The Playlist: Great In-Ear Headphones

A few months ago, I joined some other PC World editors in testing headphones for a comparative review. That was my first chance to really compare in-ear headphones like those from Etymotic and Shure to other over-the-ear models. In short, I was really impressed.

If you can get used to the feel of an earpiece that fits into your ear canal, ear buds are a great choice for on-the-go sound reproduction. Canal phones block out around 20 decibels of sound, creating a cleaner listening environment, and they don't bleed sound into the world around you--a fact your fellow commuters will appreciate.

I've tried a few of the bulky, battery-laden, and unimpressive over-the-ear noise-canceling models--like the $300 headphones that seem to be standard issue for business-class travelers--and I can report that in-ear models do a much better job. They're also easier to carry and are much less likely to make me look like a big dweeb than the I've owned for a few years now.

Anyway, shortly after we finished our headphone roundup, reps from a company called Ultimate Ears dropped off a demo unit of their new $250 Super.fi 5 Pro ear canal phones, which I've been testing and enjoying for the past month or so. The folks over at the oh-so-originally-named "Playlist" gave the Super.fis a pretty thorough write-up, but they didn't get around to comparing them with other in-ear models.

To my ears, the Super-fis compare favorably with the more expensive $300 Shure E4-C and $500 E5-C models we tested for our roundup. Having lived with the Ultimate Ears phones for a while now, I can say that I'm really impressed by them. They feature two drivers and produce a crisp and clear sound. Despite their small size, they manage to have some pretty good bass response. The accessories and the overall feel of the earphones are nice as well. They come with a slick and compact metal and rubber carrying case. Bottom line: If I were buying a pair of earphones right now, I'd probably spring for these.

What happens when two well-intentioned apps try to solve the same problem on your system? Some headaches, that's what.

Like a lot of people, I have Apple ITunes set to manage my music library. This is terrific for those times when I download or rip new music to a directory outside of my music library. Once I add those files to ITunes, it checks the file's ID3 tags for artist and album information and moves the files to the appropriate folder in my library.

That's a great feature, and it's worked flawlessly for me until I started playing with Yahoo's Music Engine media player a few months ago. Using some technology from Gracenote, Music Engine goes through your audio library and retags songs it recognizes, adding missing information, grabbing album art, and normalizing certain bits of formatting.

So here we have two players both trying to make organizing your music a little easier. What happens when you put them together? Chaos.

When Music Engine normalized my ID3 tags, it changed band names and album titles beginning with "the" to "band name, the." So suddenly The Arcade Fire was listed as "Arcade Fire, The." That's fine. But when I played those tracks in ITunes, it noticed the updated ID3 tags and moved my Arcade Fire tracks to a new folder named "Arcade Fire, The." Actually, that worked fine, too. Then I headed back to Music Engine and tried to sync some of those tracks to a portable player and ran into a problem: Now Music Engine can't find the files because it's looking for them in the old (and now nonexistent) directory.

After I figured out what had happened, I fixed the problem by adding the files to Music Engine again in their new locations, but I'd prefer that I didn't have to. Hopefully a later version of Music Engine will be smart enough to automatically look for missing files in a logical place, or at least allow me to turn off the auto retagging feature. Until then, ITunes and Music Engine serve as a reminder of what can go wrong when programs don't work well together.

Well, the long-awaited MGM-Grokster decision finally came down a few weeks ago. Honestly, it was a bit of a bore. I'm sure we'll see a few new file-sharing apps that attempt to skirt the U.S. Supreme Court's new "active inducement" standard, but by now I think most of us are way past the illegal aspects of file sharing, anyway.

My colleague Anush Yegyazarian has already done a great, in-depth job of dissecting the ruling in her July Tech.gov column, so I won't burden you with a long-winded analysis.

Finally, have I mentioned Live Plasma yet? It's an intriguing visual way to find new music. Just type in an artist (or book or movie) that you like, and Live Plasma produces a map of related artists according to Amazon.com data. Check it out!

The Unforgettable Arm: Aimee Mann's latest disc, The Forgotten Arm, is another winner. Mann has always been one of our finest songwriters, but there's something extra special about the way she can make a song called "I Can't Help You Anymore" sound triumphant.

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