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Photograph by Chip Simmons.
Photograph: Chip Simons
We hate to break it to you, but the headphones that came with your fancy new portable music player probably sound awful. Even companies that spend big money designing players to produce the best possible sound often skimp on the quality of the headphones they toss into the box.

You don't have to settle for less. If you replace the bundled headphones with a better set, the improvement can be staggering, restoring crisp beauty to formerly muffled music. And the new set will do an excellent job of reproducing audio from laptop or desktop PCs as well.

For this review, we examined six models that cover the ear and six units that sit in or next to the ear; these span a wide range of prices (from $8 to $400). Most over-the-ear models use a headband to hold the speakers in place (except the Koss KSC75 set, which clips over the ears). The over-the-ear units can be big and bulky, but a few fold or flatten for quick storage.

The in-the-ear models are smaller and easier to carry on a trip. They come in two types: earbud and ear-canal. Many portable music players ship with a pair of earbuds in the package; none offer the superior ear-canal type.

Personal preference generally governs the choice of headphone. Although typically you can't try in-the-ear models before buying, you can approximate the ear-canal experience using cheap foam earplugs. Try wearing them for a few hours--if you don't find them uncomfortable, you should be fine with a pair of in-the-ear headphones.

We selected a Best Buy in each of our two headset categories. Bose's TriPort was our favorite over-the-ear model, while Etymotic Research's ER-6isolator took top honors for in-the-ear headphones.

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