Most portable electronics, including MP3 players, come with low-end earbuds. They don't extend as far into the ear as in-canal earphones, and they don't do much to block out ambient noise. While basic earbuds can be found for as little as $10, most experts recommend spending at least $40 for earphones, which will get you better quality without breaking the bank.
We found the most positive reviews for Woodees Classic IESW101B (*Est. $40) earphones, which have a wooden housing that the company claims delivers superior sound to plastic or metal (the materials used for most earphones, including high-end ones). Jeremy Horwitz at iLounge.com doesn't think the wood makes that much of a difference, but Jasmine France at CNET feels it gives the earphones more of an open, speaker-like sound. All reviewers and most users describe the sound as pleasant, clear and balanced. France says bass on bass-heavy tracks can sound somewhat muffled, but users write that bass improves with burn-in (running music through the earphones at a moderately high volume for a number of hours) and most seem satisfied.
Note that these earphones come in a headset version, the Woodees Classic IESW100B (*Est. $50) , that comes with an average-sounding microphone for an extra $10. The earphones come with four different sizes of silicone ear buds to help improve fit. The only repetitive complaint we saw involved durability. Interestingly, representatives of the company have been monitoring user complaints at Amazon.com and have been active in helping owners get better results from their headphones and resolve other issues.
Durability is less of an issue with MeElectronics M9 (*Est. $20 plus $10 shipping and handling) earphones. The package includes a carrying case and eartips in four sizes. Sound, however, is only decent with some imbalance. A proper fit gets you good midranges and high ranges but overpowering bass. CNET's France also says the earpieces are on the big side, and she found them uncomfortable after about an hour. Most users on Amazon.com are satisfied with the sound quality, considering the earphones are just one step above super-cheapies from the likes of Sony, Skullcandy and JVC.
The Razer Moray (*Est. $35) are marketed as gaming earphones, which means they're compatible with gaming devices and they include two portable gaming adapters in the package (for Nintendo DS and Sony PSP). Sound is decent with clear midranges and high ranges and fair (though not booming) bass. Still, reviewers say these are really just for gamers (whose attention is usually on the game and not the sound quality) and casual music listeners. Many users report discomfort after a while, though construction seems solid, which is good for enthusiastic gamers.
Yamaha EPH-30 (*Est. $40) earphones are designed to be worn behind the neck and down the back with the right-sided cable being longer than the left. If you don't like this style and wear it down the front, users report the extra cable hanging beneath your chin can be annoying. Most reviewers and users report clear, balanced sound, though fine details just don't come out with this budget set. Fit is comfortable and passive noise isolation is fair, keeping in mind that these don't go far into the ears. Although the design of the Yamaha EPH-30 earphones would suggest they are suitable for exercise, the cable is thin, and it's not waterproof.
There are plenty of sport-style earphones on the market, but they don't get as much attention from reviewers, who are primarily concerned with the best sound. Sports earphones typically compromise sound in favor of three things: durability (including protection from water and sweat), secure fit and a design meant to reduce cable microphonics. This refers to audible noises made when the earphone cable sways and hits the body, common when running or doing other physical activities.
We found a few earphones specifically designed for use while jogging or running, and the Klipsch Image S5i Rugged (*Est. $130) get the best reviews for that purpose. Both CNET and What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine give them a relatively high rating but don't designate them an Editors' Choice. The earphones include a microphone and inline remote module for Apple devices.
The word rugged isn't an exaggeration, according to reviewers and users. All parts of the earphones (earpieces, cable, remote, connectors and even the case) are waterproof, and Jasmine France of CNET actually tested this in the snow. Sound is clear and detailed, though the general consensus is that bass and highs are on the aggressive side (but well controlled). Still, this might not be a big issue given their intended use during exercise, when the attention is directed elsewhere. Many reviewers praise the large buttons on the remote, which can even be operated with ski gloves on, but the trade-off is its heaviness. Users report it sometimes dangles awkwardly from a shirt clip during vigorous exercise.
Made in association with Adidas, the Sennheiser CX 680 Sports (*Est. $70) earphones get an Editors' Choice award from Tim Gideon at PCMag.com. The Sennheiser CX 680i (*Est. $80) also comes with a microphone and inline remote control for Apple devices. These earphones are waterproof and have a secure fit, thanks in part to unique fins that protrude from each earpiece to tuck under the ridges of the outer ear, though users note that they can slip out when sweaty.
Gideon says sound quality is detailed and balanced, though bass could be stronger. Michael Hsu of the Wall Street Journal is also enthusiastic. He says "sound is superlative, delivering satisfying bass and detailed highs with an open, airy quality that rivals earbuds twice its price." Users are generally satisfied with the sound, though some think highs are over-emphasized at the expense of bass. They also note a quirk with the cable. There are two parts to it: an attached cable and an extension. The short, attached cable is meant to go with an MP3 player on an armband, but it's too short to reach to the waist or pants pocket. The extension does reach that far down, but it has an attached volume controller that can get in the way of vigorous activity.
Sports enthusiasts might also want to consider the Monster Beats from Dr. Dre Powerbeats (*Est. $150) . Reviewers report a secure fit, with Campbell Simpson of PC World Good Gear Guide (Australia) saying that "they even stayed on during a rather ill-advised handstand." On the downside, the earbud material is fairly stiff with nonadjustable earhooks, and CNET's France found them uncomfortable after 45 minutes.
Sound is clear and detailed, leading reviewers at What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine to give these their highest rating. However, there's a bit of a problem with bass. As with most sports earphones, they're not designed to be worn deeply in the ear. This is so that you don't miss important sounds -- like a honking horn or shouts of warning -- while exercising outside. However, bass is unimpressive when the Powerbeats are worn as designed, which is fine only for those who don't listen to a lot of bass-heavy music. A fair number of users also report dead earpieces and problems with the microphone and remote.