Head's Up

Sonic upgrades to get you out of the lo-fi gutter.

Photographs by John B. Carnett

Photographs by John B. Carnett

The iPod is, without question, the iCon for those who take on-the-go audio seriously, yet its stock headphones--as well as those of most other portables--are almost laughable. Apple's ear buds excel aesthetically but fail functionally (they are forever popping out), and as for fidelity, their frequency response is mediocre across the entire audio spectrum. To make the most of your music, you'll want to trade up. We requisitioned four new in- and over-ear headphones, and then, well, we turned the volume to 11.

1. THE "UPGRADE"

Apple In-Ear headphones: Apple's new aftermarket headphones actually underperform the stock jobs, squeaking out harsh treble and emaciated bass. One culprit is
rubber earpieces that don't create a snug seal, thus overworking the 9mm drivers. $40; apple.com

2. THE FASHION STATEMENT

Sony MDR-G94NC: Active noise-canceling headphones reduce background sounds by producing its inverse sound wave. With these, the bass is clear, though we've heard heartier; the treble is balanced: crisp, but not chirpy. $70; sony.com

3. THE OVERACHIEVER

Shure E3C: Shure tackles noise
canceling physically, rather than electronically. These scotch the din of car alarms simply by plugging your ear canal, delivering detailed highs and textured midrange frequencies even at low volumes. The smallish 8.6mm drivers don't power serious thump, but the bass is impressive for ear buds. $180; shure.com

4. THE SPLURGE

Audio-Technica ATH-L3000: These are nothing less than speakers for your head. The 53mm drivers are set in wooden cups carved from chunks of Asada, a tree whose density provides warm tones and quick
frequency response. The result? Ridiculously rich sound--for a very rich price. $2,350; audiocubes.com