About Lifehacker’s Headphone Picks

A friend sent me a link to an article from Lifehacker, where they picked their Five Best Headphones.  My friend knew that I like headphones.  I try not to be too into audiophile headphones.  I only own one pair of headphones worth over $1,000, so I’ve not gone completely overboard.  Trust me.  Or don’t and go over to Head-Fi and read what all the nice people there have to say about headphones.

I replied to my friend, discussing that article on Lifehacker, and he suggested I publish it as there was a ton of additional information in it.  So, here it is, a reply to Lifehacker’s article:

Best depends on what you’re using it for.  These are all lower end headphones, and reasonably well selected for their function and price range.  They’re not bad suggestions.  Other than the Bose, which are always overpriced, they’re reasonable value for money choices.

When I consider a headphone, I look at two things: how does it sound, and how comfortable it is.

I find headphones that sit on your ear (called supraural headphones) to be uncomfortable quickly, especially if I’m wearing glasses.  I want the big padded ones that surround the ear entirely, called circumarural headphones.  Or, I want “canalphones” or “in-ear monitors” which fit in the ear like earplugs, and don’t mess with the ear at all.

The other consideration is if the headphones are “open” or “closed”.  An “open” headphone is open on both sides.  One side goes to your ear, and the other side is open to the room.  Many headphones have only a grille or screen on the back, and are quite open despite looking like they have a box around them.  Closed headphones have a solid back.  Closed headphones block out more room nouse – they isolate better – but can make music sound muddy or echo.  Closed headphones can sound like your head is in a box, because it is.  Many people think open headphones sound better, but they can annoy people around you or let people around you through to annoy you.  I generally prefer a closed headphone for the isolation.

The Grado SR80i the list there is often loved by many.  Others can’t tell it apart from the cheaper SR60i, or think you’ve wasted your money until you get the SR220i.  They have a particular sound, which is good for some music and not others.  If you want to listen to Classic Rock, older Rock & Roll, or various forms of metal, they’re a good choice.  They’re not a win for classical or prog rock.  They’re not good at keeping outside sound out, and they leak a little sound.  Some find them uncomfortable – you just have to try them; they rest partly on the ear and can pinch glasses, and rub your ears.  I can only wear them for a few hours.  Others are put off by the WWII radio operator look.

I carry a pair of the Grado SR60i’s in my briefcase for portable listening.  They get pretty flat and haven’t got beaten up yet.  I don’t find them terribly comfortable, or particularly enjoy the Grado sound.

The Sony headphones are loved by DJs everywhere.  They’re loud, and isolate outside sound well – so you can hear yourself at a loud club, for instance.  They are fully circumaural, which I find more comfortable, and well padded.  They’re pretty tough.  I thought they didn’t sound very good in the brief try I had with them, but I can see where some would like their strongly colored sound.  I consider them not worth the money, and would prefer different headphones, but some love them.

The ATH-M50 is their entry-level headphone, and it is well regarded.  I haven’t heard a pair, so can’t comment on them.  Closed back means reasonable if not good isolation and they won’t be noisy for other people in the room, and full circumaural usually means more comfort, at least in my book.

The Bose Quiet Comfort are hugely overrated and hugely overpriced.  People get all giddy over them because they’ve never listened to good headphones before.  Comfort is extremely good, and they are light and can be worn for quite a while, which is unusual for me to say about a supraaural headphone that rests on the ear.  They’re really fragile and break often.  Bose won’t fix them.  Bose has a house sound that’s strongly colored.  Some people will like that sound; it works well with vocals and brass.  It’s not as good for strings or classical.  Active noise cancelling is only good for a few sorts of noises – jet engines is one of them! – but won’t change people talking around you or the screaming baby behind you.  Active noise cancelling also gives some people headaches.  I’m not fond of any of the active noise cancellation headphones, and these are overpriced for what they are.

The Koss Porta Pro – look for them on sale, you can find them way cheaper than Koss’s full retail – is really good sounding headphone for a flimsy pair to wear around and get beat up.  They fold up and can be jammed in a pocket and will take all sorts of abuse.  They look like cheap crap, and don’t sound like it at all.  Koss’ lifetime warranty ($6 to replace, for any reason) is true and worthwhile.  If you plan on doing anything active with them get two pairs so you can have one on you and one in the mail to Koss for repair.

Instead of the ATH-M50, I’d probably suggest a Sennheiser headphone; the HD558 or the HD598 are both going to be good choices, which will offer a different sound than anything listed here, and be better for classical or vocals than rock.  They’re a more mellow sound.  They’re also very light and comfortable.  I can wear mine for hours.

If you really wanted a noise cancelling headphone, I would suggest the Audio Technica ATH-ANC7B or ATH-ANC9 instead of the Bose.  They’ll last longer and sound better.

I really wouldn’t suggest a noise cancelling headphone, though.  I’d suggest a strongly isolating headphone, instead.  My choice is the Etymotic ER4p, but their less expensive models are good too – they keep changing them, so I don’t know exactly which to suggest.  The Shure in-ear headphones are also good, and start around $100.  Avoid in-ear headphones below around $100, as they’ll be awful.

Key to headphones is to remember that more money is not always better.  Beats By Dr. Dre is a hugely overpriced headphone with mediocre quality.  Apple and celebrities love it – but it sounds bleh.  Bose is overpriced for what you get.  Lots of people enjoy them, but you can get as high quality of sound for half the money.

Keep your wits about you and replace the $1 crap that came with your device with $100 headphones, and you’ll be impressed.  Even $200 headphones will be audibly better to many people off most MP3 players.  Jump straight to $1,000 gear, and you’ll be sad.  Spend the money on high quality music before you buy the $1,000 headphones.

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