Gadling Gear Review: Headphones For All Budgets

Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000 headphones
Polk Audio

A good pair of headphones seems to have become mandatory equipment when traveling these days. Smartphones, tablets and MP3 players have put a host of entertainment options at our fingertips and the headphones we carry with us have an impact on the overall experience. But choosing which models to spend your money on can be a challenge as there are now more options available than ever before. Here are three excellent choices, each in a different price category, that you’ll appreciate having in your carry-on the next time you hit the road.

Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000 ($299.95)
The UltraFocus 8000 headphones from Polk Audio sit squarely at the high end of the portable audio market. They carry a price tag of $300 but deliver numerous features and an incredibly high level of performance that will leave budding audiophiles very happy. These headphones feature active noise cancellation, built-in controls and a microphone for Apple devices, numerous audio adapters and much more.
While the price tag of the UltraFocus 8000′s are likely to give many buyers pause, those who are in the market for high-end headphones will likely be very pleased. Everything about these cans screams quality, starting with the packaging, which conveys the sense that you are buying a luxury item. Lightweight and very comfortable, Polk Audio has spent a lot of time getting the design of these headphones just right and once adjusted to fit, it is easy to forget you even have them on. The plush earpads do an excellent job of sealing out environmental noise and continue to feel good even during extended wear.

Audio performance from these headphones is beyond impressive. They deliver extremely clean, undistorted sound even at very high volume levels. In fact, your ears are likely to beg for mercy long before these headphones begin to show any signs of struggle. In the low-range, bass comes through with impressively solid thumps while the mid- and high-ranges blend nicely, providing an audio experience that is sure to delight music lovers, particularly when looking for respite from a busy airport.

I was also impressed with the active noise-canceling functionality that Polk Audio integrated into these headphones. Powered by two AAA batteries, when switched on this feature blocks out an exceptional amount of ambient background noise, making it easier to hear music, movies or anything else you want to listen to. Active noise canceling is great on an airplane for instance, as it will block out much of the sound generated from the jet engines, which can interfere with your enjoyment of audio. I would have preferred if these headphones were powered by a rechargeable power source rather than replaceable batteries, however, and I was disappointed to learn that they won’t function at all if those batteries go dead. That means if you run out of juice while on a long flight, you won’t be able to listen to anything until the batteries can be replaced. Other active noise-canceling headphones from competitors will allow you to listen even when not powered on and it’s a shame that this high-end model can’t do the same.

The UltraFocus 8000 headphones cleverly integrate audio controls into the outside of the right ear cup giving you the ability to adjust volume, and pause and advance tracks with the quick touch of a button. If you’re listening on an iPhone, you can even answer calls with the built-in microphone, which does an excellent job of picking up the wearer’s voice. After adjusting to the placement of these controls I found I preferred them to an inline remote and mic that most other headphones use.

Polk Audio ships these headphones with an excellent soft case and more adapters than you’ll ever know what to do with. All of those extras help to extend the feeling of purchasing a high-end product, which you would expect out of something in this price range. Make no mistake, the UltraFocus 8000 headphones are expensive but they deliver excellent audio performance, a comfortable fit and good active noise canceling in an attractive and high-quality package. For the audiophile on the go, these are an excellent choice.

Munitio SV earphones
Munitio

Munitio SV Earphones ($129.99)
If the high-end, luxury headphones are out of your price range there are plenty of other options available in the mid-range as well. Take for example the Munitio SV earbuds, which deliver very good performance at a price point that is much more friendly to the wallet. They also have the advantage of slipping into a carry-on bag without adding any extra weight or bulk.

Munitio put a lot of thought into the design of this product even though you wouldn’t necessarily think so at first glance. The flat, tangle-free cord is a nice touch for instance, particularly for travelers who may not always be so careful with storing their earphones when they are in a hurry. An in-line mic and remote allow owners of Apple devices to control their gadgets and make phone calls, while the buds themselves are made from aircraft-grade aluminum that adds durability without weight. They feeling of quality in a compact package is undeniable.

In terms of audio performance the Munitio SV earphones are quite good. They offer a surprising amount of bass for such a small product and mid-range sounds are solid as well. At the high end, however, I noticed that things weren’t quite as pure, although there was no noticeable distortion across the entire spectrum. Overall, most listeners will find these earbuds to offer very clean sound even at high volumes. This isn’t a product designed with the audiophile in mind but they do deliver excellent performance that will exceed the expectations of most consumers.

Since these earbuds are designed to fit snugly into your ear canal, Munitio ships them with three sizes of silicon tips. This helps to dial in a personal fit, although most competitors offer a wider array of choices. As a result, I had a hard time getting one of these earbuds to stay in my ear. If I had a few other size options I’m sure this wouldn’t have been an issue, but since one of my ears fell between sizes, it was tough to keep it securely in place. Without a proper seal, outside noise can trickle in as well, which interferes with audio performance. As a result, the Munitio SV’s didn’t do as good of a job as I would have liked isolating me from background noises. Your mileage will probably vary, however, depending on personal fit.

If you want a quality set of earphones with very good audio performance that won’t break the bank, the Munitio SV are a solid choice. They ship with a nice soft case that makes them easy to take with you wherever you go and the tangle-free cord and in-line remote are welcome touches.

RHA MA150 earphones
RHA

RHA MA150 Earphones ($19.95)
At the low-end of the earphone market, at least in terms of price, are the RHA MA150 earbuds. With a price tag of just $20 you wouldn’t expect much in terms of audio performance but we’ve reviewed several RHA products in the past and have been continually impressed with the quality of the sound they deliver while remaining very affordable. In terms of overall bargains, it is tough to beat their products and the new MA150′s are no exception to that legacy, delivering good sound in a no-frills product that is easy on the wallet.

For a set of inexpensive earphones the MA150′s still feel very solid in your hand. In fact, if someone didn’t tell you how much they cost it would be easy to estimate that their price is twice what it actually is. The cables, silicon tips and earbuds themselves are all very good for this price range and they feel like they’ll have a level of durability beyond what you would expect for $20.

In terms of audio output, these earphones are certainly over achievers. I was impressed with the low-end bass that came through very nicely for such a small and lightweight product. Mid- and high-ranges were also handled well, particularly for a product that is this affordable. Again, the MA150′s perform like a product that is two or three times the price, which is certainly hard to complain about. Set your expectations accordingly and I think you’ll be very pleasantly surprised.

As mentioned, these are no-frills earbuds that don’t include a remote, a mic or any other features. They do come with three different sizes of silicon tips, however, and unlike the Munitio SV’s I was able to find a comfortable and solid fit for both ears. If there is one upgrade I’d like to see, it would be the addition of a tangle-free cord like the one found on the offering from Munitio. The cord on the MA150 seems prone to tangling for some reason, which can be frustrating at times.

Designed for the consumer who just wants an inexpensive, yet quality pair of headphones the RHA MA150 earbuds deliver on their promise of good audio performance at a rock-bottom price. You’ll have a difficult time finding earphones that perform at this level in this price range. Sure, they will be overpowered by competitors that cost more, but that’s not the point. For a cheap, dependable and surprisingly good performance you can’t go wrong here.