Let's Talk Headphones
I don't know, I like headphones
Despite being cursed with a lifelong “bad at musical instruments” curse, I really like listening to music.
(I’m trying to learn to play the piano, but it’s slow going for the obvious reasons: I don’t practice enough, and I don’t have a teacher)
Despite having a nice sound system connected to my office computer right now, Voxel has been working from home for a lot of recent memory - which is nice, but it means I’m in headphones country.
I like good headphones - not really good headphones, which even with my bananas developer salary I’m not sure if I’m willing to commit the fantastic money to. $1000+ planar magnetic reference headphones are, I think, for people who make music and take it really seriously and need to be able to make and hear tiny micro-adjustments to the mix.
Anyways, my home is littered with headphones. Let’s talk about some of the ones I’ve really liked and really hated:
Apple Earbuds (200X)
maaan, fuck these hard little chunks of plastic. My ear-holes aren’t that big, they fit uncomfortably, hurt, and pop out easily.
Basically Any Standalone Buds
what if we took the headphones that pop way too easily out of your ears and then didn’t attach them to anything, wouldn’t that be a terrible idea?
WE ABANDONED 3.5mm HEADPHONE JACKS FOR THIS GARBAGE?!? yeugh.
I really wanted to like these headphones. Their unique styling was compelling, and the pitch was neat: a built-in headphone pre-amp to power high-end headphones from even cheap little portable devices. Wow!
these headphones are unimaginably heavy and extremely clunky.
the onboard pre-amps require independent charging and chug electricity, burning through a full charge in mere hours
the pre-amp allows these headphones to become ear-destroyingly, soul-rendingly loud. They sure are powerful. The sound isn’t much better, though * in fact, a lot of reviewers think that these headphones sound better with the pre-amp turned off. All of that extra weight for nothing.
All things considered, these ended up getting donated away before too long. So long, bad headphones.
The Middle Ground
These are slightly less uncomfortable than the Apple earbuds, they are absolutely rock-bottom dirt cheap ($19.99-39.99 in range, generally), so I almost always have a pair rolled up in the bottom of my laptop bag just in case of headphone emergency. What if I don’t have my good headphones with me for whatever reason? Maybe I’m on the road and I need to test a sound interface out on the fly? Who knows!
These are nicely portable and essentially disposable. Sound quality and comfort aren’t terribly good, but what do you want for $20?
Also: earbud technology in the sub-$200 range isn’t terribly easy to differentiate, so I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that you’re getting about the same quality earbuds for $129 from Beats By Dre.
These headphones frequently dominate “best-of” roundups. They’re some of the “best” headphones available on the market today.
And you know what? They’re fine. They do bluetooth well, they’re reasonably comfortable, they sound good, they’re fine. Voxel’s holding on to my pair and she wears them pretty much all day at work.
They contain easily, easily some of the best noise-cancelling tech that currently exists, and they’re amazing to take on long flights - but outside of that extremely rare use-case, I actually find noise-cancelling headphones kind of obnoxious to wear in almost all other situations.
^ this bothers me an unusual amount, I don’t care for it at all. Noise cancelling: off.
Still, it’s nice that Voxel has it as an option for her unfortunately located living-room office set-up.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50 Studio Headphones
These are good headphones, Brent. I swear, if you’re looking for solid headphones in the $200 range these are some of the best darn cans you can get your hands on. This pair is my preferred travel-mate, more-so even than the Sony headphones which Voxel’s adopted - they fold down conveniently, they’re reasonably comfortable, they’re soft, they sound pretty good, this is just a solid comfy pair of headphones.
These ones out here solving all of my problems with wireless earbuds while also looking insanely dorky (one bonus after another): they connect together and even have a little clamp on the back of the connecting wire that you can clip to your collar, which makes them dramatically harder to lose. They charge on-board with standard USB cables, so you don’t need to keep track of a fragile and easy-to-lose custom charging station. And, best of all, they sit outside of the ear and twist in (see those weird little ear wedges?) which helps them fit snugly even in my topologically challenged ears. Technically they also support phone calls but the on-board microphone is pretty bad.
I keep a charged pair of these in my jacket pocket for walks and scooter rides.
I wouldn’t necessarily make these daily drivers but they’re good walkabout buds.
In late-University, My younger brother bought me these as a Christmas gift:
Their sound isn’t terribly well regarded - the “XB” sounds for “Extra Bass” - these cans have a big, deep, clear bass response and over-emphasized bass, which is… honestly pretty fuckin’ rad if you’re listening to electronic and pop music, but snobby audiophiles are right that it doesn’t really deliver in the mids and highs.
They’re also among the most absurdly comfortable pair of headphones I’ve ever owned. The real gold standard in headphones, in my opinion, are a pair that you can wear for 10 hours at a stretch. Audio quality is nice, but comfort is king.
People would call me “Princess Leia” when I wore these because the giant pads sitting all the way around my ears evokes a certain, uh…
But actually, around-the-entire-ear-headphones? MOST COMFORTABLE.
My only quibble: the pleather on these can get a little sweaty on warmer days.
Well, one more quibble: I’ve owned these now-discontinued headphones for 14 years now, and soft pleather is not the most resilient material. I’ve replaced the ear cups once already, and they’re due to be replaced again. The pleather on the top of the headphones has completely worn away and is currently a layer of masking tape. Vox will often point out that I have “headphone dandruff” after wearing these. Yup. I love these headphones but they’re dissolving in front of me.
Sennheiser HD599 Open-Back Headphones
These are relatively new in my life and I love them (hey, they’re also super on-sale right now). They’re not likely to ever leave my office, because the open-back design means that if I have the audio cranked, everyone can hear what I’m listening to, also - softly, but enough that I would be a nuisance on the bus or in an office.
I found these by looking for headphone reviews that specifically said things like “these are the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever owned” or “the sound quality is only okay, but god DAMN these things are comfortable”, which I’ve learned is actually what I’ve been looking for all this time.
And … yeaaaaah. The foam is soft, they sit entirely around my ears, they’re open and airy (so they don’t have the sweat problems that the Leia headphones did). They offer almost no sound isolation - which is actually pretty nice, because I can hear the cat yelling at me and stuff that’s happening around me - I don’t actually want to block out external sound with these.
But, also, they sound fantastic. The trade-off of open-back headphones has always been that what they give up in noise-isolation, they give back in clarity.
So, finally, finally I’ve found a pair of headphones that can stand up to the mighty Sony MDR-XB700 as the best pair of headphones that I own.
Let’s Talk Pre-Amps
Of course you probably don’t need a headphone pre-amp - most consumer-grade headphones have such low impedance that they can be handily driven directly out of a sound card without much trouble.
The Sennheiser 599s are a little, uh, hungrier than some of the other headphones I’ve used, though - I found myself cranking my computer’s volume up to 100% attempting to properly drive the phones…
Also: I’ve been fiddling around with Ableton on my computer a bit and having some trouble getting all of my sound interfaces to play ball.
So I picked up a Schiit Magni and Modi:
The Modi is a DAC - it connects to your computer via USB and converts the digital audio signal to an analog audio signal that you can pipe into other audio systems.
The Magni takes the output from the Modi and drives extra 'lectricity through it, for Big Headphone Sound.
Reasonably priced, powerful, clean-sounding.
Maybe a bit overkill for my prosumer-grade headphones, but let me tell you, with this amp cranked, everything sounds very good.