Whether you love or hate your iPhone, you'll get tired of holding that big sticky piece of glass next to your face eventually. Want to have a talk while you work or exercise? Need hands-free calling behind the wheel? Do you just have lazy, withered arms? Chances are you need a headset. Though the famed white earbuds are good enough for some, why settle for them just because they just happen to come free, and with an embedded mic? Other companies want a piece of that iPhone action, and have headsets that fit and sound a lot better. "Oh, but fair and wise Gizmodo, which headsets hath you divined for my unworthy purchase?" you might ask. Look no further. Well, no further than after the jump. (And by the way, this review is actually useful for any phone with a 3.5mm mic-and-stereo jack.)
A few notes on testing and results: As with the earphone Battlemodo, my testing methods were not scientific but practical: The audio test was a sonically diverse playlist of reasonable bitrate mp3s, the isolation test was a ride on a San Francisco city bus followed by white noise on a home stereo, and the mic testing was done by, well, making a few calls.
Each headset gets its own conclusion, including a summary of the circumstances for which the set is best suited. One with fantastic sound might cut off the noises of traffic, making it useless for biking. Another might be great for running, but not pick up nuanced tones of your obsessively ripped lossless audio collection. Apple's own headset serves as a baseline—it doesn't have its own section, but it is referred to where appropriate. At the US$70 mark and above, it tends to be outclassed. Because of the varying needs of headset users, there's no one Battlemodo champion, but some are definitely better than others. Here are the results:
Altec Lansing Earclip-S - US$40
One of two earclip-style headsets we tested, these earphones don't offer much over the standard headset besides a secure fit. Music playback is as clear as on Apple's buds, but without any of the bass. They're not very attractive and feel cheap and flimsy. The sticky rubber sheathing can sort of grab your hair, if you're bushy around the ears, though it does help the clips stay put. There are two controllers, one on the mic and one down the wire for with volume and mic shutoff. The volume controller is sensitive and gets inadvertently adjusted pretty often, and the call/play button can be hard to find in a hurry. The mic added an annoying static sound to voices.
Conclusion: Recommend for exercise duty, where they would at least stay in place and sound OK. They're water resistant too, but at this price you may not be too paranoid about sweat murdering your headset anyway. They look, feel and sound as cheap as they are.
Shure Music Phone Adaptor - US$50
Shure's solution to the headset problem is to sell you the earphones and microphone separately. Pairing with the fantastic SE110s will make for a fantastic combo, but the combo will set you back almost US$150 total. Good thing you can use this adaptor with any earphones. Voice quality is high, even in situations with ambient noise, but extras are not; there is just one button and gator clip.
Conclusion: If you like your current earphones, keep them and buy the Shure. Ideally, your earphones will have a short cable, otherwise you'll have to clip the mic to your shirt and let the excess cable dangle.
Maximo iMetal iP-HS1 - US$70
Music is richer and clearer than with Apple's headset, but not by much. These fit like traditional earbuds, and are on the large side in both look and diameter. They're solid, but could be perceived as a little garish on account of the chrome finish. The single, large low-hanging button works well and is the easiest of the lot to quickly press. The very capable mic is positioned and designed intelligently, and is the best we tested.
Conclusion: A solid replacement for lost or broken Apple headsets for people who have big, weird ear holes and don't care about isolation.
Maximo iMetal iP-HS2 Isolators - US$70
These are the in-ear version of the iMetal. Sound is slighly bottom-heavy but the rest of the range is well-represented. The tips are comfortable, and provide surprisingly good isolation. Walking doesn't cause any annoying thumping from the cables, which is often a problem for similar in-ears. The single call/play button is identical to that on the other Maximo, as is the superb mic.
Conclusion: The best value and a recommended purchase, provided you want something that shuts you off from the outside world.
V-Moda Vibe Duo - US$100
These in-ears are about as bassy as they are stylish. This results in a slightly muddy sound but they're good for casual listening. Isolation is fair, but you hear significant cable rustling when you walk with them. The tip choices are smart and comfortable for a wide range of ear holes. The single control button is on the mic, easy to find. The mic delivers clear, intelligible sound at a moderate volume.
Conclusion: Too expensive for what you get, but look great and are as tough as nails.
Sennheiser MM50-ip - US$100
Sound is comparable to iMetal isolators in terms of balance and quality, but they handle high volumes and bassier songs a bit better. Senn gives us plenty of tip choices, most of which are cushy and easy on the ear holes, but with a low to fair amount of isolation. There is some degree of cable noise when walking, but it's not too intrusive. The mic has a flush call button that can be hard to feel, but luckily sits directly opposite an easy-to-fumble-for indention at the mic's grille. Mic quality is above average, but not very loud. Unequal cable length after the split drives some people nuts, but works fine.
Conclusion: If they were a few dollars cheaper they would be much, much more appealing. Without a significant performance advantage, they lose out to the cheaper Maximo iMetals.
AirDrives Interactive Headset - US$100
Taking a totally different approach than just about anyone else, the AirDrives are earclips with drivers that sort of float above your ears. The logic is that they won't interfere with ambient noises and permit all-day listening without fear of ear damage. Achieving a proper fit (or hover, I guess) was difficult on my freakish baby ears, but once you bend them correctly they don't budge. The listening sensation is akin to being in a room with the stereo on, so it's easy to hear what is going on around you. Voices sound fine, but music is robbed of any low to lower-mid frequencies, which I expect would be a dealbreaker for many.
Conclusion: Good for work or exercise where awareness of your surroundings is key, but that's it. Sound is just too poor to recommend for music lovers.
Etymotics hf2 - US$180
Excellent, balanced sound, featuring the same audio hardware as the hf5's that won their category in our earphone Battlemodo. These won't win over beat junkies, but are truly in a different class than anything else reviewed here in terms of sound quality—and price. Putting these guys in usually means getting a deep, full seal against your ear canals, which can be offputting to some people, but rewarding to others. Isolation is very strong, and cable rustling is minimal. The mic setup is a one-button affair, but that button is easy to find.
Conclusion: Only buy these if you're an audiophile who, for some reason, doesn't already have a pair of decent earphones. Otherwise, just grab the Shures.
We tried to cover the bases here, but this list of headsets is by no means comprehensive—if you want to add anything from your personal experience, please share it in the comments. Special thanks goes to Clay Hane for testing assistance.