Those earphones that came in the box with your phone or MP3 player are fantastic – so long as you don't mind music that sounds as though it was filtered through a cardboard box, think nothing of the painful red marks left in your canals by their hard plastic earbuds, and have no need for useful features such as noise isolation and Bluetooth. If, on the other hand, you demand a superior personal audio experience, you may want to consider some of the options below.
V-Moda Crossfade M-80 ($230) Try as I might, I can't find any significant faults with V-Moda's latest set of on-ear headphones, a pair of luxury cans that marry elegant style and high quality materials to superb sound.
Stain- and sweat-resistant black suede covers a flexible metal headband that clamps the skull with just the right amount of force – enough to keep the 'phones firmly in place, but not so much as to give rise to an earache.
A fork of thin, strong steel reaches down to small, sound-isolating ear-cups lined with pleasantly cushy memory foam. Brushed metal plates – black by default, though they can be swapped out for customized shields of your own design (sold separately) – provide protection for the powerful 40 millimetre dual diaphragm drivers hidden beneath.
Packaged inside the included exoskeleton carrying case are two thick, knitted cables braided with Kevlar to deliver extra durability. The spare is thoughtful, but the odds of accidentally damaging or even tangling one of these light but heavy-duty cords are pretty much nil. Would that all headphone cables were so terrifically tough.
Built into the cords near their top is an inconspicuous button that – depending on context and how many times it's clicked – can pause music, skip tracks, and even answer calls if you're connected to a phone (a mic is built into the back side of the button). It worked well with the Apple and Android devices I tested, and V-Moda says it's compatible with all 3.5 millimetre headphone jack smart phones.
All this and great audio, too. The Crossfade M-80 deftly delivers a wide range of frequencies, including subtle highs, meaty mid range and pounding bass. I often use headphones to listen to audiobooks, but relegating these cans to reproducing mere spoken word seemed a waste. Instead, I found myself frequently queuing up my favourite electronic and rock artists just to make the most of their capacity to deliver thick, juicy music.
The Crossfade M-80 will come to popular online retailers including Amazon and Newegg by the end of the summer. If you want a pair right now you can pick up the True Blood-themed V-80 edition from the HBO website. It sports ear piece shields etched with images from the specialty channel's popular bloodsucker series.
Sennheiser MM 100 ($179.95) I've never used neckband headphones before, so it took a while to grow accustomed to Sennheiser's MM 100 wireless Bluetooth headset, which sees a thin, lightly flexible band of plastic connecting the ear pieces curve around the back of the user's neck. It didn't even touch my skin – it just hung in the air behind my head. The band curves up and over the ear, like spectacle arms in reverse, ending on both sides with broad, light foam muffs that press up gently against the ear.
I could hardly tell that they were there, which convinced me that they would fall off at any moment. Turns out they held their position better than any traditional headphones I've ever tried. They wouldn't budge a millimetre, regardless of how I shook, bopped, or jerked my head, making them well suited for kinetic activities.
However, I had a hard time warming to the experience. The MM 100 sits in front of your ears, leaving ample space for unwanted sounds to seep in. That's handy for joggers who need to remain aware of traffic, but annoying for a guy like me who tends to wear headphones while walking safely through the park. The open design also leaks sound badly, potentially disturbing those around you – a problem of which I became acutely aware when I received mean glances from my fellow travellers on a quiet subway ride.
Assuming you can find a suitable place to use them, you'll likely approve of the sound they generate. Sennheiser is a stickler for high quality audio, and their high standards are evident. The slick electronic beats of Thievery Corporation dripped with lush detail, and calls – remember, this is a two-way Bluetooth headset with a hidden mic – came through with a clear, full-bodied resonance one simply doesn't expect in a cell phone conversation.
Taking a call and playing or pausing music is as simple as tapping the right earphone. Adjusting volume is a little trickier; I had to hold the headset in place while feeling around the edge of the ear piece for a pair of overly firm "+" and "–" buttons with my index finger.
The headset charges via a common mini USB port, either connected to PC or a wall. I managed about nine hours of use on a single charge at mostly lower volumes – good enough for nearly a week's worth of casual use.
The MM 100 is easy to recommend to music lovers with active lifestyles, but more sedentary listeners would be better served by headphones that better direct sound into their ears and keep it from spilling out and annoying their neighbours.
Klipsch S5i Rugged $169.99 Lightweight earbuds keep a pleasantly low profile, but they're also notoriously flimsy and in some cases don't sound much better than a greeting card speaker. Klipsch, a respected American company that's been in the audio business since the end of the Second World War, offers a potential solution with its S5i Rugged earphones, a set of high-end earbuds designed to weather the elements while delivering superior sound.
A hard carrying case equipped with a bright white LED flashlight that can be set to intermittent flashes in case of emergency serves as an indication that these buds were intended for extreme activities. Another good indicator of their all weather toughness is their patented moisture-resistant design. I ran them under a tap for more than a minute and they came out fully functional and none the worse for wear.
I wonder about the cable, though. On visual inspection it seems no thicker, no more durable, nor less prone to tangle than most other earphone cords. It would suck if, while hiking through the bush, one were to accidentally catch the cord on a branch and have it rip or become damaged, rendering these pricey earbuds useless (though it's worth noting that Klipsch offers a hassle-free two-year replacement warranty).
Cable durability aside, outdoor adventurers will appreciate the large, tactile buttons found on an in-cord console that control media playback cell calls – useful should you be in a position not conducive to rooting through your backpack for your phone.
The buds also come with a small collection of interchangeable silicone ear pieces of varying sizes to help ensure users achieve a snug fit that effectively isolates unwanted external sounds. I had to resort to the largest of the pieces included, and they still felt a bit loose, but they sufficed.
Klipsch delivers on its promise of better than average earbud sound quality, though it may require a discerning ear to note the difference. High registers are less tinny and mid-range seems a little fuller than you'd expect from an earphone driver. Audio quality is good, but certainly not on par with a decent set of headphones with larger driver diaphragms.
Without a more extraordinary auditory experience and a better reinforced cable, I'd like to see the price of these otherwise laudable active lifestyle earbuds drop below $100.
Creative WP-350 ($99.99) There's nothing particularly sexy about Creative's newest pair Bluetooth headphones (the model on the back of the box is a middle-aged, button-down kind of guy), but that doesn't take away from their build quality, sound, and surprising utility.
A thin metal headband covered by a strip of fabric employs a modest nylon cushion for comfort. That's all that's needed since the headphones weigh only 100 grams and clamp the skull with enough pressure to alleviate a bit of the weight.
Small, rotating, on-ear cups are about the size of eggs and sport a slim but adequate layer of foam padding covered by soft leather-like material. Sessions of music lasting longer than an hour can be endured comfortably, though my outer ears were a little red afterward.
The smooth plastic shield on the right ear-cup plays host to a trio of media controls – play, pause, skip – and a call answer button. Tactile cues would have made these buttons a little easier to find and identify, but it didn't take long to become familiar with their positions. A pair of volume buttons that jut out from the bottom of the cup are much easier to locate and distinguish by touch.
Pairing the headset with other gadgets is a breeze; just hold down the call button for a few seconds and enter a quartet of zeros on the host device should you be prompted to enter a code. Such simple connectivity proves useful, especially given all of the devices with which one may want to use these handy headphones, which are a good fit for everything from laptops and tablets to iPods and cell phones.
Call quality proved excellent. Tests with both Skype and cellular networks resulted in clean, crisp sound with no detectable delays. And the mic seems to do a decent job of blocking unwanted sounds. When taking a call on a busy street I asked my friend if he could hear me okay he reported that I came through loud and clear, with only minimal background noise.
Music and movies sound terrific, too. Spoken word is warm and rich, while drums and explosions rattle eardrums with hardly any noticeable distortion. Maximum volume is less than one might expect, but still more than powerful enough to drown out casual environmental noise.
More exciting personal audio options exist, but this sub-$100 headset provides little fodder for complaint.