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Review: Headphones from Nokia, Sennheiser, and iFrogz

This fancy headset from Nokia is designed to fill a wide variety of roles.

Built-in Bluetooth lets users connect to mobile phones and MP3 players that support the wireless protocol while the large metallic buttons on the right earpiece allow for call, volume, and media playback control. Or you can simply use the included audio cable to plug the headset into your home computer or stereo (though the tether is short-just a smidge over a metre).

Nokia Bluetooth Stereo Headset BH-905 ($349.95;

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The smallish, exceptionally soft pads don't encase the ear, but they do smother the canal, blocking out much ambient noise. And what noise does make it through is effectively acted upon by Nokia's active noise-cancellation technology, which uses an octet of external microphones to capture environmental sounds that are then nullified by sounds generated by the earpiece drivers. It works as well - if not noticeably better than - most other noise cancelling headphones I've tried.

The BH-905 produces rich, natural sounds. Call clarity is leaps and bounds beyond a typical headset or Bluetooth earpiece. I switched the noise cancelling mode on and off while walking down Yonge Street in Toronto and it all but silenced the busy street sounds around me. Tunes sound terrific, too. I experienced a full spectrum of well-balanced sounds in all of the musical genres I tried, from classical to rock, pop to hip hop.

My one beef, though, is that they didn't stay on all that well. The cushioned headband is made of a slippery nylon material rather than leatherette, and it tended to slide down my skull. Plus, the earpieces, which neither enclose the ear nor plug into it, were prone to slipping off during quick head movements. Perhaps it's just the peculiar shape of my noodle and nubs, but I recommend trying this headset on before buying.

Sennheiser RS 170 Wireless Headphones ($399.95;

Designed for use with stereos, home theatres, and computers, Sennheiser's bulky-but-comfy RS 170 wireless headphones are ideal for audiophiles who sometimes can't crank up their loudspeakers to levels they'd like.

Wireless cans have a track record of delivering slightly dirty sound, but the audio quality of these headphones is so clean and full that I never would have guessed they weren't tethered had I not known. An optional artificial surround sound effect successfully creates wide and spacious soundscapes, while a bass amplifier adds impact and resonance to the lower register.

Setup is a piece of cake. I just plugged the sleek, tower-like transmitter (which cleverly doubles as both a headphone cradle and a charger for a pair of nickel-metal hydride triple-AAA batteries inside the cuffs) into a power outlet and then jacked it into the back of my home theatre and I was done. Controls for volume, power, and effects are handily located on the outside of the right cuff, though they're not very tactile and difficult to tell apart without removing the headphones-one of the RS 170's very few failings.

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The wireless range is 80 metres, assuming you can maintain line-of-site with the transmitter. I experienced no interruption of sound while walking all around my apartment, save when I stood directly behind a wide, heavy concrete column in another room.

The one feature I wish these headphones had is noise cancellation. The large cuffs have thick padding and do a good job of insulating the ear from outside sounds, but it would be nice to have the option of switching on some acoustic wizardry to escape the droning sounds of a dishwasher running or a busy road.

Still, the RS 170 is my hands-down favourite in this test pool.

Blackbox i10 Active Noise Cancelling Earphones for iPod ($129.00,

If you own an iPod (or an iPhone), you're unlikely to find a much better way to listen to your music than these earbuds from New Zealand-based high-end audio specialists Blackbox.

They use Apple's 30-pin connector to draw a bit of juice from the device's battery to power the "active noise rejection" technology squirreled away in the earpieces (tiny microphones pick up external sounds which are then cancelled with an inverted replica of the offending noise wave). Impressively, it generates virtually no hiss-a noticeable byproduct of most noise cancelling systems I've tried.

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There's a monitor button on the volume control stick attached to the cable which, when depressed, mutes sound coming from the iPod and allows the user to hear external noises through the earpiece microphones. This feature is supposed to let us hear normally without pulling the speakers out of our ears, but the monitor volume is so low and the buds fit so snugly that I had a hard time hearing people just a few metres away, thus diminishing its value.

On the subject of the earpieces, they are surprisingly large for an earbud-style product (due largely to the noise cancelling tech housed in each, one assumes). However, they somehow manage to remain both attractive and comfortable-not to mention pleasantly obstinate to gentle yanks.

Of course, the main event with Blackbox is always sound, and that is indeed where these earphones shine brightest. Music comes through wonderfully full-bodied and filled with aural nuance. The low end is powerful and clear, the medium range is organic and warm, and the highs are natural and precise.

The i10s are coming soon to Future Shop for $10 less than their price online. If you can find better sounding buds for cheaper, buy 'em.

Sennheiser-Adidas CX680 ($129.95;

Designed explicitly for active use, these canary yellow earbuds are hardcore.

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Fibre-reinforced cables make for strong wires that retain perfect flexibility in sub-zero temperatures, while moisture insensitivity means you're free to wash off sweat and wax under a tap. It wasn't cold enough outside for me to test the former claim, but I did rinse the i10s in my kitchen sink and they were none the worse for wear.

They come with three sizes of flexible rubber-ish ear pieces to ensure a proper fit in your canal, as well as a trio of "earfins;" rounded bits that protrude from the bud and push up against the inner curve of your ear to ensure the buds stay in place during the sort of accidental tugs likely to be induced by active bodies. The system works exceptionally well; I've never felt earbuds more snuggly secured, and they were so comfortable that I could hardly even tell they were there, even after an hour.

The cable has a clip with volume control attached, and a handy sliding cable catch lets users decide whether they'd like the earpiece wires to come together at chest or neck height. Also in the box is a handsome, velco-sealed nylon pouch big enough to store both music player and ear buds.

I've no complaints about audio quality, either. Bass, typically an important factor for athletes who use driving rhythms to push themselves, hit hard but didn't overpower the mids or highs in any of the pop, hip hop, and electronic music I tested. And I had to blast it way past my comfort level to achieve noticeable distortion.

These buds are pricey, but you'll hear the difference.

iFrogz EarPollution CS40's ($49.99;

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As seductive as the other models in this test pool may be, most people don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on high-end headphones and earbuds. That's where products like the EarPollution CS40's from iFrogz come in.

Available in black, blue, pink, red, and white, with dark radioactive symbols on the ear cuffs, these are fashion headphones designed to make a statement. However, as with many gadgets to which the f-word applies, don't expect to get the same sort of quality you would in other products.

The CS40's are rugged, durable, and light, but the headband lacks the padding that makes pricier cans comfortable to wear for long periods. And while the padded leatherette cuffs are pleasantly soft, the force with which they pressed against my head was severe enough that I could feel the arms of my glasses being squished between my ears and skull.

Meanwhile, the sound quality, while a step up from the earphones that often come packaged with MP3 players, feels hollow, as though it's been run through a filter that has siphoned out the richness and body that I experienced while using the other models in this pool.

And, of course, there are no extras. No noise cancellation, no volume controls, no carrying case, no clips. You get the headphones and that's it.

All of this said, you'll likely find comparable snags to design and sound in most other headphones at this price range. If you haven't been spoiled by better quality audio products that you can't afford, do yourself a favour and just stick with something like the CS40's for the time being. Otherwise it will be like sampling a piece of fine French chocolate; you just end up looking down on perfectly good Jersey Milks for the rest of your life.

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