It may be easier than you think. Purchasing a new pair of headphones with the intent of improving your listening experience takes a little legwork, a little research and even a little bit of skepticism if one is to land the proper pair of cans. Below we’ve laid out the groundwork for a process that should help you narrow down the selection to a few proper options. Your own experience may vary of course, but hopefully this guide will help save you a time and money before you lay down the bones for a new investment.
Determine where you are going to use your headphones.
Hifi can be had just about anywhere these days. The basic rule of thumb is often to utilize IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) for extreme portable use and around-the-ear full size headphones for non-mobile applications. On-ear headphones land somewhere in-between the two. Of course, if you don’t mind strange looks on your subway commute, a closed-back around-the-ear substitute can make a fine friend for transporting yourself away from the elbow-to-elbow confinements of a rail car. IEMs tend to be a bit more portable and gather less attention in public, they can also offer ear-plug performance in terms of noise isolation. We recommend custom-fit molded monitors that were originally intended for stage performances. There are several reputable companies that have been doing it for years, and even a few new models that have come out with the high fidelity market specifically in mind.
If you are looking for the best personal audio experience for the money AND you can deal with the extra listening parameters, an open back headphone in a quiet room is your best bet. Open back headphones tend to sound well…more open and airy. The music is able to breathe a little bit more around your ears and headphone designers don’t have to deal with as many pesky reflections off the back of the ear cup. The product category also scales well and provides the most diverse amount of options at most price points (especially as things get more expensive). Many hard core enthusiasts will exclusively play in this territory as the make their way around to more spendy options.
There is a headphone for almost every spend level. The good news is that the more you spend, the better things get – with a few exceptions. Occasionally there are standout headphones that provide a higher value against others at the same price, and occasionally there are a few duds. The higher up you go the fewer deviations from the norm you will see, perhaps not just because there are less mistakes that happen, but probably just because there are fewer total options (and companies stop producing headphones that don’t sell). The other piece of good news is that overall personal audio products have really advanced quite a bit in the past few years and a few manufacturers have even dropped some of the pricing on older models, if they still make them. There is a fairly robust second-hand market due to the upgrade-itis that many hobbyists suffer from, but buying used headphone gear does bring along a lot of the same challenges that purchasing any used product does.
There are certain price tiers that most headphones fall into. Not by virtue of the collective quality of the sonics, but rather as a result of simple market and category restraints. For full size headphones, the first real bump upwards in terms of the qualities that audiophiles look for is around the $300 mark, then again around the $1k region. This broad generalization may make an enthusiast’s comment section explode, but before everyone gets out their pitchforks and torches we would like to point out there is a beautiful and robust “budget” following across all of hifi. For loudspeakers this is generally anything under $1k, but for headphones it lands more in the $100-$200 range. If you have decided to take a bigger sip of the cool-aid, premium headphone categories now make their way up to any price point, with significant stops at each thousand dollar mark ($2k, $3k, and $4k). There is an old saying that the top 10% of audio quality in hifi costs exponentially more than the rest of the 90%. While the legitimacy of this old adage might be debatable, above a certain threshold the collective “sound” of audiophile headphones starts to coalesce. If this is from a collective move towards “the perfect sound” or merely a reaction to market demands, one thing is for certain. The abstract nature of sound quality opens the floodgates for endless conversations, debate and opinions on which headphones provide the most value. Which brings us to our next step.
Many a pixel has been spilled upon the subject of value and headphones. There are even a few different schools of thought when it comes to weighing evaluation sources and every angle has its own merits. One technique that has proven useful is to locate a reviewer that shares some of the same tastes and values as yourself and weigh their evaluations a little heavier than others. There are many sites that do this in addition to Audio-Head, a simple google search of the product model and “review” will usually reveal a good cross sections of what’s available. Check out some other reviews from the personality, if they say things that you agree with on other products and like the headphone, then the odds of you approving of the sound of your selection is a little better. That being said, not every reviewer gets everything perfect all the time. Even the most experienced and respected reviewers have been known to misinterpret things once and a while. This includes the conclusions that many forum’s “hive mind” come to. There are undoubtably “classics” in the headphone world, but the final matchup for any one person is much more nuanced than some of the blanket statements often thrown about in audio threads throughout the world. Due to the nature of headphone listening, individual responses to low, mid or high tones can heavily influence the enjoyment of listening sessions. Getting a prospective headphone’s frequency response aligned with your own can make all the difference in finding the right fit.
It’s important to remember that everyone has different motivations for sharing their opinions online, and not all of them are as apparent as simple site traffic. Be skeptical of short, unsupported conclusions of high or low value. There are standout headphones and there are low performing ones, but more often than not these cases are somewhat rare. Some commenters will post negative opinions on headphones they have never heard. Some will push hard for the headphones they own as a way to reassure themselves they made the right purchase. Take every unsolicited opinion with a grain of salt, both good and bad.
There are two major distribution models that hifi had adopted for purchasing there wares, even though you may not be fully conscious of it. One option is direct sales. A manufacturer can set up a web site of their own and sell directly to consumers, footing the bill and the responsibility for marketing and customer service themselves on any given product. For US readers and US manufacturers, this process is as simple as it appears for the most part, but for smaller countries and other locations abroad a dealer or distribution node is needed to reach every geographic region. Even with direct sales in the US, some audio makers will opt to partner with retailers online or brick-and-morter to increase awareness and overall sales. Headphones tend to be light and easy to ship, so the direct and online models are fairly prevalent throughout the hobby.
For audio products abroad an importer or some other representation will likely be your local contact. Online retailers will collect brands, and importers can work with many dealers to help further localize points of sales for the brands they represent. The markup at the final endpoint of sale is usually around 40% for many headphone products (sometimes even more for cables), so some direct sales company’s will pitch these “savings” into their value proposition. The reality in many cases though it that this sales margin is built into the product’s pricing structure from the beginning, so the final impact on the business model is much more tempered than some make it out to be.
The benefit of a retailer is that you can deal directly with that sales endpoint for returns if something goes wrong. This can be both good or bad, depending on the retailer. For higher end products, a bit of high end customer service can increase the likelihood of repeat purchases from the same location or sales person – so there is incentive to help out. Working directly with a manufacturer can also yield good customer service – if the management holds these same ideals.
One other occasionally overlooked element to purchasing headphones is a pricing termed called MAP or “minimum advertised price”. If a headphone maker employs MAP, then every sales point in a region should all be selling the same product for the same price, much like what you see from brands like Bose or Nikon. Generally speaking, you only see sales on these products a few times a year, so jump on it if you see your headphone on sale and feel free to purchase from your preferred retailer with confidence. Non-MAP brands leave a little more wiggle room for the sales point. This can lead to sales more often, deeper sales, or packaged deals but it depends on the retailer’s willingness to work with you (or need for an influx of revenue). Direct contact with a sales person is usually the best way to find out if you can make this work in your favor. It is also possible that a retailer may knowingly break MAP pricing for a quick cash grab, but this practice is considered unethical and destructive to the market as a whole.
Before you hit the purchase button or lay down the plastic, ask about or look up the return policy for the headphone. Some retailers have extremely favorable options (like free try-out periods), some sale buys have a no return policy. Manufactures will also have varying limits to their warranty services, so be sure to check those out if that is something that you are concerned about. Does the company pay for shipping? Is the shipping package heavy? What is the cost of repair after the warranty expires? Many cheaper products may not be worth repairing, so keep that in mind as well.
Now the shiny new thing sits in front of you. What is the first thing you do? If the product came in an elaborate box I suggested opening with a very careful short-blade opener, as to not damage the packaging or headphone underneath. Some enthusiasts believe that playing sounds through a headphone over time may change the actual sonic characteristics the headphone produces in a term called “burn in”. Opinions also swing wildly around this idea, but a little time before you jump to any sonic conclusions on your new headphone couldn’t hurt. There are burn in tracks with frequency sweeps available to play through, and some believers recommend playing the same type of music that you normally listen to is even better. Regardless, if your product came in from a very cold environment then bringing it up to room temperatures before listening is recommended. While the changes can be very subtle, hold off any hard conclusions (especially in the treble) until you have time to spend with the headphone.
No audiophile headphone should suffer distortion if amplified properly. Both ears should sound identical and centered vocals should appear directly in front of your head (unless you have a hearing deficiency in one ear, then the image might drag slightly to the weaker side – if it is off center by more than a little, go see a hearing doctor). If that center image is unusually blurred and things sound weird overall, you might have a flipped wiring connection which is reversing the polarity of the two headphone drivers. The truth is that quality control for highly sensitive gear like audio transducers is a very difficult task, and many of the exact same headphone come out the other end sounding somewhat different – regardless of price. Some larger manufacturers have been known to switch out materials or make subtle changes overall, furthering the divide between a consensus in public opinion. If both material use, sound and branding/logos appear unusual, then you might have a fake on your hands. It is rare, but fakes have been know to pop up with popular brands on Amazon and the used market.
Now you have the perfect headphone. Sit back, relax, and enjoy your music – your work is done here.