Headphone recommendations: give me the sound without the research
February 19, 2013 1:36 PM   Subscribe

I was at some live classical music the other night (Philip Glass, if it matters) and the experiencing was life-changing. I've got the music from iTunes but it doesn't sound that great over my normal cheapo headphones. I have never cared about audio quality before and it's not something I'm likely to get seriously into. But say I had up to 250 euro or so to spend on getting the sounds that's closest to what I heard in the concert hall - what should I buy or do?
posted by StephenF to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I'm a moderate person on the audiophile scale but I'll tell you what I can.

A few years ago I put alot of research into things and ended up with a pair of ATH-M50 headphones, although I shopped around and found them new for less than $100. They've been very satisfactory and I'm wearing them right now as my work headphones.

Before that I had a pair of second hand Etymotic ER6 that I really enjoyed until one bud developed a short in the earpiece. They are... different so be warned if you've never tried an earphone quite like them.
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:45 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

The buyer's guide at headphones.com is pretty good. You might want to budget for a headphone amp as well (you could maybe build one).
posted by exogenous at 1:46 PM on February 19, 2013

Not a specific recommendation (the headphones I currently use are long discontinued), but in the past I've found the information on HeadRoom's website to be really helpful.
posted by primethyme at 1:47 PM on February 19, 2013

Plenty of recommendations in this thread.
posted by TwoWordReview at 1:49 PM on February 19, 2013

I use Sennheiser 555s, which seem to have been replaced with 558s. Really great sound. Headphone amp would be a good idea.

Obviously (perhaps), to the extent you're listening to compressed MP3s, versus a lossless format, you are losing some information. You may or may not care.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:49 PM on February 19, 2013

Go somewhere that sells moderate- and high-end headphones and try them out. You can read all the reviews in the world and you'll mostly learn that opinions about headphones are incredibly subjective. I find reviews are mostly useful in giving you information on comparatively objective qualities—build quality, etc.—and perhaps an idea of generally how a given pair sounds. But there's no substitute for putting on a pair of headphones and listening to your favorite music on them.

If you want to sample the headphone holy wars, Head-Fi has you covered.
posted by sinfony at 1:49 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Grado SR80s.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:55 PM on February 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Obviously (perhaps), to the extent you're listening to compressed MP3s, versus a lossless format, you are losing some information. You may or may not care.

Oh yeah, this is a really good point. For some pieces it may not matter that much but I would say for Philip Glass and other minimalist composers you really want to hear every bit (pun intended) of detail so lossless is the way to go.
posted by TwoWordReview at 2:00 PM on February 19, 2013

Very cool to hear it was that powerful for you! Admiral Haddock's right that audio quality matters, and I'll go a step further and say that even a great recording is not going to match the thrill of a great live performance (especially with music that's about bodies moving in similar motion as much as Glass's music is). But as for headphones, there is so much variety of sound available and the choice is so personal that it's really worth going to a good shop and trying them out. All you can get from asking online is other people's preferences; nothing can tell you about your own except trying out the options.

p.s. Listen to Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich if you haven't already. :)
posted by kalapierson at 2:29 PM on February 19, 2013

Obviously (perhaps), to the extent you're listening to compressed MP3s, versus a lossless format, you are losing some information. You may or may not care.

A guy in an audiophile shop gave me his take on this: the theory was that Apple's ubiquitous white buds are deliberately crap (realistically, they're about as good as buds you'd buy from a $2 shop) because the poor quality of the headphones hides the fact that the lossy files you buy from iTunes are equally low-fi. If people had better headphones for their iDevices, they'd demand better quality lossless file formats from iTunes.

That was in the process of selling me some Sennheisers (HD 212 Pro) which are OK but you'd probably do better following other people's recommendations here. I just ear-tested what felt & sounded best under (from memory) $100.

I also use a set of Audio Technica buds with a noise cancelling function, which is a feature you might want to consider if you plan to listen in planes, on public transport or at work. Noise cancelling will somewhat affect the purity of the sound, but you can be more immersed in the music if the ambient noise levels are higher than a quiet room.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:29 PM on February 19, 2013

Grado SR80s.

These babies, with a Fiio e17 portable DAC, and you're done.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 2:30 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Let me just put out there that no matter how good the audio you listen to is, you're never going to have an experience listening to a recording that is comparable to live music. Live music is being created in the moment, for you. It has quirks and personal touches that will never be heard again. It has visuals, and presence, and an audience that contributes a certain temperature (as well as coughs and rustles). Consider spending your 250 euros on concert tickets. I'm not saying you can't have a powerful emotional experience listening to recorded music; you can. But if you responded to a concert in a way you've never responded to music before, maybe it's not the headphones.
posted by rikschell at 3:03 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in ear buds (as opposed to headphones) I spent a few months last year trying to figure out the best affordable earbud option, and ultimately concluded that it was the Bose, mainly because they don't so much plug into your ear canals as rest just outside them. Quite phenomenal sound for less than $150 ... except I didn't buy them because they were pretty much useless in noisy circumstances. That is, on the bus, walking along a city street, even if there was just a bit of a wind blowing -- they did a piss poor job of removing the outside world. In fact, they seemed to amplify it.

But when I can afford it, I will buy a pair just for those quiet moments at home (when I don't want to piss of the neighbors), or for walks in nice quiet locales.
posted by philip-random at 3:09 PM on February 19, 2013

For "live" classical sound, you probably want a pair of headphones with good "sound stage." AKG K701/702 (they are the same except for the color) are really good for these at your price point. They do draw a fair amount of power so you may want a headphone amp to really bring out the qualities of the headphone. The earlier suggested Fiio portable amp+dac is a good entry level choice.
I would suggest getting the K701 for a decent price on eBay, and with the Fiio amp it would be within your budget.

Happy listening!
posted by xtine at 3:19 PM on February 19, 2013

I listen to a lot of classical music. I also listen to a lot of other kinds of music. I don't think you need a special type of headphone for one and another type for the other. That, I think, is silly.
Also, you don't want to try and replicate a live performance on your headphones. It's two different things. You get a lot of timbre nuances and things at a concert you'll miss on the headphones. You catch a lot of detail and get a lot of volume from the recordings you miss at the concert. So it goes.

The best thing to do is to go to a headphone store with your philip glass record and try out all of their headphones. Also bring along a heavy hip-hop album and an orchestral album that includes a choir. Why? You want to explore how the headphones handle frequencies and volumes, and the glass may not give you the best idea. Nothing will show how shitty a pair of headphones is like some extreme sopranos or some deep bass. Personally, I would take along a recording of Mahler 8 and some Kanye West.

A lot of people will suggest to you the ATH M50s or the Senn 558s. And for good reason. These are the best general listening headphones on the market. I use mostly the Senn 280s because I like a closed headphone. But see, that's why you've got to go listen.
posted by Lutoslawski at 3:31 PM on February 19, 2013

The Wirecutter section on headphones should be a good place to start. And yes, he lists the Audio Technica ATH-M50S over-the-ear headphones as "the headphones I'd get".
posted by RedOrGreen at 3:43 PM on February 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

For a time, I was obsessed with finding the most accurate portable music reproduction hardware available. After searching Head-Fi and other sites, and reading reviews for hundreds of headphones, I bought a pair of Etymotic ER-4Ses ($224.00, In-Ear Monitors - definitely test the fit before you buy), and a pair of AKG K550s ($289.00, closed-back, over-ear cans). If I had a listening environment that was suited to listening without disturbing others, I would have picked up a pair of AKG K702s ($263.60, open-back, over-ear cans) as well.

The headphones I do have produce very accurate sound reproduction, spacious soundstages, great detail, and good sound isolation from outside noise. Some people say that they are both bass-light, but I find that that usually comes from people who are used to headphones that artificially pump up the bass (*cough*Beats*cough*), rather than focusing on reproduction accuracy, which I find both pairs do very well. I couldn't be happier with these headphones, and I'd highly recommend at least considering them, but of course, YMMV.

If you're up for some independent research, and are looking for a pair of IEMs, there's a thread on Head-Fi that compares over 270 different sets.

If you have any questions, I highly recommend poking around Head-Fi, as it is THE haven for the experts.
posted by areodjarekput at 9:58 PM on February 19, 2013

Thirding the Grado SR 80s. They're superb.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 2:26 AM on February 20, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Good advice on multiple dimensions.
posted by StephenF at 6:43 AM on February 20, 2013

In regards to the Grado recommendations: If possible, test them before buying them, as Grado is known for a unique sound signature (they tend to be bright, with some people finding uncomfortable/undesirable levels of sibilance).

I forgot to mention that during my evaluation, I stumbled upon this thread which defines many of the words that you'll hear audiophiles use when describing headphones. I HIGHLY recommend reading through this a bit, finding which things are most important to you, and evaluating headphones based on that, rather than recommendations that don't factor in your specific tastes.
posted by areodjarekput at 7:04 AM on February 20, 2013

How about these $5 headphones from monoprice today only at amazon.(prime compatible)

Amazon rating 4.5/5
Best Headphone under $30 by wirecuttter

if you dont like it.. well you only lost $5
posted by radsqd at 1:41 PM on February 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

more detailed review over at head-fi and compared to audiophile grade gear
posted by radsqd at 1:48 PM on February 20, 2013

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