December 6, 2008


Filed under: analog,digital,interfaces,toys,want — mhoye @ 7:09 pm

I’ve finally killed my preferred earbuds (a pair of higher-end Sony earbuds, which were quite happy-making) and when I plugged in the backup earbuds I got with the iPod I couldn’t put up with them for more than a few seconds before putting them back in the box.

It’s not hard for me to believe in the widespread problems with hearing that the death of dynamic range is apparently causing, because the very nearly all of the headphones I’ve tried suck; they’re only marginally better than listening a novelty greeting card hidden in a burning paper bag.

That’s not an exaggeration, by the way – having a good pair of headphones is a profound and somewhat embarrassing revelation; it is finding out that you’ve only been listening to half your music all this time. You can immediately see what turns hardcore audiophiles into the gullible lunatics they are, and you might never listen to the radio again. I’m not going down all the way down that road, because I’m not a millionaire sucker, but I’m going to take a few tentative steps in that direction. So, people: what do I want here? I think the answer is this widget plus a certain set of in-ear earbuds, but I’m not sure where the sweet spot is between dollars and quality.

Any suggestions?


  1. Well, it really depends on what your budget is and where you’re going to use them.

    I’m going to assume under $300. Chances are that you’re going to use these both on the subway and at work.

    Try out a pair of Etymotic ER-6i or ER-4, they’re In-Ear-Monitors, so you’ll hear every bit of the song, and the bass response is pretty good. The BEST part of these is that given a good fit, it’ll block out pretty much everything. I used them on the subway for months and could barely hear my stop being announced.

    Unless you’re in a loud environment, you’re probably going to want a different set of headphones at work. To paraphrase you, “big headphones make loud music good.” And so I’m recommending a pair of Grados. I’ve got a pair of SR-80s and they’re a damn good value. If you want a bit wider of a soundstage, check out the SR-125 or SR-325 ($$$ there). Or, if you want a pair of closed headphones, check out the AudioTechnica ATH-A700 or ATH-A1000, both excellent headphones. Just fyi, the higher-end headphones generally need a headphone amp of some sort.

    If any of this is confusing or if you want a better explanation, check out this thread:

    Comment by Guillaume — December 6, 2008 @ 9:24 pm

  2. Done properly, headphones can be among the best sound you’ll ever hear. What I can wholeheartedly recommend from significant personal experience are:

    1. The Sennheiser HD650. It is not an in-ear headphone, being instead an open-backed around-the-ear headphone. It is unparalleledly comfortable for long-term listening (I don’t think there are many other headphones that I could wear for eight hours straight), and the sound is as good as you’ll get from $2500 speakers.

    2. The Shure SE530. This is an in-ear headphone, and one of the more comfortable of the lot. (In-ear ones always irritate me eventually, but these take a while to do so). They seal out sound extremely well, have sound reproduction that’s close — if still inferior — to the HD650s, while being a lot more usable on the go. I assume that their goodness continues in somewhat diminished form down the line, but I don’t know the points of significant diminishment.

    My recommendation would be HD650s if you’re looking for home use, or SE530s for portable use. (I disrecommend Beyer DT-880s, which are supposed to be good but are not; and Etymotic ER-4Ps, which are very good, but not as good as the Shures and kind of more uncomfortable. I can also recommend the HD600, which are good, but not as good as the HD650.) If you had been looking when they closed out the HD580s at $129, that was the bargain of a century, but they’re pretty much gone now.

    As for amplifiers, if you’re using the Sennheisers, you’ll absolutely need one, as they sound like shit without an amp. (I have the Headroom Micro Stack and can strongly recommend it; I understand from non-insane sources that the Bithead is noticeably worse, but still decent.)

    HOWEVER, if you get the Shures, skip the amp or get one optimized for IEMs, like the RSA Tomahawk. The HeadRoom stuff noticeably hisses with a low-impedance headphone like those.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — December 6, 2008 @ 9:26 pm

  3. Also, on the references front Head-Fi is pretty much the gold standard for headphone sites. It’s an Internet forum, which means you have to know how to read and filter and contextualize, but if you do and you spend a half-dozen hours reading there, you’ll have an excellent idea of what’s what.

    Or you could just take my advice and go from there. Or you could just listen to me (my review of the Shure E500 (which is 100% the same as the SE-530; they just renamed it), and Sennheiser HD-650).

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — December 6, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

  4. Also, that “lunatics” link is pure gold. It’s like, geeks KNOW that none of this shit can possibly make a different(tm Mike Hoye), but until you actually see audiophile logic applied to a domain with which you are closely familiar, it’s difficult to fully appreciate the madness.

    (And also, I can see why the fabulously wealthy would buy that sort of thing. Sure, they can spend dozens of hours learning enough science to understand why it’s nonsense, or they can just spend $500, and really, what’s $500? Fuck it.)

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — December 6, 2008 @ 10:19 pm

  5. Oh! Also, it occurs to me that in addition to working as an amp, one of the things the Bithead would do is provide you with crossfeed. For my part, I love crossfeed and pretty much always listen to headphones with it in. However, if you have a Rockbox-compatible MP3 player, you can turn on crossfeed right in the player itself and not have to rely on an external amp.

    But I know you’re all Mr. Apple Guy now, so you probably wouldn’t Rockbox your iPod even if you could.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — December 6, 2008 @ 10:42 pm

  6. Bay Bloor Radio has a huge selection of good earbuds/headphones, and will patiently let you play with them all day.

    Comment by Quotation — December 6, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  7. Funny story: I did rockbox it, and the UI was so unusably bad i gave up after one day. Bad enough that i’d rather fight the linux/mac sync issues than deal with just the interface.

    The fact that it’s “skinnable” should have been a sign, I think.

    Comment by mhoye — December 6, 2008 @ 10:56 pm

  8. Man, $800 on earbuds+amp? No.

    Comment by mhoye — December 6, 2008 @ 11:00 pm

  9. Rockbox: Recent version of it? I had the same reaction to an old version, but 3.0 (which had an actual, honest-to-god official release instead of just a daily build) does tag browsing and is usable and attractive enough out of the box to work for me. It’s no Zune or iPod, but it’s sufficient (and better than the actual commercial efforts of many players).

    $800: Again, though, I don’t think you need an amp for IEMs if your source is reasonably decent. I listen to the Shures directly out of that Rockboxed iRiver player, and they’re fine. The whole point of portable things, after all, is to be portable. (If you’re planning on listening out of your laptop, though, then yeah, you’d want to do something.)

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — December 6, 2008 @ 11:21 pm

  10. On the vastly cheaper end, you’ll probably find some joy with a set of Koss Porta-Pro headsets. They’re open-ear, so they’re decently suited to wearing at work; and though they’ll make you look like a dork, there’s a good chance that your cow-orkers have seen what you do to people that call you that, so you shouldn’t have to worry too much. Their sound reproduction punches pretty far above their weight class, where s/weight/price/. The Grados that Mike K recommends above will definitely cream them, but then they cost far more too.

    As for earbuds, you might want to check out the Shure SE110s. Apparently they kill the price/performance curve around the c-note mark; they’re the sets that ex-Sony Fontopia users most often tend to move to, or so I’ve read.

    As far as audio quality is concerned, I’d like to pit my Sansa Fuze against your iPod: the Shadow of the Colossus soundtrack in FLAC format does a pretty good job of showing off what the Fuze can do, as does anything with a harpsichord, a triangle, cymbals, or trumpets. Yes, the iPod wins on storage space, but 8GiB MicroSD cards cost $27 now and comfortably hold 16 to 25 lossless albums. The Fuze loses on capacity/price and convenience (swapping MicroSD cards in transit sucks), but wins on sound quality and ease of synchronization.

    Comment by Gnomon — December 7, 2008 @ 4:26 am

  11. I’ll take that bet. I’d be surprised if a human not using studio-quality gear could tell the difference between FLAC and 320kbps+vbr.

    Comment by mhoye — December 7, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  12. Also: Yeah, it was a new version as of a few weeks ago. It did “have” tag whatevers and a ton of other stuff, but it was a such a huge usability step down with respect to I was trying to actually do (“play music”) that I couldn’t bring myself to care.

    Comment by mhoye — December 7, 2008 @ 8:09 pm

  13. Fair enough. In my case, I was updating an iRiver player that had The Official Worst UI Ever, so even a standard technominimalist open source UI was a major step up.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — December 8, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  14. Man, looking at for stuff like this is frustrating. I found what looked like a reasonable price after I clicked “show me the price”. I thought about it, went back later, clicked “show me the price” again and it was $150 more. Wild?

    Comment by mhoye — December 8, 2008 @ 11:06 am

  15. That seems moderately insane, yes. Which one are you balancing at?

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — December 8, 2008 @ 8:08 pm

  16. Right now, $150 is about my limit; I’m not prepared to go much further than that on something I know I’m going to abuse, so I’m looking at the Shure 210s or the Etymotic er6i’s

    Comment by mhoye — December 8, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

  17. I’d steer you toward the Shures just for comfort reasons alone, but I suspect either will be quite good.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — December 9, 2008 @ 9:05 pm

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