For the gadget aficionado,

Apple's

(AAPL) - Get Report

iPod portable music player is a must have.

Simply go to your local Apple store and pick out the color of nano or iPod you like. Done.

Enjoy the iPod for what it is -- a marketing triumph disguised as a gadget.

But headphones for iPods? That's another story.

As much as Steve Jobs has redrawn the digital landscape with his iPod and other Apple products, he has turned a deaf ear to his headphones. IPod headphones, like all things Apple, certainly look cool; those little white earbuds are as ubiquitous as they are iconic.

But as headphones, they are a disgrace. IPod earbuds are shrill, have no low-end definition and muddy up even mush-music like early Beastie Boys. Plus, iPod earbuds hurt. After just a few minutes, my ears ache.

The good news is there are excellent aftermarket choices for high-quality headphones for portable music players. These headphones sound better. They fit better. They last longer and they look slicker.

So buy some better headphones, and you'll have a better iPod.

Monitoring the Situation

Though the world is littered with hundreds of headphones for portable devices, forget about everything but so-called in-ear monitors.

In-ear monitors are not earbuds. They are actually high-quality small speakers that fit inside the outer part of your ear canal and sit close to your eardrums, providing better sound at lower volumes.

When properly inserted, these monitors isolate sound from the outside world. The result is ridiculously good audio quality and comfort. They walk the fine gadget line of looking slick while not seeming dorky, which is not easy.

The three brands to know for in-ear monitors are

Etymotic Research,

Shure Electronics and

Ultimate Ears. I tested three of the better units from these companies: the Etymotic ER-4 ($330), the Shure E4c ($299) and the UE super.fi 5Pro ($249). They are available at better Web retailers such as Bozeman, Mont.-based

HeadRoom.

For in-ear monitors to work right, however, they must fit right; most use a variety of plastic bits and sleeves to match the unique size of your ear. The Etymotic, Shure and UE all came with the proper assortments of ear-fitting inserts.

There is much debate about which insert works best, plastic or foam. But for me there is no debate: Foam inserts produce the best audio quality, and they're more hygienic -- they absorb the nasty wax residue that clogs headphones. And instead of cleaning old earwax off permanent vinyl or plastic ear molds, when foam inserts get foul, you can simply toss them.

There are drawbacks with foam -- you have to compress the inserts before you place them in your ear, so first-time fitting can be a pain, and they wear out in just a few uses. But still, foam inserts are the preferred choice.

Start Me Up

Now we get to play.

The audio quality in all of these units was solid. Really solid.

But even good things are not created equal. For me, audio equipment is like red wine -- you can go and on about the stuff, but you know right away what's best.

And the standout in this group was the Ultimate Ears.

The Shures were round and full for modest pop music. They loved Ray LaMontagne. But they couldn't keep up with demanding tracks with thin arrangements and crashing dynamics; Patti Smith kicked this set's butt.

The Etymotics were perfectly, absolutely clear, and perfectly, absolutely boring. Billie Holiday's Decca recordings were practically spooky. But they had no mettle with metal; Metallica mowed 'em down. And they did not have the low-end guts to hold up to a James Hetfield guitar riff.

The Ultimate Ears weren't perfect, either; they were muddy on large orchestral music, and Brahms sounded murky.

The Ultimate Ears also had packaging issues. Their unit showed up in a rack-hangable plastic package, the kind of thing you'd find batteries in at

Best Buy

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. I found it disrespectful that I was expected to drop $250 for headphones that I might buy off a rack display.

The headphones themselves, however, were far better than the packaging. They came with two storage options: a brushed-alloy case that was reasonably weatherproof, and a leatherette holder that could pass as a suitable-for-a-real-suit pocket carrier. They were well constructed with good parts and solid finish and came with two adapters and tools, such as phone cleaners.

Judging by Its Cover

While I'm on the subject, nothing ruins a good gadget faster than ludicrous packaging that tries to turn electronics into a marketing experience.

Shure's packagers decided their headphones needed to be treated like a poor man's Faberge egg: A red box held another red box that held a red plastic holder that held a case that held the headphones.

When I finally got inside the wrapping, I found the Shures to be decently constructed headphones. But the color? Please. My phones came in a rather odd off-gray. Where did they get this color? The U.S. Navy?

Other details also were lacking. The storage case Shure included barely held the headphones. Although I have nearly four decades of experience coiling everything from networking cable to ancient hemp rope, I couldn't easily create a coil that fit smoothly into case. And the case looked awful; it was a chintzy, faux-leather plastic disaster the shape of a large antacid. Who carries something like this?

Etymotic won the packaging contest hands down. The ER-4 showed up in a normal, well-finished black (

get this

) box, that I could (

gasp

) open and close. Stunning. Inside, I found headphones built as well as the box, and a good assortment of jacks and adapters, but no carrier.

But once everything was unpacked, the Ultimate Ears were the clear winner. The sound was hard-driving and lush across all the musical genres and compression schemes I tested: Metallica's "Enter Sandman," the Stones' "Jumping Jack Flash," Leos Janacek's "Jenufa," even Busta Rhymes and Son Volt.

The UEs found a way to harness the limitations of the electronics and materials to uncover the humanity of the music; they transported the listener into the presence of the artist. What an honor.

These headphones were like a blazing 2003 Chateauneuf-du-Pape: rich, complex, smooth and explosive on the palette.

So get yourself a pair, and turn it up, baby.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.