Sign in with
Sign up | Sign in

Roundup: 16 Headphones

Roundup: 16 Headphones
By
Our Tests

To test headphones for portable digital players, we used two listeners experienced in this domain. Depending on the test, headphones were either plugged into an iRiver H10 or an NAD amplifier. The sources were either in MP3 192 kbps or non-compressed. We listened to several reference sound samples, exchanging the headphones between testers, and repeatedly went over certain crucial parts. User comfort and design were also a factor in grading.

This roundup includes products released within one year preceding the publication date of this article. The product selection consists solely of review units made available to Tom’s Guide by vendors. While the products listed here do not constitute a comprehensive listing of all products in the category, they do represent a broad range of what is available to consumers in this category. We will quickly update this roundup with new products as they become available to Tom’s Guide, and soon add data relating to product specifications and test dates. In other words, these roundups are a work in progress. Please check back frequently to see what’s new.

Headphones that come packed with today's portable MP3 players are usually satisfactory, however there are many other brands available on the market that can offer a better experience. Our survey of in- and on-ear headphones takes a peek as several brands, and should better empower your decision making when searching for a replacement that will ultimately give you more out of your music while on the go.

It's very easy to forget that the sound quality you enjoy from your MP3 player usually has more to do with the the headphones than the device itself.  Indeed, just about every manufacturer uses the same technology inside its MP3 player, leaving a very even playing field when it comes to the quality of the sound signal produced.  The quality of the headphones included, though, is a lot more variable--and is often mediocre at best.

Ditching the Earbuds

For any real music fan, a new pair of headphones to replace those that come with their MP3 player can be compulsory.

To help you choose, we've included in our selection the headphones that ship with Apple's iPod, by the far most popular portable music device out there.  Given that most people--those who care enough about music to own an MP3 player--will probably have slipped a pair of those famous white earbuds in at least once, it seemed logical to us to use them as the basis for our comparison.  However, that doesn't mean Apple's iPod headphones represent some kind of gold standard when it comes to quality--they are in fact some of the worst we've ever seen, and it's very easy to find a sharper, less aggressive sound elsewhere.

Other Factors

Sound quality is one thing, but there are some other things you should consider when choosing headphones. Comfort should be top priority, followed closely by portability.  The main choice on both fronts boils down to three options: headphones, earbuds or in-ear headphones.  The first group generally give the best sound quality, the second are easier to carry around while the third are the best at isolating external noise.

If you go for a large pair of headphones, think carefully about the small details, like the quality of the cabling provided.  It might seem like a needless detail, but there's nothing more annoying than a stiff cable that doesn't allow you to wear your MP3 player comfortably. Another important detail is how well the cable is isolated from accidental scratches.  If you're in the habit of wearing your collar up, you might notice it rubbing against the cable of your headphones, another irritating effect that's easily avoidable.  And gentlemen, it's even worse for you if the cable brushes against your stubble.  Where this is the case, we've pointed out the problems.

In-Ear Headphones

When it comes to in-ear headphones, the most important thing is to ensure there's a good seal in between the outside of your ear and the headphones lodged inside the ear canal--it's the only way to get the best out of the powerful bass notes these headphones can produce.  Most manufacturers deliver several sizes of silicon plugs for their in-ear headphones, and don't be afraid to experiment until you find the right size. You might even need a different size for each ear, but it's definitely worth the time experimenting, as creating that seal is the key to good sound quality.

Finally, as a general rule of thumb, you'll probably spend around half as much to get a pair of in-ear headphones that's as good as the equivalent regular on-ear headphones.

Ask a Category Expert

Create a new thread in the Audio forum about this subject

Example: Notebook, Android, SSD hard drive

Display all 32 comments.
This thread is closed for comments
  • 3 Hide
    Anonymous , June 27, 2009 8:11 PM
    Where are the regular head phones reviews. All we get are buds and in ear headphoes, where are the regular ones that you lead into your article with a picture of?

    Wasted my time as i dont like buds....bleh.
  • 0 Hide
    twisted politiks , June 27, 2009 9:57 PM
    what about shure? probably the best in ear headphones on the market
  • 0 Hide
    Silluete , June 28, 2009 2:26 AM
    twisted politikswhat about shure? probably the best in ear headphones on the market

    agree , but also one of most expensive one
  • -3 Hide
    omnimodis78 , June 28, 2009 4:06 AM
    I didn't read the article, and after looking at the list of products "reviewed" I guess there's not much room for variety. Like so many stuff out there, it's so relative! What might sound amazing to me might sound like crap to you. Besides, you can use the $20 headphones, and with decent equalization and moderate playback volume, after a few hours of listening it will sound great. Try it...
  • 0 Hide
    acherimoya , June 28, 2009 4:09 AM
    I can make two additional recommendations for headphones with which I've been completely satisfied:

    - Yuin PK3. Earbuds, hard to find in the US, sound quality equal to many full size cans. Good bass, fantastic mids and highs, great definition in the highs. About average comfort. $39, and best most earbuds you'll find for less than $150.

    - Koss KSC75. Open over ear with earclip. Incredible sound, great bass, good highs (highs could be better). Overall great sound profile. $12-18 with sound better than just about any in-ear or earbud you'll find for a reasonable price, and give more expensive over ear phones a run for the money. Everyone should own at least one pair of these classics.

    As you can tell, I'm a bargain shopper.
  • 3 Hide
    gmoney69 , June 28, 2009 4:22 AM
    This review seems slanted.. no Shure, no Ultimate Ears? Two of the best brands out there. Also, no Skull Candy, not the best but very popular (and affordable)... Then they throw in M-Audio and Cardo 'over the ear' cans? Headphone and earbud reviews should be separate, totally incomparable experience (not to mention there are many other over the ear cans not mentioned). Also, the only buds that get 5/5 have links directly to amazon in the body of the review. Its like an article to pit 16 random products together to put one on top. It's a paid advertisement. This is an incompetent article. WTF Tom's?
  • 0 Hide
    Spanky Deluxe , June 28, 2009 10:00 AM
    What about Shure? The SE210 is probably the best value high quality consumer head phone set out there. Absolutely superb headphones and from a brand that I'd trust more than a lot of the ones already included in the review.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , June 28, 2009 3:21 PM
    The whole Sennheiser in ear series requires a long burn (playing music/test tones at a moderately loud volume continuously) in period. I have the IE8 and the review does not do the final product justice. The IE8 benefits from at least 250+ hours, but they keep improving even after 400+ hours. The overpowering bass is greatly reduced leaving a warm, fun headphone with excellent detail, treble extension, controlled yet powerful bass that doesn't intrude on the other frequencies, and the widest soundstage (headstage) of an in ear headphone.

    One of the best bang for the buck headphones though is the NuForce NE-7m for $50.
  • 0 Hide
    Tomsguiderachel , June 28, 2009 4:44 PM
    gmoney69This review seems slanted.. no Shure, no Ultimate Ears? Two of the best brands out there. Also, no Skull Candy, not the best but very popular (and affordable)... Then they throw in M-Audio and Cardo 'over the ear' cans? Headphone and earbud reviews should be separate, totally incomparable experience (not to mention there are many other over the ear cans not mentioned). Also, the only buds that get 5/5 have links directly to amazon in the body of the review. Its like an article to pit 16 random products together to put one on top. It's a paid advertisement. This is an incompetent article. WTF Tom's?

    This is not a paid advertisement.
  • 0 Hide
    Tomsguiderachel , June 28, 2009 4:45 PM
    For all of you asking why certain products were not included in this roundup, I ask that you please read the introductory paragraph at the top. We only included products where we had a review unit to test. We cannot test a product we do not have on hand.
  • 0 Hide
    lapalm , June 28, 2009 5:54 PM
    Thanks for you article. And it's a good thing to keep it in a state of "work in progress". Definitely looking for updates.

  • 0 Hide
    The_Blood_Raven , June 29, 2009 4:00 AM
    TERRIBLE selection.

    No Ultimate Ears, no Etymotic, no Shure, no Westone, just overpriced junk with the slight exception of SOME the sennheisers.

    I usually don't bash articles but this is a comparison of all the crappy overpriced earphones and IEMs on the market, I'm surprised there is no BOSE!
  • 0 Hide
    The_Blood_Raven , June 29, 2009 4:04 AM
    TomsguiderachelFor all of you asking why certain products were not included in this roundup, I ask that you please read the introductory paragraph at the top. We only included products where we had a review unit to test. We cannot test a product we do not have on hand.


    I understand this well enough, but you can not exclude the GOOD products in a product survey. You might as well do a CPU roundup with only VIA CPUs.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , June 29, 2009 8:28 AM
    Sennheiser earphones has to be listened for some hours to get the optimum sound quality and a warmer sound out of them, did you take this into account?
  • 0 Hide
    smallcaps , June 29, 2009 5:05 PM
    unfortunately out of the packaging the Sennheiser IEx series will sound terrible because they are dynamic driver type headphones. after about 100 hours or so of burn-in time, they will beat everything on this list by SQ alone. this review is generally ill-informed and amateurishly approached. i would check out more dedicated communities for headphone reviews such as head-fi.org
  • -1 Hide
    Tomsguiderachel , June 29, 2009 5:32 PM
    The_Blood_RavenI understand this well enough, but you can not exclude the GOOD products in a product survey. You might as well do a CPU roundup with only VIA CPUs.

    Yes, we can. When we get more products in, we will review them too.
  • -1 Hide
    Tomsguiderachel , June 29, 2009 5:34 PM
    smallcapsunfortunately out of the packaging the Sennheiser IEx series will sound terrible because they are dynamic driver type headphones. after about 100 hours or so of burn-in time, they will beat everything on this list by SQ alone. this review is generally ill-informed and amateurishly approached. i would check out more dedicated communities for headphone reviews such as head-fi.org

    It sounds like you're in the market for very high-end, expensive headphones (audiophile quality). This review doesn't include any of those, so far, so you'd be better off for now doing research at another site.
  • 1 Hide
    Greg_77 , June 30, 2009 3:54 AM
    I agree with smallcaps,you need to burn in dynamic driver earphones for them to show their full potential. Many dynamic earphones won't start sounding good until over 50 hours of burn in. Balanced armature earphones don't require burn in, giving earphones such as the Q-Jays an advantage in this group comparison. If you are going to review earphones you need to learn their differences. If you are not willing to take the time and learn the basics behind comparing earphones, you should not do it at all. And,fyi, head-fi.org may feature some very pricey earphones, but they also review earphones within the price group represented by your sample.
  • 0 Hide
    The_Blood_Raven , June 30, 2009 5:24 PM
    TomsguiderachelIt sounds like you're in the market for very high-end, expensive headphones (audiophile quality). This review doesn't include any of those, so far, so you'd be better off for now doing research at another site.


    The Senns IE 7/8s are audiophile quality as well as the klipsch custom 3.

    You should contact more companies for more earphones, like these:
    Ultimate Ears, Shure, Etymotic, Westone, exct.

    This article is a good first step, Tom's really should get into audio more.
  • -1 Hide
    Sandburner20 , June 30, 2009 6:11 PM
    WTF? Why were Sony headphones not reviewed here? Sony is one of the most popular brands of headphones purchased here in the US so why were none included? If your not going to bother comparing more brands, then what was the point? Half of the ones reviewed in this article I have never even seen available to purchase, or even heard of for that matter, and I work in Radio!
Display more comments
Tom’s guide in the world
  • Germany
  • France
  • Italy
  • Ireland
  • UK
Follow Tom’s guide
Subscribe to our newsletter
  • add to twitter
  • add to facebook
  • ajouter un flux RSS