Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus
The MW07s look hefty but they fit and feel like a dream thanks to the curious feathery rubber “wings” that snuggle into the back of your ears. Although they come in fancy designs like the tortoiseshell acetate of my sample, they also look almost invisible compared to the Apple’s visually intrusive AirPods. This is a major plus. The sound is not as big and loud as Apple’s AirPods, but it’s subtler and more refined. And the buttons on the earpieces are push-button rather than touch. Good job. £279, masterdynamic.co.uk
The wireless in-ear AirPods Pro sound superb. They are more comfortable than most “true wireless” earbuds, but stay in less well than some. And I do have a couple more niggles. I found the squeezable controls on each stalk awkward at first. The battery life, at about five hours, is just OK. And, yes, the AirPods Pro look silly – slightly less so than the originals, but still silly.
But use the Pros on a busy street or a train and you will be amazed. The noise cancellation is impressive, if not as powerful as on good over-ear cans. But the “transparency” mode gives the most interesting effect. It lets in the sound around you without quietening or stopping the music, which means I can wear headphones at home and not worry about missing the doorbell or landline. £249; apple.com
Flare Pro 2HD
From Sussex’s inspirational audio cottage industry, Flare Audio, the Pro 2HDs are, for me, the best in-ears on the market. But unless you’re listening to a fabulous recording, you won’t notice the effect of such microscopic refinements as coating the “acoustic lens” with rhodium. But with the right tracks… wow. The level of detail and depth is ear-boggling, the sound still completely natural and unenhanced by electronic jiggery-pokery. To see what I mean, sign up to Tidal’s £19.99-a-month master-quality streaming and try Knights of Cydonia by Muse – a horrendous ball of noise that the Pro 2HDs somehow separate into its components. £399; flareaudio.com
The second-most common piece of tech advice I’m asked for (after what home WiFi really works) is what regular in-ear, wired phones – no noise cancelling, no Bluetooth – produce a great sound, don’t break and don’t fall out. These by Audio-Technica (the biggest brand in headphone-crazy Japan) are one heck of a set of headphones for £339. They look big and heavy – and they are. But they somehow fit really well. They look like they’re going to sound big, with bass that’ll blow your socks off, but they’re more measured, with a natural sound – light, even. And as the cables can be unplugged from the phones, they are almost impossible to snap. A good, unflashy, high-performing choice. £339; see eu.audio-technica.com for stockists
RHA CL2 Planar
Glasgow’s headphones startup RHA produces excellent products that perform out of their class at between £20 and £150. So I was excited to try its first seriously upscale model, the £800 CL2 Planar, then disappointed when I realised it combined the features I like least in headphones – wraparound ear hooks, wires that need to be plugged into the ceramic earpieces, and a Bluetooth unit that enables the CL2s to go wireless by wrapping around the back of your neck.
However, within minutes of putting the phones in my ears, not only did the phones feel fine, but the sound, overly crisp at first hearing, grew on me and then totally won me over. With good HD recordings and music, anything, but especially punchy rock tracks, are breathtaking – and I don’t use that word lightly as I hear a lot of great audio kit. £800; rha-audio.com
These IEMs – in-ear monitors, as upscale earbuds tend to be called – are sublime. Their five‑driver combination provides an exquisitely rich sound, which can be customised to your preferences. They also come with a variety of leads – all in pleasingly chic and practical braided, copper-coloured cabling – which easily clip and unclip from the bud. One of the leads is a Bluetooth AptX adaptor for wireless use. Another is a “balanced” lead – something that’s vital if you want to maximise the quality you extract from a high-definition music player like the top-end models from Astell & Kern. The N5005s, with their glossy ceramic finish and pleasingly solid construction, look every millimetre a luxury product. $500; akg.com