Headphones: Sound Decisions

Full-Size · Wireless · Noise-Canceling · Earphones/Earbuds

Manufacturers have filled the headphone market with high-priced, celebrity-branded earphones that look stylish but fall short on audio quality. However, if you dig deeper, you’ll find that notable innovations that even average listeners can detect have come to headphones at all prices. 

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The list of celebrities who are eager to brand a pair of headphones with their name has grown rapidly since the rapper Dr. Dre joined Monster Cable to launch in 2007 Beats by Dr. Dre headphones.

In the past 2 years, we’ve seen headphone models from basketball player LeBron James and musicians Tony Bennett, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Lady Gaga, Quincy Jones and even the late Miles Davis. Rappers 50 Cent and Ludacris announced their own headphone lines in 2011.

So, how does being a basketball player or a pop star make one qualified to design a pair of headphones? It doesn’t. It’s likely that Dr. Dre or Lady Gaga approved or rejected several different types of sound signatures—the overall balance of bass, treble and middle frequencies—but they didn’t draw up any designs.

Some of these celebrity-endorsed headphones sound quite good. The problem has a bit more to do with the pricing.

Jorge Cervera of HeadRoom, which is an independent website that reviews and reports on headphones, tells Consumers Digest that although celebrity-endorsed headphones have “increased the widespread public awareness and the ongoing cultural ascendancy” of headphones in the past 3 years, consumers also pay a premium of 10 percent to 20 percent for celebrity endorsement.

“There’s almost always much-better-sounding headphones at lower prices found in the same category as the various celeb headphones,” he says. “Knowing that better sound can be had for less is troubling.” In other words, if excellent audio quality is your main priority—as it should be—you would do well to steer clear of the high-priced celebrity genre.

Fortunately, interesting headphone advancements have taken place outside of Hollywood in the past 3 years. Manufacturers have developed sweat-resistant exercise earphones and excellent bass components, and drivers have come down in price. Manufacturers also are finding new ways to build secure-fitting earphones that seal your ear canal and block out ambient noise, and Bluetooth finally has received some long-awaited improvements in the way in which it compresses and transmits audio. The results certainly sound good to us.

WORK IT OUT. Today’s headphones and earphones, which sit inside of the ear and seal off the ear canal, that are marketed specifically for wearing while you exercise have become better constructed and better-sounding in the past 2 years.

The main problem that exercise earphones pose has been the lack of a secure fit, which is why earbuds, which sit inside of the ear but don’t seal off the ear canal and thus have a tendency to slip out of the ear, never have been great exercise models. It’s difficult to make secure-fitting exercise earphones, because ears tend to get sweaty and slippery.

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Since Sennheiser’s Sport/Running line hit the market, AKG, Monster and Polk introduced their own sweat-resistant exercise earphones that have their own proprietary moisture- and sweat-resistant materials.But Sennheiser found a solution in 2010, when the company joined Adidas to introduce the Sennheiser Sport/Running line ($50–$70), which includes the first earphones that not only resist sweat but, as we found, also can be rinsed off with lukewarm water in the sink. This requires a watertight design, obviously—liquids and electronics, as those of us who’ve spilled coffee on our keyboards know, don’t go well together. But Sennheiser added Adidas’ moisture- and sweat-wicking technology to the materials in its Sport/Running line. We found that the earphones wick moisture and stay in your ear.

“Exercise is the fastest-growing subcategory in the headphone world,” Cervera says, in terms of the number of models that now are available.

Sennheiser’s Sport/Running earphones also were the first to include cables that are made of Kevlar. The synthetic fiber maintains its flexibility in cold temperatures, unlike other cable fibers that are on the market do. We found that other cables can become brittle and snap in weather that’s 30 degrees Fahrenheit or colder and lead to problems with the circuitry. Shure and V-Moda now also use Kevlar cables, and Kevlar-cable models are no more expensive than are models that don’t have Kevlar.

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