Sony MDR-EX71SL series
Editor's note: We have changed the rating in this review to reflect recent changes in our rating scale. Click here to find out more.
Earbud-style headphones are ultracompact and extremely portable, but most offer substandard sound and don't fit well. Sony's Fontopia MDR-EX71SL, listed at $50 (but widely available for less), is one of the few earbud models that rise above the fray, demolishing the low-cost competition by delivering solid sonics and a supercomfy fit. Long available in black and silver, you can now get the EX71SLs in iPod-friendly white.
To its credit, Sony ships the little EX71SL with a small earbud holder. Putting the headphones in it protects the earpieces from grime but leaves the cord hanging loose. To reduce tangle potential, you can place the holder and the cable inside the larger included carrying case, which has about the same dimensions as a pager. While competing models have headbands that can collapse to fairly small sizes, most don't come with a hard, travel-ready case like the EX71SLs do.
The MDR-EX71SLs have an over-the-shoulders/behind-the-neck cord design (one side longer than the other); we like it, but some find it annoying. A greater concern is the earbuds' too-short 1.5-foot cable. It's augmented by an included 3.3-foot extension cord, but when paired together, the resulting cable is almost five feet in length--way too long even for most NBA stars. If you have an iPod (or any other portable player) with an in-line remote, however, the EX71SL likely will be a perfect fit. Otherwise, check out the MDR-EX51LP models, which feature a single 4-foot cord and are available in a variety of colors.
The comparatively large, rigid drivers of typical earbuds fit in your ears too tightly yet fall out at the slightest tug of the cord. That's not the case with the EX71SL. Its small (9mm) drivers have flexible silicon pads that mold to the shape of your ear canal for a comfortable but snug fit. Sony supplies two sets of the pads in slightly different sizes. But while the EX71SL is one of your best bets for earbud comfort and will certainly be fine for use on a StairMaster or a bike, we can't totally endorse it for jogging. The earpieces tended to slip out whenever we broke into a hard run.