As I wrote at around this time last year (see "Miscellaneous Gift Ideas" in TidBITS-609), headphones are some of the most common computer-related accessories. Earbuds come with the iPod, and many people use headphones for watching DVDs, playing games, or listening to tunes while they work or play. I always carry a pair with my iBook, and I have friends whose PowerBook G4 headphone jacks are always driving a pair.
The problem - which hasn't changed since a year ago and probably won't any time soon - is that most headphones stink. That's especially true of those that come with portable audio devices and even many of those you buy yourself in electronics stores. Even the updated iPod earbuds, though an improvement, are nothing to write home about.
Since my article last year, some of the headphones I recommended have been discontinued, and impressive new models have been released (bumping some previous recommendations off the list). Below, listed by portability, are my updated recommendations. If there's someone in your life who uses headphones, get them a pair that do their music/movies/games justice.
(As I mentioned last year, there are definitely headphones available that are "better" than those listed below. However, few of those will actually sound better without a separate headphone amplifier. The models listed below are my recommendations that will work well directly out of an iPod or the headphone jack on your PowerBook or desktop Mac.
[Editor's note: As we were putting this article together, we found to our dismay that many headphone manufacturers share a tendency to obfuscate the Web locations of their products, either using framed pages or long, nearly human-unreadable, database-derived URLs. Where possible, we've included specific URLs; otherwise, you can find certain models by going to the companies' main Web sites. -Jeff]
Earbuds -- These models sit in your ear, like the iPod earbuds.
Sennheiser MX 500 ($17): Still considered the best all-around traditional earbud, and one of the least expensive to boot.
Sony MDR-E888 ($70): Sony's best earbuds; not quite as balanced as the MX 500, but still pretty good. Unfortunately, they're almost four times the price.
In-Ear-Canal Headphones -- These "seal" in your ear canal to block out external sound, and are great for traveling. Be sure to read the included instructions on how to get the right fit.
Etymotic ER-4P ($260): The best earbud/canal 'phones on the planet by leaps and bounds, and one of the best headphones in the world, period. The ER-4P actually fit inside the ear canal and provide far more isolation (-28 dB) and better sound than any noise-cancelling headphone on the market, making them the ultimate travel headphones. The main drawback (besides the price) is that some people don't like sticking things inside their ears... way inside.
Etymotic ER-6 ($130): The "budget" version of the ER-4P. These don't sound quite as good (most notably in the bass), and don't provide as much isolation (-20 dB), but they're still excellent and are half the price.
Sony MDR-EX70 ($60): I'm not a big fan of these headphones - their sound isn't on par with most of the other headphones here - but they're the only "inexpensive" in-ear-canal alternative to the Etymotics I can recommend. Plus, if you like a lot of extra bass, these will please.
Earclips -- Instead of using a headband like traditional headphones, the drivers on these headphones hang on each ear. Earclips tend to be comfortable, and won't mess up your hair.
Koss KSC-35 ($30): The KSC-35 are officially discontinued, but they're such a great buy that I feel obligated to mention them - you can still find them at stores like Circuit City and on the Web. Small, lightweight, and comfortable, they offer some of the best sound under $100. Definitely the best headphone available for exercise and active use, and one of the best bargains in headphones. Worth tracking down if you are looking for this style of headphones.
Koss KSC-50 ($20): The new version of the KSC-35, they're still very good, but not quite on par with the original. Still, hard to beat for $20.
Audio-Technica ATH-EM7 ($75): These new earclips are all the rage among the "image" crowd - not for their sound, but for their looks, which are admittedly cool. Don't get me wrong, they don't sound bad; they just don't give you the bang for the buck. If you want earphones with a high-tech look for your iPod, these are the ticket.
Lightweight Headphones -- These are traditional over-the-head headphones using a metal or plastic headband. Koss is still the king here, as they have an entire line of portable headphones using a driver that is much better than anything else on the market. However, Sennheiser has just released a new line of lightweight/portable headphones that are excellent and finally give the Koss models some competition.
Koss PortaPro ($40): Traditional headband with adjustable grip for comfort.
Koss KSC-55 ($15-$20): "Streetstyle" headband that rests behind the head/neck.
Koss SportaPro ($20): Adjustable headband that can be worn over the head or behind the neck.
Koss KTXPRO1 ($19): It had to happen eventually - "iMac" fruit-colored headphones.
Sennheiser PX 100 ($50): A cool portable headphone that folds up like a pair of glasses.
Sennheiser PX 200 ($60): The "closed" version of the PX 100 - meaning it seals around each ear to block out some degree of external noise.
Sealed, Full-Size -- These headphones fit over or around the ears and block out some degree of external noise; they're good for travel or use in noisier environments (the isolation also saves others from having to listen to your music).
Beyerdynamic DT250-80 ($150): Probably the best traditional sealed headphone that can be powered by a portable device; they're comfortable and have great sound.
Sony MDR-V6 ($70). Quite comfortable, foldable for travel, and built like a tank, the V6 are studio monitor headphones, which means you get sound that is quite analytical (lots of detail, but some people find the sound fatiguing after a while). The V6 are identical to the "pro" line MDR-7506 that sell for $40-$50 more, but very different from the MDR-V600, which are nowhere near as good.
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro ($100): Like the Sony MDR-V6, these are studio monitor headphones that fold up for travel. They don't have the impressive bass response of the V6, but the 280 Pro offer the most isolation of any headphones save the Etymotics mentioned above.
Sennheiser HD 212 Pro ($50): Sennheiser clearly didn't spend their money on build quality for these headphones, but they sound good, especially for the money. Also a great choice if you like bass.
Beyerdynamic DT231 ($90): Another good, closed headphone that probably falls between the two Sennheiser models.
Open, Full-Size -- These models don't seal out noise, and tend to be bulkier than the lightweight models above, but they're great for listening at home.
Grado SR-60 ($70) or SR-80 ($90): Not the most comfortable headphones out-of-the-box, but great sounding for the money - the SR-80 is a major bargain in high-end headphones, and the SR-60 isn't far behind. (Grado also makes a $40 model, the SR-40, but the SR-60 is well worth the extra $20.)
Sennheiser HD 497 ($60): Last year I recommended the HD 495, but cautioned that they needed a dedicated amp; since then Sennheiser has released the excellent HD 497, which sound great directly out of an iPod or computer. Like the 212 Pro above, Sennheiser won't win any awards for build quality, but you get a great sounding headphone that's also fairly comfortable.
Noise-Cancelling -- These gadgets have a processor that "cancels" out external noise in a limited frequency range. Until this year I really couldn't recommend any headphones in this category because noise-cancelling technology is still no match for good old isolation (see the Etymotics above), and almost every model on the market sacrificed audio quality for noise-cancelling circuitry, leaving you with fairly poor sound. This year there is finally a pair of noise-cancelling headphones worth mentioning, and they're half the price of the disappointing-but-expensive Bose offering that seems to be advertised in every magazine in America.
Sennheiser PXC 250 ($150): Virtually the same headphones as the PX 200 above, but with noise-cancelling circuitry. Lightweight, comfortable, and a good travel solution if you don't like in-ear-canal models.
Wireless -- For use at home, wireless systems let you move around without being tethered to your computer or audio source by cables. Like noise-cancelling headphones, it used to be difficult to recommend a wireless headphone system because they simply sounded lousy compared to even cheap wired headphones. However, a couple of impressive systems have surfaced that make wireless a viable, if not perfect, option for those who value good sound.
Amphony H1000 ($130, uses digital radio frequency technology). One of the least expensive wireless systems on the market, but also one of the best sounding because it uses a new technology that combines digital and RF technology. They're also quite comfortable. One caveat for wireless network users: the Amphony system uses a set of frequencies very close to those of the 2.4 GHz 802.11b (AirPort) wireless protocol, and the two do not co-exist well. Amphony is supposedly working on a new version that avoids this problem.
Freespan xdream ($200, uses infrared technology). Another great sounding, and comfortable, wireless system, the xdream uses infrared technology rather than RF. The downside is that you need to have line of sight between yourself and the transmitter; the upside is that there is no RF interference (a major problem in most homes nowadays).
Where To Buy? In the United States, most of the headphones mentioned can be found at a good headphone-only retailer like HeadRoom or GoodCans, and a few of the Koss and Sennheiser models can be found at the big electronics chain stores. The Sony V6 headphones are quite hard to find; DJ Mart is one of the few places that still carry them.
If sound quality isn't your primary goal, and you're instead looking for the latest in headphone chic, Audio Cubes and MiniDisco both carry a wide variety of style-over-sound models (the ATH-EM7 mentioned above is available from Audio Cubes).
Finally, if you're interested in learning more about, or just talking about, good headphone audio, check out Head-Fi and HeadWize.