Headphones allow Jordan Delmundo to listen to his ever-growing vinyl music collection even when his roommates want peace and quiet. They let him crank up the music, establish a rhythm and get to work in his busy office.
Two pairs of headphones are all the Omahan needs now, but he guesses he's owned 30 pairs since high school.
No matter who you are, you probably have headphones or earbuds in a desk drawer, stuffed in a gym bag or tucked away in your office or cubicle.
But those headphones that come in the box with your iPhone are of questionable quality, as are the ones you bought in the aisle on your way out of the electronics store. With many people buying ever-more-expensive noise-cancelling or wireless pairs as well as $300 sets endorsed by celebrities, it's worth it — for both your wallet and your ears — to approach purchasing headphones with extra information.
There are many brands and types: wireless, over-the-ear, on the ear, in-ear, noise-canceling, extra rugged for gym or trail workouts and even some that are waterproof for swimming. But those we spoke to — both music fans and audio experts — advised consumers to look for comfort, sound quality and durability and to ignore, for a moment, flashy and stylish brands.
Stylish headphones are big business. In a $2 billion headphones industry, almost all new revenue comes from ever-higher sales of premium headphones (those that cost $100 or more), according to the NPD Group, a business market information company.
The proliferation of smartphones (and their capacity to hold hundreds of songs plus connections to streaming audio and video) is to blame, according to Ben Arnold, an NPD group executive director. Young customers, in particular, are going for artist-branded headphones, such as producer/rapper Dr. Dre's stylish Beats by Dre.
Two years ago, the rapper sold half of his audio company, Beats Electronics, to smartphone makers HTC for more than $300 million. The company makes the popular Beats by Dre headphones as well as celebrity-endorsed sets from Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and others. Dre later bought back a portion of the company for $150 million.
“Today, the premium headphone market is defined by fashionability and brand as much as it is by sound quality,” said Arnold in a press release. Unfortunately, many of those don't sound very good, according to Lauren Dragan, headphones editor at TheWirecutter.com.
“Beats by Dre sound awful,” she said. “People like them and they look nice. Since they have a nice, fashionable thing going on, people think, 'They must be good,' so they get them.”
Many have “colored” sound, which means the treble or bass is often boosted through the headphone speakers, but Dragan and others recommend looking for a more flat, even sound from your headphones and then turning up the bass, treble or other balances yourself.
Most importantly, Dragan said, you can often buy much better and more durable headphones for the same investment.
Many people will say they can't tell the difference between an inexpensive pair of speakers and a high-end set, but there is a sound difference. Still, it's OK not to spend the money if you just don't care.
You don't have to spend a fortune on a decent pair of headphones. Though headphones can run $400 or higher for top-of-the-line models, Sony, Grado and other companies make quality headphones that cost less than $80. Sony MDR750 are an over-the-ear headphone that sound very good and are incredibly durable.
“I worked in radio, and we would knock them on the floor, run over them with our desk chairs,” Dragan said, adding that she once drop-kicked a pair across a radio studio. They survived.
Delmundo swears by his headphones made by Grado. The two pairs he uses frequently are an over-the-ear pair and another that stay on with a headband around the back of his head. For an introductory pair, he likes Grado SR-60i.
Though they are quite durable, the nice thing about many higher-end headphones is that parts are often available in case an ear pad or other piece does break.
It's not important to spend a lot on headphones if you're listening to MP3s or streaming music services such as Pandora or Spotify. Most MP3s and streaming songs are compressed in order to fit more music into a limited amount of data, so chunks of the songs are actually missing.
Beyond audio quality and expense is comfort, especially with earbuds — the kind of headphones that stick right in your ear. If you don't get the right fit, they can become incredibly uncomfortable and, most importantly, they won't sound right.
“You really need to take that into account because it's so different for everybody,” Dragan said. “If they're not comfortable, you're going to be miserable.”
It's also worth checking out the return policy when you buy earbuds. Some places won't take them back after you've stuck them in your ears.
Mike Fratt, general manager of Homer's Music, uses a cheaper pair of earphones when he's out riding his bike. He's not paying close attention to the music, there's lots of ambient noise, and the songs on his MP3 player aren't of great quality, he said.
At home, Fratt uses a pair of wireless JVC headphones. He has looked at some of the celebrity-branded headphones and didn't like what he saw.
“If you drill down the specs, they're not much better. You're paying for a brand. You're not getting any more car for your money, you're just paying for the Escalade logo,” he mused. “I bought a pair of wireless JVCs, and I can be in the backyard or in the basement. My wife goes to bed early, so I can pop those on and be anywhere in the house.”
Listen up! The World-Herald's Headphone Guide
So, you want some new headphones. We talked to a headphones expert and music fans to get some ideas on good, quality headphones for your stereo, iPod, cubicle or wherever you'll be enjoying good tunes. We've outlined options for you if you want to go cheap, if you're looking for earbuds, if you need something to take to the gym, or if you're looking for something a bit fancier.
If you wanna go cheap...
If you just want something really inexpensive, then do two things: Find a pair that look cool (color, style, shape, etc.), and find a pair that fit you right. The right fit, especially with earbuds, makes a huge difference. If they don't fit your ear well, they won't sound right.
If you want some earbuds...
» ME Electronics A151 — $48.85 on Amazon.com
CNET says they “deliver very good sound for the money.” The earbuds are designed to give a warm sound, plus they have a braided cable to keep it from making noise and five sets of ear tips to help you find something that fits exactly right.
If you need something to take to the gym...
» X-1 INT4-BK-X waterproof system for iPod Shuffle — $70.36 on Amazon.com
OK, we're gonna be honest with you: While the X-1s listed above are waterproof and pretty awesome for swimming and listen to music, they're kinda over-the-top. Sure, you can listen to “Rolling in the Deep” while you swim the deep end, but you probably don't need waterproof headphones.
Our advice on gym headphones: Keep it simple. “They're much more susceptible to getting lost, stolen, broken, stepped on. And you're not doing your most discerning listening when you're working out,” said TheWirecutter.com's headphones expert, Lauren Dragan
If you want something nice, but not expensive...
» Sony MDR 7506 — $77.95 on Amazon.com
Inexpensive and totally durable. Nearly every recording studio and radio station uses them. Plus, they'll deliver sound just as good (and maybe better) than those celebrity-branded headphones you've been eyeing that also cost three times as much.
If you want something really high-end...
» PSB M4U2 — $399 on Amazon.com
Say you're having a baby and need to cut out listening to the stereo at incredibly high volumes. Try these babies out. Stylish and incredibly comfortable, these headphones are expensive but (by all acounts) totally worth it.
“They're my favorite headphones in the world,” Dragan said. “I took them on a trip from L.A. to New York and I was sitting next to a young child. I took them off and put them on, and I could listen to that noise and then it was gone. They're that good.”