Sound-Checking the Latest Headphones

These headphones make big promises: mind-blowing sound, cheap noise reduction, the ability to hear what’s around you without removing your buds. Here’s how they actually perform

by Jeff Harris

Jeff Harris

Ultrasone iCans (above)

$130; ultrasone.com

Reviewed by Joe Brown

The Claim: The off-center drivers bounce sound off the cartilage of your outer ear instead of shooting it into your inner ear, to make the music seem more like it's coming from speakers.

The Test: I listened to upward of 80 hours of music, from 128-bit MP3 files to vinyl to DVD-audio discs.

The Real Deal: These headphones create rich bass and clean treble that's clearer and more detailed than my $350 pair. Live recordings sound particularly impressive-the phones convey an almost three-dimensional sense of each instrument's location, making you feel like you're at the show.

Buy It? Happily.

Shure E500 PTH

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$500;** shure.com**

**Reviewed by Jenny Everett **

The Claim:** Want to hear what's going on without unplugging? Flip the PTH switch, and these sound-isolating earphones cut the volume and activate a cord-mounted microphone to let the outside in.

The Test: I tried them at a trade show amid hundreds of screaming journalists.

** The Real Deal:** With the switch off, I heard music. But when I flipped it on, I could hear my coffee-stand barista without removing the buds.

** Buy it?** They're pricey and the switch is clunky, but they sound great, and the "push to hear" feature works as billed.

RaceQuiet Earphones
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$40;** racequiet.com

** Reviewed by Monte Dutton **

The Claim:** These lightweight buds block 20 decibels of sound and promise "high-fidelity audio reproduction"– perfect for extremely noisy spots like the racetrack.

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The Test:** I sat in the second row at the Daytona 500 and listened to the radio.

** The Real Deal:** They did a great job of blocking out the roar, and I heard the radio announcer clearly. But when I plugged them into my CD player, the audio was muddy.

** Buy It?** Yes, but save them for race day. For the price, these do a great job of blocking noise, but "high fidelity" they are not.