You may not have given it lots of thought, but there is an entire (profitable) subculture and industry underlying the digital music player phenomenon – earphones.

I own a good number of cans and buds myself (I’m not talking about beer, dummy – cans are the ear-covering headphone variety, and buds the tiny in-ear phones). Being a former FM disc jockey gives me extensive prior experience with the things, since I used them in my career to produce audio material, and to monitor my shows from the board. Being a just regular DMP listener now, I’m constantly amazed at the variety and choices available to the average Juan de la Cruz. If I had the same choices back then I would’ve done my production work better and easier.

Looking at my stock, I’m shocked at the number I own: two studio reference headsets, one set of non-pro (and bassy) cans, six different sets of Apple-issue white buds (three still unopened – gah!), three consumer pairs from different manufacturers, one with a built-in radio tuner, a bluetooth-enabled pair and my old, beloved, noise-cancelling in-canal earbuds from Sony that I bring on planes (and it even comes with an airplane seat adaptor). What’s that, fifteen pairs? Jeez.

Some cost peanuts (and sound like they were made for monkeys). There are even Apple knockoffs in Makati Cinema Square that look exactly like the ones that come in the iPod box and cost only P150 (originals cost more then ten times as much). Some, like the Shures and Etymotics cost as much as P30,000. More than a new 80gb iPod. No kid.

But in the end, it’s all up to you. Objectivity and sound technology aside, what works for you is what determines the best pair, peanuts or not. If the knockoffs are alright, then by all means stay with them. The more discerning ears need to pay attention to the choice of player you use them with, the environment you’ll use them in, the format and encoding resolution of the files you listen to, the kind of music you like and what your ears find physically comfortable.

So why am I suddenly pontificating about earphones?

Two reasons: One, because my beloved Sony MDR-NC10s are starting to pop and crackle, and the contacts are losing it; I find I sometimes need to jiggle the power switch (yes, it has one) to make the sound come out of both sides. Two, the newly released colored iPod shuffles come with the improved buds that used to only be available with the new version of the iPod with video; I was expecting to get the new version with my shuffle late last year but was disappointed when it came with the old one. Shoulda waited.

I bought the Sony buds in 2000, at a little gadget shop in the Times Square mall in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay area, for US$180. Yeah, I was a crazy bugger back then. This was before iPods were made – I was using them with a Sony Discman. Seven years and five iPods later they’re finally showing their age. Sadly, all the tricks I’ve learned from my radio days (like scraping a little lead off a pencil tip into the switch makes them work better because the carbon improves contact and is a safe, dry lubricant) won’t be able to keep them running forever, so I’m starting to look at alternatives.

I like the Ety8 from Etymotics (picture above), which costs US$300 bundled with the Bluetooth adapter (which is the only way to go, if you ask me), or US$199 for the earphones alone. They’re in-ear pairs, but not noise-canceling, and reduce the noise by just 35 to 40dB (my old Sonys do a mean 70 dB less noise). Still, they look edgy and cool.

The other pair I like is Shure‘s in-ear, US$499 E500PTH, which is a lot like my Sonys, down to the feature that’s got many reviewers singing praise for the set – the push-to-hear (PTH) “innovation” where you don’t have to yank out the buds from your ear canals so you can hear the outside world if it intrudes on your listening. All you need do is press a button so that the audio is muted and a small mike captures the ambient sound – great if someone tries to talk to you. Nice, but old hat. My MDR-NC10 had that seven years ago.

Like I said, there are a lot of choices, some of them really odd ones, like the the Macally mTune for the nano (pictured at the top of this post), which incorporates the player into the can itself. Gulp. It has a version for the 1st gen shuffles that works the same way. Makes me remember my own homemade version for my 2nd gen shuffle that works just as great. It uses the stock earbuds and even incorporates a baseball cap into the whole business.

Actually, now that I think about it, I like this one a lot. Cheap, useful, unobtrusive, simple. And nowhere near the price of the others. Hmm.

Come to think about it, maybe I’ll stick with this one for now.