A First World Problem: Finding Headphones That Don’t Suck

My go-to option: the Sony MDR seriesI’ve been listening to music on headphones since those days in my early teens when I became musically aware.  Not only did I discover that the subtle nuances of a recording come through on headphones, they also allowed me to listen at volumes higher than my parents’ tolerance.

My first proper set of ‘phones came from Koss.  They were big, heavy and hurt your ears and skull after a while.  But I loved them.  When they finally broke, there was no point fixing them, so I embarked on a quest to find the greatest headphones in the world.  I’m still looking.

Koss ruled back in the day, but there were competitors:  Sony, AKG, Sennheiser.  The designs, though, were pretty much the same:  drivers in a big enclosure that sealed around the ear in an attempt to isolate the music from all outside sounds.

When the Walkman introduced small, high-quality ‘phones for portable use in 1979, things got even more complicated.  Over-the-ear headphones that allowed some outside noise turned out to be pretty practical, especially since you could hear the horn scream before a car had a chance to hit you as you jaywalked.

Then with the MP3 player came the ear buds, which just hung onto the ridges in your ear.  They were followed by the kind that you jammed into your ear canal for more bass and more isolation.  Or you could just bring out the big earmuff kind that expanded the diameter of your head by six inches.

I’ve sampled all sorts of headphones over the years for various applications:  Fostex, Grado, Denon along with the aforementioned AKG and Sennheiser.  When I’m doing a live radio show or working in my studio, I prefer a specific line of Sony headphones.  To my brain, they’re provide the best tonal balance and noise isolation.  When I DJed in clubs, I used another model of Sony prized for their toughness under extreme abuse. Around the house, though, I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.  Maybe I’ll try a pair of Grados again.

As for on-the-go listening, I’m really confused.  Standard Apple ear buds work for me when I go jogging simply because they seem to stay put.  I have a lovely pair of in-ear Klipschs, but they keep falling out.  I had a pair of Bose, but I didn’t like how the foam around the drivers got all grotty with ear goop.  Then I lost them.

I once came into possession of a pair of superbly designed Bang and Olufsens that clamped around the ear using an intricate metal mechanism that promised perfect placement.  They kept falling off—and frankly, they didn’t sound that great.

When Dr. Dre released his Beats line, I gave several models a try.  Nope.  There’s so much bass tweaking that I can’t get past the distortion.  The audiophile website ranks them as “absolutely, extraordinarily bad.” (See the piece in the New York Times.)

I’m staying away from celebrity-endorsed models (Dre, Lou Reed, Ludacris, 50 Cent, Eminem and, er, Justin Bieber.) because these affiliations merely add a premium price to mediocre products.  There ain’t enough lipstick in the world to put on these pigs.

Headphones—far more so than speakers—are extremely personal things and selecting a set that’s right for you is loaded with subjective pitfalls.  Not only are your ears physically different than mine (and thus capable of perceiving sound differently), but what your notion of “beautiful” or “perfect” sound is different, too.  Hey, you may really, really like your Beats—but to me, they suck. I’m sorry to say that, but I’m just going by what my ears tell me.

In the end, selecting a set of headphones may be nothing more than a compromise between price, comfort and whatever you feel sounds good. But that doesn’t make it any easier, does it?  Feel free to send me recommendations, but I’ve got a feeling that it’ll just be all for nought.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38452 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

12 thoughts on “A First World Problem: Finding Headphones That Don’t Suck

  • I have settled with AKG K240's… And I've tried tons of headphones before picking those. give them a try 🙂


  • Home use? Grado 60s, done and done. Never found better for the dollar.

  • For me, it all depends upon the media I'm using.

    For working on the computer, I have a Logitech G35 headset (coarded). It's a usb device, but I've always found that they provide better sound than MOST stereo jack headsets for a better price because they don't run off of your PC's naitive sound card. These one's in particular have a 7.1 surround emmulation option, which is disconcerting when using a voice-chat client, but can provide an extremely emmersive quality while gaming or watching movies or the like. I truthfully haven't given them a reasonable music test though. They're a little on the large side, but the noise cancellation on them is pretty good, and the cone size is nice.

    For my iPod, I have a pair of Wicked Audio headphones. They deliver reasonably good sound (to my ears), and they were pretty cheap at HMV (about 30$).

    These two pieces of audio-delivering-equipment are probably the best two I've found, but I understand this long schpiel will probably fall upon deaf ears.

  • I like the Bose QC15 with iWow3D for iPod and Apple Ear Buds with in-line remote for podcasts.

  • I have to second the use of the Sony MDR series pictured above.

    I've been using them for years and they give quality sound for a reasonable price. I've had two and only had to replace one set because the ear pads frayed. This only happened because I use these at night when I'm wearing my glasses and I want to listen to music loudly without disturbing anyone.

  • I just got a pair of Sennheiser "noise cancelling" headphones for work, and they're fantastic!

  • Perfectly timed article. I mentioned to my wife that I'd like new headphones since the coating on the foam of some Panasonic ones I got years ago seems to have disintegrated after a decade..

    I spent the evening browsing the aisle at Futureshop tonight, testing out the "demos" that didn't seem to be hooked up (kind of defeats the purpose doesn't it?).

    I'm not sure I want to drop $350 on the Bose QC15 since I'm not likely to need noise cancelling in the house. A long cord would be nice so I can sit on the couch and listen to the stereo.

    I'm going to keep looking.. Christmas present might not come in the form of headphones, but theres always the spring brithday.. right?

  • Headphones, I use Grado.
    Ear buds, I've really enjoyed Shure in ear monitors. 310 or 320, can't remember the model, much better than the sennheiser.

    Don't think either of these are at future shop or BZb though… Goto a specialty store like bay blood radio.

  • I too have a good pair of over-ear Sonys, but for in-ear I happened to get a pair of SkullCandy earbuds as a gift a couple of years ago, and I LOVE them. They even have a certain degree of noise cancellation when on an airplane, because the plastic/soft vinyl buds seem to mould to your ear canal (and they're very easy to clean). I was in a giant HMV in Glasgow during my recent trip to the UK and they had an entire wall of nothing but SkullCandy's various models. Some of them are kind of garish (which I gather is the point), but you can get plenty of normal-looking ones these days, too. Mine are infinitely better in sound quality and far more comfortable than Apple's standard iPod issue. Worth checking out.

    I think the best headphones I've ever listened to are my mother's Koss, who's had the same ones for 35+ years (a gift from my father on their first Christmas together!) & that still sound AMAZING. They weigh a ton, but damn, if it's just for sitting in your living room listening to a stereo, they can't be beat. But you already knew that!

  • A good source for info on head phones:

    I too love my old Koss – have some full over the ears that need new pads, and KSC75's.

    I bought Brainwavz ProBeta in ears for my ipod, they are very nice, and were inexpensive.

    The next purchase will be full over the ear cans – I've tested (and liked) Shure and Sennhieser but would like to try out some Allessandro and Koss before I make a decision.

  • Love the AKG 240's as well. Indestructible, comfortable and amazing sound.

  • A few years ago I picked up some Sennheiser CX55 in ear headphones, and have not found anything that parallels their sound.

    As for Skull Candy, my son has tried several models, and they keep breaking. He says they sound great but unfortunately the build quality is very low.


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