While most portable music devices these days are definitely capable of supplying quite reasonable sound quality, the earphones packaged with the device often are very much lacking. In particular, the earphones supplied with ipods & iphones are lamented in the audiophile world, and even upgrading to a low-range pair of headphones can dramatically improve the listening experience. This should not be taken as an authoritative guide, but just simply an outline of what key factors to be aware of when purchasing headphones for your ipod.
Does price matter?
In short, yes. The price of ear or headphones is generally very indicative of their sound quality. Yet as the price escalates, the marginal difference in sound quality decreases. In other words the difference between a $300 and a $400 set of headphones will not be discernable for the typical listener. In particular at higher price ranges, there is no gain for portable listening devices. Furthermore with electronic audio files, the quality and bitrate of the file will have a significant impact on the listening experience, and more expensive headphone models will tend to highlight the flaws of the file.
Another caveat is that brand is often more important than price. If you opt for the right brand, even at low prices you’re likely getting bang for your buck.
What brand then?
There are a number of quality brands out there. In general try to stray away from the Japanese giants Sony, Phillips & Panasonic. For open headphones Grado have an outstanding range from both entry-level audiophile to $1000+ headphones. For a range of closed headphones, a brand like Ultrasone is consistently value for money. Other reliable names who produce a range of ear & headphones are Shure, Sennheiser, Audio-Technica & AKG.
With earphones, there are two styles, in-ear (in-ear monitors, IEMs, canalphones) which have increased dramatically in use over recent years & earbuds. IEMs insert directly into the ear canal, and are able to block-out external noise nicely. As such the quality of IEMs is generally far better than old-style earbuds. As IEMs are able to block out a large degree of external noise, they require less volume than with earbuds and thus if used correctly can reduce risks of hearing loss.
There are a number of downsides to IEMs and few cheaper pairs offer good quality sound. The quality of the phones for any individual listener is also dependent on the fit within the ear canal, and if the supplied sleeves do not fit comfortably, the phones can be both uncomfortable and offer a decreased listening experience. So before shelling out on an expensive pair of IEMs, it is a good idea to be sure you’re comfortable with IEMs.
Circumaural (full-sized) headphones completely encompass the ear, and thus are larger than supra-aural headphones which sit on the ear. Full-sized headphones tend to be more comfortable over long periods of time than supra-aural headphones (though with continued use they do become more comfortable).
Another distinction to note is open vs. closed headphones. With open headphones the sound going into the ear is allowed to flow out, whereas with closed headphones there is solid material behind the transducer preventing sound escaping. Open headphones generally produce a superior sound over closed cans in the same price bracket. For listening around the home, or anywhere where sound-leakage isn’t an issue, a quality pair of open headphones are the best option.
Of course for listening in public, open headphones essentially allow the person next to you on the bus to hear what you’re listening to – which isn’t ideal. Hence for people who frequently use their headphones in situations where they don’t want sound leakage, a quality pair of closed headphones is often the best bet. The decision on whether to opt for in-ear earphones or a pair of closed headphones should be based on portability. If the size of full-sized closed headphones is not an issue for transporting them around with you, then they tick all the right boxes. However for those not wanting to lug around a bulky pair of headphones with them, in-ear earphones are likely a smarter option.
What about noise reduction headphones?
As mentioned earlier a pair of full-sized closed headphones or good fitting in-ear earphones will block out a good degree of external noise. Noise reduction headphones generally offer a poorer quality sound for their price range compared with other head or ear phones. For environments such as airplanes they do a good job of blocking out steady low-pitch sounds. But for noises such as crying babies they will not block this noise out. For those constantly travelling, noise reduction headphones are an option; though buyers should also consider a pair of IEMs or full-sized closed headphones.
So what pair should I buy?
For those listening at home:
If sound-leakage is not an issue, the best quality sound you will get for any given price range is a pair of Grado headphones. In particular the Grado sr80i provides terrific value for money, and the ideal starting point for potential audiophiles. It should be noted that Grado headphones are sometimes criticised for their comfort, though as the earpad softens with use they do become more comfortable. For style the Grado’s retro styling may not be to everybody’s liking, but in terms of listening experience they are second to none for their price.
Best bet: Grado sr80i (Supra-aural open headphones)
For a pair of quality open headphones, Grado really do offer supreme performance right across their product range. Both the sr60i (Retail for $80), and the slightly pricier sr80i ($100) offer a huge step up in sound quality from headphones retailing at $50 and under. The sr80i win out over their cheaper brother due to their better low-ranges. If money is no issue then a higher price Grado model should be considered, yet on portable music devices the difference in sound quality is very minimal.
For those on the go:
If you intend to use the headphones outside home or for use while commuting, the best options are a pair of quality in-ear earphones or full-sized closed headphones. Again the important issues to consider when choosing between the two is whether portability is an issue, and whether IEMs are going to fit correctly. If the earphones don’t fit correctly, the sound quality, the comfort and the ability to cancel outside noise will be severely compromised.
Best bets: Ultrasone Hfi-580 / Ultrasone DJ1 (Full-sized closed headphones)
Both models are identical in terms of sound quality, and offer a terrific full-bodied sound with portable devices. Used with an iphone they produce more than enough volume and retain good detail at quieter volumes, which can be a concern with some full-sized headphone models. Slightly pricey at around $180, but the quality construction of the headphones makes it worth it for those with the money.
Sennheiser HD280 Pro (Full-sized closed headphones)
Cheaper than the Ultrasone options, these quality closed cans offer great sound quality for their price of around $90. The drop in price point means some sacrifice in sound quality, styling & construction over the Ultrasones but still offer nice detailing when used with an ipod.
Shure SE210 (IEM)
Manufacturers of IEMs have made quite significant progress in improving the comfort and quality of IEMs in recent years. A pair of Shure SE210 retail anywhere from $110 up to $180, and improve upon older Shure models such as the E2c. While all the Shure models offer terrific sound quality, the SE210 offer far better value for money than their more expensive brethren so make for a smart choice.
Sennheiser IE 6 (IEM)
Their more expensive brother the IE 8 are very well renowned by audiophiles, yet at around $400 that may be too much for some to stomach. The IE 6 retail from around $105 to $200 depending on the store. They make for a great alternative to Shure’s range, and many will argue they are superior.
Really the best set of head/earphones depends on the individual and the way they use them. As with any purchase of this nature, care should be taken to ensure you know which style suits your needs. While audiophile websites will often produce a ranging set of opinions on any given headphone, there are a few good websites which will really help guide you in the right direction including Good cans and Head-fi.
What do I use?
iphone 3GS 32GB
Ultrasone DJ1 Pro (Full-sized closed headphone)
Grado sr225i (Supra-aural open headphone)
Sony MDR-EX300SLB (IEM)