Friday, April 29, 2011

Which Headphones To Buy? - Part I: Narrowing Down

In continuation of my audio series, I think it's time to cover an important topic for all audiophiles, and in general people seeking good quality gear: Which headphones are right for me and which should I buy?

Headphones and in-ear monitors (IEMs) have come a long way within the past 10 years. We've went from cheap $10 solutions to fully blown out custom in-ear monitors and reference headphones costing in excess of $1K. Selection has increased at least three-fold, with a wide selection of colors, styles (running, casual, full-size for mostly at home, etc.), and purposes. And to top it all off, we're left with endless marketing campaigns and gimmicky advertisements which lure us to a specific headphone or brand (Monster anybody?). But are we actually purchasing the item for its actual purpose, or for the brand recognition?

Impedance and electrical power is an important factor in deciding which headphone/in-ear monitor you will purchase. Many headphones/in-ear montiors require a headphone amplifier to sound their best. Sometimes high impedance headphones require amplifiers more expensive than the headphone itself to sound its best, like the Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline II headphone amplifier pictured above.

Pushing my personal vendetta against certain corporations aside, I would like to establish some basic facts about purchasing a good set of headphones or in-ear monitors. First, we need to know what you will be using these headphones/in-ear monitors for, along with your expectations of the sound quality as well as the primary genre of music you will be listening to with the headphones/in-ear monitors.

Ask yourself the following questions to narrow down your list of possible headphone/in-ear monitor purchases:

1) Are you buying for sound quality, brand appeal, or appearance? Or perhaps one or two from the three? If you are going for pure sound quality, then it is easier to narrow down your selection (contrary to popular belief, the mainstream "audio" companies to do not manufacture audiophile-quality headphones/in-ear monitors--Bose and Skullcandy are good examples).

2) What genre(s) of music will you primarily listen to with the headphones? If you have a mixed collection of music, what genre of music comprises the majority of your library? For example, 40% Classical, 30% Jazz, 20% Pop and 10% Other. This way, you will be able to purchase a headphone better suited to your tastes.

3) Are you going to use these headphones/in-ear monitors only at home or outside as well? Or both?

4) Do you want to purchase noise isolating or noise cancelling headphones? See my post on the difference.

5) Do you have a proper DAP (digital audio player such as an MP3 Player) to support the amount of electricity that the headphone/in-ear monitor needs to work at its best sonic quality? Certain headphones that are full-size (such as the AKG K720) require a headphone amplifier in order to achieve best sound quality due to their high electrical impedence.

6) What is your budget? Keep in mind that you get what you pay for in this hobby, and it is better off to start from something mid-priced before jumping on a really expensive piece of gear that you might not be able to amplify or pair properly with a DAC/DAP.

Sometimes many headphones can be eliminated from simply asking yourself whether you will use your headphones at home, outside, or both. Headphones like the AKG K702 pictured above are open headphones, meaning they leak music out to the environment and do not isolate from external noise, since they are designed to be used at a home/studio.

After asking yourself these questions, I can guarantee that it will be easier to narrow down your possible headphone/in-ear monitor for purchase. For example, if you answered the following:

1) For sound quality, nothing else. --> Eliminates a bunch of brands that are not focused on sound quality.
2) Primarily Pop, R&B, and Jazz. --> Eliminates some headphones not suited for these genres.
3) At home as well as outside. --> Eliminates many full-size open headphones due to their leakage outside.
4) Noise isolating or noise cancelling, it does not matter. --> Opens up more headphones for consideration within the narrowed list.
5) No, I only have an iPod. --> Eliminates high-amplifying-requirement headphones like the AKG K702.
6) Under $200. --> Eliminates headphones above $200.

Avoid jumping the gun and buying expensive headphones from the start. You will not be able to fully appreciate the differences and may have difficulty amplifying the headphone to make it sound its best. The Sennheiser HD800, pictured above, sells for $1499 MSRP but requires a very good amplifier (for its 300Ω impedance as well as sound signature), DAC combination, lossless/near-lossless audio, and to make it sound its best, which can run well over twice that amount. Don't try running these headphones straight out of your iPod.

By simply answering six questions, you have virtually narrowed your headphone/in-ear monitor possible purchase(s) to probably around 10-12 at this point.

To further narrow down to that single headphone/in-ear monitor, we must now focus on something much more crucial than all of these factors: sound signature.

Look forward to my post about sound signatures in headphones to finally determine how to narrow down to that single headphone! (Sorry for the cliffhanger ending!)

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