This article originally appeared in TidBITS on 2003-12-15 at 12:00 p.m.
The permanent URL for this article is: http://tidbits.com/article/7479
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Music to Your Ears: 2003

by Dan Frakes

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.

<http://db.tidbits.com/article/07012>
<http://db.tidbits.com/article/06657>

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.

<http://www.sennheiser.com/sennheiser/icm_ eng.nsf/root/products_headphones_ portables_04854>

<http://www.audiocubes.com/product_info.php? cPath=22_30&products_id=429>

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.

<http://www.etymotic.com/hifi/micropro.asp>

<http://www.shure.com/earphones/eseries_e5c.asp>

<http://www.etymotic.com/musicians/more6.asp>

<http://www.shure.com/earphones/eseries_e2c.asp>

<http://www.sonystyle.com/is-bin/ INTERSHOP.enfinity/eCS/Store/en/-/USD/SY _DisplayProductInformation-Start;sid=mZz _RaGQiw__ZZ5aH5b1Tu6dbyyAXxxthcM=? CategoryName=pa_Headphones_ FontopiaEarbud&ProductSKU=MDREX71SL& amp;Dept=pa>

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 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.)

<http://www.koss.com/>

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.

<http://www.radioshack.com/product.asp? catalog%5Fname=CTLG& amp;category%5Fname=CTLG%5F007%5F003%5F004%5F000 &product%5Fid=33%2D1222>

<http://www.sennheiser.com/sennheiser/icm_ eng.nsf/root/products_headphones_ portables_05206>

<http://www.sennheiser.com/sennheiser/icm_ eng.nsf/root/products_headphones_ portables_05207>

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.

<http://www.sonystyle.com/>
<http://www.millionbuy.com/snymdrg72lp.html>

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.

<http://www.sonystyle.com/>
<http://www.millionbuy.com/snymdra44l.html>

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.

<http://www.beyerdynamic.com/com/product/sheets/ d225.php3>

<http://www.millionbuy.com/snymdrv6.html>

<http://www.sennheiser.com/sennheiser/icm_ eng.nsf/root/products_headphones_ professionals_04974>

<http://www.sennheiser.com/sennheiser/icm_ eng.nsf/root/products_headphones_dj_ 05180>

<http://www.beyerdynamic.com/com/product/sheets/ d428.php3>

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.

<http://www.gradolabs.com/product_pages/sr80.htm>
<http://www.gradolabs.com/product_pages/sr60.htm>

<http://www.sennheiser.com/sennheiser/icm_ eng.nsf/root/products_headphones_homeuse _minihifisystems_05179>

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.

<http://www.bang-olufsen.com/sw711.asp>

<http://www.audiocubes.com/product_info.php? products_id=308>

<http://www.audiocubes.com/product_info.php? products_id=618>

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.

<http://www.sennheiser.com/sennheiser/icm_ eng.nsf/root/products_headphones_ portables_04924>

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.

<http://www.amphony.com/products/head.htm>

<http://www.xdreamfones.com/>

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.)

<http://www.headphone.com/layout.php?topicID=3& amp;subTopicID=27>
<http://www.jmtaudio.com/>
<http://www.tangentsoft.net/audio/>
<http://headwize2.powerpill.org/projects/ index.htm>

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.

<http://www.headphone.com/>
<http://www.goodcans.com/>
<http://www.amazon.com/?tag=tidbitselectro00>
<http://www.buy.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. They both also carry a number of better sounding headphones, including models I've recommended here.

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

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.

<http://images.http://www.amazon.com/?tag=tidbitselectro00images/P/ B000089GN4.01.RB03.LZZZZZZZ.jpg>

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/>

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