The Headphone Bazaar

There are plenty of dandy devices out there, from high-end noise cancelers to low-priced earphones to take to the gym

Digital music players abound. Whether it's the ubiquitous Apple (AAPL) iPod (consumers have purchased some 70 million of them in the five years since they were introduced) or the myriad alternatives from rivals such as Microsoft (MSFT), SanDisk (SNDK), and Creative Labs (CREAF)—just about everyone, it seems, sports a portable player these days. But as popular as these gadgets have become, most elicit a common complaint: The stock earphones just don't cut it. They're often ill-fitting and produce suboptimal sound.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. Many of them aren't cheap, and some will set you back more than the iPod itself. But the variety continues to grow. They come in all flavors, from the noise-canceling variety that erases the hum on an airplane to Bluetooth models that connect wirelessly to a music device. And the high-end models produce something close to sonic perfection.

Two Woofers

Start with Shure's E500 earphones, the top-of-the-line device made by the company known for its microphones and other sound gear for musicians. These things are ear candy, producing amazingly clear and crisp sound reproduction, particularly from such a tiny package. The E500s use three drivers—a tweeter and two woofers—in each earphone. Yet they're small enough to almost hide inside your ear.

For folks who rip music to PCs with minimal compression, these are must-have headphones. And Shure just released the new SE530, the same earphone as the E500, but with the option of including its Push-To-Hear controller, an adapter with a built-in microphone that can be switched on to hear your environment outside your earphones.

That way you can have a conversation without pulling out your earphone—say, when you are on a plane ordering a drink. But the adapter is a bit silly, so the ability to opt out is welcome. The SE530s cost $499 with the adapter and $449 without.

Shure calls the SE530s sound-isolating earphones, in order to put them in the same market as noise-canceling headphones that are all the rage with frequent flyers these days. But on a recent flight from Phoenix to Seattle, I compared the Shures with a variety of noise-canceling models. And as great as the E500s are, they don't block out the engine drone anywhere near as well as even the least-expensive noise-canceling headphones.

A Good Thing Even Better

That's because of the technology; noise-canceling headphones use tiny microphones to pick up the ambient noise around you, then create the exact opposite of that signal and send it to the headset. That cancels out low-frequency sounds, like the hum of a jet engine.

Bose introduced noise-canceling headphones to the masses with its QuietComfort headphones and the follow-up QuietComfort 2s. Bose's QuietComfort 3s, introduced in June, made a good thing even better.

Unlike their predecessors, the $349 QC3s rest on top of the ears, rather than cupping them with foam padding. That makes them more comfortable than the still-on-the-market $299 QC2s. And yet you give up nothing with regard to noise cancellation. Compared with three other noise-canceling models on the same Phoenix-to-Seattle jaunt, the QC3s performed best. And when they're plugged into an iPod, the sound reproduction is first-rate.

If you can't justify $350 for a set of headphones that you may only use for infrequent air travel, consider Logitech's (LOGI) Noise Canceling Headphones. Although noticeably less effective in wiping out jet engine sound than the Bose models, Logitech nonetheless offers solid noise cancellation at just $150. And the sonic reproduction of music from an iPod is excellent.

Like the Bose QC2, the Logitech model cups your ears rather than resting on top of them. The case is larger than the one for the QC3, but Logitech's case includes a slot to stash your iPod. Even my Microsoft Zune, which is a smidge larger, squeezed in.

Nifty Feature

If you can wait, Sennheiser in March will launch a pair of heaphones, the PXC 450s, that could give Bose a run for its money. While I didn't fly with the PXC 450s, I did get to test them amid the head-pounding noise of the convention floor during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January.

They canceled sound remarkably well. And they have a nifty feature that lets users flip on a microphone that's tuned specifically to the frequency in which people speak. So if you're on a plane and want to hear a flight attendant or your neighbor, you can switch on the microphone and hear only them and none of the engine drone.

If you just want to listen to your music around town, there's not much need for the noise-canceling variety of headphones; to me, they seem overly conspicuous when worn on the street. I like subtle. And for me, going wireless is the way to do it.

Several headphones boast Bluetooth wireless technology and include an iPod adapter that connects to headphones sans cord. That means you can select a playlist, toss your iPod into a briefcase or backpack, and rock on. Some even sync with a mobile phone, so users can listen to tunes and pick up a call while pausing their music—all without having to switch headsets.

Goofy Looking?

The best Bluetooth model comes from Etymotic Research, a company known for hearing aids. Etymotic first made its mark in the iPod market with its ER6i model, which remains one of the best on the market.

Like the ER6i, the new ety8 earphones fit in your ear canal. Designed specifically to work with the iPod, the $300 ety8s have tiny controls on the right earpiece that let users adjust the volume and skip ahead to the next song.

The sound quality is much better than you might expect from a wireless headset. And the ety8s fit great as well, coming with a variety of eartips for a custom fit. I like the Christmas-tree-looking triple-flange set that fit snugly in the ear canal and block out much of the ambient sound. The only real drawback to the ety8s is that they look goofy.

For a more conventional look, at least for a wireless headphone, try Logitech's $100 FreePulse Wireless Headphones. These over-the-ear models have a stiff plastic band worn behind the neck. The volume and track controls, which require users to press different spots on the earpiece, take a bit of getting used to. While you can control the volume and pause a song, you can't skip ahead to the next track on the headset. But the sound quality is solid. And the look isn't bad either.

A new entrant into the high-end headphone world is Jabra, better known for its mobile-phone headsets. Its new BT620s headphones sell with an iPod adapter, letting users take calls and listen to their tunes.

The $179 BT620s model has the same behind-the-neck design as Logitech's FreePulse but is decidedly bulkier on the ears. The sound is fine, though I had some trouble initially with my music cutting out completely for a few seconds before coming back on. After resyncing the device to the adapter, the problem went away.

Sponge Off

If you can bear wires, there are several solid earphone models to bring to the gym. My favorite is Sennheiser's OMX 70 Sport Wired Headphones. Just $40, these neon green headphones fit snugly with a rubbery piece that slips behind the ear to keep them in place during time on the treadmill or running around the park. Sound quality is just fine, and the casing around the wires and earpiece is water-resistant, meaning you can sponge off your sweat after your workout.

For slightly higher-end audio, try Harman Kardon's EP 730s. These $200 in-ear models were developed with Etymotic Research, makers of the ety8s. They produce great sound and have inline volume control and a switch that lets users choose to pump up the bass or opt for the more pure high-fidelity mode. Like the ety8s, they have the triple-flange earpiece for a secure fit.

And if you want top of the line, and a great look to boot, go for Bang & Olufsen's A8 headphones. Like just about every product from the Danish electronics company, the $160 A8s are design marvels, beautiful gadgets that adjust in so many ways that they can fit any ear comfortably. That fit means more sound goes straight to the ear, and you won't have to jam an earpiece into your ear canal. The acoustics are fantastic. B&O calls them high-tech jewelry.

Whatever you call them, they provide one of the myriad ways to keep the music in and background noise out.

Click here for a slide show of the latest high-tech headphones.

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