Apple called the iPhone "the best iPod we've ever made" when it was launched, and while you'll hear no argument from us, it's nevertheless ironic that the company that has so completely reinvented the music industry ships headphones with its iPods, iPhones and iPads that are mediocre at best.

You're really not letting your music shine if you stick with Apple's standard white earbuds, and their leaky sound is likely to turn fellow passengers on public transport against you.

In this group test, we've selected five 'step up' earphones - models that you should consider if you want to get more from the music, movies and podcasts on your device. Even better: we've selected those that aren't especially expensive.

Whether you've received an iPhone, iPad or iPod touch for Christmas, your notoriously delicate white Apple buds have broken for the umpteenth time, or maybe you just want to upgrade your sound, we'll tell you which of these five sets is right for you.

We've lived with these headphones for weeks, playing a huge range of music at different bitrates - including lossless - and when we came to grade the audio performance, we sat down in a quiet room with a carefully selected playlist of eight tracks, each representing a particular musical genre or demonstrating a specific audio characteristic, such as stereo separation.

In testing their abilities as handsfree kits, we set up a controlled environment with loud ambient white noise - a stereo playback of a stream and some other nature noises - and made several calls over a normal phone line for the most useful real-world testing scenario.

So join us: ditch your buds and step up to one of these sets. Your albums deserve it!

How we selected…

While we set a rough budget, the selection here was more about picking headphones that offered a significant step up in quality.

One note: the Apple headphones in this group test are not the ones that come in the box and are £26 on the Apple Store; they're the fancier, dual-driver models.

Apple In-Ear Headphones - £44

Apple in-ear headphones

Denon AH-C260R - £37

Denon ah-c260r

Etymotic mc3 - £70

Etymotic mc3

Sennheiser MM 70i - £55

Sennheiser mm 70i

Shure SE115m+ - £83

Shure se115m+

Test one: Playing music

Shure

Predictably, the most expensive headphones here gave the best results when judged on audio quality alone.

Shure defaults to fitting its headphones with slightly unusual foam earbuds. They make putting them on a bit of a palaver - you have to roll the foam between your fingers to compress it before holding them in place in your ears to let the foam expand - but it's worth it.

The foam provides excellent sound isolation, blocking out most ambient sound, and letting the gorgeous audio shine. Bass is powerful and dense, but it doesn't overwhelm the mid or treble, and vocals float right on top of the instruments.

Listening to layered, complex tracks is a joy because you can shift your attention easily to listen to each part of the track. Truly, these are stellar earphones, and genuinely not overpriced at £83.

You don't, however, have to spend that kind of cash to get good audio. Even Apple's In-Ear Heaphones, almost half the price of the model from Shure, really impressed us. Different parts of a track - different frequencies in the audio - aren't as crisply defined as with the Shures, but they still deliver rich sound that's a significant step up from the white earbuds that Apple supplies with its devices. The bass is a little muffled and the treble a little tinny, but for £44, they're great value.

The same, however, can't be said for Denon's AH-C260R; despite being initially impressed when we first plugged them in and just used them casually, when we sat down to really concentrate on the audio, it became clear that £37 wasn't buying you an awful lot.

They're not actively bad, and if you were to ditch your bundled buds for these, you'd be blown away (at least initially) by the huge, bombastic bass - but that's pretty much all they're good for. Frequencies are a little muddled and the treble feels unpleasantly sharp; great, then, for dance or R&B, but not for much else.

We were happier with the Sennheisers. Though we were wary of their cables' flimsiness, they actually belted out some terrific sound; very loud, with a lovely warm, saturated tone that made acoustic, vocal-heavy tracks sound wonderful. Note, however, that what Sennheiser has apparently done here is to trade fidelity for impact; our familiar test music sounded great, but not quite as it should. Instead, it was as if someone had applied a fresh coat of varnish to an old master; sure, the colours are more vibrant, but it's not what it's 'supposed' to look like.

Etymotic's mc3s are quite the opposite. While to some ears the sound they produce is a little clinical, they are actually exceptionally good at reproducing music. This kind of dispassionate, efficient playback might not be to everyone's taste, but we love it, and when we came to grab a set from the five draped on the desk, we found ourselves reaching for Etymotic's earphones time and again.

Results

Apple In-Ear Headphones - 4/5
Denon AH-C260R - 3/5
Etymotic mc3 - 4/5
Sennheiser MM 70i - 4/5
Shure SE115m+ - 5/5