We had a plan. After years of bitching and moaning about crappy, stock Apple earbuds, we were going to put Apple in their place, and once and for all, prove what a lousy product they were packaging with their iPods—the one kink in their plan of global music player dominance. Obviously, the $30 stock earphones in the iPod would get destroyed versus more expensive competitors like those from Shure, Ultimate Ears or V-Moda. So we ordered a bunch of earbud-style headphones all under $20 for "testing". We use those quotes because we really meant "slaughter". Who would have thought that the disrespected Apple earbuds would hold their own?
1. Maxell Digital Earbuds 191208
Better fit, deep in the ear. Volume control on wire. But soft sound levels, and a slight static. Music was in the other room, not my ears.
Verdict: Staticky, NOT BETTER
2. Genius HP-02 Live
Once again, deep ear fit. These bad boys are exploring places of my body I didn't know I had. Sound doesn't have a bad balance, but once again, nothing spectacular here.
Verdict: Frisky but NOT BETTER
3. Philips SHE2650
Design is very similar to iPod headphones, as is the sound. But these are just a hair less sparkling than Apple's headphones with even less impressive lows.
Verdict: Has a case, NOT BETTER
4. Jlabs JBuds Hi-Fi
These had the strongest bass of any model we tested. And they gave Bolero, our test song, more of a stage feel. But fidelity was lacking. So while the headphones sound "big" they don't always sound so clear.
Verdict: NOT BETTER
5. Coby Super Bass CV-E92
The balance reminded me of the jLab model we tested, possibly with even better clarity in some ranges. There is certainly more bass in these headphones than Apple's offerings, but while it makes us crave more lows in the iPod stock earbuds, Coby doesn't touch the present highs to mids of Apple. They're a pretty sweet deal for $5 though.
Verdict: A bargain, but NOT BETTER
6. Koss BDZ1 Two-Pack Earbud Headphones with Case
Unresponsive. Very quiet at a given volume level compared to the ipod earbuds. But for this price, you get TWO sets of earbuds and a case.
Verdict: (NOT BETTER X 2) + Case
7. Philips SHS3201/37 Flexible Earhook w/ Bud -White
I'd expected these fancy white headphones to sound better, given Philips' reputation and the solid placement coming from the earhooks, but they were loud, but less clear than the iPod's.
Verdict: White, impossible to Shake Off, but NOT BETTER
Also of note, the iPod earbuds fit the Nano a lot better than competitors. We think this is mostly because the earbud jack isn't bent on Apple's model, unlike all the other models which bend at a 90-degree angle before the wire. A non-bending plug translates to less cord rotation and subsequent static/pops.
As for fitting the ears, most models on the market now offer multiple sized earplug adapters. If Apple's earbuds aren't fitting you correctly, then don't think twice about finding something more comfortable or just using the black foam inserts. You'll never get optimal sound out of any headphone that doesn't fit you properly, anyway.
At the end of the day, Apple might not give us the best headphones around with our iPods, but they're not highway robbery either. Given that they were better than quite a few $20 and under models, we're thinking that $30 isn't the most ludicrous price in the world, and "free with iPod" is looking pretty freaking decent.