Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Inexpensive Headphones, an Analysis

Faithful readers of Band Chat have already discovered that I'm a bit more of a stickler than the average music listener when it comes to sound quality. Sadly, getting equipment that will provide fantastic sound can cost quite a bit. But a cheap way to get you a good deal of the way to bliss is to invest in a decent set of headphones. Fact: this can be a trying experience, since I'm convinced every headphone that comes with today's popular mp3 players (i.e. iPods) is total crap. After chucking more than a couple of pairs at the wall in frustration, I've found a few, all under $100 (and some under $20!), that will definitely enhance your listening experience.

Grado SR60The first time I was in the market for decent headphones, I decided to not mess around, and purchased the Grado SR60. At $69, one is going to be hard pressed to find a better headphone at under $100. The highs are crisp, the bass is tight, and they're designed efficiently enough that my mp3 player doesn't have trouble driving them (you may need some extra volume boost, but not much). You get an extra thick cord plus a gold 1/4" adapter plug (for plugging into a stereo amplifier or receiver). The earpieces swivel so you can easily lay them flat for storage and travel.

The only thing going against them is the design, which is beyond retro and very uncool for 2007. The large pads fit over most of your ear, and will no doubt get sweaty-disgusting if you decide to use them for gym workouts. They're also a bit tight on the head, but with continued use, and (if you're careful) slightly bending the headband outward, you can overcome this. Aesthetics aside, if you only buy one 'phone for general purpose listening, purchase these. Highly recommended.

Koss KSC75If you're in the market for something cheaper, lighter, and portable (for walking around and workouts), go for the Koss KSC75. At about $15-20, the clip-on style may be unusual at first, but the sound more than makes up for it. They're not quite as rich as the SR60s (they have a bit more "sparkle"), but they are surprisingly balanced for such a small headphone. Koss also guarantees them for life - just ship 'em back to Koss if they break, with $6 for shipping, and they'll fix 'er up and send them back to you. I did this with the earlier model, the KSC50 (now discontinued), when one of the channels stopped working, and I got them back in no time.

The only problem I've had with the KSC75s is they tend to slip a bit after I've been exercising/running for a while (your mileage will vary depending on your ears), but the kooks at Head-fi.org came up with a solution. Buy the cheap Durabrand PR355 radio at Wal-Mart for $5, snap out the lousy drivers from the headband that comes in the package, snap out the earpieces of the KSC75s, then snap the KSC75 drivers into the headband. With your new stylin' mod, the KSC 75s will press flatter against your ears, so you'll get a little more bass, lose a little sparkle, and they'll stay on your head. Or you can go for the KTX Pro 1, PortaPro, or SportaPro, which supposedly use similar drivers, and are headband style out of the gate.

You can't go wrong with any of the headphones I mentioned above, but it is important to note that they have an "open" design. They don't close around your ears, so sound will leak out to your neighbor (not good for libraries). They will also be difficult to hear without cranking the volume if you traveling on an airplane or walking down a busy street. For these situations you want a "sealed" design. The only problem is that most headphones of this type that are under $100 are terrible.

AKG K 26 PAfter researching closed 'phones, I decided on the AKG K 26 P. They are compact, the earpieces can swivel to lie flat, and the headband collapses so the whole she-bang can fit in a small cloth carrying bag (included!). All for about $45 (although I got mine for $35 shipped on sale).

Initially, however, I was disillusioned. Although the closed design did a fantastic job of isolating me from the outside world, the sound was nowhere as good as the phones above. The bass was too strong and muddy, plus the tone was very nasal. If I sat the AKG back and up on my ears I got a little less bass, but something still wasn't right.

On a lark, I took a guy's advice on Head-fi.org: I turned my mp3 player's EQ on and set it to the "Rock" setting. Lo, it sounded close to correct! This setting is all about boosting the highs and lows and lowering the midrange, so I found if I used the custom EQ setting on my player to boost the highs, lower the mids, and flatten the bass (the rock setting is way too overpowering bass-wise), then it was pretty damn good

My current theory is the dumbasses who made this headphone purposefully broke them in such a way so they would sound good with the "Rock" setting on iPods. Good grief. At least the 'phones are actually capable of producing good sound, at a low volume level, albeit with a bit of tweaking.

Closed design conclusion: if you are willing to tweak, the K 26 P may be ok for you. I'm probably going to hold onto mine since I only plan on using them in a small number of situations, and can always fall back on the other items in my collection. But if you are looking to limit the number of headphones in your house, and need the closed design, consider another option. One popular suggestion is the beyerdynamic DT 231, which appears to be superior to the K 26 P, although it will run you about $60.


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