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.

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