Most consumers are happy to spend hundreds of pounds on an MP3 player, yet often forget the importance of a good set of headphones. They automatically assume that the cans that ship with their iPod or other music player are up to the task, but the sad reality is that most standard headphones are complete pants. Think of bundled headphones as something you might get free in a cereal packet and you'll understand where we're coming from.
There's a huge amount of choice in the headphone market, and the technology used can vary wildly. Earbuds and ear pads are the most common types, but you'll get better sound from sealed earcup headphones or in-ear monitor buds. The latter form a tight seal inside your ear canal, and as they're closer to your ear drum, can deliver very precise audio. High-end models like the Shure E500PTH can cost in excess of £400, but they give an exceptionally clear audio impression across the sound spectrum. The difference between these models and cheaper earbuds really is like night and day.
Cheaper in-ear headphones like the Sennheiser CX 300 are a world apart from the Shure E500PTH, but they work in a similar manner and should sound better than the ones you get with your MP3 player. Unfortunately they only use a single driver (think of these as mini speakers) so you won't get great separation between high, mid-range and low tones.
Some people can't bear the thought of inserting a piece of plastic directly into their ear canal, and rightly so -- if the ear pieces don't fit your ear perfectly, they can be a major irritation when worn for long periods. This being the case, you may be better off going for a set of sealed earcup headphones -- which could have seals that are either open or closed.
Open headphones let sound from the outside world flow in, but will also leak audio, so don't be surprised if you get annoyed looks from fellow commuters. Closed headphones, on the other hand, better exclude outside noise, won't leak audio and can be considerably louder. You might also want to look out for noise cancellation. The Logitech Noise-cancelling Headphones include a small microphone in each earpiece that picks up ambient noise. The headphones then make exactly the opposite sound in order to cancel the ambient noise, as it delivers your music.
Whichever high-end third-party headphones you choose, we think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the improvement in audio quality.