Thursday January 12, 2012
If you spend any amount of time in front your computer with headphones, you should invest in a decent pair. Just as you should invest in a decent desk and chair. I’ve been through a few headphones, from cheap and crap to expensive and wonderful and even expensive and crap.
Listening to music is very much an individual taste whether it’s genre or how the music actually sounds through a pair of speakers or headphones. Audiophiles will spend the gross national product of a small country (and half of that on cables) to try and figure it out, but even if you’ll only invest a smaller amount (say $170-$600), you’ll hear a difference when it comes to headphones and it’s definitely something I recommend investing in if you enjoy listening to music all day long. Even a specialized headphone-amplifier can lift some dull-sounding headphones to new heights.
I have the following three requirements for a pair of headphones:
They must be comfortable. No point in having a pair of expensive headphones if you can’t stand to wear them. In a perfect world you should forget you’re wearing them completely.
Things that may affect comfort are weight and how tight they clamp on your head and ears. Personally I only want to use full-size (circumaural) headphones, it’s the only kind of headphone that I can easily forget is there, as over- or in-ear headphones have a tendency to physically remind me that they’re there all the time either by squeezing on my ear or itching.
Sound quality must be enjoyable. They don’t have to measure perfectly on some random audiophile scale, but the sound must not wear me out or sound artificially enhanced. Those two usually go hand in hand, as headphones that enhance for instance the bass will over time wear my ears out due to being pumped full of bass all day long.
I find that I prefer headphones that seem light on bass when you try them in the store compared to other offerings, but when you get home and listen to them for extended periods my ears don’t get as worn out as with a pair of bass-heavy ones. The same goes for the upper tones, constantly having those high tones tickling your ears gets weary as well. So fairly neutral is what I’m going for in a pair of headphones.
If you troll any random audiophile forum you’ll read much about some hunt for the magically neutral sound, but with a wide soundstage that makes you feel like you where transported to the same room where the recording took place. Which is of course like hunting for a unicorn, the sound is already mutated by the microphone(s’) placement and how the sound engineer mixed the sound. The kind of neutral I’m hunting for is the kind that makes my ears feel comfortable and the music sound enjoyable, according to my own mental impression and scale.
This one is optional. But not if you use them in a public place, whether that’s on the subway or in an office. Doesn’t matter if everyone share your taste in music, no-one wants to hear your muffled noise. At the office I only use closed headphones, in my home office I got a pair of open ones as I’m not likely to disturb any else in the same room.
There’s a tradeoff here between open and closed headphones, as open headphones generally tend to sound better, since it’s easier to control the sound as it doesn’t bounce around next to your ear so much.
Remember, not everyone listens to music when they work and they’ll hate you if they can hear you listening to something through your open headphones.
Generally headphones are rated, among other things, in impedance as a measure of how much power is required to drive them. As a rule of thumb, if your headphones have an impedance above around 32 Ohms your average computer, laptop or portable music player isn’t going to be able to drive them reasonably and you need an amplifier in-between.
Luckily the market for headphone specific amplifiers are equally vast (and confusing) as the actual headphones themselves and you can easily break your budget on these things as well. Not only that, but they also affect the sound a bit, making it sound “warmer” or “colder” or with less or more bass and so forth. But unless you’re a total audiophile the difference is negligible, but certainly something to pay attention to as it’s noticeable.
I’ve been through a lot of headphones. Let’s take a look at some of the recent ones, there’s both good and terrible purchases here. I’m not going to do a full review here as frankly I’m not authoritative enough on this, but these are a few of my choices from the past year:
My current office setup at work. While the K 271 will do fine without an amp, they really shine when they receive a bit of power. The TubeMagic D1 really makes them open up a bit more than straight from the iMac’s audio jack. The D1 is a tube amplifier but sadly you don’t get to hear any of those smooth tubes when using the headphone jack, only through the RCA analog out. Still the D1 is a dirt cheap DAC with decent quality and enough power to drive most headphones.
This was one of those regrettable spontaneous purchases. They fooled me completely, bought when I was at WWDC in San Francisco and sold when I got back to Norway. They enhance bass. They enhance bass a lot. They enhance bass a metric ton.
impressed fooled me at the noisy store but when worn for any length of time the enhanced bass just got annoying and wore me out, in addition to the weight. All that aluminum really makes them heavy.
I really regretted buying ever buying these, probably because I mostly felt fooled when I got home and compared them to me existing headphones, so they got sold again quickly. One of my coworkers swear by them though, so each to their own.
My home office setup. The HE-300 is currently my favorite pair of headphones. They’re open headphones so sadly I can’t use them at work, but I just love sitting and listening to these at home. They’re rated at 32 ohms so they can be driven by an iPhone or laptop, but like the K271 they really open up when given some power from an amp. The Nuforce HDP gives plenty of power to these and has a very good USB DAC (better than the TubeMagic D1).
Must of the music I listen to is of the instrumental kind, various kind of classic and heavy rock all the way up to metal, so the choices above mostly reflect this and as you’ve already guessed I’m not a fan of artificially enhanced bass as it easily drowns out other details on headphones in this price range.
Like most gadgets, spending a lot of money upgrading headphone gear is easy once you get into it, but sooner or later you’ll find a sweet spot of price versus performance for your taste where upgrading doesn’t make any sense. While I’ve occasionally contemplated toying with other amplifier combinations I’m currently satisfied enough with my HE-300 setup at home and the K-271 at work.
You should buy some decent headphones. Try a few different ones first as there’s quite a difference and it is very much a matter of taste, but the reviews don’t always reflect that.