Strapping a Motorcycle to Your Head
A wise man once told me that he deliberately avoided cultivating expensive tastes, because they are ultimately unsatisfying unless you are uncommonly wealthy. I think this is probably good advice in general, and particularly good advice for cars, wine, cameras, and home A/V equipment. But for headphones, not so much. Sure, you get the urge to upgrade, but you won't end up mortgaging your house to do so. Although you can of course go overboard if you want to, the point of diminishing returns can be reached relatively cheaply.
Dan likes to make the analogy with motorcycles. They perform better than cars, but at a fraction of the price. This is true also of headphones versus a full-blown home Hi-Fi system. However, unlike motorcycles, headphones are more practical than their full-priced competitors. You can even carry them around!
After mildly disagreeing with Dan, I'm going to spend the rest of the article quoting and linking to him. It's a net positive, really!
The only thing you really lose with the headphone experience is that whole-body listening sensation. You don't get to feel that thump in your chest on really deep bass hits. Instead it's all in your head. Which is by no means unpleasant, just slightly different to a live performance or even a good Hi-Fi system.
In case it's not painfully obvious, this post is about headphones. It contains some recommendations and advice about specific types and models, but mainly the message I want to get across is that headphones are an inexpensive and invaluable conduit to musical satisfaction. For a few hundred measly bucks you can experience something close to musical perfection. Without even bothering the neighbours. (Although you can do that too, just by singing along...)
Let's start the tour at with the least expensive. These babies are a measly A$39 shipped from m'verygoodfriends at headphonic. Put bluntly, these are probably the best value of any headphone I own.
If you have an iPod, you're probably listening with the iBuds that came with it, thinking they're not too bad. And you're right, they are OK. The second gen iBuds (with the rubber sides) are fine for spoken word and are quite comfortable, and don't sound too bad if you manage to place them correctly in your ear. However in comparison to the Yuins they sound like ... well, like crap really.
Take my word for it, the Yuins are well worth the measly upgrade. You dropped a few hundred on the iPod, what about another $39 for some decent headphones?
If you've tried earbuds before and have beed disappointed, I sympathise. I was initially reluctant myself. Unlike most earbuds I have ever tried, these seem to sit really nicely in my ears and don't need fiddling with in order to get a decent seal (and hence provide very decent bass response).
Gripes? Umm, well the foam covers fall off pretty easily. Also the cables are slightly heavier than the iBuds, and hence snag on clothing more easily. Otherwise great.
These are my default carry-around headphones. The earbud form factor is light, portable, and easy to take on and off.
Just get 'em.
These are my exercise headphones. They have individual clips which take a few seconds and a bit of practice to put on, but tend to stay put a lot better when jumping up and down (or when bent double and breathless).
These are "open" headphones which means they leak sound to the outside. This may be bad in some situations. But on the upside they also sound a lot more open, meaning that the sound is less in-your-head. I believe headphone nuts refer to this characteristic as the "soundstage" but I wouldn't stoop to such audiowanker terms. Oh, OK maybe I would.
In general the sound is probably not as good as the Yuins but there's not a lot in it. The bass response in particular is really strong but a bit muddier than I would like. By this I mean they start to sound a bit farty and boomy, particularly when the music has complicated passages of bass notes. For the money though they're great.
Koss don't make the KSC-35s any more, but have since replaced them with the KSC-75s, which probably sound better. The newer models are, I understand, a lot sturdier and more attractive than the flimsy black plastic KSC-35s. Still very reasonably priced too: A$64 shipped from headphonic (no I am not getting any commission, though I am a satisfied customer).
Another open headphone, this time a full-size pair. These are my work headphones. They are supra-aural, which means
they sound like a Toyota you can wear them all day in comfort because they sit over your ears, not on them.
The sound is great too. A well "balanced" sound that doesn't seem to emphasise or hide any particular frequency range. Otherwise they are not a huge step up in sound quality from the Yuins or the Kossen.
The main advantage of the 555s is that they are comfortable and very suitable for extended listening. Also they are open, so they let in the sound of coworkers trying to get your attention (or talking about you in the next cubicle). This may be a downside though if you're trying to drown out their noise...
Audio Technica ATH-A900
Now we're starting to get into the serious listening. These are a big step up in sound quality compared to all of the above.
These are closed headphones which provide pretty good isolation. They are also very comfy, with this crazy but effective "wing" system to keep them in place.
The difference in sound quality over the HD-555s is quite noticable. There is more detail all over, more precise and deep bass, more betterer treble. Or something. They're very very good.
For a long time these were my quality-listening at-home headphones. Get a glass of wine and kick back with the iTunes library on shuffle. A great way to spend a Friday night after a long week.
A$299 shipped. Well and truly worth the money in my opinion, although I am selling mine to upgrade to the Denons mentioned below, so contact me if you're interested?
Meier Corda Move amplifier
Yes, an amplifier. What's that you say? Speak up.... No! I'm not going deaf!
Here's the deal. By the time you get to spend a few hundred bucks on headphones, they will likely stop being the weakest link in your audio equipment. Instead it is almost certainly the crappy amp in your source. iPods actually have pretty good D/A converters (from what I am told anyway), but space and possibly electrical limitations prevent them from using very capable amplifiers. Headphone outputs on other devices are almost certainly afterthoughts, and so in most cases you probably want an external amplifier.
There is another possible use case for the headphone amplifier, and that is for use with high impedance headphones. Such beasts do exist, typically at the high-end, and are typically inaudible without an amplifier. None of the headphones on this page strictly require an amplifier though; they are all low impedance.
Behold the Meier Corda Move amplifier. Besides being an amplifer, it's also a USB audio device, which means that you can plug it into your laptop and not have to deal with its (probably) crappy D/A converters or amplifier. To top it all off the Move also a crossfeed filter, about which I will let Dan explain.
I was a bit sceptical about how well this unit would perform. Like I said, the iPod output isn't too bad, and neither is that from my PowerBook. But whoah. Was I amazed when plugging this thing in. So much detail, so much bass, so much ... presence. Just invites you to crank it up.
You know you have made a big step up in sound reproduction when you find yourself continually increasing the rating of everything in your iTunes library. All of your music just sounds better. The borderline three stars become fours and so on. Remember that I am very stingy with iTunes ratings, but this amplifier is rapidly curing that!
Once you have a good set of headphones, an amplifier is a great way to make them sound even better. Highly recommended. I paid US$235 directly from the source but also available from headphonic for a very reasonable A$299.
While the Move is the flavour of the month amplifier on the head-fi forums, the Denons are definitely flavour of the month headphones. My pair arrived the other day courtesy of audiocubes for a reasonable US$285, now going for an even more reasonable US$259 (dammit!), or available locally for a much less reasonable A$799 retail.
Without a doubt we are starting to approach the point of diminshing returns, but they still manage to greatly improve upon the A900s. Particularly when coupled with the Move amplifier, these sound just fantastic. So good that I want to instantly re-rate all my music with 5, no fuck it, 6 stars! OK, not really. Seriously, it's a lot of fun listening through these things. Old favourites in particular sound new again, because you hear new details that were previously hidden or at least subdued. I want to use the term "presence" again too, because it's a good one. Presence, presence, presence. Presents for your ears.
As for comfort, well these are the most comfortable headphones I have ever worn. It barely even feels like they're on.
There's a downside though. They fall apart. According to the forums it's quite common. The left ear cup dropped off mine after about 5 days. Fortunately I found the screw and was able to re-assemble them without too much hassle. Still, not a great experience.
This collection of 'phones covers most situations for which headphones are appropriate. Notably absent from this list is a headphone to handle the unique environment of the long-distance flight. If I did any regular long-distance flying (or other public transport for that matter) I would be picking up a pair of In-Ear Monitors (IEMs to the headphiles).
In the past I had used noise-cancelling headphones and I cannot recommend them lowly enough. These things are bad. The ones I had were Sonys, and quite expensive I believe at the time. But they sound atrocious. Even the noise-cancelling effect isn't that great.
The last time I flew any distance I used a pair of really cheap IEMs (also Sony) and they were so much better than the noise-cancelling monsters. I honestly can't remember the model, and they were certainly nothing special, sound-wise. Next time I travel I'll certainly pick up a new pair of IEMs. I've heard good things about the Westone UM1's and they will suffice as my recommendation for now, although I will be looking carefully at the equivalents from Shure, Ultimate Ears and Etymotic when it is time to buy.
Well of course it would be misleading of me to suggest that after dropping a grand or so I had reached headphone nirvana. But at this point I'd have to think long and hard about going for the next level up. I suspect also that the limiting factor in sound quality with my music collection right now may be in the lossy compression scheme, given that most of my library is encoded with AAC at 128kbps. But I have a plan for dealing with that, more later.