By Stephen H. Wildstrom Apple's iPod has long been synonymous with the best in portable music players, but the quality and variety of the competition, mostly using Microsoft's PlaysForSure standard, is rising fast. Every player I've looked at is capable of producing first-rate audio when supplied with high-quality digital music -- but the quality of the sound is only as good as the headphones you hear it through.
The earbuds supplied with most players, including iPods, may explain why many listeners believe that MP3 music encoded at 96 kilobits per second is "CD quality," because these throwaway headphones lose much of the richness and presence of really good audio. About a year ago, I wrote a column in which I had high praise from a new type of in-the-ear headset from Shure and Etymotic (see BW, 12/15/03, "Headsets That Will Be Music to Your Ears"). These remain good choices if you want high-quality music while sealing off outside sounds.
Recently, though, I've tried a couple of truly exceptional headsets: one that's outstanding for mobile use in noisy environments, the other better suited for use in your home or office. The well-named Ultimate Ears (www.ultimateears.com) offers the ultimate in mobile listening: a line of in-the-ear headphones that use custom ear molds. They aren't cheap, with prices ranging from $550 for the UE-5c (in iPod white) to $900 for the to-of-the-line UE-10 PRO.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS. Ultimate Ears aren't something you pick up at the local Best Buy. You start by having impressions made of your outer ear and ear canal. This is best and most easily done at an audiologist or hearing-aid center and costs around $75. The process is a bit like a dental impression, but at least you don't have to taste the goop.
You then send the molds off to Ultimate Ears to have your custom headphones made. Each earpiece consists of a hard plastic unit that contains the electronics and dual sound drivers, joined seamlessly to a soft silicone mold the fits snugly into your ear.
The tight seal between the mold and your ear effectively blocks most ambient sound, and the music, which is pumped directly into you ear canal, sounds fabulous. On several long plane flights, I found that the Ultimate Ears not only eliminated most cabin noise but were much more comfortable than other in-the-ear types for extended wear. At the same time, they're simple to remove and insert, so it's easy to pop one earpiece off to hear a PA announcement or discuss your drink order with a flight attendant.
COMFORT POINTS. Ultimate Ears store in a small leather pouch that makes them ideal for travel. The studio-style headphones from Ultrasone (www.ultrasone.com) -- the HF-550 ($189) and HFI-650 ($245) -- would probably take up too much space in your briefcase, even though the HFI-650 model folds to reduce its bulk a bit. But they are great for use at home or in the office when you want great sound -- or exciting video-game audio -- without sharing it with everyone within 100 feet.
The Ultrasone headsets have two big advantages over others that I've tried. First, they're extremely comfortable, with a padded headband that generates enough pressure to keep the closed earcups pressed against your ears to block outside sound, but not pressing hard enough to make you want to take them off as soon as possible. A 10-ft. cable, not coiled, allows you plenty of room to move around, but if you're staying in one place, that extra wire can be a bit of a nuisance.
Second, they produce sound more natural than I've heard in other headphones. Most phones create the odd sensation that the sound is coming from somewhere inside your head. The Ultrasone sensation is more like listening to fine speakers in an acoustically good room. My only complaint is that the spacious sound they create makes the extreme stereo engineering of the Beatles (Paul in your left ear, John in the right) and other 1960s British rock recordings sound even weirder than it usually does.
If you care about good audio, you'll want to toss the cheapo earbuds that came with your player and go for something better as quickly as you can. The Ultrasones and especially the Ultimate Ears are expensive, but they sure do get the job done. Wildstrom is Technology & You columnist for BusinessWeek