Fewer than 500 words...

Headphones and Earphones

Uh oh. Longer than 500 words. We're going to have to pretend it's 3 posts.

This evening I pulled out some of the headphones I've collected over the years. Yes, I'm a bit of an audio snob. Yes, my music library is enormous (more than 50,000 songs) and yes, by now I know a thing or two about what I want to hear when I listen to music. This then is a walk through some of the headphones in my collection and my comments on them. Hopefully it will provide a helpful guide, if not in a specific choice then perhaps what to listen for when auditioning headphones.

I'm putting these in order of price, but that's for convenience only. Some of the least expensive are the best, but the most expensive on this list also happens to be the best I've heard...

Creative Aurvana - $108.84 - A good value for very little money. These can often be found for $70. They're smooth, full and have a rich tone. They're light and fit comfortably. They fall apart when you want bass or volume, but the handling of mids and highs is surprisingly solid.

Sony MDR-V6 - $109.99 - If you've got a budget to stick to and can only have one pair of headphones and they need to be clear, accurate and excellent, buy these. They're an ancient model and I'm not kidding, they were introduced in the 1980s! They have such a following that they even have a Wikipedia page! There's arguably no more solid performer available. They lack the firepower of the Monster line, they lack the unbelievable finesse of the Shure in-ear models and they lack modern things like controls for a telephone, but they reproduce music with clarity, precision and detail and they are great for casual and critical listening.

Monster Beats iBeats - $119.95 - The least expensive Monsters may be the easiest to recommend. The sound matches the Monster Beats emphasis on bass and mids, but highs are reasonably clear too and I would put these ahead of the SuperFi 4vi's for sound quality and since they include telephone controls they're equally useful. However, as I've found the SuperFi 4Vi's new on eBay at $25 I can get four pairs of those for the price of one of these, so these are the value if you only want one, but if you're like me and want them available anywhere, the others might be a better choice.

Shure SRH440 - $125.00 - These are over the ear headphones. The sound is the least impressive of all the headphones listed here, and to make matters worse, the earcups are made of a plastic so unwilling to mold to the head that it's actually uncomfortable. An easy no.

Ultimate Ears SuperFi 4vi - $149.99 - Clear and full, these are a very decent pair of 'phones, solid bass and clarity throughout the range. They can get a little thin with more volume, but they are not fatiguing at reasonable volumes and they're physically small enough to be comfortable for long wear. They're an easy pair to love and keep around. I've found these new on eBay for as little as $25. I have pairs in the car, in the computer bag, in pockets of regularly worn jackets, etc. They have telephone controls and a mic, so they're super useful.

Monster Beats Tour - $179.95 - A more sophisticated sound then the iBeats, these simply have more of everything that the iBeats offer. The sound holds together better, has more presence and a more solid low-end, though the iBeats edge out slightly in the highs.

Monster Beats Solo - $199.95 - These are a bit of a let-down. The trademark Monster Beats bass is there, but that's they're only genuine strong suit. Mids are a bit muddy and the highs are pretty much hopeless. These are fine for Hip Hop, but that's about the extent of it. These were revised to the SoloHD and I don't have those to listen to, but my guess from the overall weakness and muddiness of these is that the revisions were intended to address the weaknesses I found in these.

Monster Beats Studio, $349.99 - I enjoy thee very much, they're like a private island of musical indulgence for your ears. I just know my ears are getting a treat when I pull them out to listen to pretty much anything. These have a very distinct sound, it's warm, bass heavy and pronounced and smooth like caramel. Bass and mids are rendered with stunning clarity and oomph. I'm regularly surprised by how well they do with dynamic bass. My primary criticism is with the upper end. First, they strive to get anything much in the upper registers rendered with anything like a matching presence to the mids and lows and what does get out sounds brittle, compressed and is ultimately fatiguing to the ears. If you know Roseanne Cash's song Black Cadillac, it starts with a little bit of her father, Johnny Cash and then the song is hers and his voice is fantastically rendered while the careful and detailed tone of her voice is compressed into a tiny fragment of what it is on other headphones. In the end, I consider these great headphones, but in the end they simply can't be an "only" set of cans. If you can only have one, these won't be it, unless you're musical taste begins and ends with modern Hip Hop and R&B (on which they're fantastic, of course!).

Shure SE400 - $349.99 - (specific model number varies) Little brothers to the 500 series, these are about 85-90% of the performance of their bigger brothers. Instead of the triple driver system of the 500 series the 400 substitutes a dual driver. The difference is mostly found in the clarity of the high end. These are also smaller and lighter than 500s. Considering the quality of these, they're a steal.

Shure SE500 - $549.99 - (specific model number varies) If there's a better private listening device than this pair of 'phones, I haven't heard it. There's no way I can possibly describe the musical joy of these things, they're extraordinary from lows to highs, and everything in between. They use a triple driver system and they miss nothing at all in the source material they're given. If you listen to any piece of music on these and it isn't the single best experience you've ever had listening to that piece, short of hearing it live, then be assured there's something wrong with the recording. Listen softly or loudly, it's all there, they don't strain, they don't tire and they're smooth throughout their range.

Of course there are downsides... They're horrendously expensive, but certainly not the most expensive. The cables run over the ears, they require a snug fit to do their best and as these are in-ear phones, and as is the case with any in-ear, you give a little on bass. But not that much.

There are plenty of included options for fitting to your own ears. Since the seal in your ears is expected to be effective, you won't hear much from the outside world, so Shure includes a device that can be run inline on the cable that allows you to push a button and hear the outside world.

Bottom line? These are very expensive and yet somehow completely worth it. If these are tempting but you need to economize there's no shame in the 400 series, and you get much of what is found in the 500.
Solutions Consulting - 310-838-5224 or benlevy@rockinbeat.com