The best headphones.

The best headphones.

The best headphones.

How to be the best consumer you can be.
Nov. 11 2004 4:29 PM

Listen Up

Which headphones are best?

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The iPod has become so ubiquitous that it's hard to walk a New York City block without spotting someone with little white wires dangling from their ears. And yet the digital music player's popularity has also been accompanied by a good deal of grumbling: Given how expensive the iPod is, couldn't its designers have created headphones that stayed put and sounded less like the speakers on a cheap transistor radio?

Well, last January Apple introduced an upscale version of its iconic earpieces. Retailing for about $40, the earpieces on these headphones fit more snugly and sounded somewhat better than the standard-issue earbuds. But more than a few competitors had already rushed in to fill the void: Today's iPod owner is free to experiment with headphones ranging from Koss' $10 in-ear "Plugs" (which are so bass-heavy that even Bach comes out sounding like Busta Rhymes and so uncomfortable that I decided against including them in this article) to Etymotic Research's ER-4Ps (which cost $330 and just might be worth it). The friends I polled told me that they wouldn't consider spending more than $60 or $70 for a pair of headphones, so I confined myself to those costing less than $70. (But to get a sense of what I was missing, I tested two of the most expensive models available. Click here to see the results.)

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The downside of upgrading is that it's hard to know how good any given set is until you've lived with it for a while—and the trial-and-error route can get expensive. There are also a great many factors to take into account before heading off to your local electronics emporium. Some headphones provide excellent sound quality but do little to block out the outside world. Others can drown out the rumble of an airplane engine but sound tinny or thin when used in the privacy of your own home. Headphones geared toward the low end of the sonic spectrum tend to be more suited to jazz and hip-hop, while those that favor the midrange do better with classical or rock 'n' roll. You wouldn't know it from the packaging, but expensive headphones seem to be geared toward classical music while those retailing for $30 or so are aimed at the pop and hip-hop markets. (For more details, click here.)

So, how do you know which set is best for you?

To find out, I spent months reading audiophile magazines and Web sites, and I tested six pairs of headphones on my iPod by listening to the same playlist (made up of classical, rock, jazz, and hip-hop recordings) on each one. (For the playlist, click here.) I tested each set at the gym, on the subway, aboard a flight to Memphis (during which I sat directly over the starboard engine), and at the library, where I tallied the dirty looks I received while playing Quiet Riot's "Cum on Feel the Noize" at top volume.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Criteria I ranked every brand in each of the following categories:

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Comfort: How well did the headphones fit in my ears? Did they stay put while I cleaned the apartment or ran laps in the park? Was the cord thick and annoyingly knotty, or was it soft and supple? Did my ears get sore after an hour? Value: Up to 5 points

Design and durablity: Were the headphones sleek and stylish, or did they make me look like an MIT student out testing his latest invention? Were they well-suited to outdoor use? And would they stand up to months of everyday use? Value: Up to 5 points

Sound: Did the headphones reproduce the details of each piece of music accurately, or did they overemphasize bass at the expense of treble? Did they sound too dull? Did the headphones create the desirable effect of sitting in a concert hall or behind the board in a recording studio? Value: Up to 5 points

Privacy: How well did the headphones block ambient noise—the sound of the subway or the clank of weights and Nautilus machines at the gym? Conversely, if I cranked up the volume, would enough noise escape that I'd begin to bother my neighbor on the subway or in the next cubicle? (Invariably, headphones that block noise from the outside world tend to protect those around you from the sound of your music.) Value: Up to 5 points

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Results
From worst to best:

Standard-Issue iPod Earbuds, Price N/A (These come with an iPod, or you can purchase them along with a remote control for $39.99, but Apple doesn't sell them separately.)
Everyone I know who's owned an iPod for more than a few months has already upgraded to one of the brands listed below. Why? Because Apple's earpieces don't fit many people's ears, and they aren't particularly comfortable even when they do. The headphones have an annoying tendency to fall out with even light jostling—the sort that might result from, say, running to catch the bus—and because Apple's earpieces don't offer much of a buffer against ambient noise, I found myself turning the volume up very high, which drew disapproving glances at the library and blew out the speakers in two consecutive sets. Worst of all, the speakers are remarkably tinny—the sound quality alone is enough to drive you into the arms of Apple's competitors.

Grades:
Comfort: 2 points
Design: 2 points
Sound: 2 Points
Privacy: 2 points
Overall: 8 points

Sony Fontopia Headphones, $49.99
The silicon earbuds on Sony's in-ear headphones are available in different sizes, and the variety virtually guarantees a tight fit, which goes a long way toward blocking out ambient noise. The headphones themselves are small and light, and, compared to Sony's monitor headphones (below), the sound is crystalline. But while they're well-suited for pop and rock music, the bass is a bit weak for jazz and hip-hop. The cord is also poorly designed: too short to reach my jeans pocket, but with the extension (included), too long for comfort. The cord, it seems, is designed to be draped around one's neck, which I found to be weird and slightly annoying.

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Grades:
Comfort: 3 points
Design: 2 points
Sound: 3 points
Privacy: 3 points
Overall: 11 points

Sony MDR-V250 Studio Monitor Headphones,$29.99
Sony's bargain-basement over-the-ear model is remarkably comfortable, with a close fit and soft, durable ear cushions. The cord is long and sturdy and includes a volume control; the headphones themselves are light, sleek, and handsome. Good at blocking out ambient noise, they also performed well in the library test—even at top volume. Unfortunately, the ample cord easily gets caught on things; when it does, the cheap plastic headband tends to break. It also breaks after a few weeks of heavy use. (And there's no way to fix it.) Finally, these headphones are also geared so heavily toward rumbly, bass-driven music that the details of any given recording have trouble asserting themselves. Listening to good music in these headphones is a bit like driving a Cadillac on a racetrack.

Grades:
Comfort: 4 points
Design: 2 points
Sound: 2 points
Privacy: 3 points
Overall: 11 points

Sennheiser PX-100 Headphones,$39.99 
Of the many Sennheiser models out there, the PX-100 seems best suited for iPod users. Lightweight and foldable, these headphones are easy to wear, carry, and stow away. The sound is also crisp and well-defined: The bass is booming without sounding muddy. Not quite good enough for classical music, the Sennheisers are suitable for jazz and better for pop music. But unlike Sony's Monitor headphones, the Sennheisers are open to the outside world: At the gym, I had to crank up the volume to compete with the sound of the treadmill; at the library, I had to turn the volume way down so as not to disturb those around me. To my mind, this more or less limited their use to my home stereo.

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Grades:
Comfort: 3 points
Design: 3 points
Sound: 4 points
Privacy: 2 points
Overall: 12 points

Apple iPod In-Ear Headphones, $39.99
A marked improvement over Apple's standard-issue model, these handsome in-ear headphones are as simple and elegant as the iPod itself. A variety of differently sized earpieces provide a snugger, comfier fit: I've kept these earbuds in for hours and found them particularly well-suited for long, sweaty visits to the gym. Unfortunately, the sound quality could still stand some improvement—as the music gets higher, the sound tends to distort. Looks and comfort made these a default choice for quick trips around town; more serious listening sessions left me wishing that Apple would up the ante with a higher-end model.

Grades:
Comfort: 5 points
Design: 4 points
Sound: 3 points
Privacy: 2 points
Overall: 14 points

Grado Labs SR-60 Headphones,  $69.00
Grado's over-the-ear headphones are black, bulky, and so retro-styled that they wouldn't look out of place on the set of a 1950s science-fiction film, and you might not think to use them with your iPod. And yet the Grados won me over the moment I slipped them on. The sound is simply transporting. Wearing these headphones, it was easy to imagine myself standing just behind Elvin Jones' drum kit or in the center of Motown's Snakepit. The Grados, alas, aren't well-suited to outdoor use. The cord is thick, lengthy, and cumbersome; the earpieces do almost nothing to guard against ambient noise (as I gathered from the dirty looks of the woman sitting one microfilm machine over). They're useless at the gym, too hot to wear in the summer heat, and bulky enough to draw unwanted stares on the subway, but I like the sound so much that I wear them out anyway.

Grades:
Comfort: 5 points
Design: 4 points
Sound: 6 points
Privacy: 0 points
Overall: 15 points