I often get e-mail from readers asking about what audio equipment I use. While I’m not an audiophile, I do listen to music on decent equipment, in my office (I have a DAC and amp, with bookshelf speakers, connected to my Mac), in my living room, and when I use headphones.
While I like listening to music with headphones, I do realize that it is, in some ways, artificial to listen with them. Instruments that are off to one side sound much further away from the center of the soundscape than when you listen to a stereo. I like the effect of having the music “in my head,” but for some types of music, and some recordings, this isn’t ideal. This is the case with some symphony recordings, and some recordings of string quartets, where the instruments are separated too much. Generally, rock and jazz sound fine with headphones, but with any kind of music, good headphones are unforgiving. It’s much easier to hear any weaknesses in a recording when listening with headphones. Nevertheless, I do use headphones often. Here are the five headphones I use.
Listening on the go
When I’m out walking, I want light, comfortable headphones, but I don’t want to scrimp too much on sound quality. I don’t like earbuds, and I especially dislike in-ear headphones. For years I used Sennheiser’s PX 100, a light, foldable headphone, but one with excellent sound. Last year, these headphones died, and I bought a newer model, the Sennheiser PX 100-IIi. This is essentially the same as the PX 100, but it has an inline volume control and mic. This means that if I’m walking, and listening to music on my iPhone, I can take a call without removing the headphones. For other uses, the volume control and play/pause button make it a bit easier to listen to music. The sound quality of this headphone is surprisingly good, though don’t expect a lot of bass from this headphone. (Though these have been supplanted for mobile listening by the Philips Bluetooth headphones I discuss below. I now mainly use these to talk on my phone when I’m home.)
Blocking out noise
There are times when I want to listen outdoors and not hear the sounds around me. This was a particular problem last year, when there was construction next to the house I was living in. Having moved since then, there is, at times, a bit of street noise around my new home. So sometimes I like to sit outside and listen to music, and I want to hear just the music. Following a recommendation from my Macworld colleague Dan Frakes, I bought Audio Technica’s ATH-ANC7B, a noise-canceling headphone. While this suffers from the problems inherent in this type of headphone – the sound is good but not great, and wearing them makes your ears warm – they do offer good enough sound that I am not disappointed. I could have spent twice as much and gotten Bose noise-canceling headphones, but I didn’t want to, as I don’t use them enough to make it worthwhile. I find the Audio Technicas to be quite good, and certainly good enough for my use.
Finally, I have a set of full-sized headphones for “serious” listening. I used to have a Sennheiser HD-580, an excellent headphone at an affordable price, but after about 15 years, they started sounding a bit dull. So I asked around, and my friend Doug Adams, of Doug’s AppleScripts for iTunes, recommended Beyerdynamic’s DT 990. I bought them from Amazon so I could return them if I didn’t like them – I don’t have a local store that sells headphones of this type – but I quickly realized that this was the kind of sound I like. The bass isn’t overdone, the treble is clear, and the definition is subtle and balanced. These are open headphones, so you don’t want to use these if you’re listening to music with other people around you. The foam rings are soft and plush, and the headband is comfortable. I can wear these for hours and not get tired, which isn’t always the case with full-sized headphones. Oh, and I got the 32 ohm version, so I can use them with my iPods, as well as with my stereo.
Following comments to this article – both posted below and by e-mail – I decided to try out Sony’s MDR-V6 monitor headphones. These are available at around $75, and were recommended by both casual listeners and people I know who work in the music industry. These are interesting headphones. They are closed, and offer a bit of passive noise reduction. They are light and comfortable, and the earpieces fold up, making them easily portable. And they have a coiled cord, which can get less tangled than a long, straight cord. As far as listening, I’ve only had them for a short time, and they are very bright, very clear headphones. The bass response is limited, but this could be because they aren’t broken in yet. But the resolution and spaciousness of the sound is excellent. While I prefer the warmth of the Beyerdynamics, especially for classical music, these Sonys sound great with music that has energy. This is an excellent sub-$100 headphone.
I’d been looking for a Bluetooth headset for a while, and tried a Sennheiser, MM 400 model. I was very disappointed. The sound was terrible, and they were very uncomfortable, so I returned it. Then I came across this Philips SHB9100/28 Bluetooth Stereo Headset, and I think I’ve found the right one. It’s light, and very comfortable, with large ear pads that cover my ears entirely. This means that they provide some passive noise reduction, so if you’re in the street, listening to music, you won’t hear the cars as much. They’re obviously not noise-canceling headphones, but they do a good job of reducing chatter. The sound is excellent. The bass is sufficient for a small headphone, and the stereo separation is excellent, with clear midrange and treble. They also come with a cable, so you can use them as wired headphones if the charge runs out. The charge with a USB cable, and are rated to last about 8 hours (though I’ve always charged them before they run out).
There are many brands of headphones I would like to try, notably Grado and Stax. As I said above, I don’t have any stores where I live where I can hear these headphones, so I’ll have to wait until I visit a larger city and find a good audio store. (These brands are not widely sold.)
If you’re curious about the different types of headphones, see this TechHive infographic that explains the differences.
If you have any favorite headphones, feel free to mention them in the comments.
Posted: 12/5/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: audio equipment, headphones, music | 14 Comments »
It’s been years since I’ve used Apple’s earbuds with an iPod or iPhone. I’ve long been a fan of good, light headphones, and my go-to cans for when I’m moving around are Sennheiser’s PX 100-II i, a light, foldable headset with an inline mic and iOS device controller. But I got a set of Apple’s EarPods with my iPhone 5 last week, and thought I’d try them out.
First, the shape. It’s odd, but it makes sense. Not only the oblong shape in general, but the position of the sound point, pointing toward the ear canal, rather than just to the side of the ear. They fit fairly well, even if, in my left ear, it feels as though it’s not quite right. All in all, however, this is an earbud that won’t fall out easily, and that’s a good thing.
But then there’s the sound. These earbuds are totally devoid of bass, and even of low midrange sounds. At first, I tried them out when listening to some podcasts. The lack of bass actually makes spoken word a bit easier to understand. But when I put on some music – The Clash’s Train in Vain, from London Calling, for example, with a strong bass riff – the music was hollow and empty.
No, these don’t cut it for listening to music. They’re a bit better than the previous earbuds in terms of sound, and much better at staying in ears, but if you really want to listen to your music, try something else.
Posted: 9/25/2012 by kirk | Filed under: iPad, iPhone, iPod & iTunes, music Tags: headphones, iPod | 2 Comments »
I need a new telephone for my home office, and I really like using headphones when I talk, so I can type while talking with clients, and so I don’t have to hold the phone in my hand and keep my arm raised at other times. I live in France, and there are essentially two brands of telephones available: Siemens (Gigaset) and Philips. (There are many other brands, but they only sell the most basic telephones.)
After doing some research, the only phone I could find that has the ability to connect a headset is the Gigaset SL400. It has a mini USB jack, which you can use to transfer data, and which also allows you to connect a headset. I bought this phone, and bought a mini USB > 3.5 mm adapter, but I get no sound out of my headphones. (I’ve contacted Siemens’ support, which is supposed to get back to me, but the call-center person I talked to didn’t even understand what I wanted to do.) The SL400 does have Bluetooth, but I hate Bluetooth earpieces, and the connection takes several seconds, which is annoying.
I like this phone a lot, but I want a DECT phone that allows me to connect headphones, period. I’m surprised that this seems to be rare, at least in Europe. One friend in the US has an older Motorola phone with a headphone jack, but Motorola sells very few phones here.
It’s odd that you are expected to hold a phone like this in your hand, while all mobile phones come with hands-free kits. This is especially the case for people who use these phones in offices, and may need to use their hands while talking, as I often do when working with clients on the phone.
So, any suggestions? Has anyone found a phone like this?
Posted: 8/2/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Tools & Techniques Tags: gadgets, headphones, telephone | 14 Comments »
Buy from Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Amazon FR
I don’t travel much, so I’ve never needed noise-canceling headphones before. But recently I had a need for them: there is construction right next to my home, and it should last for several long months. In addition, there’s a small stream next to my house, and it is, at times, noisy enough that I can’t listen to music outside with normal headphones.
To this end, I looked at what was available, and asked some colleagues (notably my Macworld colleague and headphone specialist Dan Frakes) for some advice. Many people recommend Bose’s QuietComfort headphones, but they’re a pricey $300 (actually much more here in France), roughly twice as much as the Audio Technicas I bought.
So, how do they sound? Pretty good, actually. The noise canceling is efficient and works well even without listening to music. When I just want silence as they backhoe is digging outside, they cover most of the noise. When I listen to music, the soundstage is good, with decent detail, but they are a bit bass-heavy and treble-weak. I don’t like using EQ on an iPod, but when I’ve got them plugged into my stereo, I alter the bass and treble settings.
These headphones come in a practical carry case, have cables that unplug from the headphones using a standard jack, and come with two such cables. They’re light, not too hot to wear, but they’re not very big. I have large ears, and they just barely fit, pushing my earlobes a bit upwards, but not to the point of discomfort.
I’ve not tried any other models, but can compare them with other headphones I have. They don’t have the best possible sound, but they do what they are designed for, and are affordable. So, if you want something that is an alternative to the pricier Bose models, you should try this one out.
Posted: 7/7/2011 by kirk | Filed under: iPod & iTunes, music, Tools & Techniques Tags: audio equipment, headphones, music | No Comments »
Buy from Amazon.com
For the past few years, my headphone of choice for listening to music on my iPods was the Sennheiser PX 100, a lightweight, inexpensive headphone with surprisingly good sound for the money. A month ago, however, the cable just before the jack broke, and it was time to replace them. The PX 100 has had excellent reviews for years, and was well appreciated by users and journalists alike, but is no longer made. I turned to the PX 100 II-i, a third iteration of the model, which is the most recent version of the headphones, released last year.
Like the original PX 100, the PX 100 II-i is a folding headphone, with a small on-ear earcup. It’s light, there’s no pressure on the ears, and they are fully open: you can hear everything around you. This headphone is excellent for listening when you’re outdoors, where it is important to hear sounds, especially if you’re walking in the city. They do not, of course, limit any sounds, so if you want headphones that do this, you will need to look elsewhere. (I’ll be posting a review of a recently purchased noise-canceling headphone soon.)
The sound quality of this headphone is, as I’ve mentioned, excellent for its size and price. New with this model is an inline remote control that works with iPods and other iOS devices (as well as Macs, and, perhaps, other computers). You can change the volume, and pause what you’re listening to, and, with a double-press, skip to the next track. This remote is also a mic, if you have an iPhone (which I don’t).
However, a valid question is whether it is worth some $25 more just for this remote. (The Sennheiser PX 100-II is currently selling for $65 at Amazon; it is the same as the PX 100 II-i, but without the remote. The PX 100 II-i sells for $90.) I find the remote useful when I’m listening to music both outdoors and even when I listen to my iPod in bed. My iPod touch has an external volume control, but my iPod classic does not. In addition, the controls are positioned about 8 inches from the headphones, so they are easily accessible. Nevertheless, it’s a bit of a premium to pay just for a couple of buttons. (Though it’s certainly more useful if you have an iPhone.)
My only gripe is that the cord itself is rather flimsy, and I’ve already gotten it snagged on doorknobs a few times. It comes out of just the left side of the headphones, unlike the PX 100, which had a double cord that met in the center. That is a bit odd, as all my other headphones have a central cord; that may explain, in part, why I’ve been clumsy with it.
Overall, I’m very satisfied with the PX 100 II-i. I use it often – either when listening to my iPod outdoors, on my daily walk, or, at times, when watching a DVD on my laptop. The sound is clean and crisp, though the bass is weak, which is to be expected from such a small headphone. (I don’t listen to a lot of bass-heavy music.) If you want good sound in a light, folding headphone, the Sennheiser’s PX series is great choice. Either the PX 100 II-i with the inline remote, or the PX 100-II without it, will provide you with great sound and comfort.
Note: no review unit was provided; I paid for these out of pocket. For the record, I have another Sennheiser headphone – HD 580 – and I’ve only once been disappointed by Sennheiser’s products.
Posted: 5/21/2011 by kirk | Filed under: Tools & Techniques Tags: headphones, music | 1 Comment »
For years I have been using Sennheiser PX 100 headphones with my iPods. (They no longer exist, and have been replaced by the Sennheiser PX 100-II.) Yesterday, my headphones finally died. There had been a drop in volume on the right channel for a while, and I realized it was the cable breaking, just at the point where it comes out of the reinforcement around the jack. Last night it broke, and the right channel died.
I’m replacing them with the newer PX 100 II-i, which is essentially the same, with the addition of an inline remote and volume button, designed to work with the iPod and iPhone. But in the meantime, until they are delivered, I have to use my Apple earbuds.
I hate earbuds. They don’t stay in my ears, and I have to constantly move them around to get balanced sound. If I lie down, they fall out. And while the sound is not necessarily bad, it’s not as good as over-ear headphones. (I hate in-ear and in-canal buds even more; I hear my breathing far too much to enjoy listening to anything.) I guess some people have ears that work better with earbuds, and some don’t mind if the balance isn’t ideal. But I hate them. I just thought I’d share this.
Does anyone else feel this way?
Posted: 4/16/2011 by kirk | Filed under: iPod & iTunes Tags: headphones | 16 Comments »
I’ve long wanted wireless headphones. Not only to listen to music at home without wires, but to listen outdoors, controlling iTunes with my iPod touch and Apple’s Remote app, being able to flip through anything in my music collection, rather than being limited to what’s on my iPod.
Many years ago, I tried wireless headphones, but the static from interference with my home phone was terrible. But recently, having seen very good reviews for Sennheiser’s current wireless headphones, I ordered the RS 180 model, which is the best of three available. It offers transmission of up to 100 meters (line of sight, of course), and has, apparently, the best sound quality of the three models.
Alas, all was not as expected. In spite of what many reviews say, there was a very noticeable hiss coming from the headphones. I tried turning off all my wireless devices – my AirPort base station and my phones – but the hiss was still there. Either these headphones were getting interference from somewhere, or I had a defective unit.
I bought these from Amazon, and I was hoping that I could contact Sennheiser for technical support, to find out if there was anything I needed to check. But Sennheiser does not offer any technical support; none at all. Tech support for their products is provided by the reseller, and Amazon is certainly not the one to go for with this type of question.
So I was left with two choices: return them for a refund, or for exchange. It so happened that when I went to process the return on line, the headphones were not in stock, and wouldn’t be for 1-2 months, according to Amazon FR. Oh well, here’s a fine example of a tech company not only losing a sale, but getting a pissed-off customer at the same time. I have two other Sennheiser headphones, and I like them very much, but the next time I buy new headphones, I’ll find a brand that does offer tech support in case I do have any problems or questions.
Posted: 2/16/2011 by kirk | Filed under: Tools & Techniques Tags: headphones | 5 Comments »
I currently use a pair of Sennheiser PX-100 headphones with my iPods. These are small, light, over-ear headphones that have excellent sound for the money. I’ve had them for several years, and I think it’s time to replace them. (I have no real problems with them, but I think headphones at this price point degrade over time.)
I may end up buying another set of the same ones, but does anyone have any recommendations? Remember, over-ear headphones, not earbuds. Thanks!
Posted: 9/16/2010 by kirk | Filed under: iPod & iTunes Tags: headphones | 9 Comments »