I’ve spent some time appreciating music in my life, usually with a pair of $20 headphones and whatever Walkman was available (or Discman, or cheapo MP3 player). I wouldn’t describe myself as an audiophile, but over the years I’ve certainly been more willing to invest money in music and ways to listen to it. When a friend had an excellent pair of speakers up for grabs I jumped on them even though I didn’t quite have the money to put towards them. Never thought twice! Kid can send himself to college.
Problem is, good sound and portability doesn’t tend to go well together. Unfortunately that’s contrary to how I live now – most of my music listening is done while I work or after bedtime. So, having something that I can bring with me and doesn’t wake anybody up is super important. I started my upgrade plan with wires – seems that’ll always work and can improve with better sources. Check back later for wireless investigation.
Caveat – most of this testing is Day 1. That means no break-in period. I considered it but I really don’t have time to run 6+ pairs of headphones for a couple days. So, if I didn’t really like your favorites, let’s just chalk it up to that, shall we? Or not.
The Test Setup
Lately, to stick easy and portable I’ve been using my cell phone (Motorola Moto X 2nd Gen) and tablet (Nexus 7). Both are probably what you would expect from a portable device in terms of a reasonable source: not great but they’re always around. The Nexus 7 is noticeably superior, and I use it whenever possible. All the discussion below is using the Nexus 7.
I like to listen to various types of music and try to catch anything new coming out; that means monthly subscription to a streaming service. Tidal sounds great and all, but I can’t yet justify the monthly fee to myself. Google Play has dubious file quality but the price is right and I can share with my friends and family. They also have a pretty good selection – except, for some reason, no access to Tool. WTF Google?
Playlist? Okay. Various songs that I like and some I don’t particularly listen to but have a certain sound I want to test with. Here’s the listing in no particular order. Perhaps at some point I will go through and list out why I include them.
- Andrew Bird – Armchairs
- Andrew Bird – Tenuousness
- Feist – Get Not High, Get Not Low
- John Vanderslice – Exodus Damage
- Paul McCartney – Maybe I’m Amazed
- Paul Simon – Wristband
- Aesop Rock – Daylight
- Pink Floyd – Fearless
- Alt-J – Breezeblocks
- Run the Jewels – Legend Has It
- Radiohead – Burn the Witch
- Fleetwood Mac – Dreams
- Modest Mouse – Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine
- David Bowie – Queen Bitch
- Black Sabbath – A Bit of Finger / Sleeping Village / Warning
- Sean Rowe – Looking for the Master
- Steely Dan – Razor Boy
- Fleet Foxes – Third of May / Ōdaigahara
These are the kind that burrow into your ear like earplugs. I tend to prefer this type of headphones due to their compact size and good isolation from ambient noise. I would also argue that you can generally get better performance at low price points vs other styles of headphones.
I had some SoundMagic E80C after reading a bunch of positive reviews on them. I liked them well enough but the microphone and control started crackling all the time so I returned them under warranty. I picked up a pair of SoundMagic E50S as a backup and had similar microphone issues after a while. I haven’t returned those as they are a decent beater pair. Nothing to write home about.
1MORE Triple Driver
Looking for more, I purchased the 1MORE Triple Driver. Certainly haven’t regretted the shift. Great clarity, reasonable bass (better than some of the full-sized headphones below, in my opinion). Some reviews online indicate some harshness in the treble; I wanted to refute that as I like a lot of treble, but it’s certainly true. It doesn’t bother me exactly as I think the other benefits in sound quality outweigh this one unfortunate side effect. I really feel like I am present with these guys.
I wish I could say I extended my in ear headphone testing since I like this type so much, but I decided to move on to on and over ear headphones to test the waters there.
This category has never really excited me. These headphones sit on your ears, which for a person with glasses can be a bit painful after a while. There seem to be some good contenders based on what the net was saying so I figured to give some a shot.
Seriously, not much good to say about these headphones. To me, with the Nexus 7 they have a pretty muddy interior, which I just can’t get past.
These seem to have pretty good reviews, though many complaints on the comfort level due to their stiff pads. Some indicate too much treble, verging on unrealistic, but as I said I tend to like treble. Personally I dig the old school vibe and they get a lot of chatter for their price point.
The attention is well deserved. These are my favorite sounding headphones, by far. They’re a revelation, and are truly the definition of clarity, openness, and separation. They are relatively light on bass, but not crippled; you can tell what’s going on, it just doesn’t beat you like some others do.
My favorite part, and something Grado touts on their packaging: they sound amazing at any volume level. Some headphones require you crank them to be able to achieve respectable sound, this is the first pair I’ve found that can honestly make the above statement.
Not without faults, however. One of downsides of the open sound is that it’s literally open: no ambient isolation whatsoever. This is a major issue for me, and why I have a hard time truly recommending them. When do I have an opportunity to listen in a silent environment? Who else wants to listen to my music? So, you should certainly listen to these but seriously consider their practicality.
Giant ear cans! When you want everyone to know that you are listening to good music and they should just fuck off.
Sennheiser Momentum (1st Gen)
These things look super cool and have a lot of great reviews at the price point. Originally I was thinking between these and the Grado 325e. Then I tried these guys on and my ears got all scrunched up in their narrow ear cups. I stuck with them for a bit and the sound quality is pretty decent with arguably too much bass for me (no problem with a little EQ tweak). However, I didn’t end up giving them too much time as I knew I had the Sennheiser HD-1 Wireless to test out (below), which I’ve heard fix the ear cup issue.
psb Speakers M4U 1
These headphones felt pretty cheap coming out of the box as they are mostly plastic looking. After a minute I could feel the quality, they’re pretty solid despite the initial impression. The hinge is also a pretty great inclusion and they pack small. After giving them a chance I quite like the sound with some EQ tweak. Really great mids and highs (had to actually turn down the treble), feels very open. Bass needed an EQ tweak.impressive what they can do with very dense tracks.
Bowers & Wilkens P7 (wired)
Wow, where did these guys come from? The comfort of these is far superior, fitting well over the ear but without an oversized headband or too much pressure. I do feel a little closed in by them (sealed backs do that), but the spatialization and overall balance is top of the pile vs the others I tried. It’s truly amazing when the bass gets going and you lose nothing throughout the rest of the range. Generally I’m not much of a basshead, and these do push the edge for me, but it’s not sloppy. When I put these guys on I checked the price again to confirm they were the most expensive, but it’s seriously worth the difference to me.
I hate to say it, but the most expensive guys win here. Bowers & Wilkins P7 sound like my favorite cup of medium roast and make me look like James Bond. My real suggestion is to never listen to these so you don’t have to ask how much you can get for a kidney.
Second place is shared by the 1MORE Triple Driver and psb MSU 1. For the source I’m using I don’t see a real justification for the increased size of the full cans.
It’s probably irrelevant to rank the others, you should stick with the above if you care about my opinion — but check the net for much more articulate reviews than mine. I’ll try to weigh in later on how the P7s hold up (if I get that kidney sale through).