In-ear headphones

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/ Electronics

Can it be right to spend nearly as much again on earphones as you did on an MP3 player? Yes, says Matt Bingham, after sampling five sets.

Grado iGi

Don’t fret about downloading digital music at super-high quality or messing about with your MP3 player’s graphic equaliser — the single best way you can improve the playback of your portable tunes is by investing in a good pair of headphones. All five models on test this week were a huge sonic improvement over the sort of plasticky earphones that would have been supplied with your phone or player. In a close-fought Test Bench it was the Grados that sounded the best. Like all on test, the iGis are in-ears (see panel), and they show just what can be done with this type of design: the mid and high notes are spectacularly bright and will put new life into tracks you might have heard hundreds of times. The bass is relatively light but precise, greatly adding to the fresh overall sound, but bear in mind that no in-ear design can generate the booming low notes produced by more traditional, on-ear cans. You get few extras for your money — just a choice of four sizes and types of tips, but no carry-case. And although you can use them with the iPhone or any other handset with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, there’s no microphone or call pick-up control on the cable: if your phone is also your MP3 player and it rings, you’ll need to pull these out.

t-Jays Three

You get a great many extras with these, including five sizes and styles of tips (more than any other on test); a tough carry-case; a two-part cable, so runners, say, can use the cut-down, less flappable version; a two-prong jack for use with airliner sound systems; and a stereo splitter, to share a player’s output between two listeners. The earphones are angled so that when inserted they lie flat inside the ear, helping keep them in place. They feel tough in their plastic casings, although the cable shows no sign of being similarly rugged. The t-Jays’ sound quality is attractive and warm, sometimes to the point of woolliness — these are not best suited to the attack of rock music, better for jazz and classical.

Atomic Floyd MiniDarts

The only metal earphones on test also have a tough, braided cable and a rubber cover over the jack (the point most likely to break). They are no heavier than their bigger plastic rivals, and come with a choice of three tips; a rigid carry-case; and adaptors for airline travel and use with hi-fi separates. The remote control has just one button, so combinations of presses are needed to skip or pause tracks, answer calls and hang up; it cannot change the volume. The built-in mike hangs far from your mouth. Sonically, these were bland, with only their precise stereo separation standing out — sometimes it felt like a band was playing right on the nape of your neck. Spooky.

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