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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.

Earphones

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.

Headphones

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)





DaveyBoy
07.05.10
Daniel, I don't want to be a d!ck, but I have an issue even before I have had a read of your blog.

"Ipods". So are you saying that the headphones you write about are only relevant to Ipods... & not every other MP3 player on the market?

Sorry for being nit-picky, but it's a pet hate of mine.

DaveyBoy
07.05.10
Just had a read of the intro & it seems that your blog is concerning Ipods specifically. So I guess I'll move right along. Never owned an iPod & hopefully I never will.

DiceMan
07.05.10
Lol @ DaveyBoy's comment.

I have Senn HD 555's and they work perfectly for everything but loud environments. In those I just use my much older Bose set.

This is a really good blog entry though.

8bit
07.05.10
headphones just broke yesterday, this blog should help. thanks.

Liberi Fatali
07.05.10
Nah it is relevant to all portable audio devices, title just works better with Ipod in it

DaveyBoy
07.05.10
Hehe. You should ask for commission.

But seriously, nice & informative write-up here Daniel. Good stuff.

BTW, Sennheiser is my brand of choice. Usually good value in comparison to quality.



Liberi Fatali
07.05.10
Yeah I've never usually been a fan of Sennheiser in the past, but my friend has a pair of IE 7s which I gave a try of and boy oh boy they're fantastic. I really do hate the styling on their headphone models though like the HD 555 & HD 280 Pro which is why I can't bring myself to ever buying a pair.

focksy
07.05.10
i bought the skull candy titans (IEM) the other day, they're pretty bad compared to the denons (IEM) i bought in the past for the same price

Liberi Fatali
07.05.10
Yeah generally can't recommend skull candys unless you only care about the looks.

Matte
07.05.10
I fucking love Grados. I have a pair of SR225i's and they rule. They're way more musical and engaging than some of the entry level Sennheisers(HD 555/HD 595).

Deviant.
07.05.10
There's a reason why they have lifetime guarantees on them

Emim
07.05.10
Nice article.

Calculate
07.05.10
killer blog

Spare
07.05.10
need to get new headphones too, excellent timing. will probably get a pair of grado sr80is.

DiceMan
07.05.10
Idk if it happens with most of their headphones but I've noticed a significant change in the bass on my Senn HD 555's. It got a lot more punchy then it was when I bought them which is a really good thing.

klap
07.05.10
davey why the ipod hate

Matte
07.05.10
That's called burn in DiceMan. Part of it may be an actually change in the sound of the headphones as they break in, but it's mostly in your head as you get used to the sound signature of your 'phones. I remember when I got my first pair of Grados I thought that they didn't have enough bass because I was used to a much bass heavier pair I had, but over time as I listened to them more they seemed to become more bassy.

taylormemer
07.05.10
I own a pair of Sennheiser HD 280 Pro which I use pretty much for all my studio work when I can't mix on monitors. They've served me extremely well over the past three years, with the only wear and tear being on the left ear pad stitching. The great part about most higher end headphone manufacturers is that you can obtain spare parts, without forking out for a new pair. AKG or Audio-Technica would probably be my other choice for headphones. SHure are ok, though they make better microphones.

For on the go, I have a neat little pair of Sony MDR-Q66s which I love immensely, because they fit well for my ears, are compact, sound fine, and aren't closed so you can still hear some traffic noise, which in my opinion is quite important. I'll probably upgrade to the G38s sometime soon.

DaveyBoy
07.05.10
I'm just a bitter old man Rudy. LOL.

Nah, for one thing, the title of this blog is the first reason. Sure, I shouldn't blame them for great marketing, but man I hate it when people even call their non-iPod MP3 players an "iPod".

Other reasons are that there are many other MP3 players that are just as good & much better value for money (cheaper & you get more without needing to buy add-ons). Also, I find simple drag & drop without having to synch with iTunes and all the other set-up with an iPod so much easier.

Liberi Fatali
07.05.10
You should also consider the iGrado headphone if you're going that route, they've been getting some pretty great reviews.

taylormemer
07.05.10
Not sure if that's directed to me, but assuming it is:

Not shabby, though I still prefer the Sony's design as I can retract both the neck cord, and audio cord inside the unit. No messy wires.

Also, Davey, you're right. That's probably the reason why iPod is so successful; by controlling the way in which a user uploads content is essentially another conduit for monopolisation. I'm a big fan of Apple's marketing strategy, but not so much for their controlling habits. But there are millions of ways around iTunes anyway, so...

Slum
07.05.10
I've never had a pair of IEM's that weren't uncomfortable as fuck

KritikalMotion
07.05.10
I use AD700's at home. This has nothing to do with mp3 players but oh well.

RedSky
07.05.10
I'm not a huge fan of Grados. I've tried the MS1 (essentially a modified Grado SR125) and was really underwhelmed for the price. Lots of people like them on head-fi though. Does bear mentioning their big downsides regardless of preferences is a small soundstage (ie, sound is coming from a small area). At that price I'd definitely recommend the AD700s instead because in comparison they have a huge one.

Also for portable at $180 a couple of great options are the Denon D1001s, and Audio Technica M-50s. Again, they seem to be the most lauded on the head-fi forum.

Lower model Shures also from what I've read are pretty bad value, anything under the SE530 really. At that price, the Head-Direct RE0s would be a great bet. I've got a pair and they compare very well to my Etymotic ER4Ps which are about double the price.

Also, if you're looking to buy something, I'd definitely read/skim this:

http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/433318/shootout-38-portable-headphones-compared-equation-audio-ep3070-added-07-04

http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/478568/multi-iem-review-81-iems-compared-senn-ie8-fs-atrios-fa-eterna-hippo-vb-added-07-01

http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/450407/multiple-iem-shootout-v-3

Knott-
07.05.10
Yeah, you can't been Sennheisers.

Douglas
07.05.10
I love my Shure E2c's. Great noise cancellation, and perfect for using when drumming.

taylormemer
07.05.10
Great noise isolation*

trololololol
07.05.10
Using an ipod (excluding imods, Noisepods are the like) without an amplifer to drive your IEMS, headphones, etc is defeating the purpose of upgrading from stock earbuds in the first place.

Ask around, or even try it yourself. If you're after SQ, Apple products are definitely a no-go. Try Sansa or Cowon maybe.

Though Apple's user interface is definitely worldclass, thats they only thing they have going for them.

Liberi Fatali
07.05.10
[quote]Using an ipod (excluding imods, Noisepods are the like) without an amplifer to drive your IEMS, headphones, etc is defeating the purpose of upgrading from stock earbuds in the first place.[/quote]
This blog isn't directed at audiophiles or those obsessing over sound quality, but aimed at those with limited knowledge about headphones and those wishing to upgrade from the bundled earphones with their music player.

Essentially I think your comments are missing the point a bit.


trololololol
07.05.10
Yea i know what this post is aimed at, given his introductory manner of writing. I just thought to give users who want to know more some form of outlet. I'm sure those reading this article would have at least some form of inclination to upgrade, so why not know more while they're at it?

I'm in no way dissing this article or anything, its well-written, and good for starters.



taylormemer
07.05.10
Liberi is Incognito tro.

TheyTookOurJobs
07.05.10
Just bought some Phillips headphones today........... I sorta wish this blog was up earlier.....

mynameischan
07.05.10
awesome

FlawedPerfection
07.05.10
I have the Shure SE210s. They sound great, though I had a pair of Audio-Technica Quietpoints that were pretty incredible until the right speaker blew out.

bloc
07.05.10
I was recommended Klipsch Image S4's on this site for IEM's, and I couldn't be happier with them.

R6Rider
07.05.10
My headphones just broke 2 days ago.

Copperkid64
07.05.10
Most skull candy's are good. With volume adjustment, they're quite comfortable and not too expensive.

ShadowAmI
07.05.10
i have skull candy hesh headphones and the sound is extremely good, and they were only like 40 bucks

Blakout
07.05.10
I love my HD280s. They're the only decent headphones I've used, so I can't say how they compare to anything else in the same pricerange. They're miles ahead of the shitty $20 wal mart headphones my friends use, but that's to be expected I think.

Jips
07.05.10
How do these grados compare to boss headphones... I've had boss around threat phones for a few years and thinks they are great... Does grados offer a better product at a similar price...

AnvilJ
07.05.10
Thanks for the article. Decided to give the IE8's a try.

Took me a long time to buy an Ipod, and only did so for the 3rd party support. I personally despise iTunes more than Apple. Godspeed YBE crashed iTunes, and i had to delete the album before it worked again. Thought that was actually pretty fitting.




Pizza
07.05.10
I have a pair of grado sr60's and audio technica es7's, both of which are perfect for what I need thiem for. Ever since the es7's burned in completely I've been using them way more than the grados, the only reason i use the grados is because they are way more comfortable for longer periods of listening and the open air design seems to work better with certain types of music

Matte
07.06.10
Jips, do you mean Bose? Cuz Bose sucks. A lot. If their products were half the price they sell them for then they would be ok.

And all Skullcandys excpet maybe one or two just sound terrible. I thought they were super sweet a few years ago before I learned about better gear, and listening to them now is just painful imo.

East Hastings
07.06.10
http://reviews.cnet.com/headphones/v-moda-vibe-gunmetal/4505-7877_7-32161239-2.html?tag=txt;page i use these, got em for about 40 dollars at costco. good iems with good noise isolation, and i use them about 12 hours a day, they sound great

Zizzer
07.06.10
Ugh so expensive!!!

Photon
07.06.10
invest in a good mp3 player i have a sony Xseries walkman and the sound is incrediblle even with the stock earphones it also has active noise cancellation ..

unaffected
07.07.10
Klipsch s4's are unbeatable for the price ($79): http://reviews.cnet.com/headphones/klipsch-image-s4-earphones/4505-7877_7-33577358.html

Zizzer
07.07.10
I'm intrigued by those.

Matte
07.08.10
I don't understand why people don't mind spending $200 on an ipod, but freak out when good headphones cost an equal amount?

Relinquished
07.08.10
Probably because they think it's much more economical to buy a mp3 player that ALSO bring headphones.

Matte
07.09.10
Too bad there's pretty much no MP3 players that come with even decent headphones, especially ipods haha. Ibuds are some of the worst sounding headphones I've ever heard.

kingsoby1
07.11.10
just bought Shure SE210 b/c of your rec. found a good deal on amazon for 80$.

Skimaskcheck
07.12.10
sweet blog, missed this one

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