These days, we think nothing of laying down a couple of hundred pounds on the latest tablet or smartphone. Then we fill them with music (free) or sign up to a streaming service (cheap as chips).
Yet we seldom spend more than £30 on headphones, baulking at the cost, seeing them as an extravagance or (worse) sticking with the set that came with our new purchase instead.
Truly, it doesn't make a lot of sense. This winter, we suggest you use a little of that money you've saved on not buying CDs and invest in some earbuds. At their best, in-ear headphones can offer unbeatable audio clarity — perhaps ironically many are based on technology developed for hearing aids.
"If a premium sound experience matters to you, then these are the ones to go for," says Dean Millward, headphones buyer for HMV. Go on: show your music a little love.
Atomic Floyd Super darts Titanium Headphones + Remote
This small British company have been punching well above their weight since launching in 2008, producing (to quote the box) headphones 'built for life'. Indeed, some have found that weight to be the one drawback with their relentlessly high-quality red-and-silver products: techniques like 'applying 1300°C heat to injection-moulded steel for 10 hours' certainly sounds cool, but so hefty was the build quality of previous models that listen for too long and your ears tended to feel weighed down like Pat Butcher's on date night. Put it this way: you wouldn't want to run a marathon with them. Enter the Superdarts Titanium. Crafted from aerospace-grade titanium Atomic Floyd have created a lighter, tougher acoustic chamber while pumping up the driver movement at the same time. Sound quality is crystal clear, and there's virtually no leakage. These really feel like a high-quality product, because they are.
£289 Buy them
You get what you pay for, and though the handmade GR10s aren't a new product (launched in 2010) their eye-watering price tag has ensured few other brands have come close to matching them for investment in raw materials. The key is the moving armature driver, which results in amazingly complex and detailed sound. The eartips are made of two types of silicon rubber and are the best we've ever seen: three sizes are provided. The cable is made of swanky oxygen-free copper to give a super-clear signal and great conductivity. Playing compressed music on Spotify via a smartphone is something of a waste with a product this good: try accessing some WAV files on your laptop or similar to really hear them sing. Magnificent stuff, though at this price you probably wouldn't want to leave them on the bus.
£420 Buy them
Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H3
Bang & Olufsen aren't in the business of producing budget hi-fi. But considering what you get for your cash here, we might actually classify these as a bargain. Made of a single aluminium block to reduce vibration, the overall design is modelled on the inner ear and is pleasingly ergonomic: everything here encourages the natural flow of sound. The 23 air holes on each headphone also provide ventilation without compromising noise cancellation (leakage is minimal.) Even better, the snug design means you can wear them on a long commute and not feel bothered by them. At 13g they're light but feel solid and the remote and mic function has been optimised for iPod. B&O could easily have changed another £100 here and got away with it.
£199 Buy them
SoundMAGIC E10S In Ear Isolating Earphones With Mic
The original E10 headphones attracted a bevvy of five-star audiophile awards on their launch five years ago. Give them a try, you'll wonder why they didn't pick up an Oscar for Best Sound that year, too. At this price, the quality is unbelievable. (The same could almost be said of 'At three times the price…') The E10S set were launched earlier this year and keep the same great design and structure but as their predecessors but add a remote switch and mic, at little extra cost. But it's the music you'll really notice: bass notes twang, trebles are light and airy and strings soar with concert hall-like reproduction. One of those pieces of kit that'll have you digging out album after album from your youth to hear 'new' things in them for the first time. Amazing.
£35 Buy them
Bowers & Wilkins C5 In-Ear Headphones
Another British brand, famous for their 'zeppelin' AirPlay speaker and whose recently-launched T7 portable Bluetooth device is something of a stunner. Before that though, the award-winning brand turned their attention to in-ear headphones. They manage to make music feel particularly warm and expansive thanks to the use of something called a micro porous filter, which really opens up the sound. The aluminium inner casing is weighted with tungsten which provides natural balance for the headphones towards the ears, while the adjustable loops keep everything in place. The transparent twisted cable is another neat touch, whole the whole set feels considered, stylish and well-designed.
£120 Buy them
Shure SE425-V-EFS Sound Isolating Earphones
Ideal for anyone who wants to look like they work as an Abbey Road sound engineer (come on, anyone?) it's the semi-transparent drive units that say 'I'm a serious muso'. Thankfully it's not just for show: these headphones are a fairly serious piece of kit. The soft, flexible sleeves block out background noise almost completely, and come in a variety of sizes in foam and silicon options. The science behind the drives involves something called 'integrated passive crossover', which keeps the high and low frequencies separated out - basically, it makes music sound big and expansive and gives all the instruments have room to breathe. (Think: the opposite of tinny.) There's two small speakers in each headphone and they're larger than some other offerings out there. This is because Shure have spent a load of time and effort trying to cram hi-fidelity quality sound into something the size of your thumbnail. The results are a success.
£283 Buy them