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Will Monster's new in-ear headphone dazzle audiophiles?

Monster may have gone too far with the bling factor, but its new Earth Wind & Fire Gratitude in-ear headphones sound sweet.

I'm hoping the whole celebrity-branded headphone shtick will soon run its course, but I have to admit Monster's new Earth Wind & Fire Gratitude in-ear headphones are pretty spectacular.

Earth, Wind & Fire was one of the most popular funk bands of the 1970s, so naturally they were primed to attach their name to a headphone. That's fine, but I have to judge a headphone on its build and sound quality, and the Gratitude is a very decent headphone indeed. The heavy gold accents on the earpieces were a little gaudy for my taste, but that's showbiz.

The Monster Earth, Wind & Fire Gratitude in-ear headphone Monster

It provided a fair degree of noise isolation from the NYC subway's racket, and the flat, tangle resistant cable's color scheme matches the Gratitude's gold trim. There's a ControlTalk in-line mic and volume/talk controls, and the 12 pairs of different size and type of eartips make it easy to get the perfect fit to seal-in the headphone's sound. If the seal is less than ideal, as is frequently the case for me, the sound will never be up to snuff. The Gratitude's assortment of tips set a record for the most varied selection I have ever seen packed with an in-ear headphone!

You also get two carrying pouches, one zippered and one that looks like a woman's tiny purse. The Gratitude is backed-up with a one-year warranty. Nice!

I started my listening sessions by comparing the Gratitude with a Monster Turbine Pro Gold in-ear headphone. I can't say there were huge differences, but the Gratitude's bass had a bigger and better defined feel. The Gold is a bassy headphone, but it was the quality, more than the quantity of the bass I was reacting to. The Gratitude's bass was more detailed and clear when I was listening to drummer Max Roach's great sounding "M'Boom" album, which features Roach playing with an all-percussion band. The Gratitude's clarity of the bells and chimes was also a step up from what I was getting from the Gold. The Gratitude's stereo soundstage was a little bigger as well.

Turning up the heat with ZZ Top's "Live in Germany" album, the Gratitude didn't miss a beat. It was easy to drive with my iPod Classic, so I could play the headphones fairly loud. The string bass that opens "Cold, Cold Heart," from Norah Jones' "Come Away With Me'' album sounded perfect. Ms. Jones' vocals and piano sounded vivid and clear.

I next compared the Gratitude to my old reference in-ear headphones, the Etymotic ER-4PT ($299). That headphone's key strength is its neutrality; it's a very high-resolution device. Play well-recorded music and you will hear more of the subtle stuff--the breath of a singer, the brush of the guitarist's fingers against the strings, the rattle of a snare drum--than you will with the Gratitude, or most in-ear headphones in its price class. The ER-4PT's bass won't impress anyone who craves heavyweight impact, but it seems pretty accurate overall.

I was listening to these headphones in my apartment; once I took a ride in the noisy NYC subway I preferred the Gratitude. The ER-4PT did a great job blocking most of the noise, but the low rumble of the trains was still coming through (noise-canceling headphones don't do much better in that regard). Rumble is just as big a problem on buses, and still a concern on planes. Competing with the rumble, I felt the ER-4PT sounded bass shy on the subway, and the Gratitude sounded better balanced overall on the train. So when picking the best headphone, the listening environment should be considered.

On or off the train, the Gratitude is the best sounding in-ear headphone I've heard from Monster.