As a producer, quality headphones are important. Clarity of sound across the entire sound spectrum is vital. Some headphones have a better frequency range than others. Some headphones are weighted toward lower frequency ranges, so as a result, they might have much more of a heavy, bass-rich sound as opposed to another set of headphones that might sound really tinny. The difference between an okay pair of headphones and a great pair of headphones is a balanced support of the entire frequency of audible sound.
Bose isn’t the best
So as far as choosing headphones, really, there tend to be companies that are known for making exceptional headphones. Other companies might have a lot of advertising power and marketing clout, but to the trained ear, make really sub-par equipment. Bose is a good example of a company that talks a big game, spends millions on marketing, but any serious audiophile will stick up his nose to Bose because the quality just isn’t there. Actually the old saying goes something along the lines of “Just mids. No highs. No lows. Must be Bose.” By highs, lows, we’re talking about those high, low frequencies again. So Bose has a ton of mid-range frequency support. Unbalanced.
What determines headphone quality
You may have heard that the human eye can see up to somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 frames per second. So we have video, movies, animation that is rendered up to and above 60 frames per second for ultimate smoothness. Headphones are the same way, except instead of frames per second, we talk about frequency response.
The human ear can hear somewhere between 20Hz (hertz) and 20Khz (kilohertz), roughly. That means that the highest pitched sound we can pick up is somewhere around 20,000Hz. What we hear are just frequencies. The lower the frequency, the deeper the sound is. Some of the high-end headphones support frequencies both above and below what the human ear can even hear.
You might read the specifications of a pair of headphones and notice that the frequency response is 10Hz – 39,500Hz. This is actually a phenomenal frequency response range because it’s well below and above what the human ear can hear. This means that the spectrum is well supported with this pair of headphones. I suppose a good rule of thumb would be: you want the first number to be as low as possible, and the second number to be as high as possible.
Putting the headphone frequency rule to the test
One particular pair of headphones, thought by many to be the holy grail of studio headphones, is the Sennheiser HD 650. They’re comfortable, they sound amazing, and they’re durable enough to throw in a box and take to a gig. For $450, they had better knock your socks off. The Sennheiser HD 202, on the other hand, is $24.95. The frequency response range is listed at 18 Hz to 18,000 Hz. So if you recall, our frequency range is 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz or so. Can you guess the sound quality of these headphones? Since they don’t quite reach 20,000 Hz, which is at the top of our hearing ability, but they do reach below 20 Hz, these probably sound like they have more bass and mid-range than the Sennheiser HD 650, which would be super well-balanced. The more balanced they are, the more sound you can hear, because the wider the frequency range is.
If you’re shopping for a pair of headphones and the frequency response isn’t listed, that’s probably a bad thing. You shouldn’t buy those.
Closed ear vs. open-ear headphones
With closed ear headphones, you isolate the outside world from your sound. The headphones usually have that foamy type material that fits completely over your ear. If you listen mostly on a bus, train, or in the city, perhaps earbuds or over-the-ear headphones would be best for you. You might think “Why would anyone buy open-eared headphones, then?”
The fact that you can hear the outside world seeping in isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The air flow that you gain can reduce the resonance present in closed-ear headphones. What you get, then, is a more natural listening experience. Not only that, but increased fidelity of audio. Furthermore, many people find the added airflow to be more comfortable than the “box-like” experience of closed models.
I find that my head gets a little sweaty after wearing over-the-ear headphones for a long time, and that’s not really a pleasant feeling. One last reason you might consider open-ear headphones is if you work in an environment where you might want to hear some outside noise.
In the end, honestly, the best sounding headphones are usually open-eared headphones, but if outside noise is a concern, or you don’t want to leak what you’re listening to, you might want to go with the closed-ear model. Everyone has their own preference, though, so try both and find out what’s right for you.
On Finding the Right Balance
So at the end of the day, it’s all about finding that balance between cost, comfort, durability, portability, frequency response and personal preference. If you’re always on the go, look into some nice earbuds that have the frequency response that you crave. If you are on the go, you probably care a little bit more about comfort and durability and a little bit less than the ultimate, perfect sound.
If you care about both, you’re going to probably spend over $200 on a great pair of earbuds. I personally have a pair of Shure SE310 Sound Isolating earbuds for traveling. They’re super durable and sound great. Yes, they were $250, but ideally I don’t have to buy another pair for many, many years. If you’re at home, and you’re serious about investing in a great pair of headphones, then do your homework, find some forums that are active with audiophiles. Some forums have been around for a long time and have search functionality that makes it really easy to view past discussions on headphone choices. You could spend 3-5 hours doing this and have a great short list ready.
One Last Thing
You might also investigate headphone amplifiers to really give your sound a boost. A headphone amplifier is basically a device that sits between your media device and your headphones to, well, boost the sound. It allows low-sensitivity headphones to be driven louder as a result of the extra voltage provided by the amplifier. Just know that it makes your music sound better.
In the home and on the go, you have options both ways. If you’re mobile, check out the FiiO series. The E5 and E11 has gotten consistently high marks. If you’re in the studio, you can spend a little or a lot on headphone amps. A friend once gave me, as a gift, a HeadRoom “total airhead” amplifier. It is small enough to take with you, but capable at home as well. You can spend anywhere from $25 to $150 to, well, $2,000 on a headphone amplifier. If you do your homework, you can probably find a setup you’re pretty happy with for under $100. It will fulfill your basic needs and sound okay. That might work for most people.
If you can afford it, and you want to invest in one of the most amazingly generous things you can do for yourself (hey, you only live once), save up some money and prepare to spend maybe $500 – $600 on something fantastic. That sounds like a lot of money, right? But think of it this way: you only have one pair of ears. We’re talking about a device that delivers music from a piece of computing to your brain. It makes sense to go for the best.