This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2002-12-09 at 12:00 p.m.
The permanent URL for this article is: http://tidbits.com/article/7012
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Music to Your Ears: 2002

by Dan Frakes

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.

<http://db.tidbits.com/article/06657>

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]

<http://www.etymotic.com/>
<http://www.sonystyle.com/>
<http://www.koss.com/>
<http://www.beyerdynamic.com/product.html>
<http://www.gradolabs.com/>

Earbuds -- These models sit in your ear, like the iPod earbuds.

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.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

<http://www.headphone.com/>
<http://www.goodcans.com/>
<http://www.djmart.com/>

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).

<http://www.audiocubes.com/>
<http://www.minidisco.com/>

Finally, if you're interested in learning more about, or just talking about, good headphone audio, check out Head-Fi and HeadWize.

<http://www.head-fi.org/>
<http://www.headwize.com/>