The In-Ear Headphone Face-Off

Whether it is an iPod, a Zune, a Zen, a cell phone or something else, more people are satisfying their music Jones via portables than anything else. You can debate the merits of different codecs and bitrates or the need to go lossless, but one thing links all listeners on-the-go: Headphones. And while practically everyone uses them, many people still listen with the crummy phones that came packed with their player.

Without a doubt, purchasing a new pair of phones will be the biggest upgrade your portable will ever see. Beyond greatly improved sound, you'll get a better fit and superior noise isolation. But with so many models out there, how do you go about choosing the right set? Do you just go to the store or Web and plunk down your money and hope for the best? Of course not.

I asked six manufacturers to send headphones for review, allowing them to choose whichever model fit these stipulations: they had to be in-ear models because those are the most popular and they had to cost from $150 - $200. This would keep a level playing field and allow us to judge similar phones in a price range that many people would actually consider spending.

The reviewers had even broader guidelines. Take the phones, play with them for a week, and then write-up their findings. Listen wherever, whenever and to whatever and then score each phone based on fit, bass, noise isolation and overall sound quality. Then, using whatever criteria they determined, rank them from 1 to 6. These ranking were then averaged to determine the overall rank for each phone. In the following pages you will see each reviewer's comments for all of the phones, their individual ranking, and then the overall averaged rank. And to keep it totally unbiased, none of the reviewers saw anyone else's comments or rankings until it was all over. In fact, the listening sessions all happened independently in four different states! As you'll see, headphone listening is incredibly subjective, and in some cases what one reviewer liked best, another liked least.

Readers always clamor for a "winner," so that's what we're giving you. But whichever set you choose, if this shootout inspires you to get a new set for yourself, you'll ultimately be the big winner.