Whether you’re at home or on the go, many of us spend a lot of time listening to music on our headphones. If you’re looking to get beyond the iPod earbuds and invest in a nice pair of headphones for yourself, here’s how to pick out the perfect set for you.
Headphones come in a number of different styles, that are going to fit your ears and sound differently when you wear them. The first thing you should narrow down, when deciding on a pair of headphones is which form factor you want. You’ll want to make this decision based not only on where you’ll be using them, but what type of music you’re listening to.
Earbuds and in-ear headphones are tiny earpieces that go inside your ears. You’re probably familiar with these, as cheaper earbuds often come with music players (like the iPod). Earbuds generally sit in the bowls of your ears, while “in-ear” variants actually go in the ear canal, some fairly deeply.
Pros: Earbuds are super portable, which is nice if you’re using them on-the-go. In-ear varieties also offer some isolation from outside noise, which is great on airplanes or loud buses. They’re also more comfortable than over-the-ear headphones if you wear glasses or have ears that stick out like mine do.
Cons: While you can get some pretty decent in-ear headphones, you probably won’t get the same sound quality that you would from an over-the-ear pair of headphones. Some people also find them less comfortable, because they’re uncomfortable with putting things inside their ears. Comfort is mostly personal preference when it comes to earbuds. Lots of them are prone to falling out of your ears, too, so not every model is good for exercising.
Ear pad headphones were much more popular before the advent of the iPod, but they still have some good qualities that make them worthy of consideration. These headphones are usually small pads that go over your ears, but don’t cover the entire ear. They’re more often than not “open” models of headphones, which means you get some sound leaks both ways—you can hear outside noise and the outside can hear a little of your music.
Pros: These are generally some of the most comfortable headphones around, since they just sit on the outside of your ears. They won’t make your ears get hot or pin them back, which is nice. Their open-backed construction provides good sound, and is especially nice for exercising, since it keeps you aware of the crazy old lady going 80 miles per hour behind you. They’re also usually very portable, which is great for on-the-go use.
Cons: Since many ear pads are open, you wouldn’t want to use them in a situation that’s exceptionally loud, like on an airplane, since they won’t block outside noise. You also wouldn’t want to use them in a super quiet area, like a library, since other people will be able to hear your music. And, while a lot of people prefer open headphones for their sound quality, you probably won’t get as much bass response as with closed models. Ear pad headphones do come in closed models, but since they don’t cover your ears, many aren’t quite as effective as a full size, closed headphone would be.
Walk into any electronics store, and you’re likely to come across several wireless headphones and stereo headsets. However, the chance that any of them are worthwhile for music listening is probably slim to none. As with the active noise cancelers, I have no sub-$100 recommendations here.
Sennheiser’s MM 450 Travel Bluetooth headphone (around $450.00) is a feat of engineering. My experience with stereo Bluetooth headphones had not been at all encouraging until I came across the MM 450 Travel. This closed-back headphone is easily the best sounding Bluetooth stereo headphone I have ever heard. No, you won’t mistake it for Sennheiser’s flagship HD 800, but you also won’t believe your music is being piped to you through Bluetooth. The MM 450 also has very good active noise cancellation (no, not as good as the QC15’s, but still very good), can be used passively (via an included cable) when the battery dies (or when you’d rather not drain its rechargeable battery), includes a very nifty TalkThrough feature that allows you to hear the world around you (using its built-in stereo microphones), can be used as a Bluetooth headset, and has control buttons with which to easily control your calls and music.
For home use, the best sounding wireless headphone I’ve used so far is Sennheiser’s RS 170 (around $280.00; pictured). To maximize wireless sound quality, Sennheiser opted to license Kleer wireless technology (which allows for uncompressed CD-quality wireless transmission). The RS 170’s headphone is closed-back, and has very good sound quality for both music and movies.
If the idea of a hi-fi quality wireless in-ear monitor interests you, Sleek Audiomakes its in-ear monitors available with a wireless option that, like Sennheiser’s RS 170, uses Kleer wireless technology. Sleek Audio’s SA1 W-1wireless earphone system is priced at $170.00, and their top-of-the-line custom-molded CT7 W-1 comes in at around $800.00. They have a couple of systems that come in between these two, in terms of both price and performance.