As I mentioned previously, I was looking for a set of headphones that would be ideal in:
- noisy settings
- transportation (size)
- listening to classical, jazz, acoustic-pop, and some funk music
- cost (under $100 USD)
Over-ear headphones are designed to seal your ears, to keep the sound from leaking out, and also to keep the backgrounds sounds out. Here is what I found while trying at least two dozen headphones at the Manhattan B&H store.
Not all headphones are comfortable. This is important if you are traveling a long distance with your headphones on your head or even around your neck.
Not all good headphones are cheap, but not all good headphones are expensive. Not all highly recommended headphones are right for me.
This is kind of an extension of the Comfort section. Not all (over ear) headphones will be a perfect fit for your head shape. Personally I have an all-around pretty big head, one that kind of pushes the bottom of the speakers off the area under your ears. What does that mean: leakage. I need headphones that bring in enough pressure toward the head so my big head doesn’t cause as much leakage in the sound.
You may have had to battle long cords, if you have bought sturdy, large, and affordable headphones made by reputable companies. I guess the idea is that these are for studio uses mainly, but I really wonder if their cords have to be so freaking long. I have tried to wrap a portion of these long cords in duct tape and rubber band and sometimes angrily tucked them in my pocket, etc., but they always find their way out and ruin your poise. You trip over it, you step on it and the inside electrical coil snaps, it gets caught in something, etc. I’m so glad now you can get commercial headphones that have detachable cords.
Considering the above rubric as a guide, I settled on a pair of:
Audio-Technica Quiet Point ATH-ANC7b ($89.99 USD)
These closed-back headphones are by far the best for my head shape for keeping out foreign sounds. The fit initially felt a little tight, but I got used to it pretty quickly. It gives you enough pressure on each side so the cups of the speakers stay over your ears at all times. I was fortunate in that B&H is a very crowded tourist hot-spot so I was able to test the headphones’ noise-blocking abilities to test there and then. These headphones also have active noise-cancelling, so you can even go up one level in shutting up people around you. I flew from NYC to Oslo (~7 hour flight) using these headphones (of course I wasn’t wearing them the entire time), and whenever the announcements (those extremely loud, doesn’t-matter-if-you-are-deaf-you-will-hear-this kind of ones) came on, I flicked on the switch on the the left speaker for active-noise-cancelling, and the jarring voice was pretty much gone. These headphones have enough padding in the top center part that goes over your head so you don’t feel like your head is going to cave in after 15 minutes of use.
For the sound, I played Vulfpeck’s Animal Spirits, Yuja Wang+ Leonidas Kavakos playing Brahms Sonata G Major 1st Movt., and Charles Neidich+ Solamente Naturali playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto (2015 on period instruments). Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b had the best balance for all of these tracks. For Vulfpeck’s track, these headphones were not the punchiest in the bass, but I felt it was definitely enough and true to the original sound (like how much bass the artists/ recording engineers would want you to hear). Some headphones also seemed to dissect the sound in layers into treble, mid, and bass a bit too much which created a very inorganic blend. I thought these A-T headphones were very nice in comparison. For the Brahms Sonata, most headphones seemed to really bring out the violin part (to an extreme degree) so the balance in violin and piano was hard to achieve, requiring constant adjustment in volume, and resulting in severe blue balls for the piano harmonies and counterpoint.
I used the Mozart Clarinet Concerto because, well, I am a clarinet player and I listen to a lot of clarinet music. These headphones seem to have the truest and flattering clarinet sound to me, and also I could hear the different parts of the orchestras well (not in an unnatural way), which I felt was very flattering to the orchestration of the piece.
Pros: good sound, shape, seal, size, material, look, price, brand, interchangeable cord, fine for indoor use, comes with a sturdy protective case that is fitted for the headphones so they don’t swim around, two extra cables, and an Energizer AAA battery for active noise-cancelling
Cons: requires one AAA battery for active noise-cancelling (gotta make sure you turn off the function after each use).
Grado Prestige Series SR 60 ($70.00 USD)
I have been using these on-ear Grado Labs SR 60 headphones since 2011. These headphones I feel have a brighter sound, which works very well for (but definitely not limited to) classical music. If you have never used open-back headphones before, it may take you a few listens until you get used to the sound. But once you do, I don’t think you can go back and find closed-back headphones that are equal in sound quality. The most expensive headphones I found at B&H were a pair of $1450 studio Sennheizers, and they were also open-back. With the open-back headphones, I feel that the “sound space/ stage” is more convincing and spacious. You feel there is more time and space for each sound to decay, instead of hearing more mush of sounds.
Pros: Crisp and flattering sound, affordable, good vintage look, sturdy cable, reputable brand even among some audiophiles.
Cons: Not practical for outside use due to open-back speakers, the speakers come with pads over them that are not the strongest and have frayed over the years, the glue that attaches the speakers to the frame doesn’t seem to be very strong and the speakers have come off (not broke off) a few times over the years.
In the end I think the key is finding a set of headphones that you enjoy the most, in most settings. If you like Dr. Dre’s Beats headphones which have very punchy and physical bass, that can be fun, I guess. If you like more balanced, honest, and flattering headphones for a budget, maybe give the Audio-Technica and the Grado a try. Oh and if you were wondering what I use at home, I like to use my Grado the most. But again, it really requires a very much noise-free environment to work at its best. Thank you for reading, and happy listening!