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Remarkably it's estimated that around 18% of the UK population own an MP3 player, and of these it's primarily men and under-30s who top the table. And that figure doesn't take into account the 80% of us who now own mobile phones, most of which feature music capabilities of some form or another. Add to this the multitude of portable games consoles, CD players, radio tuners and portable media players and it's clear that we've never been so wired for sound.

Storage is cheap at the moment so even the cheapest players tend to have space for half a dozen full albums recorded at a respectably high bit-rate, but in a market flooded with MP3 players from what seems like every corner of the globe it's really hard to get yourself noticed unless you can boast some amazing specifications or an amazing price tag, and either way you normally pay for your gravy by getting less potatoes. In MP3 terms one of the first things to suffer to keep costs in check are usually the earphones, not the best economy to make when they're so integral in shaping your entire listening experience.

If you're sat there now thinking your earphones sound just fine then chances are they do. Sound quality is like TV picture quality or food quality in that how you feel about what you have now is very much related to what you've had before it. Audio cassettes sounded great to a whole generation of users who, since the introduction of the CD, would never dream of listening to an audio tape again unless they had to. So you see there's certainly an element of "if it ain't broke don't fix it", but by the same rule I think you should know that it's very unlikely that your bundles headphones are doing justice to the sound being fed to them by your MP3 player unless it's a particularly cheap and nasty model.

There seems to be a Lot of hype surrounding in-ear canal-phones but don't buy into it. They serve a purpose in that they isolate against outside noise and generally let you listen at much lower volumes without loosing detail but they're not some miraculous new invention that will make all music sound 200% better, in fact many users will always prefer a good set of ear buds to even the best canal-phones. You also need to remember that using canal-phones is a little like sticking your fingers in your ears in that everything from breathing to chewing gets amplified and becomes suddenly very audible. Chewing may also be enough to break the seal in your ears and degrade the sound quality, as may yawning or sneezing. Then there's the cables which will also transmit sound to your ears if your jogging for example, though I really wouldn't suggest you use noise isolating earphones outdoors in any situation where not hearing what's going on around you might put you at risk. Jogging in the park or at the gym might be fine but anywhere near traffic or other machinery I'd opt for a decent set of ear buds instead.

So, assuming you've decided to ditch your bundled buds and take a step up in quality, your next decision is which of the many available sets on the market you should opt for. With prices ranging from a few pounds to several hundred pounds it's not a decision to be taken lightly, though unless you find a store stupid enough to let you slip half a dozen sets into your (possibly) waxy lug'oles, then do the same for every customer that asks after you, sterilising them in between of course, then you're either at the hands of fate or you're scoring the 'Net looking for reviews and opinions. I can't help with fate, she and I have never seen eye to eye, but I can hopefully provide enough information to slightly ease your buying decision.

On test today we have 10 sets of earphones from a variety of manufacturers and at a variety of price points. In addition to giving you my personal thoughts on each set, I also gave them all to ten different users with a score card, a Creative ZEN Vision:M MP3 player loaded with everything from classical to punk, a comments sheet and an instruction sheet then asked them to spend a few days listening to each set in turn. The score card covered ares like bass quality, treble quality, vocal quality, comfort, look and feel and overall score and these were averaged to help get a feel for what they liked and what they disliked.

A few things struck me from the results. One was that although most listeners were able to identify and score down the weaker performers, of which there was only really one, for the rest of them the old adage that one man's meat is another man's poison was particularly apt. There were two sets in the roundup that most listeners tended to agree were the best, proving that listening isn't entirely subjective, but the others in the test followed no consistent pattern with some listeners preferring the bass-heavy sound of one pair and others liking the bright and treble-laden sound from another.

We invited many manufacturers to take part in this test and gave them two weeks to at least tell us "no thanks". If you're wondering why your favourites aren't included I obviously couldn't contact everyone, but of those we contacted the following didn't bother to reply at all.


Of those who replied, one of the more interesting was Etymotic who told us that "Etymotic Research is currently more aligned with high-end audiophile areas, but we are looking into the business and may have some interest at a later time depending on how that matures.". So there you have it. If you're a just humble MP3 listener don't bother buying Etymotic, they're just too good for us peasants. Their opinion not mine.

Okay, to the task at hand. Ten sets of earphones, ten opinions. First here's the compulsory playlist we used for testing. Others were used to verify specific things if we needed to:

Mozart Horn Concerto No.4
Handel Harp Concerto In B Flat

Fiona Apple ~ Extraordinary Machine
Fiona Apple ~ Window
Pink Floyd ~ The Wall
Pink Floyd ~ Comfortably Numb
Imogen Heap ~ Headlock
Imogen Heap ~ Hide And Seek
Pussycat Dolls ~ Stickwitu (Main sibilance test track)
Puccycat Dolls ~ Beep
Jack Johnson ~ Banana Pancakes
Jose Gozales ~ Heartbeats
Katie Melua ~ Blues in The Night
Bob Marley ~ Buffalo Soldier
Bob Marley ~ One Love
Paul Simon ~ The Boxer
Radiohead ~ No Surprises
Snow Patrol @ Spitting Games
Supertramp ~ Bloody Well Right
Will Young ~ Keep On
Will Young ~ All I Want
Richard Ashcroft ~ World Keeps Turning
The Jam ~ Tube Station