Playing By Ear: The 12 Best Earbuds

If you like tinny music with no soul, then most iPods and other digital music players come with a set of earbuds that you can use. These headphones are usually cheap bits of plastic that will fall out at all the wrong times or leave you bleeding from the ears. Many aftermarket options aren’t much better. They can be painfully uncomfortable or the cheap rubber plugs at the end will invariably pop off, never to be seen again. To save you from these embarrassing issues, we’ve compiled a list of the 12 best in-ear headphones you can buy.

These options go above and beyond your standard earbuds. They employ a number of unique technologies from the latest in noise-cancelling to the best in 3D sound range. They can meet a variety of needs from those who require comfort for travel to the active user that wants to take their tunes on their next BASE jumping trip. The prices are a little unusual. You’ll either be forced to sell an organ on the black market for the zenith of quality, or be able to pick up some very serviceable headphones for less than a tank of gas. There is very little for the mid-range buyer, but we still managed to scare up some high-quality pieces for those looking to find a balance of power, versatility, and cost.

Westone W40 1

Westone W40

The W40 are the in-ear headphones you buy when you don’t just want your music to sound incredible, you need it to. The W40 are one of the very, very few headphones on the market that offer a Quad-Driver that recreates music so clear it makes crystals seem cloudy by comparison. To truly appreciate the sounds these can produce, you often need to use professional-grade recording, because the standard digital formats just won’t cut it. If you listen to music while holding your breath and wish you could quiet your heartbeat so that they doesn’t interfere with the sound, these are the headphones for you. They are $500 of pure, musical bliss. They lack a remote to avoid any interference on the wire. [Purchase]

Shure SE535-V

Shure SE535-V

The SE535-V doesn’t play around when it comes to producing sound quality. The high-grade housing of the earphones and the memory wire for adjustment are just afterthoughts to making buds that want to make you feel like you’re at a concert. These aren’t trying to reproduce the experience of listening on your digital, hi-fidelity system at home; they want to reproduce the experience of standing next to your favorite musician as they do what they do best. They employ Triple High-Definition MicroDrivers that sweep you away the moment you close your eyes. The sound isn’t just clean or crisp, it can cut glass. If you would sell your first born before you would part with your music collection, then these are the headphones for you. They run an incredible $430, but thankfully when you have them in, you won’t hear your spouse ask why the credit card is maxed out. They can be used with various cables, either with or without a remote. [Purchase]

Etymotic Research ER-4PT MicroPro

Etymotic Research ER-4PT MicroPro

Etymotic is less a company that produces headphones than they are a research institute that spends their days and sleepless nights trying to maximize sound quality. The MicroPro have one of the best noise-isolating environments that you have ever put in your head. These are not for the average buyer. Instead they are for the music professional that might need to jack into a sound board at a moments notice. Their frequency response accuracy is second to none. While they may look like just another set of earbuds, pros will know you are dead serious if you pull these out. They claim 98% ambient noise reduction, and they have piles of lab tests to prove it. They aren’t fully sound dampening, but they come very close. At $300, only the purest audiophile need apply. The braided cord prevents the addition of a remote. [Purchase]

Bose QuietComfort 20i

Bose QuietComfort 20i

$300 might seem like a ridiculous price for a set of headphones unless they come with a cross-country plane ticket, but these are actually worth it. The reason is that the 20i have something that no other in-ear headphone has: Noise-cancellation ability that actually works. These beauties are the only in-ear models that made our list of the best noise cancelling headphones, and the reason is that they give you more than just great sound quality. They block out the hubbub around you. While the price is a little steeper, once you are trapped on a plane, sitting over a roaring engine, and hearing nothing but the sounds of My Chemical Romance in your ears, you’ll know where the extra money went. The remote is simple, but effective. [Purchase]

Bowers and Wilkins C5T

Bowers & Wilkins C5T

The C5T is the Zen master of the in-ear headphone world. They begin by giving you music as clear as a tranquil pond but can also deliver thumping beats as you hunt down the men who killed your partner. The trick that B&W uses is employing micro porous filters where hundreds of steel balls act as a sonic diffuser. These balls transmit and clarify the sounds so that music and speech keep their sharp tones without any muddiness. The silicone tips of the C5T are so comfortable that it is easy to forget that you are wearing them. The C5T has a memory wire that keeps them in place whether you are sitting in deep meditation or jumping in slow motion through a window on a quest for vengeance. They are a very solid purchase for either the peaceful man or the active vigilante. The only trouble with the C5T is a lack of remote. You’ll pay a little more at $170, but their versatility and clarity of sound are well worth the price of admission. [Purchase]

Bose SIE2i Sport

Bose SIE2i Sport

If you are serious about sports, there is nothing that can truly compare to the SIE2i. Yes, they are $150 but they are sweat and weather resistant, so if you need to stay pumped during your Tough Mudder or Iron Man competition, these are the bad boys you want cranking jams into your skull. They use acoustic cloth to resist water and their ear attachments will keep them in place even as you practice striking and takedown combos for your next MMA match. Since they are Bose, it goes without saying that the sound quality is excellent. The remote is basic, but intuitive so it is easy to adjust volume, stop, pause, and play, even on the run. Spend the $150 and go do some roadwork! [Purchase]

Yamaha EPH-100SL

Yamaha EPH-100SL

The EPH-100SL from Yamaha do not look anything like the typical in-hear headphones. They have a shape that is more like a drill bit than a bullet, but don’t let that scare you off. The reason for their unusual shape is to help add stability and higher sound quality. They use a 6mm diameter driver with a flange that can get closer to the eardrum than standard headphones and deliver clearer highs and lows that capture the nuance of your music, rather than just the noise. This design takes a little time to adjust to, but once you do, everything else starts to feel awkward. For the true music aficionado, the difference will be clear instantly. The intent of the EPH-100SL is not necessarily for active users since there is not a remote in sight. Expect to pay $140. [Purchase]

Etymotic Research ER-4PT MicroPro

Etymotic Research HF5

Short of paying an arm and a leg for true noise-cancelling headphones, the Research HF5 does the best job of shutting out room noise for the least money. The fine people at Etymotic have worked tirelessly to improve these headphones and provide the maximum listening experience. They have pages of documentation to show the superior sound quality that your ears will receive by using the Research HF5. Since it is all immensely boring and technical, here is the breakdown: They sound great. Not just great for in-ear offerings, they sound nearly as good as being in the same room as full loudspeakers. Etymotic accomplishes this by using specific wavelengths to stimulate the eardrum. The cone shape can feel unnatural at first, but when you get them in just right, you’ll see the difference in sound from everything else. The addition of a remote would have made them perfect, but for about $100 you couldn’t do much better. [Purchase]

Phiaton PS 210

Phiaton PS 210

The PS 210 are the earbuds for people that hate earbuds. Unlike some brands, they don’t dig into your ear canal like they are tunneling out of Alcatraz. They describe themselves as “Half in-ear” which is helpful if you like the intimate sound typically offered by these tiny buds but hate jamming them in. The PS 210 uses a small disc to help block ambient noise as well as secure the headphones, so even though the earpieces aren’t as deep-set, you still won’t suffer from noises bleeding in to ruin your experience. They can be used for exercise or tuning out your boss while sitting at your desk. At around $80, these are a steal for anyone looking to bridge the gap between in-ear and over-ear headphones. The only headache these cause is the lack of a remote. [Purchase]

Nocs NS400-002 NS400

Nocs NS400-002 NS400

The NS400 in-ear headphones are the sort of high-quality, utilitarian product that Apple should have packaged with their iPod. The controls on the remote are intuitive and work best with Apple products, be they iPad, iPod, or iPhone. The built-in mic is surprisingly sensitive and uses patented GSM/TDMA technology to eliminate background, burst, and wind noise during your conversation. The sound for both music and speech is very clean. As the brand name suggests, these puppies were definitely trained at the school of hard knocks. They have a kevlar cord and titanium housing that can take any abuse you can dish out. Though if your ears are dishing out that much abuse, your problems are bigger than just your headphones. You’ll only need to plunk down $60 or so, though you’ll need an adapter if you expect to wear these to your Hard-Core Pilates class. [Purchase]

Logitech Ultimate Ears 600vi

Logitech Ultimate Ears 600vi

Logitech is best known for their work with computers, and that shows in these earphones. While the sound is certainly good and the ear inserts are relatively comfortable, it is the remote features that set the Ultimate Ears apart. The volume and track controls, easy switching to phone mode, and other accessories give you the ultimate in power. The armature speaker array is designed to confuse your ears into believing they are hearing music in true 3D, which makes the experience unique and allows for total immersion in the sound. The only problem with the 600vi is that they are clearly meant for desk jockeys. Try going for a run with these in your ears and they will either fly everywhere or short circuit from the sweat. Don’t worry, exercise is overrated anyway, especially in a world where you can order pizza online. Coming in at just under $50, they are great for casual listener that needs total control. [Purchase]

MEElectronics Sport-Fi M6

MEElectronics Sport-Fi M6

While certainly the cheapest on the list at $20 these are by no means a slouch when it comes to quality. The speakers have a little more bass than other standard headphones, but where the M6 shines are in comfort and customization. They have a highly secure over-ear memory wire loop to keep them in place for athletes and the less energetic alike. The memory wire is very comfortable because it does not use stiff plastic that can press against your ear. It can be adjusted for any user, whether you have tiny ears or the Presidential jug handles. A large collection of varied ear plugs come standard so that you can find the ones that slip into your ear with the least amount of discomfort. Though they are built with sports in mind, they’re very useful for anyone that just wants high-quality sound and in-ear headphones that stay in place. They have models both with and without remotes depending on the needs of the user. [Purchase]

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