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.
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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.
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.
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.