Sony MDR-EX81SLB review
Listen to your music as it was meant to be heard, and cut out the background noise in the process
Everyone knows the standard iPod earphones aren’t up to the job, and the other MP3 players on test also shoot themselves in the feet by skimping on headphone quality. Here, we haven’t just rounded up a selection of expensive earphones, but found ones that reduce or block out noise – all for under £60.
With less noise, you can listen at a lower volume without losing quality and damaging your hearing. And as a final bonus, since all bar the Thomson set seal the sound in, you won’t have abuse hurled at you on public transport from fellow passengers.
The most affordable option here is Thomson’s HED25ANC. For only £7, they offer active noise reduction via a small box halfway down the 1.5m cable. The single AAA battery isn’t supplied, but the headphones fold and come with a small pouch and airline adapter. The foam pads don’t create a seal on your ears like the PXC 150s, but flick the switch on the box and background noise does reduce noticeably. However, since they don’t seal, reduction isn’t as good as the PXC 150s and you lose bass frequencies. Sound quality is fairly good for the money, and if you’re after a bargain they won’t disappoint.
The Koss SparkPlugs are twice the price at £13, yet they have a flimsier thin-gauge 1.2m cord. There’s no carry case, but the earphones have earplug-style foam cones that do a good job of sealing out external noise, and a spare set is also included. Just note that the fit isn’t tight enough to use with when exercising. If you like plenty of bass, the SparkPlugs should appeal. The trouble is that everything else sounds muffled, so they are best suited to dance music.
Shure’s E2Cs are a more expensive option, but you do get a lot for your money. The cables are thick-gauge and since they wrap around the top of your ears there’s less chance of damaging them if you accidentally snag the cord. They also come with a hard zip-up case and a selection of rubber and foam plugs to ensure the perfect fit. However, we still found it difficult to get a good fit and it was time-consuming to put the earbuds in each time. But all the effort is worth it as sound quality is excellent. The problem for Shure is the Sony offerings: they cost £15 less, are more comfortable and offer almost as good quality.
If you don’t like in-ear headphones, the Sennheiser PXC 150s are the best here. They’re expensive at £49, but are lightweight and fairly comfortable. They come with airline and 3.5-6.4mm adapters. The soft padding forms a good seal over your ears and the active noise-cancelling circuitry is effective. On buses and trains, the engine noise still cuts in, but the PXC 150s let you listen at lower volumes than standard headphones. They don’t fold like the Thomsons, and there’s no carry case, but sound quality is fantastic. Bass isn’t overpowering and vocals are crisp and well defined. For around £12 more the PXC 250s are identical, except they fold and come with a belt pouch.
But the pick of the bunch are the Sony MDR-EX81SLBs. These hook over your ears and isolate noise using soft rubber domes. Three sizes are bundled along with a carry pouch and a 1m extension cable. The rubber hooks make the EX81s super-light and comfortable, while the standard 40cm length is ideal if you’re connecting to a player in a shirt or inside-jacket pocket. Sound quality is excellent. Bass is well reproduced once you’ve established a good seal in your ears. Vocals are clear and treble is well defined. For £28, they’re good value.n