Monday, September 8, 2014

What's the best headphone?

What's the 'best' headphone?  If you asked 1000 people this, most would probably say Bose and the second most popular answer would probably be Beats By Dre / Monster.   Beats would probably be picked first among a certain segment of the population, those from 13-25 years old. Their answer would be based overwhelmingly on one thing... marketing.

If you asked them what other brands they've tried the overwhelming majority would be hard pressed to name a brand other than brands sold in Best Buy, Fry's, HH Gregg or Apple.  While some of those brands do make great sounding headphones, (Sennheiser, Sony) the models sold in these stores are the models predominantly made for the average consumer, not the higher end models that some of these brands also make.

Consider this...

When you buy a car from a dealer and want the stock high-end audio system, it's usually Bose, right?  (Although now some car manufacturers (and electronics) are now available with Beats Audio.)   Yet when you take your car to an aftermarket car stereo shop and put in a much better sound system you don't choose Bose, right?   You usually choose something like Polk Audio, Infinity, Alpine, Diamond Audio or Boston Acoustics.  My point being that Beats and Bose are better sounding than your average department store speaker but there is far more out there that most consumers aren't aware of.

So then why do most consumers so quickly jump to believe that the same brands you'd 
replace in your car to improve the sound would also make the best headphone on the market?   Marketing and ignorance.  The average consumer isn't aware of well respected and reputable audio brands because they don't place ads in your airline seat-back magazine or numerous other non-audio magazines.

Headphone Popularity


In the past few years it's become a status symbol to wear headphones by certain brands.  (Beats, Bose)  The popularity of digital music and smart phones has helped to push closer together the two distinct headphone consumer groups.   Those who buy headphones from mass produced, well known consumer brands and those used by real audio buffs (audiophiles) who are willing to spend considerably more than $5-50.
Are Bose & Beats worth it? 
The problem is that those who come from the former group (the general headphone buying public) are easily influenced and misled and spend a considerable amount of money on headphones that they think are of high quality but are in reality closer to the same quality of headphones they are used to but just cost more.

If you came here thinking that Beats or Bose are the "best on the market" then you have been misled.  Read the reviews and comparisons here (also accessible from the 'Recommended Headphones' link on the right) and tell me that the person who told you that "they are the best" is nearly as knowledgeable on audio and headphones.  I am NOT tooting my own horn.  While I am knowledgeable, a lot of the info grouped on Recommended Headphones is an aggregate of respected and knowledgeable people and sites.
Free BeatHeadphones
People have different needs and preferences but if you are spending greater than $50 on headphones without doing your personal research then you are making an ill-formed purchase.   You need to do more than just asking your family member, neighbor or department store college-aged employee who you may believe is an "expert".   That "neighbor's brother, who is an expert, told me" logic will prove to be false more times than not.  That person probably got their data from another ignorant consumer or from a decades old bias.    Also consider the lingo that the person recommending the headphone is using.   Do they use lots of non-technical words (or misspelled words online) like "great", "awesome", "cool" or do they use words that give proof that they at least know something beyond the average consumer like "separation", "detail", "dynamic" and "stage".  I would also make a blanket statement that you shouldn't take a recommendation from anyone under the age of 21.  (Sorry guys, they are just more likely to give false information here due to their being influenced by marketing and peers.)

What you need to do is to go to a local store that carries brands that you've never heard of, probably that boutique professional audio store that you've driven past a hundred times.   You need to take in your music (iphone, ipod, etc) and sample the music you like on a half dozen, or more, different brands and models.  Talk with the employee and be honest about what you know.   They will introduce you to brands like AKG, Audio-Technica, Beyerdynamic, Grado, Sennheiser and perhaps even Sony.  What?  Sony makes high quality headphones?   Yes, they do, but not the same ones you'll find in Radioshack or Best Buy.   I would avoid Best Buy, or similar mass electronic chain stores, for your research until you've concluded which headphone model you want and only if they carry it for the best price.

"But wait, I don't want to spend a lot of money".   Weren't you about to drop $150-400 on a pair of headphones based on marketing (popularity and what you perceive to be good) and rumor?  How smart is that?   You can spend the same amount, or even considerably less and get something COMPARABLE or even BETTER than what you were about to spend your money on.  "But wait, how?  I heard that this is the BEST you can buy?".    First of all, there is absolutely NO BEST.  It's a personal preference.   "But I don't want to waste time shopping around.  I don't know enough about them anyway.  I just want the general consensus BEST".   Well then, the general consensus BEST, if you listen to people who truly know audio, is NOT going to be what you were about to drop a couple/few hundred dollars on. In fact, Beats or Bose is more likely to be frowned upon.

Consider this...  Who makes Beats Headphones by Dr. Dre?   Monster.  This is the same company that is infamous for selling $100 HDMI cables that connect your cable box to your flat screen tv.   It's also known that you can buy a comparable cable, that is of similar quality, for 1/10th the price from places like Monoprice or here on Amazon.  (read this for proof)  So why would you believe that they, a company new to the headphone market with that reputation, would make a truly high-end headphone that is a good value? (You have seen all the commercials and marketing placements, right? Plus the celebrities sporting their headphones.  Do you actually think these celebs paid for these headphones? Who said that a pro athlete is the go-to source for audio anyway?)  Are Beats headphones worth it?


Noise Cancelation:

Also keep in mind that if you must have noise cancelation, you are limiting your choices. Additionally headphones that have noise canceling will not be the best sounding headphone for a price point. Honestly, no noise canceling headphone will have 'better sound' than a non-noise canceling headphone of truly good quality. If you're not a frequent flyer or working in areas with a lot of background noise, you're probably better off not getting it. If you listen to headphones at home, you don't need it. A good in-the-ear (IEM = in-ear-monitor) or over-the-ear headphone will provide sufficient outside noise isolation. Also keep in mind that noise cancelation requires batteries and most of these headphones won't work at all if the batteries are dead. But if you must get noise canceling headphones, don't buy anything until you test drive these from Denon. Denon AH-NC732 Active Noise Cancelling Headphone. The Bose QuietComfort 15 's do probably have the best noise cancelation technology but don't mistake that for the best sound quality. While they do sound nice, if getting the best sound is your goal, you should not get noise cancelation.

Do you want specific headphone recommendations?   These are just a few and is no way all-inclusive. There are PLENTY of other options just as nice. For a more substantial list, click on the above "Recommended Headphones" link.





Sennheiser HD595 Dynamic High Grade Performance Premiere Headphones

List Price:$329.95
Price:$249.99








Sennheiser HD25-1 II Closed Back Professional Headphone 
List Price:$299.95
Price:$174.50 


Small enough to be nice for portable usage, great sound, durable and blocks outside noise well.


 




Audio Technica ATH-M50 Pro Studio Monitor Headphones

List Price: $199.00
Price: $139.00


These can't be beat for the price. Check out the numerous number of glowing reviews. Below are some quotes...

review 1 - "They sound so ridiculously good that I can't even imagine if I need, let alone want to hear more expensive offerings."

review 2 - "I'm so glad I made the choice I did, these headphones are MUCH better than the Beats Studios that are $300 and even better than the $200 Solo HDs."

review 3 - "The headphones sound so nice that I am starting to realize the quality of some of the songs in my collection are not as of great quality as I thought when I purchased them." ... "The lows are completely balanced and warm, I really can say in comparison to the beats that I am in fact, more impressed with the M50's"



Phiaton MS400

List Price:$249.00
Price:$229.00





If you like the style of another more popular brand but want better sound quality.



To do more research on headphones and get opinions from people who know this stuff, peruse the forums here:

http://www.head-fi.org/forum/
http://forums.audioholics.com/forums/index.php

http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/551873/bose-or-beats

I found this thread particularly funny and informative. It details experiences of people not wearing Beats headphones being asked, "why didn't you buy Beats?".    Are Beats headphones worth it?