Some thoughts on buying headphones

Discussion in 'Headphones' started by WobblySam, Nov 7, 2017.

  1. WobblySam

    WobblySam Well-Known Member

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    Headphone discussions are often some of the most amusing and personal exchanges I see on audio boards. Spend a few weeks over at Headfi.Org and bask in the insanity. Not unusual is the concept that "my" headphones are the best for the money and that's what you should get. Anything else would be a clear indication that someone is a complete idiot. This is oft times accompanied by references to some self-appointed guru of headphones.

    For those of us who started in this HiFi "thing" 30, 40, or 50 years ago, we have accumulated a base of knowledge and experience that we have come to trust. We've listened to a myriad of speakers, amplifiers, receivers, turntables, tape decks, et al. Most of us have arrived at the point where we know what we like and dislike as far as the sound of our system(s). We have little interest in what some reviewer dictates as the best, we are unmoved by "celebrity designers" and we give little credence to the opinions of those less experienced. This may or may not have its pitfalls, but whatever comes of it, we still know what we like.


    Headphones fall into a different category. Headphone listening was not a prominent part of the previous decades. There were few choices and not much was said about headphone listening. You did it when you had to - not because you wanted to. At some point, we all had some variation of a Koss product. They weren't particularly good, but they sufficed. A few ventured into electrostatics, but most did not. So, we arrive in the late '90s and there are some viable options beginning to emerge. Still, headphones for most serious listeners were a "have to", not a "want to" proposition. Those little headphones from Walkmans and earbuds from MP3 players certainly weren't viewed as real HiFi. Now, even oldtimers don't have 30, 40, or 50 years of experience with headphones. We're behind the curve as much as the newer folks in some cases. Which 'phones do we buy? I bought a pair of Senn HD-580s in the '90s and paired them with a little EarMax tube amp. I was duly impressed with the sound of this combination. I was convinced it couldn't get any better - not that I spent all my time listening to headphones. It was now an "I'm in the mood" thing. I added the HD-600s and the HD-650s over time and found that there was indeed differences. One pair sounded better with certain music as did another of a different genre. Stereo stores were disappearing and soon there was little opportunity to audition newer phones. It's even worse in some places now.


    One thing that seems overlooked in all the chatter about headphones, especially among the newer folks who seem to be enthralled by the sanction of a pair of headphones by certain reviewers, is that most of these reviews will not give you any solid indication of how those headphones will sound to you. Headphones can be viewed as on-ear speakers. The same criteria applies that encompasses loudspeakers - phone impedance, power requirements/handling, frequency response and low output impedance from the driving amplifier. This amplifier output impedance has become particularly important with the proliferation of low impedance phones. Vintage receivers often have headphone jacks and output impedances in the 50 - 75 Ohm range. These are a very poor choice for driving anything other than a 300 to 600 Ohm headphone. Phones with 10 to 20 Ohms impedance need to be driven with amps approaching zero Ohms output impedance in order to not skew the frequency response.


    And the biggest variable of all is your head. While speakers in your listening room may be moved, elevated or toed to alter their sound along with room treatments to tame offending resonances, unless you are an adventurous amateur trepanner, there is not much you can do to alter the sound of headphones on your head. The size , shape and cavity structure of your head will and does have a profound effect on how a pair of headphones will sound to you. Test this by pressing in on your phones while listening or very lightly pull the cushions a very small amount away from your head. The sound changes. If you have a big, chunky head, most phones will fit you tighter and conceivably at a slightly different angle than someone with a tiny, little head. The two will NOT hear the same thing. Add to this bone structure and cavity size and the variability increases more.

    If you truly want headphones that "sound" right to YOU and provide the type of HiFi experience YOU want, read the reviews to learn about the various models available. But don't believe that the phones will sound the same to you - they won't. If you are really interested in getting some phones that meet your criteria and sound "right", plan to spend a little time getting experienced. Make a list of the phones that fall into your budget. Then pick a vendor or two that offer 30 day audition/returns and spend the time listening to them. Make sure you have the necessary amp to drive the phones (impedance boogie man). On the other hand, if you want a pair of headphones to listen to when you "have to", post the usual "What's the best headphone for $XXX.00" question and wait for someone to tell you what to buy.


    I'm fortunate in that I have been able to accumulate several different headphones over the years. There is something about each one that I like and of course, some thing or things I don't like. I have phones from Beyer, Sennheiser, Sony, Shure, Audeze and HiFiMan after auditioning more than 30 different phones. I've probably auditioned a dozen or so headphone amps and have kept around half of them. Listening to headphones is still a mood thing, but I find I'm in the mood much more often now. The sound can be truly amazing.

    There are a baffling number of choices for headphones and headphone amps today. Along with that is a number of fabulous-sounding headphones and amps. If you just want to get something and be done with it, read the reviews/opinions and roll the dice. You might get lucky. If you've been in the hobby for decades, you know there's no substitute for experience - so, get experienced and get the phones that will make you happy.
     
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  2. Mamrak1

    Mamrak1 AK Subscriber Subscriber

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    I have always had problems with posts about people wanting others to choose what headphones they should buy. To me, the number one thing to deal with is how those headphones feel on your head. No poster can tell you that. Plus, what one person hears is not the same as the next guy. I have eight difference pairs of Sennheisers. I rarely agree with the ‘consensus’ of the group opinion. You need to listen on your own. Virtually everyone says I have XYZ headphones. They are the best. Buy them. It’s a crapshoot if you take online advice like that.
     
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  3. monsterzero

    monsterzero AK Subscriber Subscriber

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    Unless you happen to reside in SE Asia where is it exactly that you expect someone to go and listen to a pair of Audezes vs. Sennheiser vs.STAX vs.Mr.Speakers vs.HiFiMan vs. ZMF ?

    Head-Fi exists because you cant go anywhere and compare the various HPs...sure you can go to Guitar Center or Best Buy and listen to the headphone equivalent of BPC,but if you want a quality headphone that meets your needs or dont know why your 1200.00 OTL wont drive your Grados but your phone will then sites like Head-fi are invaluable.

    The same can be said here.People most likely arent going to recommend a speaker or receiver that theyve never owned...are they?
     
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  4. slow_jazz

    slow_jazz AK Subscriber Subscriber

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    Well written.
     
  5. Mamrak1

    Mamrak1 AK Subscriber Subscriber

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    My point is... I would respect comments more if a poster gave a number of recommendations about headphones they have listened to rather than one specific pair they own.
     
  6. MurrayLives

    MurrayLives Born to lose, live to win

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    I don’t believe you can really know anything about stereo gear without having lived with it for an extended period.
     
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  7. monsterzero

    monsterzero AK Subscriber Subscriber

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    I get that a lot of posters there(and here) are eager to share their discoveries with the world,but its to be expected.Some members of Head-Fi think that "a Schiit stack" is the answer to all the worlds issues.Theyve never owned anything else and have nothing to compare it to,yet every question is answered with "Schiit stack"...drives me nuts!

    That being said there are other members who have owned lots of gear either currently or formerly,myself being one of them who have trimmed down to their absolute favorites and can make recommendations based upon years of buying/trading/selling gear.

    I currently own 14 pairs of headphones and have sold off more than that,so i think im somewhat qualified to give my opinion on a particular request over there,but your point is well taken.
     
  8. cratz2

    cratz2 Addicted Member

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    I largely agree with you, OP, it unless you have access to six door eight different brands, how would you know where to start looking if not for reviews and fellow users?

    Your points are well taken though. I always find it amusing how one less experienced will ask a specific question and will often be met with directly opposing suggestions. One member will suggest that K240s are a great headphone while another will say to avoid them.. Or ATH-M40/M50, Sony 7506/V6, HD280s, etc...

    I usually try several suggestions in hopes that one or more may be available locally or at least on Amazon. I also try to keep my suggestions genre-specific when applicable.

    Other than that, I just try to be helpful and will often make suggestions of phones that did not work out for me, but that I think may work for the member, based of listed criteria.
     
  9. sinewaver

    sinewaver Active Member

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    Wandered in to this part of AK just to see what the headphone crowd is all about. This is actually a great discussion of a rather personal subject. You don't get to have such intimate contact with any other piece of hardware. I don't listen to headphones much unless I have need to listen in great detail. Most phones are bottom heavy to me but that's just an opinion. I had a need to wear them for many years because of working in radio. Most of the DJ's would buy their own rather than depend on the station's supply. I had a wonderful selection to try and the criterion was how I sounded to myself. Huh ? Yes, whenever you're on-air you need to be listening to yourself. It helps with diction and picking up on bad habits you may have, not to mention that you become quite aware of noises that may be present at any point in the broadcast chain. So, you listen to yourself and much louder than you hear yourself in open air. Any decent station monitors it's signal by means of a tuner so that it's as it is heard. Direct connection to the board is to be avoided. Whenever the microphone circuit is engaged, the studio monitors are shut off. I got to audition a fine selection of headphones and rejected many highly regarded ones. While they sounded fine on music, I sounded like I had a head cold. In the end I wound up with a pair of Sony V1's. Cheap but I sounded most natural to me. They had to be full coverage because a microphone will pick up any leakage. The V1's were passable for music and I still have them to this day. Repaired many times. Commercial use can be hard. I've got some Sennheisers that sound better but my ears can't handle them after an hour or so. After all this it still comes down to comfort and sound, price and application. Headphones must be the most personal of audio.
     
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  10. WobblySam

    WobblySam Well-Known Member

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    That's exactly what I was alluding to - the idea that "one size" fits all. It seems whatever gets repeated the most times, in the most places becomes a defacto standard whether anyone has actually listened to it or not. That drives me nuts too.
     
  11. Bob

    Bob AK Subscriber Subscriber

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    not just at headfi. here at AK people push what they have as the ultimate pick. then
    the arguments start about who is proposing the better solution.

    the question I always ask is what type of music do you listen to. that may be the deciding variable
    as to why one likes a given headphone and the other thinks it sux.

    Example: listen to heavy rock/metal/GratefulDead? better on JBL, CVs with their boosted
    bass. classical - much better on british speakers. and there's a slider between good and
    not so good for every music/speaker combo.
     
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2017
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  12. JoeESP9

    JoeESP9 ESL's & tubes since 83

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    Perhaps you should also ask, "What other gear have you compared"? I suspect that quite often the answer to that question is either very short or non-existent.
     
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  13. MurrayLives

    MurrayLives Born to lose, live to win

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    People that actually own multiple headphones are the exception, not the rule. Definitely a worthwhile question.
     
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  14. johnda

    johnda AK Subscriber Subscriber

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    I have owned a number of headphones over the years, but my personal favorites are Sennheiser. Right now I am listening to vocals by Joan Biaz, Judy Collins, the Everley Brothers and others on Pandora via my iPad. My headphones are new Sennheiser HD 4.40 BT wireless headphones. I never heard vocals as clearly as this, it’s like I am on stage with with them! :music:
     
  15. Tom White

    Tom White Member

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    Since you have identified yourself as a fellow Sennheiser fan, I wonder if you could answer a question or two?
    Are the current Senn HD 4.XX phones direct descendants of the 429, 439, 449 series but with BT added? Or are they a different animal. And if they are a different animal, how do they compare between the two series?

    I've also wondered the same things about the current 2.10, 2.20 and 2.30 vs. the older 219, 229 and 239 but it appears not many people have tried/owned those.
     
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  16. johnda

    johnda AK Subscriber Subscriber

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    Hi,

    You really need to try out the 4.40 BT Headphones to see how they suit you. When I had the 414’s I was amazed at the image they gave me. Listening to them play Carley Simon, she was “seen”standing on a far wall, which was an amazing effect! The 4.40 BT place her in my lap! The detail of the 4.40 BT is the best I’ve heard, a trumpet solo let’s me envision the metal bell of the instrument. I clearly heard the low 20 Hz of an organ, and choral voices were great to hear. Drums and piano are excellent with skins and keyboard sounds.

    The ear pads are very thick and soft and they have enough grip to stay on my ears while the top cross bar sits above my scalp. I do get a bit fatigued from the pressure on my ears and I normally call it a day after listening for an hour and a half. At the rate that I listen at, I should get about a month of use before recharging, which takes about two hours.

    The 4.40 BT do not have noise supression and if you will be in a noisy environment the 4.50 BT would be better. As far as wireless goes, they mate easily to my iPad which makes a very good combo. I’m sure they will work great with a smartphone.

    Hope this helps!
     
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  17. Tom White

    Tom White Member

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    Thanks for that answer johnda! Sounds like they image well for a closed back set. Carly Simon on the lap, huh? OK, gotta get my mind out of the gutter now! Sorry about that.
    I've got the 429's and I've just never been trilled with them. Heck, I like my old cheap 201's better than those. But, I also have the PX100's and really like them.
     
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  18. cratz2

    cratz2 Addicted Member

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    For the semi-open Sennheiser experience on the cheap, the 518s are pretty nice. I got one very gently used set for $25 then bought another set new for $40 on closeout. They always sold for less than the 558s or 598s. They day I bought my new 518s, the same site had 598s for about $180.

    I modded one pair and have one pair stock. I also have the 600s and I'd say that the modded 518s are at least 80% as good overall as the 600s. They aren't as open and they don't create that soundstage, but they do have more (bit not distracting) bass. They also are much easier to drive well than the 600s.

    Hell of a deal of they are still available.
     
    Last edited: Dec 26, 2017
  19. Tom White

    Tom White Member

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    Geez, where did you find those for that low cost? $40 closeout? That's amazing.
    I'd like to get a pair, but probably should wait until my Grado SR60i's sell on Craigslist first.
    I see you are in Indy. Fellow Hoosier here. Down in Brown County.
     
  20. 91r100gs

    91r100gs AK Subscriber Subscriber

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    If you have UPS store nearby, Amazon is the place to try and buy headphones. Myself I spent $80 on some AT M40x cans which are on my head right now. It was the 3rd pair I tried and finally found non overbearing bass neutral mids and highs. They work well with all genres of music I have tried, especially Jazz. Have had for about 2 years and not looking for anything else. And as always YMMV

    Is it me or has Sennheiser removes themselves from the low end of the market? They made some killer cans back in the day that didn't require a second mortgage. IE HD 40, 414 and 424's. About 20 years ago I bought a set of HD 400's and on the computer they were unreal for $20.
     

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