We'd be the first to sing the praises of music-store listening posts. Even with CD prices dropping, most people prefer to hear an album before buying it. The problem is pulling on a headset that countless strangers have worn. Can those earpieces possibly be sanitary?
With this in mind, we made like Marg Helgenberger in ''CSI'' and slyly swabbed the headsets at a bustling Manhattan record shop. Because we also wondered if certain artists' listening stations were, ahem, less clean than others', we selected CDs from a range of genres. Then we overnighted the swabs to a lab for evaluation of the presence of bacteria and fungi.
Turns out Christina Aguilera isn't so dirrty. Though after speaking to Donald Poretz, M.D., a clinical professor of medicine at Georgetown University, we weren't exactly comforted. ''There are fungi and bacteria all around us,'' he says. ''Nothing is sterile. So if it looks dirty, don't put it next to your ear.''
But before you reach for the soap, check out how some of your favorite acts fared in our experiment.
BACTERIAL FUNGI ARTIST COUNT PRESENT?
New set of earphones less than 1 No THE THORNS The Thorns 7 No 50 CENT Get Rich or Die Tryin' 13 No CHRISTINA AGUILERA Stripped 13 No R. Kelly Chocolate Factory 36 Yes MARILYN MANSON The Golden Age of Grotesque 39 No
BACTERIAL COUNT KEY: 40 Pretty nasty, but still may be cleaner than R. Kelly's conscience. 30 Hello, contact dermatitis! 15 If you don't see any pus, don't make a fuss. 10 Your ears will thank you. 1 We could eat off these boys.