Headphones, whether large or small, in-ear monitors or over-the-ear headphones (and anything in between), are a relatively large part of my life. I connected with headphones more seriously when I started having children. Gone were the days when the boom from an explosion of the blown up starship as it reaches Coruscant could reverberate through the house, the tight percussive sounds of Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” drum the ears or “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s 9th viscerally wash over me through loudspeakers. Then we became mobile. First through the Walkman, then MP3 players and now our phones – we took our music with us. Finally, I came to notice that you could get headphones that faithfully represent music for orders of magnitude less money than loudspeakers that can do the same. So while I still watch movies with “real” speakers and occasionally listen to music with loudspeakers, the vast majority of my music listening is through headphones. Through all the iterations, I come to consistently using three headphones. Three? Wouldn’t it be better to spend more money on one set than three? While I didn’t plan on having three, let’s look at the journey that led me there and it may not seem so whacked. It might even help you on your musical journey. Mostly, if you care about music, I encourage you to explore something beyond the Apple “Earpods” (I can’t quite write that word without quotes) or Beats by Dre through which to enjoy your music. Your ears will thank you.
While I toyed early on with some OK Koss headsets and, the little more serious Telefunken headphones (back in the day), I first stepped back and began to pay attention to headphone sound when I got a pair of Sennheiser PC 160 headphones (for a “steal” at $45 – I still use my old pair with Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking for dictation). The audiophile among you will laugh, but they were my first foray into open-back headsets and, while not going deep or having quite the detail a true audiophile set would have, they were considerably better than anything I used before (which was especially surprising given that I bought them mainly to record software demos).
For those of you who’ve never known the delights of open-back headphones and their tendency to have a wider soundstage and be designed to produce more detail, you are (likely) missing the sweet, pure joy of wide, clear sound. Later, I got a pair of Panasonic semi-open back earbuds for you with my iPod for mobile use.
Now was the time for an epiphany. While everything I used up to this point was fine, I had read that the best headphones for the money were Grado SR60s. I believe they were $70 when I first got a pair in 2009 (which was a lot for me but obviously at the very low end for quality sound; their slightly updated brother, the SR80’s were $90). Up to this point, I had been listening through murky waters and didn’t even know it. These cans were crisp and clean, producing remarkable detail and not coloring the sound at all. I mostly listen to classical music and jazz, so I particularly like their faithfulness to the original sound recorded despite the fact that they also were a little light on the bass side. If you want the clarity of the Grados with more warmth and punchier bass, the price starts climbing quickly and these were already more than I usually spent on headphones. Not only do they have the added bonus of giving a retro/ham-radio-operator look, Grado is a seriously cool family-based company where they make all of their headphones right in Brooklyn. I believe that there was (as still is) nothing that can touch them for clarity and faithful sound for $70 (or even the current price of $80).
Alas, there were a couple of issues; as lovely as the SR 60s were, they’re not exactly mobile. You don’t want to be sweating with them, cutting grass with them, or walking greenways with your dog. Moreover, they have a long cord (7 feet) which is lovely when you’re at your desk or in the den but not so much when you’re doing the dishes. Also, while open-backed headphones have a great soundstage, they let sound in so you hear ambient noise, conversations and just about everything around you. They also leak noise; if you happen to eschew sleep for the sake of your addictive reading habit and like to listen to music at the same time, these are not the headphones your wife (or husband) will appreciate. She will hear everything, albeit at a lower volume, that you hear. So I needed to come up with a portable solution that kept music in and unwanted sound out that was reasonably priced yet still faithful to the music. Clearly, I’m not looking at something like Urbeats (or Beats anything). At the time, the Klipsch S4 Image in-ear headphones came to the rescue.
I could get S4s on Amazon for between $30 & $45 back then, they had a tight seal for passive noise cancellation and had clear mids and solid bass with controlled treble. While I preferred the sound of the Grados, these worked well and solved my two problems. Issues I had with these headphones is that they are quite small and easily misplaced (not their problem, mine), they’re relatively easy to break and they have loud “cord-thump” (when you move and the cord hit you, your clothing or something around you, the sound is transferred up the cord to you). The other issue is that they keep going up in price. They’re now $100. For that price, I was ready to try something else.
I had always been interested in the Shure’s in-ear monitors (think about the headphones you see on performers as the sing on stage that seem embedded in the ears). I’ve posted earlier about how good their lower-end SE215s are and their high-level of customer service. What I’ll say here is simply that the Klipsch S4s can’t hold a candle to them and they are equivalently priced. Man, I’m so glad I switched. The sound is better, they’re more stable since they’re true in-ear monitors, you can replace the cords (not so on the Klipsch which lost me a couple), they have much less “cord thump” than the Klipsch and they deaden outside noise even more. Now the Shure’s are also a bit more of a pain to put in your ear, but acoustical bliss comes at a price. Due to their fit and how they lie flat to your ear, you can lie down with them without causing pain to your ears. These were my mobile solution.
One upgrade I hadn’t planned was initiated from a colleague at work who was upgrading to a new headset and gave me a great deal on his Grado SR 80s. The SR 80s have all the benefits of the SR 60s with a little bit more warmth and better handling of bass, so this was a lovely surprise indeed.
So this had been my breakdown – Grados for long-listening in a relatively quiet and stable spot and Shure’s for mobile or environments where open-backed headphones weren’t a good solution either due to a lack of passive noise cancelling or noise leakage. I was a happy camper with astonishingly good sound in the full knowledge that as an active father of four, the audiophile life was not for me. I look for the best sound I can afford for focused and active listening. I’m often moving with headphones and I mostly listen through my phone, my computer or my beautifully clear but relatively low-end DAC. These cans meet my realistic, active lifestyle that doesn’t afford sitting in an acoustically accurate man cave with high-end gear.
These principles have remained as has the love for open-back but the need for closed as well. A bit over a year ago, I changed the mix a bit to include a pair of lovely Sennheiser Momentums (original over-the-ear Ivory). While I love open-back headphones, these have a startlingly wide sound stage, they handle all the bass thrown at them (although it could be a bit tighter), seem to mellow out the more strident notes while remaining faithful to the music and you can wear them forever without pain, heat or any discomfort. Most of all, their balanced design makes them good at handling any type of music you throw at them. Finally, ain’t they so pretty. Seriously, these are a good looking set of cans (sorry Grado). While I focus on classical and jazz, my tastes are varied and eclectic. These are my go-to headphones for almost any kind of use. They deliver great detail in the midsection, serious bass (albeit not quite as tight as I would like), perfectly pitched treble and they look fabulous. (The Momentum 2.0s fold, have more flexibility working with Android and have larger earcups; I love my 1.0s because my ears are relatively small and so have a perfect fit). So now, I have the SR 80s at home, the Momentums at work and the Shures for on-the-go. Musical bliss indeed.
And that’s a theme that you’ll see throughout; these three are not absolutely the best headphones ever but they provide great value for the money. You’ll notice none of them are their respective company’s highest end headphones. You also note that none are Bluetooth. I still think that it’s very hard (read expensive) to get as good a sound with Bluetooth as a wired headset although they’ve come a long way. If you want to spend a lot of money, you might get close. These also aren’t the cheapest headphones around; the Momentum’s originally went for $350 (I didn’t pay anything near that), the Grado’s are about $100 as are the Shure’s. They both are an incredible value. It speaks to the great design and construction of the Grados and the Shures that the Momentums are only marginally better. There is slightly more detail in the Momentums and they can deliver that deep reverberating bass that the other two can’t quite reach. That’s true in general as you move up the scale of audio (and most things), after a certain point you have to pay increasingly more for smaller increments of improvement. If you’re ever tempted to get Beats Pros, please try the Momentums first. While not as iconic, they look better, provide much more clarity and detail and can still handle some kickin’ bass.
Your priorities and usage, as well as tastes, may differ. Think about how you’ll use them in real life – not some ideal setting. Try some out and play around. You may discover a whole new world of sound that you’ve missed until now.