The personal listening revolution – How to select the right pair of headphones

James

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The personal listening revolution – How to select the right pair of headphones
James Layton

View attachment 3211
Shure Inc

Every portable device, including phones, are media centers. We are immersed in audio and video we have downloaded or even created ourselves and passed on to friends and family. Never before are so many listening to portable audio through headphones and ear buds. I remember when Sony introduced the Walkman. The world’s first stereo personal listening device played cassette tapes and had a radio. I slipped on a set of foam headphones, pushed the mechanical Play button and a whole new world opened up for me. Up to then headphones were what old guys used to listen to classical music on reel to reel tape. I was used to playing my 8-track tapes through a cheap portable “boom box”, as they were called in the 70’s. They just had to play loud, not well. All that mattered was the looks. And price. That Walkman showed me what better audio equipment sounded like. Fast-forward to mp3 players and Apple’s iPod system. Apple and portable audio were synonymous with the white ear bud look. Then came the florescent Skull Candy ear gear. Everyone was using ear buds of some kind. Walmart had to lock up the more expensive brands due to widespread theft. Today you can buy replacement ear buds for $2.00. The more fashion-conscious wear designer headphones costing close to $300. One can spend a few dollars or hundreds of dollars on a set. Do cheap ear buds sound the same as expensive models? Are headphones better that ear buds? What is the difference? IS there a difference? Getting straight to the point…yes, there are differences between the type of listening device and the brand and even model within a particular brand. Sound complicated? No worries. I will make it easy to shop for a set of headphones.

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Shure Inc

Form factor - Look and feel
Let’s consider types and designs first. Headphones come in closed or open back formats. Closed back “cans” keep out noise, while open-back designs allow more air flow and keep your ears cooler. Open back allow you to hear some ambient noise, like the doorbell, but others can also hear your music if they are sitting close. Not so good in bed or while flying. Now add over-the-ear and on-era styles. On-ear headphones are smaller and lighter in many cases. They press against the ear while over-the-ears fully cover the ear. The material covering the foam ear pads can be anything from soft fabric to supple vinyl. Ear buds or In-ear headphones are the most used listening device. Most inexpensive buds have a one size fits all approach. Better buds come with a variety of foam or silicone ear tips so you can get the most comfortable fit. The idea is to seal the ear canal, effectively making your skull into a listening device. Professional musicians often have custom-made in-ear headphones that fit their ears perfectly. In-ear devices can be as simple as tiny buds or complex over-the ear hook designs, which are great for jogging. Which style is better? Better quality headphones are made for specific applications and also to meet certain price points. Beyond that a lot depends on personal preference. I will make some recommendations later in the article.

Function – How they sound
When making comparisons it is always helpful to start off with the best, the ideal, the gold standard. This will be our reference to compare all others. Our gold standard is a set of headphones that sonically reproduces the original recording without adding anything new. Understand that many headsets and home speakers are manufactured to raise bass and cut other frequencies to create a perceived “pleasing stereo sound” right out of the box. Purists, however, like to hear the recording as-is and make their own frequency adjustments to suit their own tastes. To get this type of “pure” sound quality you need to get headphones that have a flat frequency response. This means that none of the 32 frequency bands have been boosted or cut by the headphone designer. I have a pair of Sennheiser HD 25-SP II headphones that I use for live sound engineering. They tend to be bass-heavy but the foam on-ear pads effectively block out ambient noise so I can hear the mix directly from my sound board. I am now looking for a replacement set that does not unnaturally boost the lower frequencies. I am considering Shure SRH940 headphones for this task. They are designed for sound engineers and studio performers. Are flat response headphones for everyone? No way! Most listeners will find the sound a little lifeless compared to what they are used to hearing. Highly compressed digital recordings will sound unpleasant because the headphones are “telling the truth” by faithfully reproducing the recording. The bottom line is good material will sound excellent while mediocre rips will sound worse than ever. For the average user who simply wants to enjoy music, movies and gaming the choices are many. Do you want lightweight on-ears or do you want to completely cover the ears like a pilot? Like to chill in your favorite beanbag and listen-in for the evening? Look for headphone designs intended for casual stereo listening and select the ear-style you prefer. Remember that larger headphones are heavier but can have better sound quality.

Headphone recommendations
For walking around and listening to music most of us like ear buds. One bud can be removed so we can talk with someone or hear our surroundings while jogging. Sennheiser CX 300 II Precision Enhanced Bass Ear buds will make you happy. The silicone ear pieces are comfortable and the bass boost will get the jam going. At around $35 these buds are not throw-away toys. They are well made and you will immediately feel and hear the difference. I like to watch streaming movies on my laptop. In order to get lost in the film it is important to surround yourself with the movie soundtrack. I find this very difficult with ear buds, even with my $500 Shure in-ear monitors. When I am home or working in the studio I always go for the larger headphones. The fit is more comfortable and there is less design compromise with a larger shell. You won’t go wrong with Sony MDR7506 Professional Large Diaphragm Headphones. The cord end will fit ¼ inch and mini-jack connectors allowing listening on a portable device, laptop and home audio equipment. The larger speakers will easily reproduce the full sound spectrum of music and video soundtracks. When shopping for higher end headphones it is critical to know if they will require a separate headphone amplifier to adequately power them. A set of Beyerdynamic DT 880s (600 ohm) require a small amplifier to power the massive drivers. A portable device will not adequately power some audiophile headphones. Do not confuse the need for an amplifier with loudness. Some headphone designs simply require more power to move the speakers and create super high fidelity sound. The FiiO E11 Portable Headphone Amplifier will juice up your cans for about $60.

What about noise canceling?

Noise cancellation comes in two forms: passive and active. Passive simply means the headphones cover the ear or seal the ear canal, blocking out unwanted noises. Active cancelation is more complex, involving a small microphone that senses low frequency ambient sounds, reverses the wave phase and sends it back into the headphones effectively canceling the noise. Active noise canceling technology was originally developed for pilots but is available today in consumer headphones and ear buds. Frequent fliers really appreciate the noise cancellation feature. Audio Technica ATH-ANC23 QuietPoint Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones come in over the ear and bud styles and sell for about $50.

Final considerations

You may have noticed I made no mention of pop culture headphones. To be honest I tend to stick with more professional brands, plus something about celebrity branded electronics turns me off. Maybe they sound great. The main thing to consider is how these listening devices sound to you. If a five dollar set of ear buds turns you on, go for it. If, on the other hand, you really enjoy your music or movies or even gaming nothing really creates an intimate sound stage like a great set of headphones. Once you try it, you’ll never go back!
 

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