I vaguely hinted about these in my iPod piece, so I thought I might as well get on with writing about them. I’ve always tended to upgrade the headphones when I buy a new music player, as the supplied ones tend to range from “not all that good” through “poor” to “unspeakably vile”. For a few years, I’ve had a pretty good pair of Sony in-ear ones. They do a pretty good job, but I wondered if I could do better. So I did the usual googling and reading. For a while, I was looking at some nice Sure phones, and at a few others. But a few more reviews and articles led me towards these. Ultimate Ears make actual, proper in-ear monitors. If you’ve ever noticed bands playing with ear plugs in, there’s a good chance that those plugs will have been made by Ultimate Ears – they do a custom manufacturing service which involves the customer getting moulds made of their ears, which are used to make perfectly fitting sound isolating earphones. Cool. But they also make things at the slightly less exotic end of the market, like these.
The phones come with a variety of different sizes of tips, and it’s important to pick the right ones for your ears. There are also foam ends which will adjust to your ears, but those are only intended for a small number of uses before being replaced. Ultimate Ears do sell replacements, but as they’re in the US, that could be a bit awkward. I believe there are people in the UK who can supply bits if you need them, but as I don’t right now, I haven’t researched that. One cool thing about these is that you can replace the cable if it gets damaged, or if you need a different length – again, you’d have to check for a supplier outside the US.
Once you’ve picked your tips, it’s time to fit them. This involves a bit of wiggling, and can take a bit of getting used to, but it is worth it. If they’re not in right, the sound will suffer, and they’re less likely to stay put when you’re moving around. Ultimate Ears helpfully provide videos on their website demonstrating the technique, which is pretty cool. OK, now you’ve got them in, connect them to your chosen sound source. Make sure the volume is set low before you start playing. No, really. I found that with the iPod, music that sounded OK with the voulume set near to maximum with Apple’s earbuds sounded several million times better with these with the volume set to half way. Yeah. Partly it’s the sound isolation, but it’s also the fact that these little beasts have much more powerful and better quality drivers than you’ll get in budget headphones.
And yes, the sound is really rather good. Very clear, with plenty of bass, and more detail than seems reasonable from compressed digital files playing on a tiny player while walking around. I’ve been using them for about a week, and I’m quite impressed – they’re a definite improvement on the Sony set (which cost nearly £30 when I got them some years ago) and a dramatic improvement on any headphones that might have been supplied with your portable music player.
In addition to the black ones I have, other colours are available, including white for iPod fans who would feel strange with any other colour.
 Not sound cancellation, which needs a power supply and fancy electronics. These just fit into your ear in such a way that most surrounding sound is eliminated. I find that when I’m walking, I can hear traffic, but not much else. Caution is advised, etc. Not recommended for cyclists who’d like to survive their journeys.