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

Tag Cloud

TCA 2017 DC Comics Superheroe serial killer History Fox News The Arrangement Rocketman E! Lifetime First Look harry potter romance kids hist Podcast Fantasy Christmas GIFs travel Binge Guide psycho 45 diversity Emmy Nominations DGA The CW zero dark thirty Spectrum Originals green book Awards Tour Nat Geo biography USA Columbia Pictures GLAAD 2017 CBS Photos streaming TNT Syfy miniseries Trailer elevated horror sports latino Musical Logo Tumblr dceu Nominations YouTube Red 2018 Marvel Character Guide Hulu The Witch Animation Warner Bros. war See It Skip It RT21 cats aliens Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt period drama 20th Century Fox cinemax Quiz strong female leads comiccon MCU Box Office NYCC Adult Swim Western Horror Countdown facebook Sneak Peek APB RT History Stephen King VICE Sci-Fi Mudbound ITV toy story Disney streaming service A&E Winter TV adaptation Holidays Tomatazos Black Mirror singing competition 007 Rock Sundance Now Star Trek Extras USA Network zombies transformers Masterpiece Watching Series based on movie medical drama Comics on TV Universal cults Spike Acorn TV IFC psychological thriller south america Biopics Kids & Family Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Britbox ratings series Lionsgate Valentine's Day Peacock natural history anime Crackle historical drama Election Awards witnail Apple Action Comedy Central doctor who Superheroes Marathons Trivia Mary Tyler Moore crime drama Brie Larson WGN Freeform Certified Fresh science fiction OWN game of thrones Lucasfilm Premiere Dates GoT comic BBC YouTube Premium Pride Month disaster blaxploitation discovery VH1 dc Thanksgiving book President Martial Arts talk show revenge Set visit 24 frames binge movies PBS space Vudu ESPN El Rey LGBT Oscars Esquire quibi LGBTQ MTV Epix TCM Netflix ABC National Geographic Sundance TV Cannes Television Academy vampires HBO Max Chernobyl Dark Horse Comics TCA Comedy SDCC Rom-Com Drama richard e. Grant tv talk Tarantino mutant children's TV sequel spanish language television justice league Song of Ice and Fire robots Heroines Music 21st Century Fox award winner Schedule Grammys police drama dragons X-Men Shudder Calendar Reality Competition Pirates Interview theme song Mystery stand-up comedy NBC Ovation finale Showtime Red Carpet Shondaland BBC America AMC TV Land Film Festival Bravo Walt Disney Pictures Musicals CNN IFC Films FOX Mary poppins Amazon Pet Sematary Pixar 71st Emmy Awards WarnerMedia CW Seed TBS dramedy TruTV Creative Arts Emmys 2016 crime thriller 2019 cooking SXSW jamie lee curtis docudrama Mary Poppins Returns ghosts Fall TV spy thriller anthology SundanceTV DC Universe Family mockumentary Summer E3 Writers Guild of America adventure Nickelodeon Disney spider-man 2015 San Diego Comic-Con true crime Video Games Reality Amazon Prime Best and Worst Disney Channel teaser PaleyFest Paramount Network Food Network political drama Ellie Kemper CBS All Access thriller Sony Pictures crime Teen politics Star Wars composers technology casting Country Spring TV New York Comic Con Anna Paquin Comic Book Arrowverse spain zombie festivals foreign Polls and Games Mindy Kaling FX what to watch social media Opinion Ghostbusters CMT BET unscripted video animated spinoff FXX DC streaming service MSNBC boxoffice Captain marvel Trophy Talk Infographic sitcom TLC supernatural DirecTV HBO Elton John Emmys Cosplay Year in Review ABC Family Film nature game show First Reviews Women's History Month Toys Paramount Winners Amazon Prime Video Cartoon Network crossover YA American Society of Cinematographers Pop cops Rocky Super Bowl cars golden globes hispanic TIFF Starz