The secret of the search for perfect sound is that it never ends. In many cases, you might find sound isolation and higher quality easier to afford with headphones. Mixing on headphones can work, especially with reality checks on audio monitors. You might be tired of cheap standard issue headphones like the Sony MDR-V6 or MDR-7506 (preferred by The Wirecutter), but still want to avoid frequency manipulations of popular lifestyle headphones like Beats Audio. Accurate reproduction and flat frequency response isn’t just a matter of more money, but an adventure in trial and error.
It’s a minefield between good mid-fi headphones (~$300) and the SONY standard video issue ($60-90), which are well-known though not flat or musical, good for hearing audio noise under talking heads, but with distintegrating ear pads. In general the reviews at Innerfidelity, CNET, and The Wirecutter are useful for cutting through the noise, but they are part of the “hype train” on some level – so finding listening stations is best.
Remember that open headphones may have a more natural ambience, but they leak sound, so closed headphones are recommended for recording. Another factor is portability, which is related to the ability to be driven by a smartphone. While there are a ton of places to get advice and reviews of headphones, dedicated websites provide the best access to information and experience.
Gadget sites are good, like for roundups on exercise earphones (Lifehacker, also Headroom) or lightweight headphones (Gizmodo), but they don’t have the depth of the dedicated websites. An interesting exception was Beat By Dre: The Exclusive Inside Story of How Monster Lost the World on Gizmodo. A thoughtful gadget site like The Wirecutter seems to break that rule — they have very thoughtful and documented roundup reviews of many items, including headphones. But don’t take their picks as gospel, no matter what qualifications they peddle.
Headphones and earphones come and go, and fall in price, especially as competition leapfrogs with new models. But there are other factors, as seen with the recent street price increase on the popular Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, which vary on Amazon between $100 to $170. This is where price tracking alerts come in handy, for example, from CamelCamelCamel. And because a good many of us haven’t been obsessed with headphones, CNET provides a good explanation of the many terms that describe headphone features (but please continue on).
Don’t be afraid to use EQ options in desktop music players, iPhone, or Android. Though tricky you might use system-wide EQ to seek flat audio: see some solutions mentioned by Lifehacker in How to Equalize Your Computer for iTunes, Spotify, and Everything Else.
Head-Fi.org is perhaps the biggest resource, with discussion forums and reviews, including the Head-Fi Buying Guide, which covers all price points. It’s a great place to ask questions about the details that only enthusiasts will know, and there’s a never ending stream of reviews and opionions for lurkers. There’s also some video, but it’s mostly industry event fodder.
Inner Fidelity, a sister website to Stereophile, reviews headphones, headphone amp/DAC, and devices, and adds measurements, DIY projects, and more. The “Wall of Fame” lists and YouTube headphone reviews by Tyll Hertsens are quite good. It’s not just subjective listening but measurement too, though good measurements don’t guarantee fidelity. An affordable favorite seems to be the NAD VISO HP50 for $249, but favorites are always shifting. Perhaps the most popular stepup headphone is the Audio-Technica M50x, which has a v-shaped “EQ” curve, while the cheaper M40x has a less musically-pleasing though more accurate sound. Here’s sample reviews from good reviewers:
For in-ear monitors, check out Earphone Buyer’s Guide by Sound Signature by ljokerl, which is an easy access point to his massive resource. He can also be found on Head-Fi and Inner Fidelity. For a look at the lowest end, see AEPortal’s Decent cheap earphones: backups and stocking stuffers here on PVC.
eplaced with Beyerdynamic Ear Pads for better comfort and sound. Sure these Sony’s can be cheap ($54-100), but if you don’t pick up more serious phones, like say the Yamaha HPH-MT220, AKG 712K, or Focal Spirit Professional, there are more interesting options than the low-end SONYs that are fine for dialog and speech content. One option is the bright Grado SR80e for $99, an American-made open-back headphone that would be fine for video.r
Despite some serious quibbles due to personal taste (for example the Philips Fidelio X2), check out the Best $300 Over-Ear Headphones by Lauren Dragan at The Wirecutter, which was updated a few times. Even to the point of redefining and renaming the article to crown a particular (if justified) winner!
We can’t leave off without showing something on the longtime leaders in the $75, $150 and $400 niches, and updates from Tested in December 2015.
Note: Headsets are a different beast; see Allan Tépper’s Audio Technica BPHS1 broadcast headset with dynamic mic: review + comparison here on PVC.
And seen afterwards… in 2012 Jonny Elwyn posted What are the best headphones for film editors?