Yet another headphone question
October 8, 2008 9:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for some great headphones and I'm lost in a vast sea of information. Help?

I just got a job in the big city. Go me! My new commute will now be a half hour walk and subway ride, so I’m going to need some good headphones. I’ve relied on a $5 pair of Coby earbuds that are just awful and I want to upgrade to something a lot better.

I’ll mainly be using the headphones with my Sandisk Sansa E280 and occasionally with my PC and laptop.

I’ve usually owned closed headphones but they tend to be pretty bulky and I don’t want to look like a total loser when I’m on the subway. I’d be willing to buy closed headphones if they weren’t too large.

I was never a fan of earbuds but a lot of people swear by them so I’m willing to give them a chance. Same with in-canal headphones but frankly….the idea of those scare me just a little bit.

Cost is not really an issue but I don’t really want to spend $500 if I can get a great pair for $50.

I’ll mainly be using these when I’m on the subway so noise reduction/lack of noise bleed is pretty important. I don’t tend to listen to my music that loudly when I wear headphones. I listen to a wide variety of alternative rock (Radiohead, Mars Volta, Rage Against the Machine, etc) as well as some classic rock and more “ambient” rock (M83, Sparklehorse, Mercury Rev, My Bloody Valentine). I never listen to rap, hip hop, or podcasts.

I have checked out the AskMe questions about headphones and the various recommended links (like this one) but I haven’t found anything that really jumps out at me just yet.

That’s where you guys come in. Thanks!
posted by Diskeater to Shopping (29 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The in-canal ones (known as "in-ear monitors" or IEMs) are IMHO the way to go. The sound is just way better than anything else I've heard. They also have very good isolation which may be a positive or a negative depneding on how much situational awareness you'll require in your subway ride. But at least you're not walking around with obviously expensive headphones on. Mine are Shures and cost about $100, but Etymotics are also widely praised.
posted by kindall at 9:28 PM on October 8, 2008

Sennheiser PX100s rock my world, and they're small enough to avoid looking like a goit while commuting. I bought them a couple of years ago and I've worn out several generations of foam earpads through use, that's how awesome they are.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:30 PM on October 8, 2008

Please give ear buds a chance. I recommend these.
posted by demon666 at 9:31 PM on October 8, 2008

I have Sennheiser PX200s, not too different from the above reply, both in size, looks and awesomeness. I think they should (still) be around 100USD or so in price.
posted by Iosephus at 9:58 PM on October 8, 2008 is a great place to get info about headphones.

Personally, I own a pair of AKG k26p headphones, which I really like. They block way more sound than they look like they wood and they also fold up pretty small. As far as the sound goes, they are pretty damn good. The only downside is that some people find that they fit too tight. So you might want to make sure you can return them.
posted by pwicks at 10:00 PM on October 8, 2008

The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro is a wonderful closed headhpone.

Although, The Grado SR60 is probably the best set of headphones for under $100 they're open so don't meet your subway requirement but I freaking love them.

I don't know about the looking like a dork though, I've never given a shit about that so I don't have the first clue where these two fit in that category.
posted by Bonzai at 10:06 PM on October 8, 2008

I'd go for the in-ear phones. I have the $99 Shure ones and they're great. There are even some $30 JVCs that sound pretty good.

Don't buy anything "noise cancelling". Those are better for airplanes where the noise is consistent. THey won't help you with crowd noises on the subway.
posted by mmoncur at 10:14 PM on October 8, 2008

And don't buy Bose.
posted by axltea at 10:17 PM on October 8, 2008

Sony MDR-W24V Vertical In-The-Ear Headphones are the ones I use. I been well pleased with them. Wadable and crushable and do not need much room to stuff somewhere in a purse or backpack
posted by bjgeiger at 10:50 PM on October 8, 2008

I think for a subway, 'canal', IEMs are the way to go because they completely block out external sound so you don't have to crank volume up and harm your hearing. You can listen at medium volume and all you'll hear is music. I have Etymotic ER4P which run around $180. These phones are known as being perfect especially for trance, techno and classical, but are good for other styles of music too. They will tend to have less bass impact than otherm IEMs in that price range. I haven't heard other IEMs but they sound amazingly good to me. One issue with them is that many people find their flanges uncomfortable; people usually buy so called 'Shure olives' foam inserts and use them with these IEMs (they fit without problem).

Other than that I can also recommend Ultrasone headphones, unlike other high end headphone companies closed phones is something like their 'specialty'. Pro 750s are especially good, as reports go, although I have almost the same headphone but open, Pro 2500. Their advantage over Etymotic is that they have stronger bass with more impact and much wider and more layered soundstange. In general I'd say that Etys are much better for trance and techno, there is astounding clarity and energy where Ultrasones are sort of more spaced out and they will expose flaws in the recording more readily. For other styles of music Ultrasones are much better. Generally full sized phones are supposed to be better than IEMs, espeically in terms of size and width of soundstage and 'immersiveness'. But IEMs are portable and they'll block out all external noise while even closed full size phones will only block part of noise.
posted by rainy at 11:19 PM on October 8, 2008

Also: is the best resource for this type of questions. If you plan to spend $150+ it may make sense to spend a few hours looking around threads there because this type of question's been asked a million times there and if you have followup questions, many people there have experience comparing many different headphones side by side..
posted by rainy at 11:22 PM on October 8, 2008

In-canal buds are great for subway travel. They block out most of the subway noise, so you can run your Sansa at non-ear-splitting volume.

I've used the Etymotic ER-4p and the ER-6. The two sound the same to me, but the ER-4p has slimmer stick-in-the-ear-sound-tube-thingees, which fit my ears. The ER-6 didn't quite fit my ears, but I may be an outlier. If they work for you, they're much cheaper than the ER-4p.
posted by zippy at 11:35 PM on October 8, 2008

I have tried all manner of headphones and find the foam rubber in-ear plugs are far superior to others. I have a noisy commute in the morning (crowds, trains), and the foam plugs work best at blocking out sound; after all, they're basically earplugs. In turn you don't need to turn up the volume as much to drown out ambient sound, thereby saving your ears some damage.

I'm not talking about ear buds, like the crappy things that come with a cell phone or iPod. I can't wear those for more than 10 minutes until they start to seriously hurt, and the sound sucks, too. Try for the foam plugs.
posted by zardoz at 12:17 AM on October 9, 2008

I own two In-ear-canal sets: the Etymotic ER-6i and Ultimate Ears Super fi 3 studios. Neither of them sound very good. I've tried the $100-level Shures as well, and they have a similarly tinny sound. At home I use AKG K-501's, and those, f.y.i., are what I consider good-sounding headphones, but they're full-size of course. Anyway, when I'm outside I usually use my $25 Koss clip-ons, and they sound way better than the Etymotics or the Ultimate Ears. If I have to have sound Isolation, I'll just use Koss' "the plug". But they don't sound very good either and of course I'll still hear my breathing really loud, as well as a sound like a cymbal crash every time the cord brushes against my collar, and deep thumping with every step I take... No, I can't endorse the In-ear 'phones. I'm still on a quest though, similar to yours. I notice that has started carrying more-expensive earBUDS, and grudgingly admitting that some of them sound "excellent", in their words.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 12:28 AM on October 9, 2008

Grado Labs SR 60
posted by Substrata at 2:17 AM on October 9, 2008

I’ve usually owned closed headphones but they tend to be pretty bulky and I don’t want to look like a total loser when I’m on the subway.

Just so you know, wearing bulkier headphones generally makes you look more awesome, not less. It's plain to see that you're not fucking around.

I have Sony MDR-7506 which you can apparently get $15 cheaper giving up the gold connector as MDR-V6.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 3:37 AM on October 9, 2008

Shure $300 level. Just go to the store and try them out. You will understand instantly.
posted by ewkpates at 3:53 AM on October 9, 2008

I just wanted to add one more vote for canal-phones. I used to be kind of scared/grossed out by the idea, but ended up with a pair for free. The sound is amazing, and I don't have to play the music nearly as loud because they act as earplugs too.

I have a few pairs of the more expensive ones, but end up using a cheap pair of Razer m100 a lot of the time just because they are tiny and don't tangle as much.
posted by qvtqht at 4:36 AM on October 9, 2008

I got the iGrado headphones about a month ago. I think they're just as good as the SR60s but don't look as weird.

I use them on the bus constantly and while I can still hear the bus rumbling in the background of the music, it's not that bad. My big concern is that people will be able to hear my music (I listen to a lot of different types of music, very loud) but my few tests of it (taking my headphones off and holding them a few inches from my head) seem to show that you can't really hear what I'm listening to.
posted by Lucinda at 4:56 AM on October 9, 2008

For general commuting, I'd go with a pair of in-ears (aka ear canal) or a pair of earbuds with a good seal. The in-ear ones are best for blocking out the annoying noises of a commute, but some people just don't like them. I don't mind them myself, but it kind of depends on the fit and the shape of your ears. If you buy them, make sure you can return them, and give them a few days of use before you decide if you like them or not.

A good pair of earbuds with a good seal against the ear are a good compromise if you don't like the in-ears.

I work for a company that tests headphones, so please excuse the shameless self publicity of a link to, which writes long reviews of headphones.
posted by baggers at 6:22 AM on October 9, 2008

As mentioned above, you can spend untold hours at gathering information. For travel, especially noisy mass transit travel, IEMs are the best way to go. First and possibly most importantly, they don't let sound in and they don't let sound out. A lot of people above mentioned the Grado's 60's. While they are excellant headphones and one of the best sound/ocost ratios of any phone, they stink in noisy environments. They block out nothing, plus and everyone around hears your music amost as well as you do.

Second, unlike most high-end traditional cans, IEMs don't require an amp when you are running them out of an mp3 player. It is a rare full size headphone (the Grado 60's being an exception) that don't sound thin out of a portable device. And a decent portable amp is no minor investment. Finally IEMs are convenient, they are small enough to fit nicely in your pocket

However, they are quite pricey. The sweet spot for iems is around $300 to $400. Shure SE530s, Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 Pros and Westone UM2s are all considered to be top performers and are all in that range. I have owned a pair of UM2s for three years and continue to love them.

Search around in Head-fi for threads discussing their relative sound signatures and comfortablity. IEMs can be uncomfortable at first, but you get used to them fairly quickly (of the three mentioned above, The Triple.Fis are considered the most uncomfortable due to their diameter). Another advantage, contrary to popular opinion, is that they are better for your ears long-term. Because they block out outside noise, you can play your music at a much lower volume that you can with traditional phones.

If you really do not want an IEM, you may want to consider the Yuin OK2s. They are traditional canal phones (think the white ipod phones) but with incredibly rich and detailed sound. They go for around $150, and while they do not look look much, are worth every penny. However, they have minimal sould isolation and so are not optimal for noisy environments.
posted by rtimmel at 6:43 AM on October 9, 2008

They are hard as hell to find now, but the best damn thing Sony ever made were the EX888LP earbuds, universally loved by all, now only available on ebay and a couple oddball retailers. I have had a vast array of headphone experiences Shure, Etymolic, studio headphones, these are my faves and I love them.
posted by Ponderance at 7:21 AM on October 9, 2008

I have a pair of the Sennheiser HD280 headphones mentioned above. They fold up a bit to make traveling easier, but are still a bit bulky. They do an fantastic job of blocking out most external noise. I use them at work to block out the office noise, but have used them on the subway as well. Even with the music at a moderate level it is quieter in my head than in the rest of the train car.

I also bought the SO a pair of Shure e2c in-ear headphones a couple years ago, which amazed her with the sound quality compared to the iPod earphones. They came with a couple different jackets which fit the ear differently. She uses the foam style ones which block out quite a bit noise, they are in essence earplugs with speakers in them. The e3c model came out since then and are supposed to have even better sound quality.
posted by borkencode at 7:23 AM on October 9, 2008

I use these V-moda Bass Freq in-ear headphones. Although the name implies they would be bass-heavy, for me they have a pretty good sound, and the price is certainly right. I listen to some similar stuff to you, as well as a lot of folk/acoustic, some R&B, some electronic, and some country. It all sounds fine to me on these headphones. Anecodotal: my wife says I'm really picky when it comes to audio.
posted by owtytrof at 8:06 AM on October 9, 2008

The problems with cans like the Sennheiser PX-100's and the Grado SR-60's is that they're open designs—they won't block any noise in the subway. I agree with the recommendation for IEM's (in ear monitors). You can spend as much or little as you want, but should be able to get pretty respectable phones for $50-$150 Take a looks at the Sennheiser CX-300, the Etymotic ER-6i, and Denon AH-C351K. The and sites are great resources, but keep a tight grip on your wallet.
posted by paulg at 8:21 AM on October 9, 2008

Lots of great information in here.

I've decided to go with a pair of IEMs. The Sleek Audio SA6s caught my eye (or ear!). Same with the Etymotic ER-4Ps. I think $200 is about what I want to spend unless there's a convincing reason for me to spend more.

So....with a $200 price in mind, which are the best IEMs I can get?
posted by Diskeater at 10:56 AM on October 9, 2008

I just upgraded my Shure E2C's to Shure SE210's which are gorgeous. With the Shures you need to get a good seal inside your ear to get the full benefit of the noise reduction properties and to get the bass. They give you a kit of lots of different size and types of ear attachments to make sure you get the best personalized fit.

Love 'em!
posted by merocet at 2:08 PM on October 9, 2008

I love my Grados (and in fact prefer an open-ear can to any other type) but they suck for use anywhere there is a lot of ambient noise. Based on your usage patter, I'd definitely go with an IEM (as you seem to have decided).

I heartily recommend the ER4Ps. I've used several IEMs (including the Ultimate Ears 3 and the Sony MDR-EX51LP Fontopias, various jvc, koss, and other cheapos) and the ER4Ps just blow them all out of the water. Tightly produced but not overpowering bass, great passive noise reduction, crystal clear highs. I got mine roughly 6 weeks ago - money well spent.
posted by namewithoutwords at 3:59 PM on October 9, 2008

If you like the Etymotics (which I've owned for several years) you can take them to an audiologist, who can make a set of custom ear plugs for you.

By replacing the flanges or foam seals with custom silicone plugs, you increase the bass, reduce the background noise and increase the comfort level significantly.
posted by quidividi at 1:21 AM on October 11, 2008

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