Tech Talk

Sound Advice: Picking the Best Headphones

Tech guru Tshaka Armstrong explains how headphones can boost your media-viewing experience and offers some choice picks to buy.

by | August 23, 2016 | Comments

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Let me tell you a little story. My wife hates having to adapt to new technologies. She’s actually quite brilliant, so it isn’t that it’s hard for her or anything like that. I work a lot, and there are a few things that fall on her plate when I’m busier than usual and can’t get to things around the house or with the kids. So when I bring a new thing into the house that she has to learn (which happens a lot), she’s a little resistant because she doesn’t see it as “fun” like I do. For her it’s another chore, another thing to cross off the to-do list. It took me some time to understand that — after all, everyone likes new gadgets, right?

As someone who reviews consumer electronics, watching her really shows me just how meaningful an addition to the average user’s life a particular gadget is going to be. Generally, when she adopts something new into her day-to-day routine, I know it’s going to be a hit. So what does this have to do with headphones?

With so many people consuming content via tablets and mobile devices these days, I think sound is an increasingly important item to consider. That said, most users are probably happy enough with the sound they get from their stock earbuds, or are willing to settle for the passable audio that comes out of most tablets or modern smartphones. The problem is that the audio fidelity you get that way, although serviceable, is actually pretty horrible in comparison to what you’d get if you invested in a decent pair of on-ear or over-the-ear headphones.

Back to my wife.

AudioTechnica

She loves sitting out on our balcony at night and listening to audiobooks or watching Netflix on her iPad. (We live in Southern California, so most nights are great for that.) From time to time, I’d suggest that she grab a pair of my headphones and use those, but she was happy with the iPad’s built-in speakers or her earbuds. One day, she picked up a pair of my mid-range (under $300) Sennheiser headphones. A few months later I noticed that she hadn’t put my — I mean her — headphones down. Now every night she’s out there, she’s listening to those books or streaming content using the Sennheisers. They’re over-the-ear (circumaural) headphones, and if you ask her, they’re very different — they’re more comfortable and provide a much more satisfying listening experience.

So what would my wife, the person who benefits from all this tech lying around but doesn’t geek out over it, tell you you’re going to get out of switching to headphones?

It completely blocks outside noises. “If you have babies or young children, these may not be for you. You’ll be in your own world when you put on a pair of these headphones. I’m often startled by a family member coming out onto the patio, because with these, you won’t hear them.” Not to be confused with headphones which have “active noise cancellation,” which is an actual technology, many over-the-ear headphones passively cancel outside noise by fitting completely over your ears. (Well, they may also feature a closed back design, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

The sound is crystal clear. ‘Nuff said? She tells me that, unlike the built-ins and earbuds she’s been using, the dialogue, soundtrack and everything else about the TV and movies she watches while using headphones is so clear, so well defined, it’s actually an appreciable difference to her, the average user — not an audiophile. That’s something.

They’re also very comfortable. The headphones she’s listening to have velour covers and fully fit over her ears, so they’ve been quite comfortable for extended periods of use. Unlike your stock earbuds which have a tendency to give most users ear fatigue after a while, over-the-ear headphones deliver a greater level of comfort.

Now, I’m not the type of guy to present a problem without also offering up a solution, so below are a few options for you to consider since you’re going to take my wife’s advice and run out and get yourself a decent pair of headphones when your budget allows for it. There are literally hundreds of different headphone makers on the market between the name brands, boutique products, lesser-known brands and the off-brand back alley knock-offs, so I’m just going to give you a few of my personal favorites from the many I’ve reviewed.

Sennheiser2

Audio Technica is known for their studio quality monitor headphones, delivered at great quality without breaking the bank. Check out the ATH-M50x, or ATH-MSR7. Both are wired and sound amazing! If it’s wireless you’re after, go with the Bluetooth enabled ATH-WS99BT. Sennheiser is my personal favorite right now, at the sub-$300 price point. You can get a great deal on Amazon on their tried and true HD598, or the pair my wife fell in love with, their Urbanite XL. They also have a wireless version of the XL available, so you may consider that one instead — it does come with wires, so you can use it wired or wirelessly via Bluetooth.

If you’re not a big fan of ordering off the web and prefer to hit a brick and mortar to get some hands on time with a product, Fry’s Electronics carries Sony headphones, and the MDR V6 is never a bad choice. The MDR V6s are actually used for monitoring audio at many professional television broadcast facilities. At Fry’s, Walmart, Target, or Best Buy, you can find Beats by Dre headphones. Although they’ve earned a reputation for being overpriced I will say that their Solo2 line delivers great, more evenly balanced sound quality than their first generation headphones. You can’t go wrong with the Solo2 or Solo2 wireless, and there are a few audiophile sites that tend to agree with me. HeadFi, I’m looking at you!

You’re probably thinking, “he totally missed the boat and didn’t mention X pair/brand of headphones!” Well, if you fancy yourself an audiophile but know how to give great recommendations for casual listeners, feel free to offer up your own suggestions in the comments section — I’d love to hear them.


Tshaka Armstrong is a huge nerd and activist who also writes for foxla.com and his own site, tshakaexplainsitall.com, where he talks about food, bearding properly, tech, family, and equality.

Follow Tshaka on Twitter: @tshakaarmstrong

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