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.
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.
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.
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 is easier to live with. Open-back headphones on the other hand have the potential to sound extremely good.
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.
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!