The experts we spoke to raise an interesting point you may want to consider before investing in one of these pricier sets of cans: In all active noise-canceling headphones, turning on the noise-blocking circuitry almost always results in a drop in overall sound quality. If you’re going to be using your headphones only occasionally in very loud environments (on planes and trains), a high-quality pair of passively noise-blocking in-ear headphones, which fit into the ear canal like an earplug, may be the best choice. Sound quality will be better on the whole, background noise will still be reduced significantly, and they won’t add as much weight to your suitcase.
BEST $100 EARBUDS
Pros: Comfort; sound quality.
Con: Getting powerful sound may require you to hike up the volume.
Best for: In transit, subway or jet plane.
Retail price: $99
The fundamental reality in recommending a pair of earbuds is that no single pair will satisfy everyone in terms of comfort or sound. It makes sense, then, that the earbud market is so daunting — there are hundreds of models to choose from, all with their own sound and style, some costing as little as a hamburger and fries, others as much as a used car. At $99, Velodyne’s vPulse In-Ear Headphones offer a great balance of sound quality, fit and price.
The vPulse’s sound is bass-heavy. Headphones that emphasize bass are popular these days, and a healthy low-end thump is especially important in a pair of earbuds, which have to compete with the rumble of the subway, the roar of a jet engine or your own huffing and puffing on the treadmill. But where some headphones sacrifice overall sound quality for strong bass, the vPulse offers a balanced soundstage with clear and accurate high- and mid-frequency response, according to expert audiophile reviews.
The vPulse also scored high marks for fit and comfort. The cable extends straight down from the buds and does not need to be looped over the ear like with some models. This allows listeners to pop the earbuds in and out easily and still maintain a snug noise-blocking fit — important, considering earbud listening sessions are often brief affairs. The cable is also flat, like a piece of linguine — a unique but ultimately ingenious design that significantly reduces tangling. After just a few days commuting with earbuds that unfurl almost magically after being stuffed in a bag or pocket, you’ll grow to loathe the unknotting ritual required by other pairs. Throw in a wired remote with volume buttons and microphone, and the vPulse emerges as our favorite pick in this crowded market.