Test two: Making calls

Apple

All sets have a microphone built into the little in-line remote, so they can be used as handsfree kits to make and receive calls, and, on devices that support it, interact with the phone using Voice Control.

A black mark immediately against the model from Denon, then, since positioning the mic/remote where the left and right earphones meet - below your sternum - means that it can't be used hands-free at all; you have to hold the mic up to your mouth.

The very best results were from Etymotic's mc3s; our voice was picked up clearly - even having a decent stab at isolating it from ambient noise - and, unlike with the Shures' very snug foam earbuds, the nature of the seal didn't mean that your own voice echoes around your head. There were no strong disappointments.

Results

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

Test three: Design and features

Sennheiser

Sometimes, it's the simplest things that remind us why we love Apple's industrial design.

Take, for example, the case in which you can store your Apple In-Ear Headphones; it looks simple enough - a two-part plastic triangle with soft, rounded corners - but it's almost irritatingly well designed. Slot the headphones into the middle and begin to wrap the cable around the perimeter, and you'll notice that bumps on the cable - the mic/remote, the bit where the two cables join - always fall along one of the edges of the triangular case, and never try to fold around the corners.

Apple's discreet remote is also the best of the bunch - the huge carbuncle on the Shures' cable is ungainly, and it's actually surprisingly hard to differentiate the buttons by touch alone. Most of the others just include a pouch or case into which you can loosely coil the cables.

Sennheiser at least includes a rubbery thing you're supposed to wrap the cables around, but for the life of us we can't figure out how it's supposed to work; it's like one of those Christmas cracker puzzles. (Sennheiser, by the way, is the only manufacturer here to opt for asymmetrical cables, where you insert the earbud with the shorter cable into your left ear and bring the longer right cable around the back of your neck. Whether or not you like this system is very much a matter of taste.)

Denon gets a smack on the wrists for positioning its remote so low down on the cable. Not only does this mean that you have to bother to bring it up to your mouth if you want to use the mic - it will pick up sound when dangling, but not well enough for your caller - but if you're in the habit of threading the cable neatly under your clothes, the remote buttons will be covered up.

The models from Denon and Sennheiser have worryingly slim cables; treat with care. As well as a range of excellent eartips in the Etymotics' box, you can have custommoulded earbuds made.

Results

Apple In-Ear Headphones - 5/5
Denon AH-C260R - 2/5
Etymotic mc3 - 4/5
Sennheiser MM 70i - 4/5
Shure SE115m+ - 4/5

And the winner is... Etymotic mc3 £70

Etymotic winner

With this group test, happily, our job is pretty easy. The decision on which set to buy comes mostly down to how much money you have to spend.

If you're feeling flush, then Shure's SE115m+ set is unmatched here if you're judging on straight music playback alone. There's something that happens when you get towards the £100 mark that makes expensive headphones sound not just better than their cheaper brethren, but actively different to them. You begin to listen to old favourite tracks in a new way, and discover subtleties - even entirely new instruments - in albums you thought you knew inside-out.

The problem with the Shures, however, is that they're not especially good at the other stuff; the big remote is ungainly, and the foam earbuds, so great for music, mean your voice echoes distractingly inside your head when using it as a handsfree kit.

If, on the other hand, your budget is stretched, Apple's own In-Ear Headphones are actually a terrific step up from the white earbuds that come bundled with iPhones, iPads and iPod touches. They're great value, sound genuinely accomplished, and are without doubt the best designed earphones in this group test.

It's not just that they look smart - and, for hardcore Apple fans, that they mean you can still have white Apple earbuds discreetly announcing your brand loyalty - but that even such a simple thing as the case shows Apple's astonishing attention to detail. These earphones are so good that they've replaced Sennheiser's MM50 iP earphones in the Tap! Top 10.

Ultimately, though, the best balance of price and overall performance here comes from Etymotic. Again: these are not the headphones for you if you love thumping great gouts of meaty bass, but if your taste is more refined, the mc3s are absolutely superb.

It's not just in playback that they impress, however; they're great for making/taking handsfree calls, and the standard 'mini Christmas tree'-style tips mean that they fit snugly and comfortably in your ears. Even if you wear them when running, you're unlikely to dislodge them.

Plus, if you want to boost the fit even more - and so improve sound by creating an even better seal - you can opt to have custom moulds made for your ears.

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First published in Tap! Issue 03

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