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I'm often asked for recommendations on what headphones to use with an iPod or other portable media device. Recently, there's been a trend towards questions about "traditional" headphones from people wanting to listen to their iPods at home or in the office. So how do we choose a traditional headphone that's comfortable, offers good sound quality, and won't break the bank? Here are factors to keep in mind.
What is the best headphone? The short answer is; there is no short answer. Depending on experience and personal preference, a set of headphones that's gold for one person may be tin to another. Some people insist on a circumaural (around-ear) design, where others only like a supraaural (on-ear) style. This is probably the biggest area where you should "know yourself". A pair of headphones can get a hundred glowing reviews, but if the earcup style doesn't match you, then it won't be a good purchase.
There are also closed-back and open-back styles, which both have their pros and cons. Open-back headphones yield a more natural sound, which is great if you're a professional audio technician working a studio. The drawback is that they're typically much more prone to "audio leakage". Closed-back headphones provide a higher degree of audio isolation, both to the listener and those around him or her. Whether you choose open or closed-back designs largely depends on your primary listening environment. I'd say that for most users, closed-back is a safe way to go. The sound quality of closed-back headphones is still excellent, and the noise isolation features are wonderful.
The type you choose depends on what your needs and budget are. If you need a pair that's just for casual use around the house, a less-expensive plastic set may be just fine. If you're more likely to throw your headphones into your bag to carry between home, office, and the train, you'll probably want a headphone with a more robust construction. With these factors in mind, let's look at a few specific models that I've found to offer a great mix of sound quality, solid construction, and comfort.
I own lots of different pairs of headphones (more than I care to admit) but one of my top favorites is the MDR-7506. It's a set of around-ear studio monitor headphones (the 7505 is the on-ear version) with fantastic sound quality, a great build, and it falls into a medium price range. The headband is steel, and has high-quality leather padding. It also has numbered notches for adjusting and remembering your particular "size". The earpads are foam-filled and quite comfortable. The amount of noise isolation is excellent. By simply putting on the headphones with no music running, you'll be hard pressed to hear any chatter nearby. Once the music starts rolling, you're lost in your own world.
The headphones are collapsible, tucking easily into the included pouch. The cable is a good thickness with a nice rubber coating. It's important to note that the cable is also single-sided, and coiled. This keeps it out of the way while listening and also gives you a variable amount of slack, since the cable can expand and contract. Very handy. The connector is a gold-plated mini plug, for connecting to your MP3 player, computer, CD player, etc. A screw-on ¼" adapter is included for plugging into more pro-level gear.
The sound quality is also top-notch. The headphones use sizeable drivers to produce a wide frequency response, and the reproduction of audio detail is excellent. Bass is deep and treble is clear, making these headphones ideal for all genres of music from Classical to Hip-Hop.
If budget is the first thing on your mind, consider the MDR-7502, also from Sony. While this on-ear set lacks some of the nicer qualities of its bigger siblings, such as swivel earcups and a single-sided cable, it's a great contender in its own right. The plastic construction makes it very lightweight while still maintaining durability. The headband is a rubber-coated metal, and retains the numbered adjustment notches. Noise isolation isn't quite as high as the 7505 and 7506, but it's still effective. This would be a great set to keep in your desk drawer at the office for use during the workday.
Other contenders for the budget-minded consumer include the Sennheiser HD 457 and Audio-Technica ATH-M3X. Both models are on-ear, and provide a pretty sturdy build quality. The HD 457 has a plastic construction, with sliding earcups and foam-filled fabric cushions, where the ATH-M3X has a padded steel headband and leatherette cushions. Each includes a ¼" adapter and has a Y-style cable.
The biggest difference between the two is that the HD 457 is open-back, where the ATH-M3X is closed-back. Both have decent audio quality, and are fine for casual listening. I found the HD 457 to offer a bit more detail than the ATH-M3X, though they sound pretty similar. Noise isolation on either model is minimal, which could prove to be beneficial in certain environments. Either model should hold up well to a "rough and tumble" lifestyle of being tossed in a day bag and brought from place to place.
On the flip side, if money's no concern and you're all about audio quality and a few fancy features, then I invite you to take a look at the Denon AH-D2000. These around-ear closed-back cans feature a magnesium frame, which provides a high degree of durability, while maintaining a low weight. The earcups sport thickly-padded leather cushions and are very comfortable.
Denon uses a combination of technologies to provide high-end sound reproduction. Microfiber diaphragms bring out the fine detail, while acoustic optimization balances the sound pressure on either side of the diaphragms to smooth out the low and mid frequencies. The cable is a high-grade oxygen-free copper, and it has a cloth covering that really provides a feeling of quality.
Whether or not any of these technologies mean anything to you, it all boils down to one thing – excellent audio quality. I found these headphones to excel at playing back a variety of musical genres. No detail was missing, and the frequency response is much wider than what you'll find in a typical set of headphones. Well worth a look.
"Are Bose any good?" I've heard this question many times. For me, yes they are. While I've seen self-proclaimed "audiophiles" turn their nose up at the brand, my experiences with Bose have always been positive ones. While their offerings aren't the least expensive on the block, they offer very good sound quality, an elegant style, and some of the best comfort I've ever experienced in a headphone. Both models are small and lightweight, and include a carrying case.
The around-ear style (formerly known as TriPort) has a thin, rounded headband, and very soft earcups. The noise isolation with these is excellent. Sound quality is very good. Bose's TriPort technology (found in all of their headphones) provides deep bass, clear treble, and plenty of detail. The primary difference between the around-ear and on-ear models is the size. The on-ears are surprisingly small and adopt a fold-flat design. What makes them effective is their use of memory foam for the padding. Despite the small size, the memory foam adapts itself to the shape of your ear to provide a really comfortable fit and excellent noise isolation. I'm more of an around-ear guy, but if anything could get me to switch, it would be the Bose on-ear. The only other minor difference between the models is the cable. The around-ear has a standard Y-cable with a detachable extension, whereas the on-ear includes two detachable single-sided cables, one short and one long.
A company often unheard of by the general public is Grado. Yet, they offer some of the best-sounding headphones you can get, with a wide range of prices and features. Starting with the iGrado (a set of relatively inexpensive on-ear headphones that go behind-the-neck and are specifically geared for use with the iPod), on up to the beautiful GS1000 around-ear headphones (which feature custom-matched drivers and mahogany housings), there's something in the Grado lineup for everyone.
A good general contender is the SR60, which offers stellar sound quality at a surprisingly low price, with a cool vintage look. Grado uses premium components in their headphone construction, and it comes through in the sound. The comfort is excellent thanks to the flexible headband and soft foam ear cushions. Definitely worth a look, especially if you've never heard of the brand.
There are a lot of brands and models of headphones that we don't have the time or space to cover. There are literally thousands of choices out there, and we've just highlighted a few of them. In your quest for the perfect headphone, the biggest piece of advice I can offer is to try as many different pairs as you can, and pick the one you like best.
Come by the store and visit our headphone listening center. Borrow a pair from a friend or coworker. Headphone choice is as personal as the type of music you listen to. Some sets are more suited to a particular style of music, where others are more "general purpose". Your physical features have a lot to do with the process as well. If you have big or small ears, a bigger or smaller head, etc, all of these things will have an effect on the headphones you choose. There is no "best" headphone, in terms of sound quality or comfort. There is just what is best for you.