If you're still listening to music with the free earbuds that came with your smartphone, I have news for you: just about any decent headphone will sound a whole lot better. Face it, with those 'buds dangling from your ears you've never heard solid bass, natural midrange or clear highs. Your music is "funneled" through the aural equivalent of pinholes, a mere shadow of its true sound. Any decent pair of headphones will set the music free. Once you hear what you've been missing there's no going back.
Before we go any further, let's sort out the differences between earbuds and in-ear headphones. Vive le difference! Earbuds rest on the outer concha ridge of the ear, located in the center of your outer ear. In-ear or ear-canal headphones are placed inside the ear canal, sealing the listener off from environmental noise. Almost all of the better-sounding models are in-ears.
No need to drop wads of cash for the upgrade -- let's start with the FiiO EX1 in-ear headphones that sell for around $70 on Amazon. They are, hands down, the best sounding in-ears I've heard for less than $150. Stereo imaging is expansive, detailing is good, but not so extreme as to render compressed recordings unlistenable. While the EX1 does a decent job hushing environmental noise, the $79 Hifiman RE400a in-ear headphones provide superior isolation from noise, so with the RE 400a you can listen at a quieter (safer) level.
Prefer something cheaper? No problem. Check out the $14.99 Monoprice Hi-Fi Lightweight On-Ear Headphones. These rather humble looking headphones sound scary good for the money. First, because they have something going on in the bass, and there's a surprising amount of midrange clarity compared with earbuds. $14.99 headphones never sounded this good before!
I also love the featherweight (2 ounce), incredibly compact $60 Jays V-Jay on-ear headphone. This one's deep bass definition and punch are definitely well above par. They're semi-open headphones, and I found they sounded more open and spacious than most on-ear headphones.
Earbuds are at the very bottom of the sound quality pyramid, but even if you're perfectly satisfied with their sound right now, have I made you curious enough to check out any of the headphones mentioned above?
I'd love to hear from readers who made the jump from 'buds to real 'phones, share your experiences in the Comments section.