May 2010

Behold the ’Phones

Record companies say the iPod killed the music industry. Audio companies say the iPod killed the speaker. They’re both exaggerating—but on some level, both assertions are true.

Many people now listen to music primarily on an MP3 player through headphones. And as the demand for headphones has increased, they’ve become a bigger and bigger business, and have gotten better and better. These improvements have spawned a subculture of serious audio enthusiasts who’d much rather listen to Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington through ’phones than on a regular set of speakers.

The last few years have seen incredible innovation in headphones. Great new models have emerged in every category and at every price point. For a few hundred dollars, you may be able to put together the best-sounding audio system you’ve ever owned—and it might fit right in your pocket.

HEADPHONE HIERARCHY

There are two basic types of headphones: headsets and earphones. Like bebop and fusion, both have their attractions and their devoted fans.

Headsets are essentially small speakers clamped to the sides of your head with a headband. They can be around-the-ear (“circumaural”) or on-ear (“supra-aural”), and open-back or closed-back. Around-the-ear headphones are bulkier but usually more comfortable than on-ear models. Closed-back headphones provide better isolation from external sounds, and they usually don’t leak sound into the surrounding environment, which is why they’re the ones you want for recording. Open-back headphones tend to have a somewhat more natural sound that many audiophiles prefer, but they leak a lot of sound, which microphones in a recording studio can easily pick up.

For portable use, most people prefer earphones. There are two basic types: earbuds and in-ear headphones. Earbuds are the things that come with MP3 players; they’re little speakers that sit in the pinna, just outside the ear canal. In-ear models insert into your ear canals; most use rubber seals to assure a good fit and block external noise.

One especially popular headphone feature is noise cancellation, which uses built-in microphones and electronic circuitry to cancel out external sounds. Noise cancellation is available in headsets and earphones. With the latter, it requires a little electronic module attached to the cord. While noise cancellation isn’t effective on high-frequency sounds, it works great on low-frequency sounds such as the drone of jet engines.

Another hot feature is wireless operation, which eliminates the cable between the audio source and the headphones. Wireless technology can sound pretty good if it’s done right, but most wireless headphones are low-fi designs intended mainly for watching TV.

HEADSETUPS

For most audiophiles, headsets are where it’s at. They tend to have fuller bass than most earphones, and some of them are so comfortable you can wear them for hours yet forget you have them on.

Frequent fliers have embraced noise-canceling phones as enthusiastically as jazz traditionalists embraced Wynton Marsalis. In this product category, Bose reigns supreme. The company’s $299 QuietComfort 15 is the standard-bearer, with great comfort, good overall sound quality and probably the most effective noise-cancellation technology in the industry.

A more affordable alternative is Audio-Technica’s $219 ATH-ANC7b, which resembles the Bose design in looks and performance. Take it from me: Wandering your city on the public transit system with the ATH-ANC7b and a few Rahsaan Roland Kirk sides on your iPod makes for one seriously relaxing Sunday.

There are many brands of headset-style headphones, but among audiophiles, two stand out for offering a wide range of great products: Grado and Sennheiser.

With their old-school leather headbands and steel adjustment rods, Grado headsets wouldn’t have looked out of place at Miles’ Bitches Brew sessions. Audiophiles revere Grado headphones for their natural, airy sound, although the open-back design makes them dicey for traveling. Top Grado ’phones such as the wood-bodied, $995 GS1000i have been audiophile favorites for years, but even the $99 SR80i on-ear headphones sound fantastic. In fact, I bet the $250 combination of the SR80i and an iPod Nano will sound better than most of the audio systems you’ve heard.

Sennheiser’s audiophile headsets look more contemporary than Grados, but rely on the same basic engineering concepts: large drivers in an open-back design (again, great for sound, bad for traveling). The best buy in the line is probably the HD 555, which lists for $169 but at press time was available on Amazon for $99. The HD 555 has just about everything most people want in a headphone: comfort, satisfying bass and mellow tonal balance I bet Wes Montgomery would have appreciated. At the other end of the line is the $1,399 HD 800, an extraordinary headphone that places its drivers slightly forward and away from the ears, for a sound closer to what you get from a pair of conventional speakers.

Those who crave a good, inexpensive headset should investigate Urbanears, whose $59 Plattan is flashy and fun yet also great-sounding. The Plattan has an in-line microphone for use with cell phones, and it comes in 14 different colors.

IN WALKED BUDS

Thanks to the iPod, earbuds are by far the most popular variety of earphones. Performance-wise, though, they’re strictly kid stuff. They don’t sound very good, and they don’t seal out external sounds, so you may need to play them loud to hear clearly—which reduces their sound quality and can also damage your hearing.

Serious listeners prefer in-ear headphones, which feature higher-quality drivers and seal out most external noise. In-ear headphones have a rep for clean mids and treble but weak bass; even the best models can’t match the bottom end of a good headset. The tighter the fit, the better the bass, which is why good in-ear headphones come with different rubber tips to fit a variety of ears.

With so much competition in this field, it’s tough for me to name a favorite, but I’ve had particularly good results with the $149 Etymotic hf5 and the $199 Future Sonics Atrio. The hf5 delivers a little extra snap and detail, and the Atrio kicks out the most moving bass. Denon’s AH-C551K delivers nearly as much performance at a more reasonable $99 price.

For me, the pinnacle of this category is Monster Cable’s $499 Miles Davis Tribute in-ear headphones. The deluxe packaging includes a little holder styled like a trumpet case plus the Legacy Edition CD of Kind of Blue, but the Tribute headphones are worth the price even without the extras. The Tribute has a clearer treble, tighter bass and greater detail than any in-ear headphone I’ve tried; it’s better even than Monster’s acclaimed $299 Turbine Gold. The Tribute brought out previously unnoticed details in Miles’ Decoy, an all-time-favorite I’ve heard literally thousands of times. And their special rubber tips seal out external sounds better than any others I’ve tried: I could hear all the subtle details in saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi’s Tenorist album, even when walking the bustling streets of L.A.’s Koreatown.

The most advanced type of in-ear headphone is the in-ear monitor, which is shaped from molds that an audiologist takes of your ears. In-ear monitors do a great job of sealing out external sounds. However, some people find them uncomfortable, and it’s hard to get them out of your ear fast in emergencies when you need to hear external sounds (like when the stewardess asks if you’d like another cup of coffee). The leader in this field is probably Ultimate Ears, which offers custom-molded ’phones at prices from $399 to $1,399.

’PHONE POWER

These days, a set of headphones might be plugged into anything from a $19 MP3 player to a $5,000 vacuum-tube headphone amp. If you’ve spent $1,000 on a set of high-end ’phones, you’d be crazy to power them with the 25-cent integrated-circuit headphone amp built into a cheap MP3 player. For that reason, manufacturers have come up with a surprising variety of dedicated headphone amplifiers.

Some headphone amps are portable models barely bigger than an iPod; some connect to a computer through USB; and some are built like high-end stereo amplifiers—you connect them straight to a CD player, a record-player preamp, etc. Headphone amps are especially important if you’re listening to a high-end headset, which will need plenty of power to deliver all the bass it’s capable of—and which has the resolution to reveal the sonic flaws in a cheap amp circuit.

While there are countless brands of headphone amps available, perhaps the most prominent is HeadRoom, which has been making headphone amps since 1992. The company offers everything from a $99 battery-powered amp built for use with iPods to a $1,699 model designed to suit the world’s most exotic and expensive headphones. For most jazz fans who want to amp up their headphone sound, a great choice is the $349 Micro Amp, which is only 4 1/2 inches long but markedly improves the sound of every headphone I’ve tried with it. It delivers far better definition and power than the headphone amp built into my laptop can muster. Adding the Micro Amp to a computer or MP3 player is like going from a student horn to a Selmer Mark VI. A battery-powered version costs $50 extra.

The real magic of all these new headphone products is that they give you a truly great musical experience in any situation, without worrying about the neighbors, the guy sitting next to you on the plane or even the person next to you in bed. For the price of a fancy dinner, you can enjoy the work of your favorite artists in stunning fidelity—anywhere you are and everywhere you go.

1 Comment

  • Apr 20, 2010 at 03:58PM Chuck Currie

    This fine as far as it goes (especially in the assessment of earbuds, but misses the excellent DT 860 phones, and the pinnacle of earphones, the AGG-K1000's. I picked these out in a blind listening against top of the line Stax electrostatic headphones that were 6 times the price at the time. ($1000 for the AKG, $6000 for the Stax). Of course, these are not for travel. Any REALLY good headphones have to be wired into your amplifier like a speaker.

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