The iPhone comes with a pretty good set of earbuds (as earbuds go), but you can get much better sound quality, and likely better comfort, by upgrading to a set of third-">

Listen up: Our guide to the best audio gear

Dan Frakes
19 February, 2014
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The iPhone comes with a pretty good set of earbuds (as earbuds go), but you can get much better sound quality, and likely better comfort, by upgrading to a set of third-party headphones. And for occasions when you want to listen to your audio out loud, a speaker system is what you need.

But among all the headphones and speaker systems out there, how do you find the right ones? To help you narrow down your choices, we tell you the key issues to consider as you shop, and explain what your options are.

And if you’d rather not do the legwork, we offer up our recommendations for great products in each category.

SHOP SMART

When you’re shopping for headphones and speakers, bear in mind some important pieces of advice:

Ignore the manufacturer’s specifications (especially frequency-response numbers). No standard testing methodology exists for these specifications, and many vendors exaggerate their specs for marketing reasons.

Instead, use your ears. A high-quality set of headphones or speakers produces audio that has a good balance between the treble (upper), midrange, and bass (lower) frequencies, producing full, rich sound while preserving detail. Be especially wary of exaggerated treble or bass.

Buy from a store – local or online – with a good return policy so that you can audition the equipment thoroughly in your own home, with your own devices.

Read on to get an idea of the various types of headphones and speakers you can choose from, as well as a few additional shopping tips and our recommendations in each category.

 

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HEADPHONES

These headphone-specific shopping tips will help you narrow down your options.

We’ve indicated in our recommendations which models include this feature.

Keep in mind that everybody’s ears are shaped differently, and comfort is often as important as sound quality when you’re trying headphones – if you don’t like the fit of a particular model, it doesn’t matter how good it sounds.

So you’ll want to be able to wear the headphones for a few hours while testing them to be sure that you can use them for long listening sessions.

 

IN-EAR-CANAL HEADPHONES

These headphones, also known as canalphones, use silicone or foam eartips that fit snugly – and sit fairly deeply – in your ear canals.

Like earplugs, they block most external noise, so they’re great for travel and noisy environments. They’re also capable of producing terrific audio quality.

However, some people find canalphones to be uncomfortable and the best models tend to be expensive.

Recommendations: 

  • Logitech Ultimate Ears 900 ($499.95; three-button module; ue.logitech.com/en-au)
  • MEElectronics A151P Balanced Armature In-Ear Headphone ($89; one-button module; www.noisymotel.com)
  • Westone Adventure Series Adv Alpha (US$249.95 + shipping; three-button module; www.westone.com)
  • Nocs NS800 Monitors (US$199.95 + shipping; three-button module; www.nocs.se)

 

CANALBUDS

Canalbuds, which occupy the middle ground between earbuds and in-ear-canal models, are likely the most popular style these days.

Compared to canalphones, canalbuds generally use smaller eartips that sit just inside the opening of your ear canals. Good canalbuds offer better audio performance and noise isolation than traditional earbuds, but fall short of good canalphones in those areas.

Canalbuds, on the other hand, tend to be more comfortable than true canalphones because they don’t sit so deeply and tightly (though the line between canalphones and canalbuds is blurring these days). Canalbuds are also usually less pricey.

Recommendations: 

 

LIGHTWEIGHT HEADPHONES

These models are portable and (usually) reasonably priced, but they use larger drivers than in-ear models. Their similarly larger earpieces rest against the outside of your ears, instead of sitting inside.

Some lightweight headphones have a thin headband that goes over or behind the head, while others have earpieces that clip onto each ear. The latter are often good for exercising.

Some models also fold up for easier travelling. Although many lightweight headphones produce mediocre sound, there are a number of standouts.

Recommendations: 

 

FULL-SIZE HEADPHONES

If you don’t mind some bulk, a set of good full-size headphones – so named because they often fully cover your ears – will usually sound better than good lightweight models.

Many full-size headphones are also quite comfortable, thanks to generous padding and ergonomic designs. These headphones can be either closed or open. Closed models block out some degree of external noise while keeping your music from disturbing others; open models may offer better overall sound, but they let more noise in and out.

Full-size models can completely surround your ears (these are called circumaural, or over-ear) or they can sit on your ears (supra-aural, or on-ear).

Over-ear models are larger and block out more sound, but people with large ears that don’t fit in over-ear earpieces may find on-ear models more comfortable. Note that to reach their potential, many full-size models require a good amount of power. Those recommended here work well with the low-power headphone jacks on iPhones, iPads, iPods and Macs.

 

Recommendations: 

 

BLUETOOTH STEREO HEADPHONES

If you think being tethered to your music source is a drag – or, for the gym rats, an equipment-snagging hazard – consider going wireless. While some wireless headphones use radio frequency (RF) or infrared (IR) technology, your best bet for convenience and portability is Bluetooth.

You can stream audio to stereo Bluetooth headphones from iPads, iPhones and Macs, and from the iPod touch and the latest iPod nano. (You can use Bluetooth headphones with other devices if you buy a Bluetooth transmitter.)

Most stereo Bluetooth headphones let you seamlessly switch between music and voice features. And the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch let you control music playback using Play/Pause, Back and Forward buttons on the headphones themselves. Note that even though Bluetooth headphones connect wirelessly to your music source, they still require a wired connection between the left and right earpieces.

Recommendations: 

  • Plantronics BackBeat Go 2 ($99; www.plantronics.com/au)
  • Parrot Zik ($499.95; www.parrot.com)
  • Logitech Ultimate Ears 9000 ($499.95; ue.logitech.com/en-au)
  • Jabra Revo Wireless ($299.95; www.jabra.com)

 

NOISE-CANCELLING HEADPHONES

Active-noise-cancelling headphones filter out noise by sampling outside sounds and then piping in an inverse audio signal to ‘cancel out’ much of the noise. While they don’t usually sound as good as comparably priced in-ear-canal headphones, noise-cancelling models are easier to put on and take off, and they let you hear what’s going on around you.

They come in many of the same styles – canalbud, full-size and so on – as standard headphones, but full-size models offer the best combination of noise isolation, audio quality and comfort.

Our recommended models work well with the low-power headphone jacks found on iPhones, iPads, iPods and Macs.

Recommendations:

 

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SPEAKERS

Like headphones, speakers are available in a vast range of prices and styles. We cover the main types – 2.0 computer speakers and studio monitors, 2.1 computer speakers, speaker docks, Bluetooth wireless speakers and AirPlay wireless speakers – along with details about what makes each type unique and specific buying recommendations.

Our recommendations aren’t exhaustive, but you won’t go wrong with any of these systems.

SPEAKER TIPS

Consider whether you’ll use the system mainly at home or on the go, and primarily with a computer or with portable devices. If the system will stay put, a set with larger speaker drivers and separate left and right speakers will give you better bass response, more stereo separation and louder volume levels.

A portable system, on the other hand, frees you from your desk; and wireless capability is handy for use with an iPad, iPhone or iPod – you can keep the player in your hand while the speaker stays put.

If you plan to use the speakers with multiple devices (say, a computer and an iPhone, or multiple iOS devices), make sure the system has multiple audio inputs – or wireless connectivity, if you don’t want
to worry about the number of physical connections.

 

2.0 COMPUTER SPEAKERS AND STUDIO MONITORS

A 2.0 system (two channels but no subwoofer) usually consists of compact left and right speakers, one of which houses the amplifier.

By separating the left and right channels, a 2.0 system provides better stereo separation and imaging than a one-piece system.

However, because they tend to use small speaker drivers to keep their footprints small, 2.0 systems rarely match the bass response of good 2.1 system.

A variant of 2.0 computer speakers, studio monitors are larger and louder than most traditional computer speakers, and they offer better bass response thanks to better amplification and larger low- frequency drivers.

In fact, a good set of studio monitors produces sound quality closer to that of a traditional home stereo system. On the other hand, studio monitors can take up a lot more room on your desk.

Recommendations:

  • Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 ($699; www.bowers-wilkins.net)
  • M-Audio Studiophile AV 40 ($264.95; www.m-audio.com)
  • Audioengine 5+ Powered Speakers ($399; www.scorptec.com.au)
  • Creative GigaWorks T40 Series II ($169.95; au.creative.com)

 

2.1 COMPUTER SPEAKERS

A 2.1 system (two channels plus a sub- woofer) typically uses even smaller left and right speakers than a 2.0 system.

These speakers, called satellites, produce the higher frequencies, while a larger speaker/amplifier component, usually designed to sit under your desk, produces lower frequencies. (A 2.1 system is often called a subwoofer/satellite, or sub/sat, system.)

The two big advantages of a 2.1 system over a 2.0 system are that you usually get much better bass response – both more impact and the capability to extend down to lower frequencies – thanks to the dedicated subwoofer, and the smaller left and right speakers take up less room on your desk (though the subwoofer/amplifier unit may take up a lot of room under it).

Recommendations:

  • Paradigm Millenia CT ($899; www.audiotrends.com.au)
  • Harman/Kardon SoundSticks III ($249; www.ehifi.com.au)
  • Cambridge Audio Minx M5 ($349; www.synergyaudio.com)
  • Klipsch Pro Media 2.1 ($299; www.powermove.com.au)

 

SPEAKER DOCKS

If you want speakers to use primarily with an iPhone, iPod or iPad, consider a system that includes a Lightning connector (for newer iOS devices) or a 30-pin connector (for iPods and older iOS devices) dock cradle. These speakers can use the dock connector’s higher-quality audio signal, and they charge your device to boot. Some also connect to your computer via USB, letting you sync your device with your computer while docked. A few larger speaker docks even accommodate an iPad.

Most speaker docks are either battery- powered portable systems or larger desktop speakers that run off AC power. If you don’t really need portability, desktop speakers are the way to go – they offer surprisingly good sound quality, but they’re still compact enough to fit in small spaces.

Recommendations:

  • Geneva Sound Model S ($599; 30-pin; www.audiodynamics.com.au)
  • Soundfreaq Sound Step Lightning ($199; Lightning connector; www.iworldonline.com.au)
  • Bowers & Wilkins Z2 Wireless Music System ($499.95; Lightning and AirPlay; www.bowers-wilkins.net)
  • The House of Marley Get Up Stand Up ($399.95; 30-pin; www.thehouseofmarley.com.au)

 

BLUETOOTH WIRELESS SPEAKERS

A few short years ago, everyone had iPhone and iPod docks, but the most popular option for portable devices these days is a Bluetooth speaker system. Bluetooth speakers let you cut the cord – or dock – between your audio source and your speakers.

You can stream audio to stereo Bluetooth (A2DP) speakers from iOS devices, recent Macs and the latest iPod nano. (You can use Bluetooth speakers with other sources by purchasing a Bluetooth transmitter.)

Most Bluetooth speakers also allow you to connect to non- Bluetooth devices via audio cables.

Recommendations:

  • Jawbone Mini Jambox ($229; www.jawbone.com)
  • JBL Charge ($199.99; www.ehifi.com.au)
  • Logitech UE Boombox ($299.95; www.logitech.com/en-au)
  • TDK Wireless Weatherproof Speaker A33 ($199.95; www.tdkperformance.com/en-au)

 

AIRPLAY WIRELESS SPEAKERS

Like Bluetooth speakers, AirPlay-enabled audio systems let you cut the cord and use the speakers with a variety of sources (Apple-branded only), but they also take advantage of Apple’s AirPlay (formerly AirTunes) technology to let you stream music from your iOS devices or Macs over your local wireless network. (Some AirPlay systems include an iPhone/iPod dock, too.)

AirPlay offers better audio quality than Bluetooth, because it uses lossless compression, and it provides much better reach – you can stream to any device that is within range of your Wi-Fi network.

When using iTunes on a Mac, you can even stream to multiple AirPlay devices simultaneously.

Recommendations:

  • Pioneer XW-SMA3 A3 ($499; www.pioneer.com.au)
  • Libratone Zipp ($499.95; www.libratone.com)
  • Pure Contour 200i Air ($399; www.pure.com/au)
  • Bowers & Wilkins A7 ($999; www.bowers-wilkins.net)

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