Roundup: 12 Canalbud Headphones

As Macworld has noted many times, a better set of headphones is the easiest way to get more audio enjoyment out of your iPod or iPhone. We recently took a look at a number of in-ear-canal headphones--also known as canalphones or in-ear monitors--which use earplug-like tips that form an acoustic seal in your ears, providing higher-fidelity, a more secure fit, and more isolation from noise than standard earbuds. But canalphones also have drawbacks: they may block desirable noise, they can produce unwanted microphonics (sound from vibrations in the cables), they require a near-perfect seal to get good bass performance, and some people find them to be uncomfortable. True canalphones also tend to be expensive, with many vendors' product lines starting at $100.

A sort of middle ground between canalphones and traditional earbuds can be found in increasingly popular models that we call canalbuds. These have rounder, flexible-tip earpieces that sit just inside the ends of your ear canals. They don't fit as tightly or sit as deeply as canalphones, so you don't get as much isolation, and sound quality also tends to fall short compared to canalphones. But canalbuds often sound better than standard earbuds, and prices start as low as $20. (See our primer on in-ear-canal headphones for more information on canalphones and canalbuds.)

I tested 12 sets of canalbuds, ranging in price from $20 to $100 and varying in sound quality, design, included accessories, ergonomics, and fit. During my testing, I used each model as my everyday headphones, wearing them on the bus, while walking, and during work. Most of my listening was done on an iPhone 3G with music encoded in a variety of bit rates and formats. However, I also compared models directly while listening to Apple Lossless files via a HeadRoom Total BitHead headphone amplifier connected to my computer. The 12 models are listed here from least expensive to most expensive.

JVC HA-FX34-N Marshmallow

JVC's $30 HA-FX34-N Marshmallow headphones are the least expensive of the canalbuds I tested, but two other characteristics distinguish them: they are the only headphones here to include foam eartips (in two sizes), and they come in nine colors to match the third-generation iPod nano. For some, the latter feature alone will be enough to justify a purchase.

I tested the black model, which comes with black eartips and black plastic earpieces with titanium-gray highlights. Despite the various color options, I didn't like the organic, alien look of the earpieces, which lacked the clean, modern lines of other models here. In addition, the gray cord was too stiff for my tastes, and there was little strain relief where the cord joined the earpieces--a potential source of durability problems. The earpieces sit at a moderate depth, providing average noise isolation, but the soft-foam eartips made this fit very comfortable. Microphonics were sometimes a problem, but I was able to largely avoid them by draping the cables up and over my ears.

Given this model's low price, I found the sound to be satisfying. Though the headphones lack detail, and bass response is muddy, the frequencies that are present are well-balanced--while the headphones didn't enhance my enjoyment of music much, they didn't get in the way of it, either. In fact, the overall balance and detail are better than those of Apple's stock earbuds, making the HA-FX34-N a great inexpensive replacement.

Altec Lansing BackBeat Classic

Altec Lansing's $30 BackBeat Classic has one advantage over every other headphone here: a beefy, fabric-wrapped cord. This thick, dark-gray cable has a durable feel, hangs straight, and resists tangling--I loved it. I also thought the black-and-gold color scheme of the earpieces was fetching and distinctive, though they look inexpensive up close.

Initially, the fit of the BackBeat Classic's earpieces was shallow and loose, and microphonics from the cords were worse than average. However, with the headphones worn upside down, with the cables draped in back of the ears, I got a deeper, more secure fit with better isolation and noticeably less-bothersome microphonics. Unfortunately, the depth of this fit made the headphones uncomfortable after a few hours of listening.

With the earpieces inserted normally, the headphones don't produce enough bass and sound horrible overall. But, again, once inserted upside-down I got a better seal and the sound was much fuller. Worn this way, the Classic's midrange and treble are adequate, though they take a back seat to the warm bass. Overall, the BackBeat is satisfying, especially given its low price, but I prefer the JVC Marshmallow's tonal balance.

Griffin TuneBuds

While Griffin Technology's Web site shows the $30 TuneBuds in iPhone-matching black or white, the model I tested featured silver-plastic earpieces with a rubbery, gray cord and three sizes of matching-gray eartips. (Griffin told Macworld that the version I tested is, color aside, identical to the white and black models.) The TuneBuds' aesthetic is plain, but it complements iPods and iPhones well. Included is a zippered carrying case.

The TuneBuds' eartips provide a comfortable, shallow fit, and I was able to get a pretty good seal without much trouble. The rubbery cord--reminiscent of that of Apple's stock earbuds--has some problems with microphonics, but as with many other models I tested, I was able to tame the issue somewhat by wearing the headphones upside down.

The TuneBuds' overall sound quality is roughly comparable to both the BackBeat Classic and JVC Marshmallow, but with less bass and more of an emphasis on higher frequencies. This treble boost makes some recordings sound more detailed and exciting; however, it makes others sound more strident, which can result in listening fatigue. As a result, I preferred the JVC and Altec Lansing models at the same price point.

Radius Atomic Bass

I admit that I was initially turned off by the name of Radius's $40 offering: "Atomic Bass." The booming bass the name seemed to imply is popular (and perhaps appropriate) for certain genres of music, but I tend to prefer balanced, accurate sound, so the name suggested these headphones weren't for me. Thankfully, the name is more a marketing ploy than an accurate description.

Included with the Atomic Bass are three sizes of smaller-than-average eartips, but no other accessories. The thin, black cables seem flimsy, particularly the short sections between the Y-split and each earpiece. (The cables are split unevenly, with one side longer than the other so the longer section can be worn around the back of the neck.) Each earpiece comprises a black-plastic capsule with a machined-aluminum bass port on the back and an aluminum, angled tube where the eartips attach--a design that gives the Atomic Bass an upscale look. Oddly, the tube over which the eartip fits has two "stops"; be sure to push the eartip all the way on, or you could be in the embarrassing situation of approaching a friend with a pair of tweezers, asking for a favor.

Radius claims the Atomic Bass headphones are ideal for those with small ears; indeed, the included eartips were small enough that I couldn't get a seal with the cord dangling down, leading to a lack of bass, let alone "atomic" bass. However, Radius officially encourages multiple wearing positions, and I found the upside-down approach was much better, giving the headphones a bit of a canalphone-like fit--the earpieces nestled in my ears, and the tips fit deep and tight enough to provide much better tonal balance and above-average isolation. Worn this way, bass is tighter and more detailed than I expected, and in fact the bass quality is better than that of any of the models above. There's also a significant increase in musical detail at other frequencies compared to the less-expensive models, and microphonics are not a problem with the cables looped over the ears. Overall, the Atomic Bass headphones are clearly a step up.

However, this improved sound came at the price of comfort, at least for me. The deep fit, combined with the hard sections of the earpieces poking my ears, becomes uncomfortable after an hour or so--those with larger ears should approach this model cautiously. Still, if you find most canalphones and canalbuds to be too big to fit comfortably, you should take a look at the Atomic Bass.

Razer ProTone m100

The packaging of gaming peripheral-maker Razer's $40 ProTone m100 gives the impression of value: the headphones include a great neoprene case with three mesh pockets, three pairs of rubber eartips, and a two-pronged airplane adapter; the earpieces themselves are white or black with metal highlights. However, the headphones themselves feel a bit cheap, particularly the cord.

Accessories aside, the ProTone m100 sound inoffensive but unremarkable. The earpieces offer a shallow fit, making them comfortable but providing below-average isolation. Despite the loose fit, the headphones produce a warm sound heavily biased towards the low end and lacking detail at all frequencies. Unlike the strident sound of the TuneBuds, the m100's sound isn't unpleasant, but the lack of detail and the bass-heavy tonal balance means you're better off saving $10 and considering the superior-sounding JVC and Altec Lansing models, above.

Denon AHC351K In-Ear Headphones

Denon's $50 AHC351K In-Ear Headphones come handsomely packaged--once you get past the outer blister pack--and include three sizes of silicone eartips, a small cloth carrying pouch, and a short extension cord. (The main cable is quite short, making the extension mandatory for most uses.) The extra weight of this extension pulls a bit on the earpieces, but this is generally not a problem. Each earpiece takes the common canalbud shape, sporting a black-plastic body with shiny gunmetal-gray trim. The fit is shallow and comfortable with reasonably little microphonics--improved, as usual, by wearing the headphones upside-down and draping the cables--but the tips provide only fair isolation.

The AHC351K In-Ear Headphones produce nicely balanced sound. Bass is authoritative without being overwhelming, although there's not a lot of low-end detail. Midrange is a bit recessed, but not annoyingly so. The upper frequencies provide a good balance to the bass; the headphones' treble response occasionally manifests as harshness, but it's generally an asset. The result is a headphone that's roughly comparable to the Atomic Bass, above, but trades off isolation for comfort and sacrifices bass response for better treble response and overall balance. These aren't the most exciting pair of headphones in the bunch, but they would be easy to live with.

Maximo iM-590 iMetal Isolation Earphones

Like Razer's ProType, Maximo's $60 iM-590 iMetal Isolation Earphones come in an impressive package, but they include an array of additional accessories. Opening the classy, magnetic clasp of the iM-590's box reveals a circular zippered carrying case, four sizes of silicone eartips, an extension cord, a shirt clip to help reduce microphonics, an airplane adapter, and an adapter for using the headphones with mobile phones that require a 2.5mm plug. It's an impressive collection, although the headphone extension cord is largely unnecessary and the carrying case is not well-finished on the inside.

The headphones themselves give the appearance of quality beyond their price point. The bodies of the earpieces are primarily metal, with white- or gray-rubber strain relief and matching white or gray eartips. The cloth-wrapped cables are a nice touch (though the cables lack the satisfying thickness of the Altec Lansing versions). The Earphones look like they were designed with care, even if the end result isn't quite as chic as the design of the V-Moda Vibe headphones they evoke.

Interestingly, a note attached to the iM-590's cable suggests an 8 to 10 hour burn-in period for the headphones to sound their best. I'm typically not a believer in burn-in, but when I first listened to the iM-590, I noted harsh high frequencies; after playing through two full charges of my iPod nano, the harshness was gone.

The iM-590's earpieces fit deeply, and I found it easy to get a solid seal (and, thus, excellent isolation). This fit is comfortable for the most part, although I occasionally found the depth irritating. The sound quality is impressive compared to the less expensive models covered here: bass, midrange, and high frequencies are all balanced and detailed, with a slight tilt toward the low end. The biggest downside to the iM-590 is bad cable microphonics. The included shirt clip helps a bit, but, again, the big improvement comes from wearing the earpieces upside-down. Still, I found myself wanting to come back to these headphones to listen more, and I ended up spending more time with them than with any other pair.

Ultimate Ears MetroFi 220 Noise Isolating Earphones

I own an older pair of Ultimate Ears canalphones, the SuperFi 5 Pro, so I was interested to hear the $80 MetroFi 220. Included are few accessories: three sizes of silicone eartips and a small, plastic carrying case that flips open like a Zippo lighter. This case is better than nothing, but it's not as sturdy as the cases included with several other models reviewed here.

The headphones themselves are stylish, with shiny, mercury-colored metal bodies capped with color-coded, semi-translucent plastic--red indicating the right earpiece, black indicating the left. The earpieces fit at a moderate depth and are relatively comfortable, providing above-average isolation. The biggest drawback to the headphones' design is the cord, which has a tendency to coil up rather than staying where you put it.

Cable quibbles aside, these headphones are among the best-sounding here. The audio quality is comparable to that of the iM-590, but with a little less high-end detail. On the other hand, the midrange frequencies are richer and more detailed, and bass is plentiful without being overbearing, though not as clean and well-balanced as that of the iM-590.

Audio-Technica ATH-CK6A In-Ear Headphones

As a satisfied owner of full-size Audio-Technica headphones, I had high hopes for the $100 ATH-CK6A, and I wasn't disappointed--at least when it came to sound quality. The headphones include a drawstring pouch, three sizes of eartips, and three sizes of plastic "wings" designed to stabilize the headphones inside the listener's ear. The earpieces are shallow, but wide in diameter, and are made of plastic with a metal cap on the end. Oddly, the headphone cord is missing a slider to adjust fit.

Once properly inserted, the headphones sound very good--comparable to the best here, if not better. Bass is authoritative, but precise and doesn't dominate, and midrange detail is excellent. Treble detail might be a bit exaggerated--some recordings did sound harsh--but the overall result is a lively, engaging sound that approaches what I get from Audio-Technica's full-size headphones.

However, getting the fit necessary to produce that sound is another matter. The shape of the earpieces--short but wide--give the impression that they're not meant to fit deeply, but they must to produce balanced bass. Seating them properly required much effort, which resulted in impressive sound quality but also left some sharp edges of the earpieces rubbing uncomfortably against my ears. The plastic "wings" also seemed largely useless. These fit issues are a shame: despite the great sound quality, I was relieved every time I removed the earpieces. Given the excellent sound, these 'buds are worth trying, but I recommend purchasing them from a retailer with a good return policy in case you have a fit experience similar to mine.

Bose In-Ear Headphones

The design of Bose's $100 In-Ear Headphones departs from that of the other models reviewed here. While you place the silicone eartips at the end of your ear canals, the tips themselves don't seal off the opening at all. Instead, they seem designed mainly to cushion the hard plastic earpieces and hold them in place, while the earpieces themselves, which are larger than most canalbuds, act more like traditional earbuds or even headphones. Each earpiece is made of black plastic with metal highlights, and each features prominent bass ports. Included in the box are three sizes of eartips and a leather case with a fun magnetic closure.

I found the In-Ear Headphones to be exceptionally comfortable--more so than any other pair here--but, as noted above, this comfort comes at the cost of isolation. The fit is also quite loose, making the In-Ear Headphones unsuitable for active use such as exercising. The cables are standard, rubbery plastic, but have a distinctive black-and-white color scheme. The headphone plug uses an awkwardly large plastic housing that likely won't fit the recessed jack of the first-generation iPhone.

The audio produced by the In-Ear Headphones is warm and pleasant, though, thanks to the bass ports on the earpieces, dominated by voluminous but indistinct upper-bass. Below that, mid-bass frequencies roll off quickly (likely due to the lack of a good seal in the ears) with little lower bass to be heard. Midrange frequencies hold up better against the prominent upper-bass than the treble, but both are a bit muddy.

That's not to say the sound of the In-Ear Headphones is unappealingly bass-heavy; the overall impression is much like that of a luxury car with the suspension tuned to give a comfortable ride (as opposed to a sports car designed to let you feel the road). For those who only want their music to sound agreeable, these headphones accomplish that goal, but while they're comfortable enough to listen to for long periods of time, I wanted to take them off and listen to something more realistic.

Aurvana In-Ear Earphones

Of the models reviewed here, Creative's $100 Aurvana In-Ear Earphones are the most like canalphones. They're small, fit deeper in the ear than most other models, use a sealed earpiece rather than one with ports, and, like many canalphones, use a balanced armature instead of a traditional dynamic (moving-coil) driver. Included are three sizes of silicone eartips, an airplane-seat adapter, and a cleaning tool to keep ear wax from clogging the tips. (It's worth noting that the earphones come packaged in a tasteful box, but the blister pack inside the box is dangerously difficult to open.)

The smart, gloss-black earpieces are among the smallest here and are attached to stiff cables. Thanks to the deep fit and strong seal, the Aurvana earphones blocked more noise than any of the other models I tested, but they also became uncomfortable after a while. (As with several other models, I preferred wearing the Aurvana earpieces upside down to reduce microphonics.)

Audio quality was initially impressive, but after extended listening, the laid-back sound began to seem a bit uninvolving compared to the best headphones here. Bass, treble, and midrange are well-balanced, but longer listening sessions reveal a lack of detail that made the Aurvana Earphones less fun and musical than several less-expensive models.

Digital Designs DXB-01

Digital Designs's $119 DD-DXB-01 EarbuDDs scored immediate points for elegant packaging: a cube-shaped box instead of the dreaded plastic blister pack. Inside the box, a round carrying case held the headphones, three sizes of rubber eartips, and some adhesive foam--more on this last item in a minute. Each earpiece sports a plastic body with an attractive, machined-aluminum back and front. As with the Audio-Technica model, the cables don't include a slider to adjust fit.

The most notable characteristic of the EarbuDDs is that the front of each earpiece features eight ports arranged in a circle around the tip. Digital Designs suggests that users can alter the sound of the headphones by covering some or all of these ports with the aforementioned adhesive foam. Covering ports tightens up the bass, but decreases its volume. Although I think the idea of customizing headphones is intriguing, Digital Designs' implementation is crude; I'd rather see parts made specifically for the headphones. As it is, the same thing could be accomplished with most of the other headphones here, albeit without the same granularity and with aesthetic sacrifices. I also have doubts about whether the foam will stay in place over the long term.

These headphones have one of the shallowest, loosest fits here, and don't block much noise. Yet despite this loose fit, bass response with the stock (unmodified) headphones was too strong for my tastes--muddy and indistinct, the bass dominated other frequencies. So I decided to try the adhesive foam. I cut pieces and placed them over the eight ports on each earpiece. My fingers are large enough to make this task a hassle, but once I was done, I was rewarded with a better sounding pair of headphones. Bass was still strong, but it was tighter, more detailed, and in better balance with the rest of the frequency spectrum. The EarbuDDs' midrange and treble response, which are pretty good, were no longer completely overwhelmed.

The result of my "tuning" (as Digital Designs calls it) was that a pair of headphones I initially couldn't stand now sounded pretty good. Still, the DXB-01 is quite pricey, and I'd rather buy headphones that have a natural, balanced sound out of the box than futz with small bits of foam to create that sound myself--especially if I have to pay more to do the latter.

Macworld's buying advice

So which were my favorites? Among the budget models ($20 to $30), I liked both the JVC Marshmallow and the Altec Lansing BackBeat Classic. The JVC headphones have comfortable foam tips, match the current iPod nano models, and provide acceptable sound quality given the low price. Altec Lansing's offering is appropriately better-sounding for the additional $10, and I love those cloth-wrapped cables.

Of those in the $80 to $100 range, the Audio-Technica ATH-CK6A In-Ear Headphones would have been the clear winner for those that like treble detail if they weren't so uncomfortable, whereas the Bose In-Ear Headphones were the most comfortable here, but I didn't like the sound. The Ultimate Ears MetroFi 220 performed well for the $80 asking price; I would not hesitate to recommend them, although they have a warmer tonal balance than the ATH-CK6A.

But it was the mid-priced models ($40 to $60) that impressed me the most. Radius' Atomic Bass canalbuds provide particularly impressive sound quality given the $40 price, though I wish the fit was more comfortable for listeners with larger ears. Denon's ACH-351K In-Ear Headphones give you more-balanced audio and better comfort for $10 more. And Maximo's iM-590 iMetal Isolation Earphones were my overall favorite, regardless of price, thanks to performance comparable to the MetroFi 220 and ATH-CK6A (with a tonal balance nicely between those two models), unique aesthetics, a lavish cloth-wrapped cord, and an assortment of included accessories for only $60.

These are all list prices, of course; if you shop around, you can likely find prices 25 to 50 percent lower, substantially improving value. If I may, I suggest using the money you save to invest in some aftermarket Comply Tips ( Macworld rated 4 out of 5 mice ) eartips. Comply's replacement tips are made out of a soft foam that's more comfortable and, in my experience, helps the Comply Tips provide a better seal than the most stock eartips.

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