Headphones round-up review

Introduction

The iPod's earbuds may not live up to your high demands if you consider yourself an audiophile. We looked at other options for music lovers on the move, with solutions for every preference and budget. iPod users stand out in a crowd with their white headphones - so much so that they're now being targeted by muggers. The new Apple In- Ear Headphones stick with the all- white tradition. If you aren't used to in- ear headphones, it can be a little odd at first. The soft rubber sleeve is supplied in three sizes, to fit a variety of ears (or external auditory meatus, if you want to get technical). Because the earpiece fills this space, external noise is cut to a minimum, meaning you don't have to crank up your iPod to hear it on the train. The quality of the Apple In-Ear Headphones is a bit disappointing - not bad exactly, about the same as the regular earbuds. I had hoped they would be better. Also some of the practicalities of in- ear headphones were a bit of a turn off. They didn't stay in any better than the earbuds, regardless of which size rubber sleeve I used. Other people may have better luck, but as far as I know I have fairly standard ears. Sound loops
The next step up from the Apple In-Ear Headphones costs twice the price, from £35 to £70. The Shure E2c Earphones are considerably bigger than the Apple models, and don't hang down from the ear in the same way. The E2c loops the wires over the back of your ear to either join behind your head or just hang down like normal. The price tag of £70 is quite high for headphones, and I'm not the kind of person to spend twice the money on something without getting twice the performance. I'm happy to say I wasn't disappointed. They're a bit fiddly at first, and take some getting used to, but the sound you get is great. You also get a nifty carrying case, a selection of foam and rubber sleeves, and a little stick for clearing earwax. The sound is warm and full - far less tinny than the Apple earphones. The E2c also lets less sound escape, so you're unlikely to annoy fellow passengers on the bus or train. Deaf jam
In testing I travelled to and from work with the iPod at only half volume, and it remained loud enough on all forms of transport. Be warned though, when you're listening with this type of headphone you are deaf to the world. Crossing roads and even walking on the pavement can be hazardous. They block all contact with the outside world, which can be a bit disconcerting. But the sound is amazing. I was so impressed with the E2c earphones that I was curious when Shure told me about the latest E3c Earphones. These cost £150 - double the price of the E2c, and four times the price of the Apple In- Ear phones. I doubted the ability to be twice as good as the E2c models, but when I tested them I was startled. They are measurably better, with a bigger range, and an even meatier sound. Whether they are twice as good I'm still not sure, but they're close. They're also smaller and lighter, with the same carry-case and even more sleeve choices and sizes. The one weird thing is that although it pumps out bass, you don't feel it the way you do in front of a stack of speakers. It sounds like it should vibrate your whole body, but it doesn't. I never thought I would even consider spending £150 on earphones, but I am. Worse still is the news that Shure has just released the E5c headphones - at £370. I daren't try them, because they're probably worth the money - and I can't afford them. If in- ear headphones aren't for you, Sennheiser has a great range of more- traditional headphones. The PX 200 is a compact folding model that offers a semi- closed headphone but without covering the whole ear. It keeps ambient sounds out, while keeping your music mostly to yourself. The comfortable padding is wrapped in soft vinyl, so is more weather- resistant than plaint foam. It also keeps your lugs warm in the cold weather. The sound is better than your average earbuds, but it still doesn't have the same bottom end of more- expensive models we looked at. At £40 it makes a good upgrade from earbuds, and at only £5 more than the Apple in- ear headphones you get a lot more bang (and bass) for your buck. If you want even more, Sennheiser has the HD 280 Professional monitor headphones. These bad- boys are designed for DJs, and other professional work where you need to hear audio in a noisy environment. They're circumaural - the padding goes around your ear rather than on or in it. Sure, you'll look like a cyberman from Dr Who, but the sound is incredibly rich and bassy. While the real audiophile may consider walking out with these monsters, sane people would probably only use them around the house. The chunky connector can be screwed into a sound desk, but is likely to snap your iPod socket because it protrudes so far. While I wouldn't consider these for wandering around near traffic, they are great for noisy GarageBand tinkering or gaming, with minimal spousal annoyance. Although they aren't suitable for all occasions, they're well worth the £99 price tag. If you like the idea of the massive headphones but don't have the nerve to wear them in the street, the smaller HD 437 is less heavy and much cheaper at only £20. The smaller headphones aren't enclosed, so while they sound great from the inside, they're quite loud from the outside too. Fellow passengers won't like it, so bear that in mind before you crank- up the iPod on the bus. But used responsibly, they far exceed any earbud style headphones, for around the same price. All the high- end headphones are cool, but not everybody wants to spend a fortune on something that for most people almost counts as a consumable. Headphones get battered and broken with regular use. And while the warranty on the more expensive headphones is usually two years, if you know you're rough on your gear it might be worth buying something cheaper. Sennheiser's £20 MX 500 earbud- style headphones are basic, but sound as good as the Apple earbuds, with the added feature of a volume control. They come in a winding carry- case, and are well worth the money. When your cat chews through the wires, or you drop them in a puddle, you just buy a new pair.
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