Ditch your iPod earbuds -- and get top-shelf sound at budget prices.

By Jon Chase
Updated October 30, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT

Four awesome headphones

We loves our iPods just as much as the next guy. And, well, the guy next to him, and the girl over there, the kid in the stroller, and the rest of the iPod army — all instantly identifiable by those white cords dangling from their ears. But Apple?s earbuds hardly offer the best auditory experience. In fact, investing in a better set of headphones can change the way you listen to music.

With hundreds of models of headphones out there, making a sound choice is obviously a daunting task, so EW has done the earwork, as it were, and selected four winners that won?t tax your budget: one model each of in-ear and over-the-ear headphones for $50 or less, and another two for less than $150. (Note: The prices below are not from the manufacturer, but what you should expect to pay at major online retailers like Amazon.) To put them through their paces, we listened to an eclectic playlist of songs from rock and hip-hop to country and classical. And to reflect their real-world use, our song files were a mix of MP3s and protected files downloaded from online stores and played on an iPod without using equalization. Now, hear the good word!

SkullCandy TiTan Earbuds
$42; skullcandy.com
Recommended for Bass junkies, sk8ters

Catering to the young folk, SkullCandy?s TiTans come in a range of eight colors and, rare for headphones, are metal bodied — which looks cool but means they?ll cause earcicles in cold weather. Despite being billed as ?earbuds,? TiTans are IEC (in-ear-canal) earphones, which means they?re meant to be shoved deep into your aural canal. The benefit is that they block out virtually all outside noise and thus let you turn the volume down substantially. That necessarily brings up comfort and potential earwax issues, which can get skeevy. Nicely, a change-purse-size carrying case and an extra set of foam tips are included.

What we like
Short of crossing an angry donkey, you won?t find bigger kick than the bass from these buds — the thump of Kanye?s ?Stronger? comes through without distortion, while all the treble detail of Daft Punk?s electronic wizardry is still there.

What we don?t like
Big bass may put off some who prefer a more neutral sound. Coupled with loud trebles, that means the midrange tends to disappear, making the Beatles? ?Sgt. Pepper?s Lonely Hearts Club Band? sound flat. Annoyingly, whenever the stiff rubberized cords swung around, the sound was conducted right to the ears.
Grade: B

Koss PortaPro
$50; koss.com
Recommended for Pop-rockers and retro lovers
Still going strong 25 years (!) after they were first introduced, the PortaPros are that rare gadget that transcends obsolescence. And for a number of good reasons: They?re comfortable, fold up nicely to fit in a pocket, and, most important, produce great sound. The earpieces can be adjusted both vertically and laterally for a tighter fit. They might not be much to look at, but hey, tell your friends they?re retro.

What we like
One listen to Radiohead?s ?Everything in Its Right Place? made us believers. It?s all there: full if slightly muddy bass, nicely detailed midranges, crisp trebles. In fact for the first time we actually understood all of singer Thom Yorke?s whinings (well, heard them, anyway).

What we don?t like
Over-the-ear headphones like these require that you crank the volume a little more than you would with in-ear models, which may bother anyone sitting close to you.
Grade: A-

NEXT PAGE: The sweeter sounding — and more expensive — Shure SE210 and Grado SR125

Shure SE210
$112; shure.com
Recommended for Musical generalists (and the hygiene conscious)
It should be noted that these IEC ?phones are meant to be jammed perilously deep into the recesses of your skull. Like brain-tickling deep. Perhaps in consideration of that, Shure dispensed with the one-size-fits-all strategy and includes seven pairs of earphone sleeves made of spongy foam and pliant silicone in varying diameters. Also included are a carrying case and a cord extender. Oh, and an earwax pick for cleaning out the sound tubes. No, really.

What we like
Outside noise is completely eliminated, revealing delicate detail across the board even at low volume. A listen to Shostakovich?s Symphony No. 7 in C is eye-opening for its incredible separation and dynamic range; Dolly Parton?s sibilant s’s in ?Jolene? never sounded so enticing.

What we don?t like
In order to get any bass punch, these really need to be pushed and shoved and squeezed into the ear canal, which some will simply find unbearable. Even then, bass pump is tamer than that of any of the other head- or earphones we reviewed.

Grade: B+

Grado SR125
$150; gradolabs.com
Recommended for Burgeoning sound snobs and true believers
Brooklyn-based John Grado is to the audiophile community what Steve Jobs is to Mac fanatics — the deliverer of dreams. As such, Grado?s entire line of headphones is universally regarded with fawning adoration — despite looking like they belong on the leather-capped head of a WWII fighter pilot. Did we mention that these things are huge?

What we like
Sound reproduction is straight-up astonishing. We listened to our entire playlist over and over, marveling at all the subtle sonic details we?ve been missing out on for, well, our entire life. Just for kicks we tried out a DVD of The Matrix as well — the pop of bullets and wooshing kung-fu kicks never sounded so right. Even our Luddite spouse perked up when given a spin.

What we don?t like
Considering they cost $150, these ?cans? — as audio geeks call big headphones — sure look (and feel) kind of cheap. And because these aren?t designed for use with portable devices, you?ll need to shell out a couple bucks at Radio Shack for a one-eighth-inch adapter in order to plug it into your MP3 player. And good luck carrying these around in a pocket, unless you?re wearing cargo pants.

Grade: A