ear with no headband to mess up your ‘do. The KSC-55 are Koss’s version of the behind-the-head "street-style" models. (If you have a large head, move along; the KS-C55 are clearly made for smaller noggins.) Finally, the SportaPro are hybrids—you can use the headband in an over-the-head or behind-the-head position.
Also check out: Sennheiser PMX60 ($30).
Koss PortaPro ($50). The upscale siblings of the bargain Koss models, the seventies-style PortaPro offer better construction as well as a fold-up headband and adjustable temple-pressure settings.
Sennheiser PX100 ($50) and PX200 ($60). If the PortaPros are retro, these models are modern and slick. You get not only impressive sound quality for the money, but also some of the most comfortable headphones you’ll ever wear. Gadget points: They fold up like a pair of eyeglasses and fit in an included hard case. The PX100 emphasize the bass slightly and don’t block any external noise; the PX200 block a bit of external noise and offer slightly more balanced sound. (The PX200 take some practice before you regularly get a good seal around your ears; they can sound thin with poor bass if you don’t get the right fit.)
Audio-Technica ATH-CM5 ($50) and ATH-EM9r ($160). In terms of great design and coolness-factor, these models are among our favorites. The ATH-CM5’s metal earbuds perch atop black, gray, or orange sticks. The EM9r are aluminum with high-tech, telescoping earclips that fit any ear size or shape comfortably. Both are lacking in the bass department, but there’s no better aesthetic match for your silver iPod mini.
Bang & Olufsen A8 ($160). These earbud-earclip hybrids are extremely comfy, thanks to super-adjustable clips, and they’re guaranteed to earn envious looks from passers-by. They also sound quite a bit better than the Audio-Technica models. (The included leather travel case is a nice touch.)
Full Size (Home) Headphones
If you don’t mind a bit more bulk (due to both larger size and—usually—more cumbersome cables), or if you want a great pair of headphones to use at home, full-size models often provide better sound than their lightweight cousins. Although some require more power than portable players can provide, our picks are efficient enough for enjoyable iPod use. Note that closed models block a limited amount of external sound, whereas open models let everything in (and out).
Sennheiser HD202 ($30). It’s tough to find a decent pair of full-size headphones for less than $50—they’re generally pretty painful to listen to (and often just as painful to wear). The HD202 are an exception. They won’t beat out the more expensive headphones here, but if you don’t mind a bit of extra bass, for $30 you get a solid pair of closed headphones that are comfortable and sound quite good.
Grado SR 60 ($70) and Sennheiser HD497 ($70). These models are likely the best full-size open headphones under $100—many headphones that cost twice as much don’t sound as good. The Grado SR 60, with their retro charm, have been called the “gateway to audiophile sound” and will floor most first-time listeners. The HD 497 are a bit more modern in their design and a bit more mellow in their sound.
Beyerdynamic DT 231 ($60). If you’re looking for a pair of excellent closed headphones that won’t break the bank, the DT 231 improve significantly on the Sennheiser HD202 with a more balanced sound and better comfort. The’re among our personal favorites and highly recommended.
Sony MDR-7506 ($100) and Sennheiser HD 280 Pro ($100). These models are closed studio monitors —often used in recording/mixing studios, they provide lots of detail, sometimes to a fault. Both are built like tanks and fold up into bulky bundles, making them acceptable for occasional portable use—they can be thrown in a bag with confidence that they’ll survive the journey. The 7506 offer some of the most accurate bass of any headphones, whereas the HD 280 Pro’s strong point is their excellent isolation (exceeded only by the in-ear-canal headphones mentioned below).
Sony MDR-D22SL Eggo ($50) and MDR-D66 Eggo ($90). These futuristic, egg-shaped closed cans come in several snazzy metallic finishes. Comfortable and able to fold up into a surprisingly small package, they also sound pretty good once you get accustomed to their counter-intuitive fit. (You have to fit your ears inside the cups, but behind the cushions.)
Grado SR 80 ($95) and SR 125 ($150). Two of the (six) bigger siblings of the SR 60 recommended above, the SR 80 and SR 125 both sound better than the SR 60 when connected directly to your iPod, but you’ll be able to justify their higher prices more easily when you listen out of your home stereo or a dedicated headphone amp.
Sennheiser HD555 ($170). Sennheiser makes some amazing higher-end open headphones, but most of them require a dedicated headphone amp to really show their stuff. The HD555 are one of the few models that sounds great directly out of an iPod. Like most home models from Sennheiser, and unlike the Grados, they enclose your ears in cushiony comfort.
Travel (Noise Isolation) Headphones
If you spend a lot of time on planes, trains, and subways—or in any environment where peace and quiet are the ultimate goals—you need a good pair of what we call travel headphones. These include noise-canceling models, which use special processors to reduce external sound, and in-ear-canal models (often called canalphones ), which block external noise outright like earplugs. Because in-ear-canal models fit snugly in your ears, they generally provide better sound isolation and better sound quality than noise-canceling headphones — and you can listen at lower (and safer) volumes. However, if sticking bits of plastic deep into your ears makes you uncomfortable, in-ear-canal ‘phones might not be for you.
Apple In-Ear Headphones ($39). Apple's after-market in-ear-canal ‘buds sound decent if you can get a good seal, but that can be very difficult. However, you can replace Apple’s grey rubber tips with the foam sleeves for the Shure E2c (as we described in a recent article )—you’ll be rewarded with a significant increase in both sound quality and noise isolation (along with a hefty increase in bass, which may not be for everyone).
Sony MDR-EX71 Fontopia ($45). The EX71 are similar to Apple’s In-Ear ‘buds—including the iPod-matching white finish—but provide better sound and isolation. In neither area do the EX71 match the more expensive models below, but at $45, they’re hard to beat for traveling. Two versions are available: the SP package has a short cord and includes an extension cable; the LP version has a single longer cord.
Sennheiser PXC250 ($150). The PXC250 are basically the excellent PX200 (mentioned earlier) with noise-canceling circuitry. Oddly enough, whereas most noise-canceling headphones sound inferior to comparable standard models, we actually prefer the PXC250 to the PX200. Considering that other noise-canceling models cost as much as $300, the PXC250 are a great value. They’re also perfect for sitting next to a computer at home—you don't realize how noisy your computer is until you can't hear it!
Shure E2c ($100) and Etymotic Research ER-6 ($139) and ER-6i ($149). These three in-ear-canal models claim the excellent middle ground—in terms of both sound quality and noise isolation—between the Sony EX71 and the audiophile-level Shure and Etymotic models below. As with most good in-ear-canal models, you get lots of detail, but you also get less bass than with many standard headphones. The ER-6 have great midrange and treble, whereas the E2c are a bit better on the low end. The ER-6i are our favorites here, offering the best of both worlds as well as an iPod-matching white design.
Shure E3c ($180), Etymotic ER-4P ($330), and Shure E5c ($500). After sealing any of these models into your ear canals, the outside world will disappear, leaving you alone with your music. With a good seal, all provide blissful silence—around 25dB to 30dB of isolation. Despite their varying prices, all three are reference-level products (which means they will reveal the flaws in low-bitrate MP3 files). The E3c are ideal for rock and pop; the ER-4P and E5c are favorites of classical, jazz, and vocal lovers. We think the E3c are the best buy, especially for portable use. (If you’re really serious about sound, you can even pay your audiologist to create custom earmolds—made specifically for your ears—for all three models.)
Also check out: Bose Quiet Comfort 2 ($300).
Where Can I Find Them?
Many of the models recommended here can be found at your favorite local (or online) electronics store, or at sites like Amazon.com; a few are sold through higher-end audio shops or headphone-only retailers. Some good online headphone vendors are HeadRoom, GoodCans, AudioCubes, and MiniDisco. For more information on headphones in general, visit Head-Fi or HeadWize. For vendor-specific information, see the following URLs:
For vendor-specific information, see the following sites:
Bang & Olufsen: www.bang-olufsen.com/sw1612.asp
Beyerdynamic: www.beyerdynamic.com/com/maerkt e/hifi
Etymotic Research: www.etymotic.com