I’m getting pretty tired of reading headphones and speaker reviews since most of what’s out there is no more than a bunch of condescending bullshit. Sound quality is pretty subjective, period. It wouldn’t make sense to compare the lap time of a Ferrari around Leguna Seca to the lap time of a Lamborghini around the Nurumberg Ring, it doesn’t really make sense to compare to sets of headphones or speakers when you don’t talk about what you are listening to through them. Reviews rarely discuss this and it’s pretty important. Before we proceed and further I want to talk a bit about headphones and from there we’ll talk about sound quality as it relates.
In Ear Monitors
Right now in ear monitors, or IEMs, seem to be all the rage. You know the ones, they’re the ones that go inside your ear and are basically earplugs. You’ve seen them and you probably own a two. They typically sound pretty good and isolate a lot of external noise, and tend to run from about $50 up to stratospheric, “I could buy a used car for that amount”, kind of prices. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get what I mean. Most of them offer pretty great sound but the all come with a pretty major flaw. Since they are basically earplugs, they go deep inside your ears, and they form a pretty tight seal, you end up with a lot of cable noise. To most reviewer’s credit, this is usually mentioned, at the very least, in passing. Cable noise is a sound that you could hear in pretty loudly made just from the cable moving around. Similar to if you put your ear against a wall and then tap on that same wall. When you are sitting still at your desk this isn’t that noticeable, but use a pair of IEMs while you are running and it becomes overbearing. What I’m getting at is that the subtleties of one set of headphones over another are irrelevant when you have some weird noise generated by the movement of the headphone cable distracting you from what you are listening to.
Earbuds are basically like the kind of headphones that probably came with your iPod. Basically a pretty cheap style of headphones that are small and go inside your ears, just not nearly as deeply as IEMs or with anywhere near that type of seal. This is probably the style of headphones that you want to use while exercising because they still let inside outside noise. It’s not too smart to run down the side of the road with earplugs in. Because they don’t actually go inside your ear canal and they don’t isolate outside noise like IEMs or earplugs do, they don’t tend to sound as good as IEMs. That being said, they tend to be affordable, fairly durable, and a heck of a lot better than the cheap over the head style headphones that used to come with everything.
Over the ear headphones, on ear headphones, and the like make up the rest but what makes these better? The bigger size means bigger speakers and bigger sound, but they’re usually a lot heavier, make you look more dorky, and are a lot less portable than the other styles. They tend to run from sub $100 to outer space, “I could buy a NEW car for that amount”, kind of prices for a good pair. When you are sitting down and want to really listen to some music they can’t really be beat. Once you stand up and start walking around they become pretty awful. Heavy and cumbersome, you won’t want to use a pair of these while exercising.
Lossy Compression and Bit rates
When I first started ripping my CDs to the computer about 10 years ago I only used a particular ripping program, a particular encoder, and I ripped everything to lossless formats. I looked down on those “idiots” all around me listening with cheap earbuds to the 128Kbps songs they downloaded from the internet. How could they stand listening to that low quality crap? Then someone challenged me to ABX test myself to see if I could discern the difference between lossy and lossless. I downloaded Foobar and picked a song that I knew well and I was totally put in my place. With constant bit rate(CBR) MP3 it was pretty easy to determine the differences between the MP3 and the original up to 160Kbps, at which point it became difficult but not impossible to tell at 192Kbps. Above that it mostly felt let guessing unless the song had any sort of high hat or cymbal. Then it was pretty easy. Lossy codecs tend to suffer from something called Pre-echo. Basically, you’d hear the falloff of a cymbal crash before you hear the crash itself. It’s pretty jarring, and something that you’ll probably notice now that you’ve read about it. Sorry for that. Anyway, I found out about it after trying to Google what the heck I was hearing. For most songs this doesn’t really matter and at 320Kbps it was pretty much impossible to detect. AAC is even better, at 192Kbps I couldn’t tell the difference unless it was a killer sample. From that point forward I chose to encode everything in 256Kbps VBR AAC, which just so happens to be the way that music sold in the iTunes store is encoded. Needless to say, it was a pretty humbling experience. So why does all that matter? Most of what people listen to today is lossy compressed music from their phone or MP3 player.
Accuracy vs Warmth
I used to own a pair of Sony MDR-V6s. They are studio monitors that have been made since the 1980s and they are the consumer version of the MDR-7506, a set of cans that has been a standard in the recording industry for decades. Some of your music was mixed by somebody wearing these headphones. The next logical assumption to make would be that the album was made to listen to on those exact headphones. Which makes sense, but would probably be wrong. The engineer mixing the album wants to hear every detail and every flaw without any modification so that it can sound as good as possible. When I listen to music, I do so to enjoy it, not to be able to pick out the flaws. So back into the subjective. Studio Monitors tend to make music sound harsh and clinical because that’s what they are designed to do, but accurately produce lows, mids, and highs. If you like that, then buy a pair of studio monitors.
I ended up trading them in for a pair of Grado SR-60s. They have a pretty warm sound. Meaning that it’s not a very accurate reproduction of what the guy in the sound booth probably heard but it sounds a lot less harsh. Warmth is probably the main reason people like Vinyl still. Digital audio tends to sound pretty harsh, compressed digital audio is even harsher.
What Really Matters
So which headphones are better? Neither really, it really just depends on what you are looking for. I just got tired of analyzing the music and instead wanted to start enjoying it. So what do I look for in a pair of headphones?
- Comfort If it hurts to wear then who cares how it sounds? Especially if you can’t leave them in or on for very long.
- Sound I don’t like the bass or the treble to be overbearing and I want to be able to hear both. It’s all about feel. If it feels good I’m happy. Screw the rest. Like bass, try to find some that have more low end. Again, it’s all about feel. It’s all subjective anyway.
- Affordability Headphones are all about portability and you aren’t going to take something with you if it costs more than anything else you own. The best headphones are the ones you have with you. I try to stick to sub $100 prices.
Who cares what I write? Stop worrying about audio quality and start enjoying your music. If you like how something sounds then that’s all that matters. Pretty much everyone that writes about this sort of thing is full of crap. If you’ve read this far thank you, and to deserve to know what headphones I have and use. Here they are from cheapest to most expensive: Apple Headset, Apple EarPods, Sennheiser CX300, InCase Capsule, Grado SR60. If you disagree with me then you should check out Head-Fi.org.