If you’re at all serious about the sound you feed your head, you’ve already replaced whatever craptastic headphones (aka earbuds, earphones, or in-ear monitors) came in the box with your digital media player of choice. Now you’re ready for another upgrade, and with the economy in turn-around mode, you can afford to splurge just a bit.
Type “earbud” into Amazon’s search box and you’ll get more than 4,000 results, so to guide you through the thicket, we picked out six pairs of sub-$100 in-ear monitors from the biggest names in the business: Audio-Technica, Klipsch, Sennheiser, SkullCandy, Ultimate Ears, and VModa. We then created a playlist on a third-generation iPhone populated with songs from a broad spectrum of styles, including classical, rock, jazz, world beat, funk, and techno from artists ranging from old-school (The Beatles) to new-school (White Rabbits) to cool-school (John Coltrane). We also made a point of selecting a mixture of electric and acoustic performances mastered with both analog and digital studio equipment. All tracks were ripped from CD (recordings produced with both analog and digital studio gear) and encoded in Apple Lossless format.
Judging the performance of earbuds is a necessarily subjective exercise, but gaining a firm understanding of how we evaluated these products will help you understand the conclusions we’ve reached about each of them.
This is the first thing anyone looks for when evaluating headphones or speakers: How close does the product come to reproducing the live sounds of voices and instruments. Do the instruments come through with warmth and vibrancy? Can you hear the vocals clearly in a rock song, or are they lost in a mélange of guitars and drums? Can you pick up audio details in your favorite songs that you’ve never discovered before?
Unlike traditional speakers, headphones need a “special sauce” to capture the diverse soundscape the musicians and audio engineers work so hard to capture in the recording studio. A wide-open recording, be it of a symphony or a rock opera, can reveal a set of headphones’ ugliest flaws. If you’re listening to the Who’s Quadrophenia, for example, do Keith Moon’s tom rolls move across the top of your head? ‘Phones that do this well will deliver a gigantic soundstage.
Bass and Drums
Plenty of earphones can manage good fidelity and separation with mid- and high-range frequencies, but the big boys deliver a well-defined bottom end, too—even when you have the player’s volume pegged at “favorite song” level. Modeling the bottom end is equally important. Some manufacturers over-boost low-range instruments and wind up delivering expensive headache-inducers.
Build Quality and Features
Earbuds need to be rugged enough to withstand being repeatedly pulled out of your ears and being set down on various surfaces without the cables coming loose or the shells, tips, or—in some cases, buttons—cracking or breaking. We’ll point out some other interesting features, too.
Mobile Phone and iPod Support
If your phone doubles as your music player, a cable with an in-line mic is mighty handy. If you’re swinging with an iPhone or a later-model iPod, you might appreciate a cable with in-line transport controls. Our reviews place more weight on audio quality than these nice-to-have features.
All the earbuds we tested had MSRPs hovering near the $100 mark; some of their street prices, however, were considerably lower. Surprisingly enough, we discovered that some of the better-sounding units were more heavily discounted than earbuds we didn’t like nearly as much. In fact, our least-favorite device carried the highest street price!