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Tom's Back To School Guide: Gear for Work

Headphones, Earphones and Earbuds

Able Planet True Fidelity Headphones

$180, available from

By Molly Bergen

When we reached the correct altitude, I flipped a switch and the screaming child evaporated. Just like that; it was incredible. No, I hadn’t developed some kind of ray gun that disintegrates children — I’m pretty sure I would not be allowed to bring one on airplanes anyway. Rather, I was trying out the newest noise canceling headphones from Able Planet, True Fidelity, in an environment where they were truly necessary: a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago.

Within mere seconds, the roar of the jet engines were gone, as were the high-pitched chirps of the airline attendant’s voice. Instead I heard an acoustic guitar, and indie gloom singer Conor Oberst’s voice: “This is the first day of my life. I was born right in the doorway.” And for one of the few times in my life, I agreed with Mr. Oberst. The very idea that one can enjoy a ballad on an airplane is unbelievable; usually, you’d have to blast your eardrums into seared chunks of meat in order to hear anything. Sure, noise-canceling headphones aren’t new, but their astronomical prices have usually kept most consumers (especially students) away from their shelves. The True Fidelity headphones, however, are priced affordably, at only $180 compared to the usual $350 ballpark.

But — and there is a but — without the noise canceling feature, they are just regular headphones. They are not particularly powerful or mighty, but they don’t need to be. The Linx Audio technology embedded in the phones offers reduced distortion and increased perceived loudness without increasing volume. Just make sure you have a lifetime supply of AAA batteries to power up the noise canceling feature.

These headphones are excellent for student haunts like the library, where loud headphones tend to bleed out and disturb people nearby — these babies won’t. They also have extremely comfortable ear cups that make it possible to nap with them on (especially since most students’ napping skills have been perfected to a fine art over the years). Be careful with your newfound acoustic freedom, though: don’t let the dreamlike state these headphones induce cause you to waltz into oncoming traffic.

Radius Atomic Bass Earphones

$39.99, available from

Buying white replacement iPod ear buds from Apple for $29.99 is crazy. And even using Apple’s white buds isn’t wise, some would say. After all, the sound they emit scrapes the bottom of the barrel of in-ear audio, and for many of us, they hurt.

New-to-the-U.S. earphone maker Radius sells a pair of ear buds for just $10 more than Apple’s replacement pack, which makes the Apple version sound like a cheap toy. Add in durability, comfort, and stylishness, and you have a total package that should appeal to budget-conscious students.

The Atomic Bass earphones provide such booming, heart-pounding bass that you’d swear you had a subwoofer in your pocket. At first we thought this deep bass would only impress fans of, you know, urban music. But while the elongated sound chamber on the Atomic Bass phones certainly brings out the best in rap and hip hop, it does wonders for the rhythm guitar line of any rock song, and highlights the percussion in classical music too.

These aren’t audiophile headphones, so if you’re looking for perfection in terms of balance, you won’t find it here. But high notes aren’t shut out by the Atomic Basses, and the buds also seem to do a bit of inadvertent noise-canceling. They’re colorful, with six colors to match all manner of iPods, yet unobtrusive; relatively durable, yet surprisingly cheap.

We also like the Y-cable design, which makes the left ear cord much shorter than the right, so they can be tossed forward over the shoulder and sit at the same length when dangling. But more important than this convenience is the way the plastic in-ear tips fit: Radius includes three tip sizes, which broadens the percentage of the population that will find comfort in the Atomic Basses.

Sennheiser MX W1

$499, available from

Only the flushest student budgets can accommodate an audiophile’s gear appetite, but if yours can, you’ll be interested in the newest twist on wireless audio: Sennheiser’s MX W1 headphones.

For what seems like ages, Bluetooth was the only wireless standard that audio gear-makers utilized to make wireless headphones. But all the while, listeners have dismissed the messy-sounding music that makes its way from Bluetooth device to headphones. Simply put, Bluetooth sound hasn’t been up to par.

Sennheiser’s small in-ear buds, though, use a different wireless standard from Kleer that takes advantage of a narrow band of frequency in the 2.4GHz range. Sennheiser claims this technology allows for “lossless” audio, meaning no bits of data are lost on the way from your device to the earbuds — the musical information’s there in all its glory.

A small transmitter, which doubles as a portable charger, attaches via a rubber band to your audio player, and manages wireless transmissions to the buds, which look like bulky earrings that don’t even hook onto your ears. The method for inserting them in-ear? It’s called "Twist to fit." And while you’re at it, twist and shout.

Look for a full review of the Sennheiser MX W1, coming soon to Tom’s Guide.