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The Best Earbuds That Won't Break the Bank

A reader asks: The original Apple iPod ear buds I've been using for years have finally crapped out, and I'm looking for a replacement and hopefully an upgrade. My budget is $100 max, and I want the best possible combination of good sound and comfort. I'm not a huge fan of the types you shove in your ear canal. Since you can't try out earphones at any stores I've visited, I have no idea what the best options are, so just tell me what to get!

Dear Reader: We hear you loud and clear. The inability to test out earphones before buying is a tricky affair, like the consumer electronics version of a pot luck dinner; you might stumble upon something really tasty or get screwed with the equivalent of the dreaded green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and fried onions.

To clarify a bit, the term "earbuds" refers to earphones that sit in the rim of the ear, while "canalphones," or "in-ear monitors," are the variety inserted into the ear canal. The difference between the two is immense. Buds are preferred by many for comfort and also for the ability to hear outside sound in addition to music. However, earbuds can't approach the sonic experience offered by similarly priced canalphones, and often require a higher volume in order to compete with ambient noise. As a result, they can potentially endanger your long-term hearing. Canalphones, on the other hand, can offer incredible sound quality at a much lower volume and typically shut out a majority of ambient sound (although that can be a problem if you're, say, biking in traffic or walking along a busy street). Canalphones aren't for everyone, seeing as they get shoved deep into the ear canal, making for a more "intimate" experience with the intricacies of using an ear wax pick. But we digress...

If you simply can't handle using canalphones, then we'd highly recommend a pair of $99 AKG K 319 earbuds. They have a much broader frequency response range, and, as our tests demonstrated, pump out far better sound than Apple's oft-ridiculed ones. We listened to tunes from a variety of musical genres, and were impressed with the detail they offer. From hip-hop and electronica to acoustic and and metal, they only occasionally got muddy with densely orchestrated songs. We did have a slight fit issue, though; they're nearly the diameter of a dime, so if you've got small ears, you may want to opt for the K 313s. Still, the K319s are very comfortable, have an in-line volume slider, and, nicely, feature a raised dot on the stem of the left earbud for quickly identifying which one goes in which ear. They come with an extension cable and carrying case.

As nice as the AKGs sound, they still don't hold an ear candle to a great pair of canalphones. We urge, nay, compel you to trust us on this. If you want to have your head explode (in the good way), then hook yourself up with a pair of Shure SE210 canalphones. For a mere $85 to $90 online, you'll experience your music collection in a whole new way. Plus, they're exceptionally comfortable to wear (with a half-dozen different earpiece sleeves to suit any ear size). If you're looking for more bass punch, we also love Klipsch's $80 Image S4 earphones, which compare nicely. We know it's not your first choice, but we're sure one listen and you'll never look back. Which, um, you should always do when using them while walking on busy streets.

Other 'Just Tell Me What to Get' Recommendations

Tags: AkgK319, canalphones, EarBud, EarBuds, earphone, features, IEM, in-ear monitors, In-earMonitors, justtellmewhattoget, KlipschImageS4, ShureSe210, top