The Headphones I Use (Updated)

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.

Serious listening

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.

In-between listening

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.

Wireless listening

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).

What’s next?

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.