Digital Crave

Heavenly headphones — and a few duds, too

Digital Crave

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Heavenly headphones

Music lovers, listen up. If you're still listening to those white earbuds that came in the box, you don't know what you're missing.

Regardless of your budget, there are dozens of great-sounding headphones available, whether you're into noise-cancelling models, wireless pairs or customizable options that let you change the look to reflect your style.

And yes, there's more out there than just Bose and Beats by Dr. Dre products -- but see below on some models to consider anyway.

The following are some suggestions that might be music to your ears, along with a few to avoid, too.

Parrott Zik
Parrott Zik

What's this? A stellar audio product from the folks who brought us a radio-controlled quadrocopter?

From designer Philippe Starck, the Parrott Zik headphones ($399.95) are a comfortable, powerful and clear-sounding pair of over-the-ear headphones. Use them wirelessly with your smartphone, tablet, laptop or other Bluetooth device, plus if you have a NFC (near-field communication)-compatible product, simply tap it to your earbud to initiate the pairing.

The Zik (pronounced "zeek") headphones have active noise-cancelling to stamp out ambient noise around you.

The feature that makes the biggest immediate impression, however, is the touch-sensitive panel covering the entire outer surface of the right earcup, allowing you to control the headphones using touch gestures: swipe a finger up and down to adjust the volume, or swipe side-to-side to go back and forth between tracks. A tap pauses the music, another starts it back up again, or will answer an incoming call (or hang it up). There's also an integrated accelerometer -- slide the headphones off your ears and your music stops automatically. Put them back on and your tunes will resume.

B&W P3 Concert for One
B&W P3 Concert for One

Easily one of the most lightweight and great-sounding headphones you'll find this summer, the Bowers & Wilkins P3 Concert for One ($199.99) weigh just 130 grams and have a specially designed padded pad fabric that feels like "butta" on your ears.

Available in black or white, these foldable, high-performance headphones boast custom-made drive units for clear, natural and powerful sound -- and with excellent highs, mids and lows. I tested these with different types of music, including hip-hop, reggae, rock and dance, and found these to be of exceptionally good quality — not unlike the pricey (but nicey!) B&W Zeppelin Air speaker for $600.

A hard-shell carrying case and a choice of cables are included with the P3s: one with a remote/microphone attachment to take calls on your iPhone and another that's compatible with all other smartphones, tablets, computers and MP3 players.

OrigAudio Designears
OrigAudio Designears

While the Monster Inspiration line of headphones ($349.99) let you purchase additional magnetic bands to change up its look, Designears ($69.99) is the first solution that lets you create the graphics or words for each cup and the headband itself.

Available in multiple colors, Designears custom headphones has you first upload your own artwork, photos, or graphics — perhaps of your favorite sports team, an Instagram photo you're particular proud of or picture of your kids — and ten days later you'll receive a unique, one-of-a-kind pair of headphones to wear around town. Shipping costs up to $10, but at least you get a hard exterior travel case included with the order.

While the lack of a microphone means you can't take a call if plugged into a smartphone, these headphones offer noise-reduction technology, volume control on the cord and soft, cushioned earcups.

Sound quality is better than decent at less than $70, but don't expect sonic excellence.

Bose QuietComfort 15
Bose QuietComfort 15

They're not cheap, but those in search of a premium pair of noise-cancelling headphones will no doubt appreciate the look, feel and (most importantly) sound of the Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-cancelling headphones ($299.95). Bose's quietest pair yet, this successor to the QuietComfort 2 over-the-ear headphones delivers both "passive" and "active" noise-reduction technologies -- the latter uses microphones and electronic algorithms to cancel out incoming noise.

In other words, they're ideal for both music lovers and frequent flyers who want to cut out engine roar on airplanes — or both.

The QC15s include an AAA battery (yielding about 35 hours of use) and ships with an airplane jack and carrying case.

Shure SE535
Shure SE535

If earbuds are more your thing, and your pockets are as deep as your bass, the Shure SE535 headphones offer incredible clarity out of your mobile music, including booming bass, rich mids and crisp highs.

But at $499, it might be out of reach for most.

As with many other Shure earbuds over the past 15 years, the top-of-the-line SE535s are very comfortable -- though on the larger side, likely due to the triple drivers in each earbud. As such, they also offer excellent noise isolation, but keep in mind the contoured buds need to be twisted about 45 degrees when secured in your ear snugly. Along with a carrying case, you'll find a number of silicone and foam tips in the box for a perfect fit.

The cable provides plenty of length at 64 inches (5.3 feet) and has an in-line volume control.


A less expensive yet high-quality alternative to the Shure SE535 are the ClarityOne ($129.99; model # EB110), which houses six patents tied to its built-in PureSound processor that virtually eliminates 100 percent distortion instead of simply masking it.

Instead of a single coil crossover that might have an electromagnetic field build-up, causing interference, the ClarityOne employs a dual coil system that creates opposing magnetic fields and cancels the inductive reactants in the circuit — allowing the audio signal to pass through uninterrupted from the source to the speakers.

Should a call come in if plugged into a smartphone, a slimline microphone enables hands-free communication.

The ClarityOne earbuds also include a small, soft travel case and three sizes of silicone eartips.

iSport Livestrong by Monster
iSport Livestrong by Monster

Music motivates you on your workouts to train longer and push harder -- but when your earphones are falling out, what's an active person to do?

Grab the iSport Livestrong by Monster ($129.99), a pair of super comfortable, in-ear speakers for your next workout. Because they're waterproof, it can also handle rain or sweat during your summer runs. Available in blue or yellow, the iSport headphones also have a ControlTalk feature, therefore you can take a call when using your iPhone thanks to a microphone on the cable.

Oops…and pass on these puppies

These following headphones hit a sour note:

• While lightweight and comfortable, the Tivoli Audio Radio Silenz ($159.99) headphones have an audible hiss when you flick on the noise-cancellation feature. Note: You can listen to these funky-looking wood-trim cans without the active noise-cancelling, however, but at $160 it's simply not worth it. Mostly importantly, perhaps, overall sound quality is just so-so.

Sony XBA noise-cancelling earbuds
• At $500 (or $418 if bought through Yahoo! Shopping), you might expect amazing things from the Sony XBA noise-cancelling earbuds (model # XBA-NC85D), but while they sound good, the active noise-cancellation doesn't seem to offer anything more than the "passive" effect from inserting the buds in your ears. And like the Boss noise-cancelling earbuds, you can't listen to your tunes after its batteries have drained.

• Over-the-ear "sport" headphones are great for active types. But the Polk Audio UltraFit 500 ($49.99) lack clear and well-balanced audio quality — with bass that sounds muddled — and despite the three pairs of StayFit silicone tips included, some have complained about them falling out of the ears when running. For the same price, consider the Sennheiser Adidas Ear-Clip headphones.

Check out more tech trends and news at Digital Crave.

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