Oh, there he goes off to his room to write that hit song "Alone in my principles."
Question #90917 posted on 02/06/2018 1:32 a.m.
Q:

Dear Purveyor of Sound Kirito,

I'm in the market for some professional-grade over-the-ear headphones to edit sound in video programs like Adobe Premiere; I also plan on using them for mundane things like listening to music. Noise-cancelling seems like a nice feature, though I'll confess I have little idea of how or why that works. Cordlessness isn't a big deal—I don't really want to pay for batteries.

Do you have any recommendations or suggestions of how to select a good pair of headphones? What would your optimal headphones be? Is there a set of headphones that is a good balance of price and performance (perhaps to take on journeys where headphone damage is a risk)? Is there any other equipment I should acquire—sound cards, maybe, not really sure—to better facilitate pristine audio?

Thanks for your expertise,

--Ardilla Feroz

P.S. I've done a cursory Google search and found the following recommended list of 2018 headphones but basically all of them sound good to me. Also, if you're busy don't worry too much about this question.

A:

Dear Ardilla Feroz,

Thanks for asking! I really enjoy headphones as a hobby, mostly for listening to music. I've done a lot of research over the years, and hopefully I can help!

First off, it's important to mention that price alone does little to indicate the sound quality of a headphone. At a given budget, there's a huge range of sound quality. Some headphones are inflated in price by name recognition. Some headphones have fatal flaws in their sound signatures. The fun part is finding the headphone that's the best sound for your budget, and that matches your personal taste in tonality.

The website I trust most for recommendations is innerfidelity.com. It's run by Tyll Hertsens, who has become one of the most well-known and respected headphone reviewers out there. And he's heard EVERYTHING. The reviews on there are focused on the sound quality and are very enlightening. He's careful to combine his listening impressions with actual measurements of the headphones, and the website features a huge database of measurements of different headphones, which can be very useful in seeing how a particular model will perform. I definitely recommend looking at his Wall of Fame pages, where his top headphones for each category and price point are listed with links to the full reviews.

The most important feature of a headphone is its frequency response, or how loud the headphone plays each frequency. Ideally, you'd want the sound to be perfectly flat (same volume) all the way down to 20 Hz and all the way up to 20 kHz. High-end floor-standing speakers achieve this pretty well, but it's way more complicated when you're trying to do it with a tiny driver on your ear. Additionally, a perfectly flat frequency response on a headphone sounds different than a flat response on speakers because the way the sound bounces off our face changes the sound. We're used to that, and so headphones have to tune their response to compensate. That's all really hard to get right in a tiny device, which is why so many headphones fall short. Additionally, there's personal tastes to take into consideration.  One reason I really like Tyll's reviews is that he has very neutral tastes. He wants music to sound natural, which only happens when the frequency response is tuned just right. And when that's there, the magic starts to happen.

Before picking a model, it's important to decide what kind of headphone you want. For pure sound quality, the best headphones out there are over-ear and open-back. The majority of headphones are sealed, meaning that the frame surrounding the drivers is airtight. This creates an air pocket behind the drivers that can make some weird resonances, creating an uneven frequency response. On the other hand, open-back headphones are vented behind the driver. This has several effects. One, it's possible to have a much smoother frequency response, creating a much more natural sound. Two, open-back headphones often make it feel like the sound is coming from outside your head rather than inside. In a good recording, you can hear the sound all around you and even pinpoint where the different instruments are. A good open-back headphone turns music-listening from "mundane" to an immersive and transcendent experience. Classical music is where they shine, but it improves the experience for pretty much any genre.

Now, there's some things to consider about open-back headphones. Since they're open-back, there's almost zero sound isolation. You will hear everything around you, and everyone around you will hear what you're listening to. So it's not ideal if you're around people or in noisy environments. For those situations I would recommend a good pair of sealed headphones, or some in-ears with isolating memory-foam tips. Check Tyll's Wall of Fame for recommendations there. Noise cancelling can give you even more isolation, but it raises the price and can sometimes make the music sound a little weird.

Right now I own the HiFiMAN HE400S, which is a $300 open-back headphone. I really, really enjoy it. When I switched from the similarly-priced Philips X2, it sounded like a synthetic curtain was lifted out of the way. Suddenly I was hearing real sound, in a presentation that is both exciting and pleasant. It injects a lot of life into the music, which is on the other side of the spectrum from the Sennheiser HD650. The HD650 is another excellent neutral headphone, but it's a lot more "transparent" in that it presents the music without trying to add any excitement of its own. Personally, I prefer the HE400S, and since the treble is light it keeps the excitement from being fatiguing.

The sound of the HE400S is excellent for $300, but my ideal headphone would have a little more clarity without losing the pleasant character, and a little more bass. I wondered if that headphone existed, until I heard the Focal Clear over Christmas break. At only $1500, it's the first headphone below $4000 to be practically perfect in every way. I would love to own that headphone. But, I also really enjoy what I already have, and I think my money would be better spent on a nice speaker and subwoofer setup once I actually have my own place.

For in-ears, I have the Philips S2 ($120), which is fantastic for listening to music at work and on the way to school. The memory-foam tips block as much sound as earplugs, so the isolation is great. They're nice enough that I don't mind the sound quality, but they're cheap enough I can throw them in my backpack and not be too afraid of the day they eventually fail, as all earbuds do. Mine have lasted a year and a half so far, which is great. I keep thinking about the Shure SE 535 ($500), but I don't think I would be comfortable carrying around that much breakable money.

Everyone has different ears. Not just mentally, but physically different ears. That impacts what we hear. Since headphones are so subjective, it's helpful to read a lot of reviews and see what people are describing. But to really understand what they mean when they say "clarity" or "transparent" or "neutral" is to start listening to headphones yourself, and to find what you like. That can be hard to do since the showrooms are all closing down, and the business is moving to the internet. So if you ever get an opportunity to listen to something, take it. And Amazon Prime is great because you can order something and then return it, just to hear how it sounds.

You also asked about other equipment, and you're absolutely right. The sound card in your headphone jack that costed a few cents to make is not going to create a signal that will do high-quality headphones justice. Luckily, there's a pretty big market for this. You need both a DAC (to convert the digital signal into analog audio) and an amp (to give that signal enough power to drive your headphones well). Often these come as a packaged combination. The Fulla 2 ($100) sounds great, and is probably the cheapest you can go and get a significant improvement over your phone or laptop. I have one in my office at work. At home I have a Massdrop O2+SDAC ($150).

I know this is a lot to take in. It's quite an involved hobby. But once again I'll point you to the Wall of Fame on innerfidelity.com as a starting point.

With a lot of this, you have to hear it to believe it. Maybe what I'm saying about headphones sounds like snake oils and mumbo jumbo. It really can create a magical experience though. An excellent setup can transform music from mundane to something a little more like this: (source)

 02181855956320.jpg

Best of luck! Email me if you have any questions!

-Kirito