In recent years, a growing trend has hit the headphone market. In addition to having to provide quality sound, many consumers view headphones as an integral fashion statement whose appearance helps reflect the wearer’s sense of style as well as personality. To that end, we have seen a rise in headphone designs ranging from '70’s retro to futuristic modern art, and just about everywhere in between. In a testament to modern acoustic design and the efforts of the designers, many of these headphones sound as great as they look.
Skullcandy is a great example of this. Their Crusher over-ear headphones have a sleek, almost aerodynamic look, and the Skullcandy logo is subtly placed both on the ear cups and the cable. Ergonomically designed for a comfortable fit, the Crushers have synthetic leather ear pads that not only provide comfort, but also create a seal around your ears for more accurate delivery of your tunes. Not skimping on the design of their actual purpose, the Crushers are meant to accentuate the bass response of your music. A system including 40mm speakers, dual drivers, bass-reflex porting, and an integrated amplifier make sure the Crushers really pump. The amp even has a “smart circuit” that turns itself off after it detects no audio for 10 seconds, to save battery life. They come equipped with a single-button remote and mic so you can take calls from your cellphone.
If the idea of deep customization sounds appealing to you, you should check out Sol Republic. Their on-ear Tracks HD headphones are essentially a component system; you can quickly swap out the FlexTech headband and cable for a variety of different colors and patterns. Powered by their V10 HD sound engine, the Tracks HD offer a boost in the lows as well as the vocal range, so they’re well suited for modern pop and hip-hop. If you are into larger headphones, the Master Tracks have over-the-ear cups and the slightly more powerful X3 sound engine, but work on the same premise of interchangeability as the Tracks HDs. A huge benefit to the Sol Republic line is that you are not stuck with the appearance of the headphones you bought for their lifespan. By simply swapping out your headband or cable color, you’ve refreshed the look of your headphones without having to buy a new pair. Both the Tracks HD and Master Tracks come with an in-line mic and 3-button remote.
The Parrot Zik, simply put, pushes the boundaries of what we can expect with from a pair of modern headphones. These Bluetooth wireless headphones are sleek, clean, and angular, with an all-black and polished metal appearance that is clearly aiming for elegance. When you have the illustrious Phillipe Starck as the designer and Carla Bruni as a spokesperson, it’s safe to say you’ve gotten that whole “fashion” thing down. However, to coin a cliché, the Zik is not just another pretty face. What’s really impressive about these headphones is what’s under the hood. The Zik’s lack of physical buttons is made possible thanks to its ear cup touch-panel controls, which allow you to raise and lower your volume by swiping up or down accordingly, with skipping tracks controlled by a front or back swipe. To answer a call, all you do it tap the ear cup. As far as the call itself, you are covered by the dual-directional mics and jawbone sensor. When you want to pause playback of the track you’re listening to, simply remove the headphones; a motion sensor detects when you’ve taken them off and pauses playback, only to resume it when it you’ve placed the Zik back on your ears. An additional 4 microphones power the active noise cancellation, which can reduce external ambience up to 25 dB.
You really can’t talk about stylish and functional headphones without talking about Beats by Dr. Dre. If there is one company that has been on the forefront of making headphones that blur the line between audio gear and fashion, it is Beats. Started by legendary rapper and artist Dr. Dre, the Beats line seems to be as at home in the studio as on the red carpet.
The company recently refreshed their flagship Studio model. Featuring an even sleeker design than their predecessors, the Beats Studio has curved edges and folds down for storage. Sonically, the Studio line, as most of Beats headphones, provides ample bass and boosted highs, really catering to rap, hip-hop, and modern pop. They have active noise cancelling that is powered by an integrated rechargeable battery, so you won’t have to worry about replacing batteries, simply recharge with the included USB cable. The Mixr line was initially designed for DJ and producer David Guetta, and keeps his professional requirements in mind. Rotating ear cups are affixed on a headband and housing specifically designed for the abuse DJs dish out. Their sound response is tweaked toward their intended purpose, and Mixrs put out bass at high levels, so you can hear them in the club.
Beats’s Executive headphones sport a bit more of a conservative look, and if a pair of headphones can be described as looking “business-like,” it is the Executive. As their name implies, they are geared toward the traveling professional, with their active noise cancellation, leather headband, and polished ear cups. The Pro headphones have a similarly elegant look but are definitely Beats’s entry for true studio headphones. Their thick ear pads provide not only noise isolation but help prevent leakage when tracking vocals.
Focal is a company whose name is familiar to many audio engineers and audiophiles. They have built a reputation for producing powered speakers that have found their way into both professional and home studios worldwide. Their Spirit One headphones are intended to be a cross-section of the company’s commitment to high-quality audio and elegant design. They have an aluminum body, which is exposed on the headband going into the ear cups. The ear cups themselves have a closed-back design, which assists in creating the roughly 20 dB of noise isolation with which the Spirit Ones are endowed. As far as the sound they produce, the headphones are powered by 40mm drivers with a Mylar and titanium dome that creates un-hyped, accurate reproduction.
AKG has collaborated with DJ and producer Tiesto to produce three pairs of headphones, the K67 Tiesto, the K167 Tiesto, and the K267 Tiesto. All three look similar, with a polished-silver look to the headband and black ear cups with the Tiesto logo emblazoned on them. They are also all made with XRP³ glass-fiber reinforced polymer parts. However, the models do exhibit a number of differences. The K67s have an on-ear design and sport slightly smaller ear cups than their bigger brothers, and will be at home while DJ’ing or just listening to your tunes. The K167s have an over-ear, closed back design, which will help with noise rejection. They also have a frequency response that is geared toward studio work as well as live use. Stepping up to the K267s, you jump to 50mm drivers (from the 40mm driver that the other two models sport) that have a 3-way bass boost (stage, club, or studio) to select the response that’s right for a given application.
Sporting a classy, retro style, the Momentum on-ear headphones from Sennheiser capture the appeal of the rail-style 70’s HiFi headphones without seeming gaudy or over-nostalgic. Available in both brown and black, they have soft leather ear cups and a leather headband that withstand sweat and water. The attention Sennheiser has paid to the design of the Momentum headphones extends down to the detachable cable. It has a Kevlar outer jacket and a jointed 3.5mm stereo connector that allows you to select from straight to right-angle use. The in-line remote and mic are iOS compatible.
Where the look of the Momentum recalls the past, the HD 598 around-ear headphones are modern and sleek with high-gloss burl wood accents. On the sonic front, they feature Sennheiser’s E.A.R (eargonimic acoustic refinement, get it?) design standard that basically directs the audio directly into your ears with minimal distortion. Luxury is the name of the game here, with a thick padded headband and cushy velour ear pads. They even have a surround reflector, to create a wider sense of spatial response.
Sony’s X Headphones manage to have a simple but simultaneously attention-grabbing design, with a polished silver body and either black or red accents. Their massive ear pads house 50mm drivers, capable of producing bass down to a remarkable 3 Hz. Their large urethane-foam ear pads are a great example of style with a purpose, as they not only provide a certain aesthetic but excellent noise isolation while remaining comfortable, helping their drivers pump the bass. The detachable colored cable has a flat, serrated design that prevents tangles and features an in-line iOS mic and remote. For such a large design, they fold down nicely to be stored with the included case.
With their MDR-10R headphones, Sony draws on a classic and straightforward design that allows for a high level of customization with compatible Android phones. The brushed finish on the ear cups contrasts nicely with the polished sides and cushioned headband. Like most of the headphones we’ve talked about, the MDR-10Rs have an in-line remote and mic, but unique to this model is its compatibility with the SmartKey app for Android, which basically lets you personalize call, music, and toggle functions.
Beyerdynamic is another name that’s very familiar to audio professionals. Their DT 1350 on-ear headphones have a really fun “retro futuristic” look, like something out of an old science-fiction flick. The designers at Beyerdynamic clearly have a commitment to functionality, and every aspect of the DT 1350s seems to be done for a reason. The headband is split and quite flexible, allowing for a proper fit. The ear cups can be swiveled 90 degrees for single-ear monitoring as well as flat-folded storage. They are driven by Beyerdynamic’s Tesla technology, which centers around a ring-shaped magnet driver specifically designed for low-distortion output.
The Custom One Pros allow you to tailor their sound and bass response to your liking, but unlike many other headphones, they accomplish this task acoustically rather than with digital sound processing. Their Custom Sound Slider allows you to alter the headphone’s bass reflex vents in four stages, resulting in either extra bass or a more accurate, even response from your music. Visually, these are big, almost intimidating-looking headphones with a closed-back, over-ear design. Beyerdynamic offers deep customization visually as well as sonically, as you can swap out the ear-cup covers with a wide variety of prints from Beyerdynamic.
If you want to get hands-on with a wide selection of headphones, please come down and check out the Live Listening Stations here at our SuperStore in NYC, where you can not only see but listen to more than 70 different models, to help you decide.