Test One - Ease and comfort
How do they feel and are the controls in easy reach?
The optimal form factor for iPhone-compatible earbuds is a mic on one of the earbud cables, and therefore near the mouth, with the controls placed in easy reach where the lead splits in two, resting on your sternum when in use.
The Radiopaq and Scosche sets do just that, with the Ultimate Ears taking a similar approach but with much lower controls that hang near your navel. The others combine the mic and controls in a single unit. Shure and Sennheiser place it near the ear, which is fine for the mic but less accessible, and Klipsch fits it at the sternum, where this is reversed.
All the buds on test were at least reasonably comfortable, though the Scosches felt like they should go deeper into the ear. Most used rubber flanges for tips, but the Shure and Ultimate Ears sets also offered foam pads for better sound isolation.
Radiopaq's Custom Tuned Jazz earbuds felt a bit heavy, and some users found them difficult to keep in the ear.
Test Two - Audio quality
Does the sound quality meet with our expectations?
We found that inline controls can take a toll on sound quality, especially bass reproduction. The Scosche sounded the best, with a crisp, throbbing bottom end that was sorely lacking in some of the others. The Sennheisers had the strongest bass, but it tended to swamp the mix at times, and overall sound detail wasn't as good as the Scosche's.
Indeed, the Scosche impressed across the board, with good range and clarity, and impressive detail and shape; a refreshingly lively sound. The Radiopaqs offered a crystal-clear top end, but the bass was so weak we had to switch to the biggest set of tips to stop it leaking. Perhaps surprisingly, the most expensive earbuds we tested had weakest audio performance.
Despite a good mix, the Shures are dull and lifeless. Ultimate Ears put in a good all-round performance without excelling in any particular area, and the Klipsch earbuds were great for definition and clarity, but the bass could be better.
Test Three - Feature set
What other capabilities do the headsets offer?
Three of our earbud sets offer inline volume controls as well as a call receiver and mic, namely the Klipsch, Scosche and Shure units. Unfortunately, iPhone owners can only take advantage of this feature if they have a 3GS model (which is the latest release at the time of writing), though it works on some recent iPods too.
These same three earbud sets also offer VoiceOver compatibility. When listening to a VoiceOver-capable device such as the latest iPod shuffle or nano, you can have the name of the current track and its artist read out to you without interrupting your music. You can even navigate through your playlists from the inline controls.
All six sets of earbuds on test let you skip to the next or previous track using rapid taps on the main control button. The Radiopaq and Scosche earbuds use nylonbraided cables, which are less prone to tangling and very useful if you tend to carry them around in your pocket.
Test Four - Accessories
What do you get in the box, and is it worth the money?
The Radiopaq and Sennheiser sets are the least generous with accessories. Both offer three sizes of earbud tips, and nothing else. To be fair, they're also the two least expensive sets on test, but they could have at least thrown in a small carry case.
Talking of carry cases, the other four sets all include one. Shure gives you a zip-lock bag, which is solid and protective but quite bulky. The Klipsch and Scosche sets offer a velvet and sheepskin pouch respectively, and Ultimate Ears comes bundled with a tough plastic capsule to keep your cables from tangling.
The Klipsch, Ultimate Ears and Shure sets come with a handy cleaning tool and Klipsch and Scosche give you a clip to attach the cable to your clothes.
All six earbuds offer a range of tips so you can choose the pair that best suits your ears. And kudos to Ultimate Ears and Shure for giving a choice of foam and rubber tips.
The Winner / Scosche IDR655m
It was a tough decision. No single set of earbuds stood out from the crowd as being without flaws. Scosche's IDR655m earbuds could have felt a touch more comfortable and its accessory range isn't great.
But overall, it's the best of the bunch, with excellently placed mic and controls, a beautifully lively sound and a comprehensive feature set, though you need an iPhone 3GS or a recent iPod to take advantage of some of those features.
The Sennheiser MM50iP set came a close second. Amazon is currently selling them for £40 – very good for a headset of this quality. As long as you don't mind one of the earbud leads being longer than the other so they sit side-saddle under your chin, they offer great value for money.
First published in MacFormat Issue 223
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