Headphones. Everywhere you look, people are using them with portable music players - including the iPod - but they're also extremely popular computer accessories, used for watching DVDs, playing games, and listening to tunes at work or play. For the past two years I've been providing recommendations for headphone gifts based on the premise that most headphones stink (especially those that come with portable audio devices, but even many that you buy yourself in electronics stores). The bad news is that this hasn't changed; most still aren't very good. The good news is that there are more quality options available than ever, and prices seem to be getting better every year. If someone in your life uses headphones, give them a pair that do their music/movies/games justice.
The response to the previous years' articles was overwhelmingly positive, so I'm revisiting my recommendations from last year. A few models have been discontinued, others have been replaced, and some prices have changed. I've also added a few items based on feedback from readers and evaluations I've done over the past year. Below, listed by type/style, are this year's recommendations. I've included approximate street prices in US dollars, and URLs for more information. (If an item is difficult to find, I've also included a URL for a reputable vendor.)
Note that there are definitely "better" headphones available than those listed below - especially if you have a dedicated headphone amplifier that can drive them properly. However, the models listed below will play nice with the headphone jack of your iPod, PowerBook, iBook, iMac, or Power Mac. Also keep in mind that sound quality between different models from the same manufacturer often varies significantly. Just because a model from a manufacturer is recommended here doesn't mean that another model from that manufacturer is just as good; there's a good chance it isn't.
Earbuds -- These models sit in your outer ear, like the iPod earbuds.
Sennheiser MX 400 ($13) or MX 500 ($17): Considered by many to be the best all-around traditional earbuds, these two models are also among the least expensive. People with small ears may find them to be a bit big. The MX 500 adds an inline volume control.
Sony MDR-E888 ($65): Sony's best earbuds; they're not quite as balanced as the MX 500, but they're still quite good. Unfortunately, they're almost four times the price. Sony claims to have discontinued them, but they're still widely available, especially online.
In-Ear-Canal Headphones -- These "seal" in your ear canal to block out external sound, and they're great for traveling. The main drawback to in-ear-canal headphones is that some people don't like sticking things inside their ears... way inside. Be sure to read the included instructions on how to get the right fit. Fortunately, all of the models listed here include several different sizes of rubber and/or foam tips to help you achieve the most comfortable fit.
Etymotic ER-4P ($260): The best earbud/canal headphones on the planet, in my opinion, and one of the best headphones, period. The ER-4P actually provide far more isolation (roughly -28 dB), and better sound, than any noise-canceling headphone on the market, making them the ultimate travel headphones.
Shure E5 ($450-$500): Shure's top-of-the-line, the E5 use two drivers in each earpiece instead of one. I personally prefer the sound (and comfort) of the Etymotics, but the E5 have become quite popular in audio circles, and some people prefer the way the E5 fit.
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.
Shure E2c ($100): The "budget" version of the Shure E5 (with only a single driver per earpiece), the E2c headphones are in the same class as the Etymotic ER-6, but provide a different tonal balance - more bass, but less detail. They also fit slightly differently; I find them a bit less comfortable than the ER-6, but I've heard from more than a few people who prefer the fit of the E2c.
Sony MDR-EX71SL Fontopia ($45): The successor to the EX70 mentioned last year, these headphones don't impress me any more than the EX70, especially their emphasis on bass and lack of detail, but that's mainly in comparison to the excellent Etymotic and Shure models. They're still a good value if you don't want to splurge on the Etymotics or Shures, and some people find them to be more comfortable.
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Earclips -- Instead of using a headband like traditional headphones, the drivers on these models clip/hang on each ear. They tend to be quite comfortable, and won't mess up your hair. This style has grown immensely in popularity over the past few years, but the only ones I've heard that I can recommend from an audio perspective are the two Koss models below.
Koss KSC-35 ($30): The KSC-35 were officially discontinued last year, but they were so popular among headphone fans that Koss reintroduced them "for a limited time." (I put that in quotes because it seems like more of a PR tactic than a reflection of their availability - Koss has been selling them on their Web site for months.) Small, lightweight, and comfortable, they offer some of the best sound under $100. They're one of the best headphones available for exercise and active use, and one of the best bargains of any type.
Koss KSC-50 ($20): The "successor" to the KSC-35, they're available everywhere, but spend the extra $10 and get the originals, which sound a tad better and are more comfortable. I recommend the KSC-50 only if you can't get the KSC-35, or if you like the looks of the newer model better. They're hard to beat for $20, though, regardless of the type.
(Koss does not let you link directly to headphone models at its Web site, below. Go to Products and click the Portable link to see the Koss models included here.)
Lightweight, Over the Head -- These are traditional over-the-head headphones using a metal or plastic headband. Koss has long been the king of sound quality in this area, as they have an entire line of portable headphones that use a driver that is much better than almost anything else on the market. However, Sennheiser released a new line of lightweight/portable headphones last year that are excellent and give the Koss models some competition.
Koss PortaPro ($40): Variants of the PortaPro have been around for decades, and for good reason: it's hard to beat their sound for the money, and they fold up into a small bundle for travel. The headband provides adjustable temple grips for comfort.
Koss SportaPro ($20): These are similar to the PortaPro (the same drivers) but with less expensive construction and a headband you can wear over your head or behind your neck. They also include an inline mute button.
Koss KTXPRO1 ($20): Similar to the PortaPro but, like the SportaPro, these headphones don't have the same build quality. They don't fold up, but they come in various colors and provide an inline volume control.
Radio Shack Pro35A ($20-$40): These are actually rebranded Koss KTXPRO1 headphones, but in black/silver instead of color. They vary widely in price - if you find them during one of Radio Shack's frequent sales, they're the same price as their Koss counterparts.
Sennheiser PX 100 ($40): The new kid on the block, the PX 100 model is an impressive alternative to the Koss headphones listed above. They're extremely comfortable, and feature a clever design that allows them to fold up like a pair of glasses. (They even include a hard, eyeglass-size carrying case.) If you like bass, you'll also like their slight emphasis on the low end.
Sennheiser PX 200 ($50): These are the "closed" version of the PX 100, meaning they seal over each ear to block out some degree of external noise. The PX 200 headphones are more balanced sounding than the PX 100, but are more sensitive to placement - if you don't get a good seal on your ears, they can sound a bit thin.
Street Style, Behind the Head -- Like earclips, this style has become quite popular - Sony's emphasis on their Street Style line has ended up naming the entire genre. They clip over each ear, but include a headband that goes behind the head/neck for stability. Unfortunately, there aren't too many choices if sound quality is important to you.
Koss KSC-55 ($15-$20): These are basically the Koss KSC-50, mentioned above under Earclips, but with the behind-the-headband. Unfortunately, if you have a large head, they have a viselike grip.
Sony Street Style MDR-G72LP ($30): Although I'm personally not a big fan of the sound of the G72, they're some of the most popular street style headphones on the market, mainly because they're very comfortable and they fold up for easy storage. (Search for "G72LP" at Sony's Web site below.)
Vertical In-Ear -- These models have a thin headband combined with earbud-sized earpieces that sit vertically (facing forward) in each ear. They tend to be very comfortable, and are good choices for exercise. Unfortunately, there aren't many good options in terms of sound; I've found only one I can recommend.
Sony MDR-A44L ($20): These headphones sound quite good, and have a much wider headband than most models in this category, making them even more comfortable than most. (Search for "A44L" at Sony's Web site below.)
Full-Size Sealed/Closed -- 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). On the other hand, they tend to be quite a bit bulkier than most of the headphones mentioned so far.
Beyerdynamic DT 250-80 ($150): These are possibly the best traditional sealed headphone that can be adequately driven by a portable device or computer; they're very comfortable (with nice velour earcups) and have great sound.
Sony MDR-V6 ($70). Quite comfortable, foldable for travel, and built like a tank, the V6 are studio monitors, which means you get a more analytical sound (lots of detail, but some people find the sound fatiguing after a while). The MDR-V6 are identical to the "pro" line MDR-7506 that sell for $40-$50 more, but are 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 monitors 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 Etymotic and Shure models mentioned above.
Sennheiser HD 212 Pro ($50): From Sennheiser's more affordable 200-series line, the HD 212 headphones aren't as balanced as the HD 280, above, but they have more impressive bass response and are a bit more comfortable for some people.
Beyerdynamic DT 231 ($90): These are good, closed headphones that probably fall between the two Sennheiser models mentioned above, both in cost and performance.
Koss UR29 ($30): Although not as impressive sounding as the other closed models above, the UR29 headphones still sound good, which is quite an achievement given their low price! They have a bit of emphasis on the bass, which may be good or bad depending on your preferences. The UR29 fold up when not in use and include an inline volume control.
Full-Size Open -- Like the closed models above, these are bulkier than most portable headphones. However, unlike the closed models, they don't seal out any external noise (or seal in your music), so they're best suited for home use.
Grado SR-60 ($70) or SR-80 ($90): Some people think these Grado models look "old fashioned," but that's part of their charm. That and the great sound you get for the money - the SR-80 are a major bargain in high-end headphones, and the SR-60 aren't far behind.
Sennheiser HD 497 ($60): An excellent pair of home headphones that are also extremely comfortable, the HD 497 sound great directly out of an iPod or computer.
Style over Substance -- I prefer good sound in a headphone to a fault - I'll wear the ugliest headphones around if they sound good. But I'm open-minded enough to realize that not everyone has the same preferences. Some people see their headphones as an extension of their appearance, and legitimately care what they look like. Here are some of the "chic-est" of headphone chic. When compared to the sound of the other headphones I recommend, they come up a bit short, but they're still an upgrade over the stock headphones that come with most portable players.
Bang & Olufsen A8 ($150): B&O has traditionally offered impressively designed products with better-than-average-but-not-as-good-as-the-good-stuff sound quality, and the A8 are no exception. They offer an innovative design that's a bit of a cross between earbuds and earclips. Whatever you call the design, they're certainly stylish.
Audio-Technica ATH-EM7 ($75): If you think the Koss earclips recommended above are simply too ugly for your ears, give these a look - you can't get much more high-tech-looking. With brushed aluminum earpieces and clips that adjust to fit different ear sizes, these are both very comfortable and very cool.
Audio-Technica ATH-EW9 Sovereign ($200): For the iPod owner who has everything, I give you Audio-Technica's flagship earclip: a version of the ATH-EM7, above, with earpiece enclosures made of Hokkaido cherry wood.
Noise-Cancelling -- These gadgets feature a processor that "cancels" out external noise in a limited frequency range. Until last year I couldn't recommend any headphones in this category because noise-canceling technology is still no match for good old isolation (see the Etymotic and Shure models above), and because almost every model on the market sacrificed audio quality for noise-canceling circuitry, leaving you with fairly poor sound. But there's finally a pair of noise-canceling headphones worth mentioning.
Sennheiser PXC 250 ($130): Virtually the same headphones as the PX 200 recommended above, but with noise-canceling circuitry. Lightweight, comfortable, and offering excellent sound in a fold-up design, these are a good travel solution if you don't like in-ear-canal models. They're also great computer headphones - the noise-canceling feature is perfect for neutralizing the droning noise of computer fans. (My office has two Power Macs, a G4 and G5, and the PXC 250 headphones "silence" them impressively, making the Sennheisers my favorite headphones for listening to music during work, or even for just "listening" to silence when I'm trying to concentrate.) Even more impressive, the PXC 250 are less than half the price of the (overpriced) Bose offerings 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 audio source by cables. Like noise-canceling headphones, it used to be difficult to recommend a wireless headphone system because they sounded lousy, even compared to cheap wired headphones. However, a couple of impressive systems have surfaced over the past few years that make wireless a viable, if not perfect, option for those who value good sound.
Amphony H1000 ($130). One of the least expensive wireless systems on the market, but also one of the better sounding options. The Amphony system uses a technology that combines digital and radio frequency technology to provide clearer sound with less interference. 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.
Freespan xdream ($200). Another great sounding, and comfortable, wireless system, the xdream uses infrared technology rather than radio waves. The downside is that you need to have line of sight between yourself and the transmitter; the upside is that there is no radio frequency interference (a major problem in most homes nowadays).
Headphone Amps? If you're serious about sound quality, you might also consider a dedicated headphone amplifier. Many people make the mistake of thinking that a headphone amplifier is for increased volume. Although that might be a benefit (and a danger to your hearing, if you aren't careful), the main reasons for using a headphone amplifier are (1) the ability to drive harder-to-drive headphones; and (2) sound quality. Headphone amplifiers generally provide the necessary power for your headphones to keep up with the music, even during complex transients. In addition, some, like amps from HeadRoom Corporation, offer a "crossfeed" processor that makes the extreme left/right imaging common in headphones sound a bit more natural (i.e., closer to the sound of speakers or even a live performance).
Headphone amplifiers connect to a line-level output (preferred) or headphone jack (if necessary) on your audio source. For portable use, HeadRoom offers their AirHead ($150) and Total AirHead ($200). These portable amps are perfect for using with an iPod or PowerBook (or even with a desktop Mac). They run off of AAA batteries and provide two headphone jacks for music sharing. The newest models, just released, also have a slim profile case that is approximately the same width and height as the iPod. (In fact, HeadRoom sells a bag that holds the iPod and amp as a package.) Other portable options include numerous DIY or DBSE ("done by someone else") amps, with lots of information available on the Web. For non-portable amps, the selection is surprisingly varied. HeadRoom probably has the largest variety, both of their own amps and those from other manufacturers, but much more info is available online at some of the URLs listed below.
(Disclaimer: I've done a bit of editing for HeadRoom. However, I was a satisfied customer long before that.)
Where to Buy? I've listed links to retailers for those products that aren't widely available. Most of the other models can be found in the United States at a good headphone-only retailer like HeadRoom or GoodCans. A few of the Koss, Sony, and Sennheiser models can be found at electronics chain stores. Web retailers like Amazon and Buy.com also carry a number of the products mentioned here.
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. They both also carry a number of better sounding headphones, including models I've recommended here.
Note that Sennheiser currently has a holiday rebate on several models I've recommended, good until 31-Dec-03: $5 for the PX 100, PX 200, HD 497, and HD 212 Pro; and $10 for the HD 280 Pro. I've seen the rebate form posted online at Amazon.com, but it's good on products purchased from any authorized Sennheiser dealer.
Finally, if you're interested in learning more about, or just talking about, good headphone audio, check out Head-Fi and HeadWize.
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