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Headphones

Believe it: A superb in-ear headphone for just $34.99

The First Harmonic IEB6+Mic resets expectation for how good a budget price in-ear headphone can be.

Holding these little critters from First Harmonic in my hands the aluminum ear pieces have a solid quality feel, that's not something you can always count on with $35 headphones. The cable's inline mic and controls work with iPhones and Androids, and you get five sizes of silicon ear tips (from extra small to extra large). Thanks to the ear pieces tiny size and lightweight construction the First Harmonic IEB6+Mic was extremely comfortable to wear for extended periods of time. The IEB6+Mic looks and feels like a headphone that sells for double its price ($34.99, £29.95) on Amazon.

Still, I wasn't sure what to expect from the sound of these things. Would they be tipped up and aggressively bright, or massage my ear drums with overly generous bass? Luckily the IEB6+Mic is admirably neutral, which is to say it will appeal to audiophiles seeking an affordable in-ear that lets the music speak for itself. The driver is unusually small, just 5.5mm, but no worries, bass was plentiful, taut, and natural. The IEB6+Mic's impedance is rated at 16 ohms.

The First Harmonic IEB6 Mic with an iPhone 6S.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Starting my auditions with "The Mystery Lights" CD, a Brooklyn band that reminds me of my favorite indie psychedelic rock bands of the 1960s. There's attitude a plenty in their tightly-knit tunes, and the IEB6+Mic drew me into the music. We were off to a good start.

Next up, "Brass Bang," a superbly recorded jazz brass quartet CD by Steven Bernstein. The IEB6+Mic stepped up to the job at hand, and avoided adding any overt harshness or thinness to the sound of the brass instruments: trumpet, flugelhorn, trombone, and tuba. The IEB6+Mic's tonality was spot on, very refined and natural, a rarity in headphones of any type.

I didn't have any other $35 in-ears on hand, so I grabbed my $100 1More Triple Driver in-ear headphone to put the IEB6+Mic's sound in context. As for music I used Moby's "Play," and the Triple Driver had a warmer, more fleshed out sound. It was a richer sounding 'phone, but returning to the IEB6+Mic bass definition firmed up, a lot, and the treble was clearer. The Triple Driver's sweeter balance is still mighty attractive, and kinder to aggressively compressed music, the IEB6+Mic won't gloss over the harshness.

I love the IEB6-Mic's transparency, but I try to avoid nasty sounding recordings. If you listen to a wide range of rock, rap, or pop you might find the IEB6+Mic's sound too bright or harsh.

Then again, the Drive By Truckers' new single "What It Means" comes on a like a 1960s protest song about race relations, but the tune, even with its Dylan-esque organ swells strikes a chord for our time. In any case, the IEB6+Mic's sound is right on target. I can be pretty fussy about headphones, but with the First Harmonic IEB6+Mic I settled down and enjoyed the music.