When using the iPhone’s stock earbuds or a compatible stereo headset, taking a phone call while listening to music borders on magical: You press the inline remote to answer the call, the music fades out, the caller’s voice comes through the headphones, and the inline microphone picks up your own words. When you hang up, the music smoothly fades back in. These headsets are equally handy for controlling music playback and recording voice memos.
While Apple’s earbuds work well for this purpose, they don’t provide a perfect fit for everyone, and you can find much better audio quality by upgrading to an aftermarket headset. I tested 11 models, all of which use either an in-ear-canal or canalbud design. In-ear-canal headphones (also known as canalphones) use earplug-like tips to form an acoustic seal that blocks ambient noise; the headphones themselves also tend to offer better sound quality than earbuds. However, these eartips must seal completely to provide adequate bass response. In addition, the tight fit may be uncomfortable to some people, and it can transfer the sounds of bumps and scrapes of the cords directly to your ears. Canalbuds have a shallower fit, don’t block as much noise compared to canalphones, and sacrifice some sound quality, but they’re generally less expensive, don’t exhibit as much cable noise, and are often more comfortable.
(One aspect of canalbuds and canalphones that’s especially noteworthy here is that the seal that gives these headphones their noise isolation can also result in an occlusion effect: the normal bone-conducted vibrations of your voice are trapped inside the ear, instead of released through the ear canal, causing them to sound louder and distorted to you, even though you sound normal to someone on the other end of a call. If you’ve ever talked while wearing earplugs, you know the effect.)
Some of the models I tested are headset versions of products I covered in my canalbud review roundup. As in that article, I listened to music on my iPhone and computer, in a variety of formats and bit rates, and in various settings—home, office, bus, street. I also took calls and recorded voice memos to test out each headset’s microphone, performing the latter tests in a quiet room, in front of a fan (to simulate the effect of wind), and with loud music playing (to simulate a noisy environment).
The models vary in price, sound quality, design, ergonomics, and fit. Many come with a carrying case or pouch, some provide additional accessories, and all include multiple sizes of silicone, rubber, or foam eartips to ensure a proper fit.
As these are headsets, every model also includes a microphone and an inline remote with at least one controller button; some also include buttons for volume control. The remote features are compatible with all iPhone models, as well as recent iPod touch, nano, classic, and shuffle models that support Apple’s inline remote; volume buttons do not work with the original iPhone and the iPhone 3G. Click the links that follow to read my individual reviews:
Macworld’s buying advice
I enjoyed a number of headsets I tested for this roundup. In the $50-$60 range, I would highly recommend the NuForce NE-7M, which, microphone aside, is almost as good as the best mid-priced models here, and an excellent deal for those who want good sound at a low price. The Radius Atomic Bass is worth considering for bass fans and those who use the microphone frequently, and the Macally HifiTune is good for those looking for comfort and low isolation.
At the high end of the price spectrum, $90-$120, there’s a lot to recommend. The Ultimate Ears Metro.Fi 220vi is a solid, all-around performer. The Klipsch model is notable for its comfort, three-button remote, and bass-heavy sound; unfortunately, its microphone was disappointing. The V-Moda Vibe II is easy to recommend if you value unique design, high-quality materials, and deep, powerful bass.
But as in my previous canalbud roundup, it was in the mid-price range that I found the most compelling models. Apple’s offering is likable for its clean looks, clever design touches, and treble detail—if you can overlook the somewhat-thin bass response and below-average microphone performance. However, overall, the Maximo model once again gets my strongest recommendation, combining high-quality materials, pleasant design, powerful bass, detailed treble performance, a great microphone, and lots of accessories at an attractive price point. The MetroFi 220vi is comparable, but with a smoother, more relaxed sound, and a slightly lesser microphone.
(You can also check out additional headsets from Macworld’s earlier iPhone headsets Review.)