ME AND MOBILE surveys best earbuds in the market.
Call them what you want – in-ears, in-ear-monitors or inter aurals – these tiny earbuds are among the most common gadgets around. The most obvious upgrade for anyone with a smartphone whose bundled in-ears are about as dynamic as George Osborne, a good pair of earbuds can take tunes to a higher level for relatively low spend.
We’ve included models from across the range of current selling prices, of course, though there are obvious differences. Pricier pairs generally offer more detail, range and bass, and better noise isolation (handy on trains and possibly even planes), though even £50 / US$60 / AU$70 buys a pretty high-end experience.
Almost all now include an in-line remote for tweaking volume, changing tracks and hands-free calling, though most are primed for iOS devices. The remote button sometimes works with Android phones, but the volume keys don’t. Almost all models come with a choice of tips, where which one you choose is crucial for sound quality, noise isolation and comfort, so don’t be afraid to ditch those default tips.
a-JAYs One+ – £40/US$50/AU$60
Tangled earphones are the bane of every commuter’s morning, and it’s doubtful many of us even get to the bus stop with cables in-situ. Swedish design takes a stab at this ungodly problem with the completely flat cables of the a-JAYS One+, which are also a great value attempt at bringing hands-free options to the wider smartphone community.
Connecting to any brand of phone using a neat L-shaped 3.5mm jack, it’s a cinch to operate volume and answer calls, while music is handled well above its price-point, sounding bass-heavy, detailed and well-rounded. Noise isolation is decent, too.
Wound up in a pocket, the a-JAYS One+ spring back to shape and are indeed much easier to manoeuvre, though the downside is that they feel a little heavier when being worn – probably because there’s a hint of friction between the silicon cable and clothes. Comfy in the ear, there are five pairs of tips to choose from on this versatile choice that should last longer than most.
SoundMagic E10M – £45/US$60/AU$60
The SoundMagic E10Ms are all about isolation and one of the most balanced soundscapes available for this price. With plenty of detail within a rich, nuanced and powerfully bass-heavy sound, the E10Ms’ tips create an excellent seal against outside noise, though the use of metallic drivers can make them feel cold when donned first thing in the morning.
Elsewhere it’s a relatively generous package, with no less than six choices of tips as well as a posh drawstring bag for storage. Add a useful splitter and an in-line remote that, again, works only for iPhones, and the SoundMagic E10Ms are among the best performing in-earphones at this low price.
Sennheiser MM 30i – £50/US$60/AU$70
It might have a shrunken 3.5mm connector and a super-slim cable, but the Sennheiser MM 30i produces a sound much bigger than we’d expected at this price. It’s primarily low-frequency prowess that makes these a standout option for the money, though the in-line remote is another factor. It works well, though its volume toggle and call answering button only work with iPhones and iPads.
Three pairs of tips are supplied in the box, and though even the middle-sized pair take the MM 30is deep into the ear, the flip-side is excellent noise isolation that works well on city streets. Easy to travel with, our only bugbear about these super Sennheisers is that they get tangled rather too easily.
Klipsch Image S5i Rugged – £63/US$150/AU$165
Use a pair of in-ears every day and they soon begin to show signs of wear. Which is why Klipsch came up with the S5i Rugged, a well built pair of in-ears that might sound a tad outdoorsy, but in reality behave very well on the daily commute. Firstly, they’re rain-proof, while sound quality is excellent and well primed for both podcasts and music.
However, the S5i Ruggeds are all about ease of use and comfort (there’s a huge choice of tips to choose from), and even the in-line remote controls – for iPhone only – have been given some thought, with both volume and playback controls raised from a tactile base. The result is that they’re easy to find and operate through touch alone, so changing your tune doesn’t require awkward downward glances. Now officially discontinued, these are are an absolute steal online.
Etymotic Research HF5 – £110/US$150/AU$170
Low-end and high-end earbuds are myriad, but the Etymotic Research HF5s manage to hit the altogether less numerous mid-price-range spot with the highlight of these high quality in-ears being noise isolation.
They lack hands-free and in-line controls, which might put some off, but these tiny in-ears offer up a big performance in recompense. The HF5s give a full and expansive sound, with bags of detail, accurate mid-range and cracking bass. Well-built with a metallic construction and with very comfortable tips that push the HF5s noise isolation skills, there’s another bonus for travellers in the shape of a handy pouch.
Bowers & Wilkins C5 – £150/US$180/AU$230
They’ve been around for a few years now, but these flashy in-ears make an unusual – and impressive – choice. Although the sound quality is on a par with the Etymotic HF5s, the Bowers & Wilkins C5s are largely about style. The rear of the tiny drivers are spliced off diagonally, which creates an unusual look.
Another unique feature is the way the C5s attach to ears, with a backwards bend of each cable slotting into the driver to create an ear loop. Easy enough to wear and tweak to fit, the C5s feel secure. Meanwhile, there are in-line controls for call answering and volume, though again they only work with an iPhone.
Westone 2 True Fit – £200/US$250/AU$260
Many a savvy international traveller can be seen wearing a pair of US-made Westones. Lightweight and primed for a shirt pocket, the sound quality is way above average, though the reason they’re popular is an unusual skill at blocking out noise. OK, so they’re not going to compete with battery-powered noise cancelling headphones from Bose, but they’re at least 70% as effective – and at 15g (0.53oz) they’re about a twentieth of the weight of bulky headband models that are the antithesis of easy travel.
It’s all about the fit. A plethora of different types of tips are provided – something we’ve not seen offered elsewhere – all of which achieve a snug fit comparable to earplugs. The hard-cased travel pouch complete with belt-loop is the icing that makes these Westone 2 True Fits our constant travel companion.
Denon AH-C400 – £200/US$300 (around AU$310)
Better known for its larger, home-centric and audiophile-grade headphones, Japanese audio brand Denon here makes an attempt at street wear. The AH-C400s are clever stuff, boasting a ‘tangle-free’ cable design that for once lives up to its name. The plastic-covered cable is sturdier than most and might even survive being run over by a chair (the most common means of earphone death in our house). That covering also means that when unfurled from a pocket they’re easy to arrange.
The earpieces themselves are rather large, though lightweight enough to stay in position. Effectively cutting out ambient noise, they offer sparkling detail and plenty of bass, too, though it’s not overdone. The in-line remote is rather long, though slender, and buttons are raised just enough to locate with touch alone. Not surprisingly, those in-line controls only work with iPhones.
Atomic Floyd SuperDarts – £200 (around US$302/AU$312)
Solid stainless steel and a classy metallic-red design are what you see on the SuperDarts, but what’s really attractive is how they sound. Lively and precise, the SuperDarts’ dual drivers in each ear prove to be just as at home with complex rock as with simple acoustic music, and the choice of three silicone tips all effectively keep out noise. Classier than the Westone 4s, travellers will nevertheless find them a notch below in terms of noise isolation.
Another successful tangle-free cable design in the bag, the SuperDarts also add an in-line remote that’s easy to use for both volume adjustments and call answering. Also included is a flight adaptor, a 6.3mm adaptor and a travel pouch.
Shure SE535 – £400/US$480/AU$450
Shure has come up with another cracker. Equipped with three drivers, its SE535s sound great even if they don’t look it. Inside each chunky earpiece are a couple of woofers and a tweeter. Cue music imbued with deep, rich bass lines, awesome clarity and a butch mid-range that’s all too rare on cheap earphones.
There are caveats: they’re certainly not cheap, and if you’re looking for some iPod replacement earphones these probably aren’t for you. They’re bulky and can be a tad fiddly to put in your ears. However, it’s only when you treat yourself to a pair of earbuds like this that you realise how good music can sound. These are brilliant, and if you can afford them they’ll do your music justice in ways most earphones can only aspire to.