Let’s face it, we all have an iPod, iPhone, or equivalent device, and most of us will have had a free pair of in-ear headphones bundled-in. Now as all fellow idevice users and no doubt other brands (not wishing to single Apple out), will testify to, there will come a time when you need to replace them.
For most of us that is when either they break, which in my experience was just a few days after the warranty expired, or when you first hear your music through a good quality headphones and grasp what you have been missing out on. In the case of Apple earphones though, I think there are at least a couple more reasons why you need to upgrade:
- The need for something that actually fits in your ears.
- To demonstrate some consideration for the outside world, especially for those who commute via public transport.
“Also bare in mind that not everyone necessarily wants to hear tinny outtakes of what you are listening to.”
The only question remaining is what you replace them with? Now if they are under warranty and you are content with them then a visit to the ‘Genius Bar’ or similar would be the logical first point of call, but for those out-of-warranty individuals, or those seeking a better long-term solution, here is the CDClifestyle roundup of Top 10 in-ear headphones:
Digital Silence ‘DS-421D’
Overview: First up in our review is the brand-new (not even released yet) Digital Silence offering, which are made by high performance mixed-signal semiconductor manufacturers Wolfson Microelectronics. Technically speaking, in terms of noise-cancellation these should be about as good as it gets, being the only set with ‘active’ noise cancelation, which essentially means they monitor external background noise and have a processor that calculates the noisy frequencies and annihilates them in the earphone mix. For anyone making the leap of faith and dumping their standard earphones in favour of something special, then the DS-421Ds could well be the answer, with an incredibly engaging sound that blows the socks off the competition with one of the most incredible noise-cancelling experiences available. In fact, in order to test them I would recommend first trying them without music; just turn-on the noise-cancellation to observe the true genius of them. In many respects I wish they could create an invisible set, as this ability to block out the rest of the world at the flip of a switch has so much potential (especially in my house; but don’t tell her I said that).
Pros: As an upgrade these really are the complete package, with slick yet discreet looks and incredible noise cancelation. The spectral range is pretty impressive with oomph’s of bass and crisp top-end that adds a sparkle to your favourite vocal hooks. They also have a microphone with a single button that doubles-up as play/pause and call/hang.
Cons: You have to question the awkwardness of the ANC (‘Audio Noise Cancellation’) box (where the processors do their business), as it is pretty bulky in both size and weight, so given that the cable is way too long to clip it round your T-shirt collar, but not long enough to make it to your belt, you really need a buttoned shirt to clip it to. As the carry case is also far too big to fit in your pocket, due to them requiring a USB cable for charging the ANC box, it appears that they must have been designed for long-haul business flights (for those wearing formal shirts and carrying hand luggage).
Find out more and await news of a release date here: www.digital-silence.com – £99.00
Overview: The thing that I really like about the Clarityone Earbuds is that in use they are just a simple no-nonsense pair of earphones, no need for fancy noise cancellation solutions (the snug silicone tips do the job more than sufficiently), no fiddly ear-hooks or geeky tweaking required; just stick ‘em in and enjoy. There is plenty of headroom for those who insist upon cranking them up to unhealthy levels and excellent crisp sound reproduction with no distortion from low to high-level playback. The Earbuds trump the competition in terms of affordability and it is only when you compare them with earphones at twice the price, such as the Sony XBA-3 or Sennheiser IE80, that you start to think maybe there is some room for improvement. I certainly hope they test their technology in some higher-end earphones as think they could otherwise be contending with the best of the best.
Pros: The Patented ‘PureSound’ distortion-free listening provides especially bright mids and highs while containing the bass for an astounding punch and overall crisp delivery. For all-round performance at a reasonable price these just offer everything and some.
Cons: Our demo version did not include a mic & remote unit which was a bit disappointing, but I hear that the current production model does and for the same price (which really means this comment belongs above). Eitherway, I really struggle to say a bad word against them at their price point and if this is your budget then I wouldn’t look elsewhere.
Find out more here: www.clarityoneaudio.com – £114.00
Overview: Certainly one of those brands that have done exceptionally well out of the success of the iPod, with their highly popular SoundDock® music systems pretty much setting the benchmark for what should be expected of a docking system. No surprises that Bose remain a firm favourite with salesmen in Apple Stores the world over. While Bose have never really been on the cards for the serious audiophiles, when it comes to digital audio and all-in-one solutions for mobile devices, desktop PCs and surround-sound home Cinema systems, they have firmly established themselves as being a trustworthy household name. Thankfully these earphones live up to their reputation and are great performing all-rounders offering good value for money.
Pros: Hands-down the most comfortable earphones on review, their unique StayHear® tips keep them firmly in place at all times and perfect for a morning jog around Hyde Park (or rather a couple of laps on a Boris-bike in my case). The 3 button remote and mic unit were also an addition that I would find it hard to be without.
Cons: Audibly not as much detail as I would have expected and no noise isolation, so while you may be able to enjoy your music on public transport, do not expect to make any friends on your journey. Definitely better suited to those who do not remain in the same place for long.
Find out more here: www.bose.co.uk – £119.95
Overview: Designed and built by a company that specialise in creating hearing aids, the hf3 proclaim to have the ‘highest noise isolation of any earphones or headphones on the market today’ and it would not take much to convince me given that when I first tried them on for size the isolation was so thorough that they were more like wearing earplugs than earphones. Actually the isolation from the standard flanges meant that I could not even hear any bass at all. Anyway, convinced that they could hardly market them at £130 if they were that dreadful, I turned to the instruction manual and following it’s guidance proceeded to try the other tips on for size. Thankfully the foam tips did a spectacular job and I literally could not believe the difference; ‘it was as if my ears had finally popped after a flight landing in terms of increased clarity.’ With a response of 20Hz – 15kHz, they may appear restricted when compared with the higher end of the competition, but what they do offer is an incredibly detailed and mesmerizingly captivating encounter. Their clarity is so precise that I had to listen to top quality recordings to be able to enjoy them. As an example I was listening to Taj Mahal – ‘The Natch’l Blues’ album and getting annoyed by the background studio hiss from this early recording.
Pros: Incredibly tight and punchy sound that is without doubt the most effective display of passive noise reduction tested. A mic and remote which is conveniently located high up the left-side earphone cable within easy access.
Cons: Not a great deal of bass and definitely not one for the Urban Music enthusiasts. The majority of bundled ear tips were all pretty useless and until you find one that suits you, the earphones will not produce any bass whatsoever, but you will be pleasantly surprised when you strike gold (the foam ones worked for me). They do have a rather silly fit though, with the earphone bodies sticking out at a sharp angle. Put it this way, it is a good thing that they do not produce a green version, because otherwise you could end up resembling Shrek (…which is not necessarily a bad thing as we quite like Shrek).
Find out more here: www.etymotic.com – £129.95
Beats by Dr Dre Heartbeats 2.0 by Lady Gaga
Overview: Accounting for 9% of the monetary value of the headphone market in 2010 (according to Wikipedia), there is no question that love or hate them, Beats Electronics (the company behind ‘Beats by Dr. Dre) is a serious force to be reckoned with. Now while I find it difficult to comprehend how a US gangster rapper/producer has managed to convince even those who despise his music that his headphones are amongst the best in the world really defies me, but hats off to Dre in a business sense, because he has clearly done remarkably well for himself and taught the entire industry that celebrity endorsement shifts more units that outright quality. Despite my natural reservations about a ‘Lady Gaga’ branded pair of earphones, I must say that as a gift they certainly ticked the right boxes (albeit for your kids), with well thought-out and aesthetically appealing packaging. For my sins I found myself childishly excited when un-boxing them, but regrettably however, this turned-out to be the highlight. Unfortunately it was a severe case of over-promise and under-deliver (or rather the fact that I did not want to believe that all the people sporting Beats headphones could be this misguided). It is not that they were awful, it’s just that performance-wise they ought to be in a group test with £20-£60 headphones and a price tag to match. If you are a Lady Gaga fan with £129.95 to blow, then some tickets to see her live would be my recommendation. When compared to the other headphones in the group test the Gagas were frail, non-inspiring and I could not help but wish Beats had allocated more for research/ development and components other than spanking it all on celebrity endorsement and plain ridiculous styling that included gold spikes protruding from the earphone housing and cable. While I can hardly deny that there appears to be a market for these, I think it is fair to say that they are best left for teenagers with an unhealthy fascination of Lady Gaga.
Pros: Great packaging and would make an excellent Christmas or Birthday gift for a teenager who idolises Lady Gaga. I also quite liked the flat tangle-resistant cable.
Cons: Lady Gaga branding and styling was rather cringe-worthy for all but her biggest fans and sound quality (or lack-thereof) was bland with weak muddy bass and no clarity of definition. Given that they are not exactly cheap, it would have been nice if the money had been spent on quality and refinement rather than design gimmickry and celebrity endorsement.
Find out more here: www.beatsbydre.com – £129.95
Bowers & Wilkins ‘C5’
Overview: For a company that makes possibly the world’s most highly regarded speakers, the ‘Nautilus’ loudspeakers that grace the studios of Abbey Road and no doubt the private residences of a select few (which with a price tag of £55,000 will surely remain that way), these were the earphones that we were most looking forward to testing. As B&W’s first venture into the market of in-ear headphones, the C5’s were a brave venture into a new field of audio technology. With a reputation for audiophile finesse, B&W must have been all-to well aware that they had to deliver something special and first impressions indicated that they had done just that. When I first set eyes upon the ‘A Concert for One’ phrase across the ultra-premium (Apple-like) packaging I was already feeling biased and a sucker for the innovative ‘secure loop’ cable routing that looked like the kind of design that Dyson would have coined if he had been in the business of earphones. Besotted as I was by the design and packaging, I quietly could not help but hope they had lived up to my expectations. It’s not that they are not any good, because the clarity and experience is sensational, it is just that the bass is so over-powering that you need to either be very selective with what you listen to, tweak the EQ or settle for short periods of listening before it becomes unbearable.
Pros: Very involving and reminds you just how pleasurable listening to your favourite albums/playlists can be (providing it is not to bassy). Build quality is spot-on, being a fan of the secure-loop cable routing, matt transparent cable sleeve and the practical inclusion of a mic & remote.
Cons: Given that the cable was practically wound round the inside of your ear when wearing them (which admittedly was very comfortable), cable-slap was pretty annoying on the move and definitely not one for use if jogging. The bass was also seriously over-cooked and unless their intended target market were recession-stricken chavs who had traded-in their hot-hatches’ subs for some earphones, I genuinely cannot understand how they got them so wrong.
Find out more here: www.bowers-wilkins.co.uk – £149.95
Atomic Floyd ‘SuperDarts + Remote’
Overview: As a new name on the radar, I really was not sure what to expect from these earphones, but I have to be honest; when I saw the packaging boasting of their ‘SuperCharged’ bass and additional accessories included in the box referred to as ‘Hardcore Hardware’ I did not have high hopes. I guess it was a mixture of my recollection of brands using such gimmicks as ’X-Bass,’ ‘Turbo-Bass’ or similar atrocities, but at practically £200.00 a pop, I certainly would have expected a more sophisticated bit of branding on their part at this price point. Anyway, first impressions aside, thankfully when I put them to the test I was blown away by their sound quality. It is true that these earphones do not have a flat response whatsoever, so audiophiles and purists will have difficulty in warming to them out of principle, but the reality is that sometimes natural magic is a rarity and sometimes it needs to be coaxed and conjured up.
Pros: A vast frequency range spanning 5Hz-25kHZ which has been tastefully tweaked in the low-end, with further enhancement to the tops to bring out the detail. Build- wise these appear to have been built to last a lifetime, with tough stainless-steel casings and Kevlar cable sleeving. They also had the most usable carry-case, which was ultra-compact (smallest out of all the review products), which the earphones could be stuffed-in and pocketed.
Cons: While I quite like the red, it is hardly discreet and I cannot help but think they have modelled themselves to suit the ‘Beats by Dr. Dre’ wearing masses. Purists may not approve of the audio colouration and in enhancing the low-end and high-end, the mid range can sounds a bit lacking in some recordings. As an example, the SuperDarts are not at all flattering for guitar based Indy bands, whilst Jazz, Funk/Soul and Dub music absolutely come alive.
Find out more here: www.atomicfloyd.com – £199.95
Overview: Ferociously loud with incredibly vivid highs and body-moving bass! The Sony XBA-3s really do pack a heck of a punch and open up music with a full-bodied intensity more akin to that of a fine XO Cognac. The detail of separation is remarkable and thanks to the advanced armature drivers, which at a fraction of the size of standard drivers, makes way for a configuration of three individual units; one for the full-range, plus a tweeter and woofer to cover opposing ends of the spectral range impeccably. While armature drivers are not a new development, up until now they were more often used in hearing aids or specialist in-ear monitoring solutions such as for stadium-filling musicians. With this in mind you just know that these are something special. I could not help but think of them as ‘the Porsche of the headphone world,’ in that Sony are one of those brands that you can depend upon to make excellent and technically brilliant products, but you kind of want to make a stand and choose something else such as the Atomic Floyd or B&W earphones just to be different. Unfortunately in this case I would probably end up regretting that situation in the long run though.
Pros: Exceptional sound quality with a frequency range from 4Hz – 28kHz, which is staggering and so far beyond the capabilities of what your ears can fathom that I’m sure it was those indecipherable frequencies that serve up the remainder of their spine-tingling performance. These are breathtaking to listen to, offering by far and away the greatest spectral range in the group test and with a rather fitting leather case that reassured they were indeed a serious piece of kit.
Cons: No mic or remote which is pretty impractical for being out on the move and would definitely recommend opting for the ‘iP’ version which (for an extra £60+) includes these additions.
Find out more here: www.sony.co.uk – £202.00
Overview: When you start parting with this much money for a pair of earphones you inevitably expect to be wowed, and these offerings from pro-audio specialists Sennheiser do not disappoint in the slightest. The clarity of detail is so accurate that I ended up searching my music collection not by title or artist but by bit rate, as anything below 192kbps just no longer sounded worthy of my ears. In fact sampled music just no longer made sense and I do not think I could ever bring myself to adjourn Apple’s standard in-ear headphones ever again. Perhaps a tad corny but the IE80s genuinely rekindled my passion for music and given the enjoyment they gave me (and indeed would continue to yield), I would have to say upon reflection that actually their price-tag was a bargain.
Pros: Incredibly comfortable and the everything from the brushed-metal housings to the crystal clear sound delivery just oozes of quality and the reassuring sense that you really get exactly what you pay for. The bundled ear-hooks are a fantastic addition for those on the move and although a bit of a fiddle to secure, they kept the earphones firmly in place in a way that makes them feel almost weightless and non-intrusive in the ear canals.
Cons: Almost too many options for the average listener who merely wants a plug-and-play solution. You also have to question the usability of the carry-case that requires the user to have to prize the ear-buds from their bodies in order to fit them in the allotted slots.
Find out more here: www.sennheiser.co.uk – £269.99
Overview: Being the most expensive in the group test, it goes without saying that these were inevitably going to be outstanding to listen to, but what made them stand out from the crowd was not the typical extended low-end or glistening top-end reproduction. These are not the usual consumer earphone ordeal; they are hi-end musician’s in-ear monitors and actually were the polar-opposite to the aforementioned characteristics. Where this product makes it’s mark is that the sound produced from them is practically flat and non-coloured, meaning in essence you hear the music as it was intended to be heard (unlike the ‘Beats by Dre’ that also claim the same; these ones are for real). The sound is so non-exaggerated that if you shut your eyes you are practically in the studio with the band sat at the mixing desk. Similar to the XBA-3s they utilise three balanced armatures with passive 3-way crossovers and performance-wise there genuinely is not anything more you could ask for, purely brilliant.
Pros: Pure un-adulterated music that sounds exactly how the sound engineer mixed it. Plenty of mid range which is in stark contrast to lessor priced earphones that seem to forget about the mids in favour of over-exaggerated lows and tops. That said, there is plenty bass in the mix, which rather than being open-ended, sounds to have been smoothly rolled-off in oder to keep kich drums and bass-lines decisively tight, punchy and defined. At the top end things lack the (over-the-top) sparkle of the competition, but it is all real, offering-up warm captivating vocals that bring the singer closer to you. Cymbals are crystal clear from the moment they are hit until they ring out, far from the muddied sea of over-lapping crashes that cloud the higher frequency range of cheaper headphones.
Cons: A bit impractical for general use without the inclusion of a remote or mic and not the best looking creations with transparent plastic casings and a nasty twisted cable which I cannot understand any logic behind. More likely to appeal to musicians than your average listener.
Find out more here: www.westone.com – £319.99