A Guide To Headphones - Headfonia.

Headfonia’s Guides to Headphones

Before we begin I’d like to start out by saying that Headfonia articles are mostly focused on headphone selection for music listening. So, if you are a recording engineer or a gaming enthusiast, we may not be able to give you much help there.

Rule #1: There Is No Best Headphone

The number one rule to understand when embarking on your headphone-search journey is to understand that there is no one headphone to rule them all. Like automobiles, headphones are made for different purposes. You have the supercars, roadsters, SUVs, 4x4s, sedans, to the compacts, and you chose what’s best for your day to day needs. There is no one car that can tackle snow and win races on the drag strip. The sooner you understand this fact, the more money you will save.

The key is to get the right headphone for your music, not the most expensive headphone your budget allows.

Dale: Some of the most important things to consider in selecting a headphone are the fit, any power requirements, portability, appearance if used in public, and whether the sound is oriented toward what you mostly listen to.

The fit isn’t always an easy thing to be sure of when you can’t try before buying, since some ear pads will not have a satisfactory fit to some ears. Power requirements aren’t a simple matter of looking at the impedance, since efficiency or sensitivity doesn’t always track directly with impedance. Another issue indirectly related to power requirements are whether the headphone has the option for ‘balanced’ use or some other connection that isn’t a 3.5 mm or 6.35 mm jack and plug.

Portability can mean many things, such as appearance in public, having a secure fit so the headphone doesn’t shift off of your ears, amount of isolation from ambient noise (including active noise canceling), whether the headphone can be worn around the neck when not listening or it requires a carry case, and when extra amplification is required, whether a suitable amp can be found that’s OK to carry along with the portable music player.

Rule #2: Headphone Characters and Music Pairings

If you think about it, a typical Rock song and a typical Classical track are very different. The presentation of the music is different, the instruments involved, the energy of the music, even the way they are recorded are different! Therefore, you need to adjust your headphone choice to fit your particular music.

After listening to lots and lots of headphones, we discovered that certain headphones have the right qualities for Rock, and another for Classical, and yet another for Electronica. We refer to this as the sound signature, or the character of the headphone. Don’t ask me why headphones have characters, just take our word for it.

Again, back on the automobile analogy. If you’re driving in downtown Chicago after winter time, the road is full of potholes. It would be nice to be riding in a nice SUV, rather than typical sports car with a fully stiff suspension. It doesn’t matter if your sports car happen to cost three times the cost of the SUV, it’s just the wrong car for the road. Likewise headphones. A $1,000 headphone can sound very awful on the wrong music. Don’t believe me? Try listening to Linkin Park with the $1,800 Sennheiser HD800. You will wonder where that $1,800 went.

Dale: The examples listed above are good general rules, but there also are so many exceptions and in-betweens that it also could be better to understand what is needed for your music, so you can narrow the search to the most appropriate headphones. For example, you may have heard that Classical music is a particular genre, but within that ‘genre’ are many very different types of music. Chamber music or pipe organ music may benefit from a headphone that’s highly detailed in the treble (a headphone that some users might say is bright), while harpsichord music and music that has a lot of strong trumpet sounds might be better served with a more rounded or softer treble.

Rule #3: More Headphones Is Better Than One Headphone

What I’m saying here is that it’s better to own three $100 headphones than one $300 headphone. Or three $300 headphones than one $900 headphone. Why? Because most people don’t limit their playlist to strictly one genre. And following the logic from Rule #2, the right headphone-music pairing is going to be better than one expensive headphone paired to the wrong music.

This is why headphones are so fun. It’s easy to switch from one pair to the next. Imagine if you were listening to speakers, you would need three different rooms to set up your three different speaker sets.

Dale: It’s really the same with any genre or sub-genre of music, that the sound from different artists and tracks can vary a lot, so having more than one headphone is a plus. When only one headphone is available at a particular time (portable use especially), one option is to use a headphone that can accommodate a wide range of genres, in which case there may be compromises to consider. Another option is to carry two headphones – one on the head or around the neck and another in a carry case. Some of the small headphones can make this easy to do.

Rule #4: Open Back vs Closed Back

Open back usually results in more natural sound, but they leak sound in and out. This means you probably can’t use them in a library or a plane flight since the sound of your music will leak out and disturb the people around you. You also can’t use them on loud public places since noise from the outside will disturb your music. Therefore, even though open back would give you more natural reproduction, for these reasons their use is limited to mostly at home or in the office (if you have your own space that is).

Closed back are not always inferior to open back headphones. They are usually easier to drive, making them a good choice for portable set ups. They also tend to have punchier bass which is good with most mainstream modern music.

One more thing, open back headphones typically require more amplification power than closed back. For example, some open back headphones like Grados and Alessandros still fall into the semi-portable category, but they would benefit from an amplifier because of their open back design.

So the bottom line is closed-back headphones are usually more practical and are easier to live with. Open-back headphones on the other hand have the potential to sound extremely good.

Dale: The examples listed here are good general rules, but one thing to keep in mind is in the mid-to-lower price tiers, open-back headphones aren’t nearly as common as the closed types. The smaller list of choices, and the more limited reviews of those items, could make getting a perfect fit more difficult. Sound stage and openness are often given as the advantage of the open-back types, but it’s just a general rule and some closed-back headphones excel at those properties. An important thing to consider is the music itself, since sound stage and perspective varies widely in different recordings.

Rule #5: Amplifiers

The rule that I use is that the bigger the size of the headphone, the bigger the need for amplification. Of course factors like driver sensitivity and impedance will matter, but the general rule of thumb is, use a dedicated headphone amplifier for a full size headphone. Even a portable amplifier can be enough, depending on the type of the headphones.

Also remember that open back headphones usually require more amplification power.

Dale: There are so many types of amplifiers (and DAC’s with amplifiers) that there is no shortcut for studying all of the options, unless you settle for the most generic approach. Important things to consider are power – if you don’t have enough power for your headphone and the dynamics in the music, clipping will result. Sometimes the clipping is “soft” and not readily noticed, but eventually you would discover that much of the detail goes missing or gets veiled with limited dynamics. Another consideration is whether to use a DAC, which may be a separate DAC or built into the same enclosure as the amp. Most DACs will improve the sound over the DACs that are built into computers, but when a DAC is available to replace the DAC built into most cellphones and low to mid-priced music players, you can usually expect a much greater improvement.

Rule #6: Garbage in = Garbage Out

Garbage in = Garbage out (GIGO) is a popular phrase used to emphasize the importance of a good source. This can be the soundcard in your laptop, the quality of your portable audio player, or the CD player you’re using for music listening. Those fall into the “Source” category. The better your source is, the better the sound will be at the headphone end. This is why we are seeing more and more audiophile digital audio players (audiophile DAPs). They are expensive but they sound good.


That should be all for now. Have fun with the search, and enjoy the journey!



  • Naruto

    i have a sennheiser hd 439.. would it sound good with fiio X1 player?

  • Randy Outlaw

    Could anyone suggest a few good headphones for heavy rock and punk music

    • What source? Budget?

      • Randy Outlaw

        Ipod classic 160 gig nd the ipod touch 5th gen….any where from 0 to 300.00

      • Randy Outlaw

        I also do have a Fiio FiiO E17K Alpen 2 amp

        • I have the E17k also – sounds really great, especially from USB on a computer.

          • Review tomorrow. For the money, the DAC is quite nice, the amp, not a fan

          • Randy Outlaw

            I like my so far

    • For $300, one of the basic-model Mad Dogs or ZMFs could be really good. They have a really low aggravation factor along with planar-style bass (good for those genres). For portable use I like the B&W P5, ATH ESW9a, and Thinksound ON1.

  • Marie

    Hello, I was wondering if you had any recommendations for portable headphones. I’m willing to pay 200-300 dollars. I listen to a lot of jazz and “indie” & although I love a good bass, I dislike when it overcrowds the rest of the music. I value comfort a lot & I want to use these primarily for when I’m out and about
    I’ve been looking at the Audiotechnica M50. Am I on a good track ? Any good leads would be appreciated.

    • The M50 is OK sonically, but has some odd colorations. And it’s bulky and “clunky”. I’d choose a good fit and comfort as very important, to go along with good sound. Based on your genres and description, the Beyer T51p or T51i seems like a good fit.

      • Marie

        Thank you! While those look awesome, I was honestly hoping for something closer to the 200 dollar range (I hope that’s not to unrealistic in terms of expectations) & the Beyer unfortunately barely fits my budget. Also, I have the feeling that they would break easily (is it just me?). Any other leads on headphones ?

    • I was just about to recommend the T51P, Dale beat me to it.

      • Marie

        Thank you ! I guess I’ll reply to you what I asked Dale just to get your thoughts on it as well:

        Thank you! While those look awesome, I was honestly hoping for something closer to the 200 dollar range (I hope that’s not to unrealistic in terms of expectations) & the Beyer unfortunately barely fits my budget. Also, I have the feeling that they would break easily (is it just me?). Any other leads on headphones

        • What exactly are you planning to do with it? 🙂 None of my headphones have ever broken.

          Seeing you were planning on going for the M50, what do you think of the Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro or the DT770/32?

          • Marie

            That’s a good question… haha. I’m the type that takes my headphones everywhere I go and so wear and tear is a genuine concern of mine. Especially when it comes to chords & I read that on the T51P that the headphone cord isn’t detachable, which is sort of a deal breaker for me.

            I was looking at the DT770/32 & was exited about them until I read a review that said that it was a “bass head’s headphone… mostly suited for rap and hard core techno music with a deep bass line.” which made me realize they were not meant for me

            As far as the Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro, it looks really clunky for me (I’m a person that weighs 110 pounds & lives in Florida where the weather is sort of hellish).

            To be honest, I was looking at the M50 because I knew another person that had them & was very happy with them, also I read reviews online which were positive. However, I didn’t realize until now that the possibilities are pretty endless when it comes to headphones, which is why I was asking for some direction… It just sucks cause my budget is definitely limited…

            • The DT770 is fine – not basshead, the COP is the same size and configuration as the 770, and both of those, large though they are, are “tighter” built so they feel less clunky than the M50. But the biggest problem for you is that the smaller headphones under $200 almost all have a steeply rolled-off treble, which is trouble for the more refined type of music. One possible exception is the Harman Soho.

              • Marie

                Thank you so much for the clarification on those other headphones! I had two last questions for you:

                1. I think I saw a youtube video in which you reviewed the the Aedle VK-1.. They looked looked perfect (again, this is from my very limited knowledge of headphones). While I realize that they are way over my budget but my question is…. are they worth the 500 USD? or in terms of price/quality are the T51P a better deal?

                2. Realistically, how long do like those headphones last if a person takes good care of them?

                Sorry for bombarding you with questions. I really appreciate that your help!

                • A good headphone should last 25 years. The first thing to replace is earpads usually, since wear affects the sound. Sometimes the cable will get a loose connection and need replaced. The drivers should be good forever, but in some rare cases a hair can work its way in and cause a buzz or rattle. If that happens it’s usually easy to remove an earpad and pull the hair etc. out.

                  The Aedle VK-1 was also reviewed here, and we agree on the sound. I think it’s a little better than the T51p, but it’s slightly darker, so I’m not sure if it’s as good as the T51p for your preferred music. The VK-1 also has leather earpads if I remember correctly, which can be as hard to break in as genuine leather boots.

                  One thing I suggest to prospective customers for a specific headphone, if I have that headphone on hand, is for them to suggest 2 or 3 music tracks by a particular artist and composer that I can sample on that headphone, not so much for me to suggest how it sounds, but mostly to check if that headphone has any real sonic issues with that music. For example, a headphone that’s ideal for classical and acoustic music might sound too harsh with metal and industrial goth.

                  • Marie

                    If you happen to have both the Aedle VK-1 or the T51p, would you consider checking them with three tracks ?:




                    If you can’t, then… thanks anyways for the information!

                    Question: what do you mean by the Aedle VK-1 sounding slightly darker?

                    • I will get to these today. Just imagine the sound you hear is a line stretching left to right, with bass at the left and treble to the right. Now the line is tilted toward the right so the bass is higher (stronger) and the treble lower (weaker). That’s an example of getting darker. It’s not a perfect analogy, since any complex combination of sounds or balance is possible, but in general when something sounds darker you’ll have less influence of the treble.

                    • Playing T51p only, using different amps just to cross-check, no tone controls or EQ:

                      Monkey Trick: The cymbals etc. have a lot of extended highs, but they’re a little soft. The bass guitar tone is quite good, but it doesn’t have a strong bass impact. Piano is mostly soft in the background, but when a riff starts around 1:26 the piano really sings.

                      Blue Penguin: The guitar string tone, mostly on the right side, is really good. The deeper percussion sounds have a modest upper bass impact. Vocals are veiled due to the recording methods.

                      Colomb: The drum, if that’s what it is, has a very good and tight percussive impact. The voice is perfect – sounds real – fits the mood. The “clop” sounds are great – very realistic tone. A lot of headphones fail on this type of sound due to irregular midrange.

                      This is better than I thought it would be. Worst case is the T51p won’t have the excitement of the more “V”-shaped headphone sounds, but you’ll hear more of what’s actually in the recording. The more neutral headphones are most often a little bright (that’s what most users say), and can irritate on electronic and improvised music, but the T51p didn’t show any of that with these 3 tracks.

                      If you end up with a T51, give it ample burn-in time.

                • Personally I find the T51P better than the Aedle, sound wise and comfort wise. After all the years, all my headphones still look brand new except for the HD650 where the classical paint chips on the headband have come off. I do use that headhones for 7 hours a day though

  • Hey guys, nice article! Just thinking what Amp should I buy, or should I buy a DAC/Amp? I’ll be using the Sony Z3 Compact for my player, and the Sony MDR 1A, and the Aedle VK-1 for the headphones. Thinking of the Ibasso D-Zero Mk II if DAC/Amp (When are you going to write a review on these xD) or the Fiio E11K or the E12A if amp. Thanks!

    • D-Zero mkII, probably over the next few months

      • Thanks! Oh, and BTW, the Fiio X3 2nd Gen just became in stock in the headfoniastore, should I buy that instead or buy the D-Zero? Again, DAP and DAC/Amps are very different, just want to know :p

        • You can’t compare these

          • Yeah, it’s a stupid question, just wanted to know 😀 guess I’ll be buying the D-Zero! Thanks again!

  • Aggelos

    Great article, thanks a lot for these information. I was ready to spend much more money than I should. I want to ask you something, what headphones should I look for rock/hard rock music? And of course if you have something in mind, that s under 100€ (for amateur use).

    • It would help if, when you read of the different types, portable or not, on-ear or around-ear, open or closed, type of music you play, then you could describe that better so everyone knows what you need.

      • Aggelos

        Thanks a lot, I am gonna try some around ears that i have in mind. But for now you could help me a lot if you give me your opinion about some headphones (just name me what you think better for rock, hard rock, rock and roll and stuff like artic monkeys mostly). I am between these:
        Brainwavz M2
        Audio Technica SJ55
        Rock Jaw Alfa Genius
        AIAIAI Tracks
        Jays V-Jays
        I know that these are quite different stuff, but I need an opinion about their sound on my kind of music. Thanks a lot in advance!