The best headphones.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Nov. 11 2004 4:29 PM

Listen Up

Which headphones are best?

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The iPod has become so ubiquitous that it's hard to walk a New York City block without spotting someone with little white wires dangling from their ears. And yet the digital music player's popularity has also been accompanied by a good deal of grumbling: Given how expensive the iPod is, couldn't its designers have created headphones that stayed put and sounded less like the speakers on a cheap transistor radio?

Well, last January Apple introduced an upscale version of its iconic earpieces. Retailing for about $40, the earpieces on these headphones fit more snugly and sounded somewhat better than the standard-issue earbuds. But more than a few competitors had already rushed in to fill the void: Today's iPod owner is free to experiment with headphones ranging from Koss' $10 in-ear "Plugs" (which are so bass-heavy that even Bach comes out sounding like Busta Rhymes and so uncomfortable that I decided against including them in this article) to Etymotic Research's ER-4Ps (which cost $330 and just might be worth it). The friends I polled told me that they wouldn't consider spending more than $60 or $70 for a pair of headphones, so I confined myself to those costing less than $70. (But to get a sense of what I was missing, I tested two of the most expensive models available. Click here to see the results.)

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The downside of upgrading is that it's hard to know how good any given set is until you've lived with it for a while—and the trial-and-error route can get expensive. There are also a great many factors to take into account before heading off to your local electronics emporium. Some headphones provide excellent sound quality but do little to block out the outside world. Others can drown out the rumble of an airplane engine but sound tinny or thin when used in the privacy of your own home. Headphones geared toward the low end of the sonic spectrum tend to be more suited to jazz and hip-hop, while those that favor the midrange do better with classical or rock 'n' roll. You wouldn't know it from the packaging, but expensive headphones seem to be geared toward classical music while those retailing for $30 or so are aimed at the pop and hip-hop markets. (For more details, click here.)

So, how do you know which set is best for you?

To find out, I spent months reading audiophile magazines and Web sites, and I tested six pairs of headphones on my iPod by listening to the same playlist (made up of classical, rock, jazz, and hip-hop recordings) on each one. (For the playlist, click here.) I tested each set at the gym, on the subway, aboard a flight to Memphis (during which I sat directly over the starboard engine), and at the library, where I tallied the dirty looks I received while playing Quiet Riot's "Cum on Feel the Noize" at top volume.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Criteria I ranked every brand in each of the following categories:

Comfort: How well did the headphones fit in my ears? Did they stay put while I cleaned the apartment or ran laps in the park? Was the cord thick and annoyingly knotty, or was it soft and supple? Did my ears get sore after an hour? Value: Up to 5 points

Design and durablity: Were the headphones sleek and stylish, or did they make me look like an MIT student out testing his latest invention? Were they well-suited to outdoor use? And would they stand up to months of everyday use? Value: Up to 5 points

Sound: Did the headphones reproduce the details of each piece of music accurately, or did they overemphasize bass at the expense of treble? Did they sound too dull? Did the headphones create the desirable effect of sitting in a concert hall or behind the board in a recording studio? Value: Up to 5 points

Privacy: How well did the headphones block ambient noise—the sound of the subway or the clank of weights and Nautilus machines at the gym? Conversely, if I cranked up the volume, would enough noise escape that I'd begin to bother my neighbor on the subway or in the next cubicle? (Invariably, headphones that block noise from the outside world tend to protect those around you from the sound of your music.) Value: Up to 5 points