Time was that a pair of snow-white earbuds nestling in your lugholes was a mark of distinction. It announced to the world that you were the proud owner of one o' them fancy new Apple I-Pods and shouted, "Look at me! I have loads of music in my pocket, on a paradigm-shifting digital device, and I am therefore awesome!"
Those were the days. Fast forward to the present day and who'd be seen wearing Apple headphones? Let's face it, they're awful. The only time it's acceptable to use your Apple headphones is when you first buy an iOS device and simply don't know any better.
So then you realise that you want to go out and buy something that's less ghastly. But what? You're not an audiophile and you don't want to spend a fortune. You just want a pair that don't sound appalling and that you can pick up in town on your lunch break, right? Right.
So where to begin? We've done all the hard work for you, selecting a cross-section of step-up headphones and subjecting them to rigorous tests.
We went looking for the sort of in-ear headphones you'd find in HMV or Currys on your lunch break, having just stamped on your Apple ones in a fit of audio rage. We avoided brands that we've covered a lot before, and looked at a price range from £25 to £70 ($40 to $110).
They've had an enormous range of music played through them, they've been given a solid appraisal of how they cope with the business of making phone calls, and they've had their design and features thoroughly scrutinised.
All that remains is for you to read on to discover which ones you should get.
Tuned using reggae as a benchmark, the House of Marley Freedom: Redemption Song in-ear headphones pack a lot of bass. Which is lovely when you're banging out some roots, or perhaps a bit of dubstep. But when you're listening to something that leans more towards the upper reaches of the audio spectrum, the results can be surprising at times.
We found ourselves hearing rich bass undertones in songs where we'd never noticed them before; nothing especially overpowering, though. Ultimately, the £55 ($80) headphones produced a big and deep sound - not too boomy and with bright treble that we kept coming back to, especially when we had something large that needed doing justice.
Which isn't something you can really say about the JVC HA-KX100-B earbuds, which sell for around £39 ($65). They have these weeny little drivers that sit right up at the tip of the earbuds, we'd guess with the idea that a smaller driver deeper in the ear will sound as good as, if not better than, a larger driver with less reach.
It's a nice idea that doesn't really work. We found them lacking both in volume and tone, particularly in the bass department. If your tastes run to the gentler, more acoustic end of the scale, or if you simply don't dig loud noises, then you might get on okay with them. But on the whole they're pretty flat-sounding, with no stand-out features.
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The Audio-Technica ATH-CKS55i headphones, which cost around £62 ($100), look a bit strange. That's down to their special sub-chamber mechanism, consisting of a pair of air chambers and an acoustic resistor that are designed to create rich, textured bass.
It's an interesting setup that delivers an interesting, textured sound right across the range. They may be on the airy, resonant side, but they pack a wallop at the upper and lower extremities.
We were pleasantly surprised by the Philips O'Neill The Tread set. Priced at around £45 ($49.99), we found that they packed enough bass to keep us happy no matter what we threw at them, and delivered a pleasingly balanced overall sound. Nothing thrilling, but nothing to complain about, and a great all-rounder for the price.
Sadly, the £59 ($70) AKG K 350 set wasn't quite so pleasing. They're ultra-lightweight and deliver a sound to match, with lots and lots of top-end that peters out in the midrange and rather gives up the ghost as it approaches the bass line.
They're another pair that benefit from a good deep fit and a decent seal to block out external noise. But even when you've tried all the ear tips and found a decent fit, you're still left with a comparatively weedy sound.
Want passers-by to think that you're talking to yourself? You're in luck, then, since all of these headphones have remotes with built-in microphones for making hands-free calls.
As a test, we stood next to a noisy cooker and left identical, same volume messages to ourselves. Only the Marleys gave us the slightest cause for concern, since their microphone remote is below the Y-branch of the cable - further down than the rest of the headphones, whose mics all sit around jaw level.
Special mention goes to the Philips O'Neill The Tread, featuring a remote before the Y-branch, and a separate mic at jaw level. In the absence of any notable variation in call quality - the Marleys were quieter, but not unintelligibly so - the Treads win this round on the basis of that pleasing little touch.
Design and features
House of Marley wins this round hands down. Open the cardboard packaging and you'll find a pair of headphones made from eco-friendly materials, which look absolutely fantastic. We're not sure there's a real need for the wooden outer casing, but it sure looks ace.
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Our favourite bit is the woven cable. It doesn't snag or get tangled, and it feels delightful. You also get a choice of five pairs of ear tips; three normal and two deep fits with double flanges. Oh, and a wonderful little fabric and leather carrying pouch.
The Audio-Technica pouch isn't as nice: just a drawstring bag. But the earphones themselves draw the attention, with a design that puts us in mind of the sort of monitor headphones you often see musicians wearing on stage. Their size and shape make for a snug fit that does a grand job of eliminating outside noise.
The JVCs, too, are a peculiar shape, with arms sticking out of the earbuds. They're there to ensure an optimum fit in quite a minimalist way. Pop the bud into your ear and wedge the arm down, and you should have a nice, secure fit that has these babies sounding their very best. Which isn't really that good, but bless them for trying.
The AKG K 350 (pictured here in blue and black, but in the shops you'll find them to be black and white) make a point of weighing next to nothing. But it's not a nice lightweightness. Instead, they feel rather cheap and plastic. We're not keen.
However, the Treads are super; they're built for toughness, with reinforced earphones and a woven, Kevlar-reinforced cable - they're made to be trodden on and yanked without ill effect. They're so tough they don't come with a case - it would have been nice to have the option, though. Also, we're not keen on the volume slider on the remote, which doesn't actually change the volume, rather just the amount of noise that gets through to your ears.
Verdict: best step-up iPhone headphones
You have no idea how long we agonised over this one. We narrowed our choice down to either the House of Marley Freedom: Redemption Song or the Audio-Technica ATH-CKS55i, but choosing between the two took us an age of testing them with our favourite songs and figuring out which one we preferred.
They both provide a well-rounded sound; the Marleys are crisper, while the ATH-CKS55i's special air-chambers' sound makes them sound bigger and brighter, though not as well defined in the upper ranges.
The fact is, we'd be perfectly happy listening to either, but the Marley earbuds win by the barest of margins on the basis of the entire package. The Audio-Technicas are entirely splendid with their chunky earphones at the end of a serious-feeling cable, but on balance we like the Marleys just that teensy bit more. It's things like the recycled packaging that you can open without cutting yourself, the huge choice of ear tips and the fabric pouch.
They feel designed rather than engineered, with a wood (FSC certified, of course) and lightweight aluminium casing that looks extremely pretty.
A House of Marley logo on the forward-facing edge is the only indicator for the left and right earphones; easier to spot than a tiny little L or R on the casing. We were surprised to find a milled edge on the aluminium; not a feature you'd expect to find on something you stick in your ears, but nevertheless they were perfectly comfortable.
It's maybe a small thing, but what we like most about them is the woven cable. It's a feature they share with the tough little Philips O'Neill The Tread headphones, a pair that you should definitely consider if your budget's limited or you want headphones that'll withstand some rough and tumble.
Who'd have thought that wrapping the cable in fabric would make such a difference? But it creates a bit of weight that makes it hang nicely, rather than coil up and bounce around when you're on the move. And if you've ever been late leaving for work untangling a set of recalcitrant lightweight headphones, you'll love how these unroll no matter how cruelly they've been scrunched up overnight.
Then when you put them in, they look and sound fantastic - attractive and striking without being overly ostentatious. That's a winner for us.
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