To find out which headphones were rated to have the best quality, we played our judges the same selection of clips used in the previous test, but now invited them to listen with four different pairs of headphones and rate the quality once again. For a fair comparison, we used the same player throughout this test - the Cowon iAudio S9, a device with a relatively neutral tone.
The headphones we used included those that came with our cheap generic player and the familiar white earbuds that accompany the iPod nano.
We also invited our judges to try a pair of Sony MDR-EX300 in-ear headphones, available online for around $65, and a top-end Sennheiser IE8 pair, with an eye-watering retail price of around $550.
The judges weren't given any information about the headphones, and tested them in random order.
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Almost every listener found the cheap generic headphones unsatisfactory. Time and again we heard words such as "weak" and "tinny", and 18 out of our 20 judges felt they were either the worst or second worst of the bunch.
The iPod headphones received a more ambivalent reception: a few judges hated their sound, but most found it merely average.
The third-party headphones were much more enthusiastically received.
The Sony and Sennheiser models polled near-identical scores overall, each taking top marks from 11 judges (including four first-place ties).
The Sony headphones were generally agreed to give a "loud, powerful sound", and many people also praised their ability to exclude external noise, thanks to a design that penetrates deeply into the ear canal.
The $550 Sennheiser units created a more refined impression: our judges described their tone in terms such as "rich" and "pure", with one commenting that they were the only pair that didn't sound like they were "struggling" with the detail in the music.
| Headphones rated: click on image for larger size
People may disagree over media players, but it seems that almost everyone can appreciate the difference between bog-standard in-box headphones and decent third-party replacements. That applies most obviously to the generic headphones, but even pricey high-end players often come with mediocre headphones.
The good news is that you don't need to spend the earth to upgrade. The Sennheisers may take the audiophile crown, but our respondents' scores indicate that they'd be just as happy with the pumping Sony units costing one sixth of the price.