High-value earphones and headphones for your iPhone or iPod


Here are three of my favorite iPhone earphones:

Sony MDR-EX36V -- The best I-lose-'em-all-the-time-so-they-better-be-cheap earphones:  ($20.76 to $22.98 on Amazon, depending on color).   Though construction quality is about what you'd expect for the price point, the sound of these earphones is of a higher class.  These earphones are a significant upgrade to the earbuds that came with your iPhone or iPod -- even non-audiophiles will find the upgrade obvious.  The sound is rich and clean.  Dynamics are punchy and uncompressed.  There is a slight overemphasis in the bass that departs from neutrality, but it's a pleasing warm coloration, and all the while, the bass remains distinctly taut and well-damped.  These could pass for significantly more expensive buds.  These are the in-ear variety of earphones -- three sizes of rubber tips are included.  They're easy to take in and out of your ears and don't extend deep into your ear canals, as some earphones do (boy, do I hate the ones that do).  The tips form a nice tight seal and isolate you from outside noise well enough to easily maintain intelligibility of dialogue when you're watching a movie on a plane.  If you're looking for cheap earphones, these are real winners -- you can stop your research now.

 

Yuin PK2 -- The best I-don't-stick-anything-into-my-ear-canals earbuds  ($79).  Ok, Yuin isn't exactly a household name, but bear with me.  Among earphone afficianados (such as the fanatics found at head-fi.org), Yuin draws respect.  Yuin is a Chinese manufacturer that more or less came out of nowhere to produce the "PK" line of earbuds that have met with more or less universal acclaim.  Read any thread on a topic like "what are the best sounding earbuds for $100 or less?" and you'll see Yuin grabs the lion's share of votes.  The PK2s are earbuds, meaning that, like the stock earbuds you got with your iPhone or iPod, they rest outside your ear canal, not crammed into it.  The usual tradeoff for this loose coupling is that bass is generally less deep and substantial, meaning that earbuds like these almost always sound "thin," or bass shy.  Not so with the Yuin PK2s -- here you get full rich bass.  This fullness in the bass is so out-of-line with our experiences with earbuds that you might even find it slightly startling.  The rest of the frequency range is also nicely rendered and neutral.  Highs are extended.  Both female and male vocals come through with nice presence and a slight emphasis of siblants.  These sound refined, and yet very alive.  One thing to keep in mind is that the PK2s are less sensitive than most earbuds, meaning that for a given input of power, they don't play as loudly as you might expect, and if you add this to the fact that they don't block out most external noise, this makes them terrible for plane trips.  The Yuin PK2s are well constructed, and the tangle-resistant cord is notably high quality, but they are very plain looking -- they feel high quality, but look very cheap.  But the real news here is that if you're looking for audiophile sound but prefer the earbud form factor, these buds are the only game in town (and yes, the includes consideration of the well-regarded Sennheiser earbud line -- the Yuins stand more than a cut above).  Warning:  you may be tempted to get the top-of-the-line Yuin PK1s, but keep in mind that they're meaningfully less sensitive than the PK2s reviewed here -- the PK1s are really meant to be used with an amplifier, not straight out of your iPhone.

 

Grado SR60 -- The best real headphones that won't break the bank ($79)  The Grado SR60 is an outright legend that'll deliver more than a taste of high-end sound for not a lot of money.  With the SR60s, we get to leave the itty bitty drivers of earbud land behind -- we're now talking real headphones with full-sized drivers.  Why does driver size matter?  Well, designing miniature (earbud-sized) transducers that produce reasonable bass involves a degree of engineering gymnastics.  Quantity of bass and low-frequency extension are closely linked to the amount of air mass a transducer is able to move.  If you want deep bass or a lot of bass, you have two choices:  1) design a transducer with a large surface area, or 2) design a transducer with long excursion.  In the earbud world, strategy #1 is pretty much out of the question (unless you happen to be working with Dumbo-sized ears), and strategy #2 is impractical at small transducer sizes (not to mention that it's not easy to design long-excursion transducers that are low in distortion).   The nice thing with full-sized headphones is that we don't have to work with this limitation.  We can simply use big drivers to get our bass.  So how do the SR60s sound?  They're not exactly neutral sounding.  Instead, they have a round full-bodied bloom to their sound.  A lot of this character comes from a somewhat under-damped bass.  It's a pleasant sort of editorializing -- think comforting woolly blanket and crackling fire.  The SR60s sound like vintage tube equipment -- lush, liquid, relaxed, and impressionistic, rather than super clean and exacting.  But while no one would call the SR60s analytical sounding, you won't find them wanting in detail and treble extension.  Vocals, both female and male, in particular, sound great on these phones.  One more caveat -- you might look a little goofy walking the streets wearing the SR60s (ok, maybe a lot goofy).  But believe me, you're going to love how they sound.

P.S.-- If you want to spend a bit more for yet more refinement, you can work your way up the Grado line.  I would skip the $99 Grado SR80s and move straight to the $150 Grado SR125s.  Relative to the SR60s reviewed here, the SR125s are more neutral and have more extended frequency extremes, particularly on the treble end.  In case you have money burning a hole in your pocket and are itching to spend even more than $150, I'll offer that even though you can move further up the line (all the way to the $1695 flagship PS1000), I personally feel the gains diminish rather rapidly beyond the SR125s.  To my ears, the sound quality of the SR125s is close enough to no-compromise that they'll satisfy the vast majority of headphone buyers, even picky ones like us.