An Introduction to Headphones, Earphones, and Expanders

Every iPod comes with a single pair of now iconic white earbuds, which most people agree are great by freebie standards, offering both good sound and looks. So why consider alternatives that can cost as $900?

Answer: you can do better than Apple’s pack-ins, both in comfort and in sound quality. Earphones (earbuds) – listening devices small enough to sit in your ears – are often cited as less comfortable for long-term listening than Headphones, which tend to be much larger and sit on top of your ears, connecting to each other with a band that rests on top of your head or behind your neck. But in recent years, certain companies have created comfortable versions of both Earphones and Headphones, using soft silicone rubber in-ear tips and cushioned fabrics for larger earcups.

We have reviewed four general categories of headphones and earphones, broken down by pricing. Comfort varies from model to model, but each step up the price ladder tends to improve audio quality. The least expensive category ($50 and under) provides sound that’s similar to the iPod’s pack-ins, but either heavier in bass or more comfortable. The next step up ($150 and under) generally provides noticeably better audio definition, letting you hear amazing hidden details in all of your songs.

The two premium tiers of headphones are for more serious listeners. At the $300 price level, you get in-ear sound quality that’s as good as it gets on definition. Above that price level, in the “price no object” category, you pay for modestly added bass and comfort, with plastic that’s custom-fit to your ears, providing more isolation from outside noise. These are great luxury gifts, but we tend to think it’s hard to improve dramatically on audio from the best $300 earphones we’ve tested.

Finally, a note on Headphone Expanders. Several companies now offer devices that offer to boost the iPod’s volume, split its headphone port into two headphone ports for multiple listeners, or convert an existing pair of Apple’s earbuds into different earbuds. We have mixed feelings about the actual value of these accessories, but list them on the site to let you know what’s out there. You can check out all of our Headphone and Earphone reviews here, and our Headphone Expander reviews here.



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