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Best in-ear headphones

There was a time – a long time ago – when a 3.5mm jack on a smartphone was rare and the likes of Samsung, Sony Ericsson etc used proprietary connections, which meant you had to use the headphones that came in the box – or invest in an adaptor.

Thankfully that has all changed now and all modern mobile phones from a cheap PAYG offering to dual-core Tegra touting smartphone have universal sockets enabling you to plug in your own headphones.

Mobile phones normally are bundled with a pair of headphones, but with a few exceptions, sound quality is at best adequate and the build quality is often disappointing.

So if you use your handset to listen to music or watch movies, it makes sense to invest a little bit of extra money in a good pair of headphones.

The way our phones look is becoming more important too, and the same applies to headphones – there’s a certain fashion snobbery towards Apple’s distinctive white-headphones. Most of the major headphone manufacturers realise this and there are huge range of colours to choose from, along with regulation black.

Of course, looks are only one factor to consider when choosing a pair of headphones. Build quality, comfort, and (of course) sound quality are all important. We’ve picked in-ear headphones ranging from £10 to £50 from Sony, Philips, Skullcandy, Sennheiser and JVC to test out.

Check out the gallery below to see what we thought:

Skullcandy INK’D

£10.13 from Amazon

Skullcandy is the new choice for earbud for kidz, and with their bright colours and pocket-money friendly price point it’s easy to see why.
INK’D is the company’s entry-level pair; our green and black set complete with funky skull patten look great from afar, but up close, build quality is the worst here by a long way. The 1.3m cable feels cheap and 3.5mm connection isn’t angled, which means it is easy to put strain on it if it’s upside down in your bag.
For the money they sound pretty good though. Treble performance is adequate, if muddied by the bass somewhat and it can’t compete with the Sennheiser’s for balance and openness or the Philips’ for treble. But at just over £10, we can’t really complain, especially as they are among the most comfortable here.

Overall: Comfortable fashion headphones with respectable sound for the price, but the compromise is poor build quality, so be prepared to replace them.


£20  JVC

JVC’s marketing and design team has obviously spent time planning a pair of buds to appeal to the youth audience.  Described as Xtreme Xplosive they come in a small replica of a plastic explosives case and this industrial feel continues with the buds themselves, which are a combination of black and reinforced 1.2m red cable.
The Extreme Deep Bass Port  certainly works. The buds have the strongest bass response on test, unfortunately this is at the expense of the treble, producing a very narrow sound stage. Additionally because the buds are so large they just aren’t very comfortable.
Build quality is good though; with a rubber protector, solid cable splitter and reinforced 3.5mm jack, which although isn’t angled, feels far stronger than the Skullcandy pair.

Overall: Bass performance is certainly extreme, but unfortunately it’s at the expense of comfort.

Sennheiser CX281

£30  Sennheiser

With a bronze and maroon housing, if these ear buds from headphone stalwart Sennheiser look fairly feminine, it’s because they are designed for women and consequently suit listeners with smaller ears.
The CX281’s are certainly extremely comfortable to wear, fitting snugly in our lugs, with three silicon adapters to suit different ear sizes.
Extras include an in-line volume control and adaptor that plugs into the 3.5mm jack for sharing music with a friend.
Audio performance is the most balanced here, creating a wide-open sound that  provides more bass than the Philips, without being the expense of the treble.
From the braided-cable design and slide (to help prevent tangling) to the angled 3.5mm jack and carrying case, these feel like a quality product and you even get a 2-year warranty.

Overall: Sure the style might not appeal to everyone, but built to the high standard Sennheiser is famous for, these female-focused ear buds provide a wide excellent sound and come with some nice extras.
Score: 4.5/5

Philips SHE9000

£35, Philips

Top marks to Philips, these metal and red tipped ear buds look stylish – if slightly reminiscent of iBeats by Dr Dre. The metal housing isn’t just for appearances, it’s designed to absorb vibration. The quality feel is carried through to the 1.2m protected cable and its anti-tangle slider and angled gold-plated 3.5mm jack.
The buds are angled slightly to fit into your ear canal and certainly feels comfortable and snug. Along with three sizes of silicone cap you get foam tips that can squeezed to fit the exact shape of your ear and block out external noise.
The SHE9000 are at their best with songs with lots of vocal, the treble is very detailed and among the best here, although this is at the expense of the bass, resulting in a sound that is less balanced than the Sennheiser.

Overall: Top-quality build matched by comfort. Great for tracks with acoustic and vocal, but not the best choice for bass fans.
Score: 4/5

Sony MDR-NC13

£50, from Sony

Sony’s entry into our round-up are the most expensive pair of headphone here, due to some tasty active noise-cancelling technology. Powered by an AAA battery, flick the in-line controller to reduce external noise by 87.4%. We tested this on a busy street and in our office and really struggled to notice a great deal of difference between the natural noise isolation provided by the snug fit of the bud and the noise-cancelling tech. Impressively you get a 100 hours listening per battery.
In addition, the MDR-NC13’s aren’t very comfortable; like the JVC’s the larger element feels too heavy, in our ear, although people with larger ears may find it less of a problem.
Sound quality is good though and the neck-chain style cord is useful especially if you are on an aeroplane and extras include a carrying pouch, three silicon tips and and an adaptor.

Overall: Good audio performance, but if noise-cancellation is your main preference there are better headphones to choose from.


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