It wasn’t until I was introduced to the magic of an MP3 player that I considered headphones an indispensible item in my array of tools for modern living—right up there with Netflix, the Venus razor, and disposable contact lenses. Headphones ensure my sanity during my crowded, pungent bus ride to work, they help me focus on the tasks at hand while I’m at the office, and they make the miles on the treadmill go by a little more quickly at the gym.
However, despite my categorization of headphones under “utterly, totally, unquestionably necessary at all times,” it wasn’t until recently that I gave the wide variety available today their due consideration. The vastness of the choices on offer will leave you immobilized and slack-jawed at your local Best Buy or Radio Shack. Where does one start?
Headphones are among the more obvious and simple concepts advanced by humankind, but despite the purity of their purpose and design, purchasing the right pair requires serious thought—and I’m not talking about the übergeek details like impedance, total harmonic distortion, and frequency response. The first thing to consider is whether you want larger, 1980s-esque headphones (à la “Last Night a DJ Saved My Life”), or if you prefer the sleek and subtle earbuds that come standard with almost any personal soundmaking device on the market. Your answer to this most fundamental auditory-apparatus question should take into account the following factors: size, price, your attitude about sound quality, your sense of subtlety (or lack thereof), your hairdo, and the environs in which you will be utilizing the device.
For example, say you have a powerful yen for epic doom-metal and require nothing less than symphonic perfection in order to appreciate its operatic undertones, yet you still haven’t gotten the raise you’ve been waiting for, so your budget’s a little slim. Meanwhile, you have no problem—nay, you enjoy—making a stylish spectacle of yourself, and your retro beehive hairstyle consumes far too much time and energy to then simply be crushed under the headband that holds some earpieces together. Finally, you feel only one pair of headphones is all a person needs, so you want yours to be as useful while you’re dodging city traffic on your bike as they are while you’re listening to whale songs as you fall asleep at night. You could simply pick up any old pair of headphones and make do, but given the nearly limitless selection and your truly individual routine, you can do much better than that.
Headphones for There
Whether you take your music with you everywhere you go or just like to plug into the old hi-fi at home to groove to some tunes, there’s a pair of headphones to suit you. Given that headphones are used most ubiquitously on public transportation and at the gym, what ’phones are on offer that would deftly span both of those locales? CNET’s roundup of the top five headphones on the market provides some easy answers to that question.
First up are the Klipsch Image S4 headphones. These sleek earbuds boast a low profile, a palatable price point, and, according to reviewer Jasmine France, “shockingly stellar sound quality, certainly much better than their $80 price tag.” Earbud-style headphones, while certainly not for everyone and often not privy to reverberatory excellence associated with their full-size counterparts, are not nearly as cumbersome and are excellent for people who move a lot or move quickly, perfect for crowded buses and ambitious elliptical sessions, and just about as low-maintenance as you can get.
If you have money to burn, consider the Shure SE530 sound-isolating earphones. Tipping the cash register at a dizzying $400, these earbuds are truly a wonder of modern sound engineering, offering the kind of detail and clarity normally associated with full-size headphones that you might find in professional sound studios. However, considering their astronomical price tag, some people would likely be reluctant to sweat on these at the gym—or risk having them plucked from an open locker. It’s a lot of dough, but for the active (and high-earning) audiophile, these might be the way to go.
Headphones for Here
Some headphone-friendly occasions are more sedentary—say, when you’re at work or at home. If you’re looking to simply relax with a nice Bach cello concerto while the kids tear around the house or you want to rock some Taylor Swift without eliciting ridicule from your coworkers, larger and less invasive headphones could be what you need. Supra-aural or circumaural headphones (meaning covering or surrounding the ear, respectively) can give you stellar sound quality and comfort—perfect for spending some long hours enveloped in your own private sonic reality.
Koss PortaPro headphones are the epitome of the reliable maxim “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Koss has been manufacturing these simple cans since 1984, and they remain one of the company’s most popular products; they might be somewhat run-of-the-mill, but their sound quality is certainly not. While the PortaPros don’t excel at blocking out ambient noise, they have an excellent 3-D sound, especially considering the relatively meager $35 it costs to sport a pair of these.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are Bose’s QuietComfort 3 headphones, the latest generation of one of the manufacturer’s most popular product lines. Starting at around $300, these noise-cancelling cans’ price is nothing to sneeze at, but they’re sleeker and more modern than ever, without compromising their fidelity, and Bose’s reliable track record with producing quality audio equipment provides added incentive to take the plunge.
Headphones for Everywhere
In this day and age of wireless everything, I would be remiss not to mention wireless headphones. Enter Jabra’s BT8030 Bluetooth headphones/speakers; CNET gives these headphones big props for doubling as a portable speaker set, Transformer style. This kind of versatility would be most appreciated by those who fly by the seat of their pants—commuting to work in the morning and rocking an impromptu dance party in the break room at lunch. However, at this early stage in the Bluetooth-hybrid game, they could be a bit too bulky to be useful during more vigorous activities, and their princely $250 price tag might make it worth your while to wait for the next generation’s release.
If headphones were shoes, you could conceivably have a pair for every occasion. But while some headphones do come close to rivaling your average Christian Louboutins in price, one pair—maybe two pairs—will do.