[SoundStage!]Fringe with Greg Smith
Back Issue Article
February 1998

Headphones For All Occasions

Let's take a quick survey to see if you need a good set of headphones. Do you recognize any of the following scenarios?

  • The person in the cubicle next to you at work is unable to place a call or have a phone conversation without first engaging their speaker phone and taking very loudly so the receiving party can hear them.
  • When commuting to work, your ears are assaulted by the rumbling of the train, the garbled comments by the conductor, and you'd really prefer not to hear the pleas of meandering panhandlers.
  • You go to the gym and have to suffer with the cheesy dance music they play. You feel you might go postal if you hear that Gloria Estefan cover of "Turn the Beat Around" again, a song you hated the first time it was popular.
  • When flying, you're always stuck between the two fat guys who snore the whole trip, adding to the damage your hearing takes from the roaring of the jet engines.

I can't help you get a better seat on a plane, but I can offer solace for your ears. It seemed to me that getting a good portable setup would ease the sonic pain I go through every day. Now, I've looked at headphones here on SoundStage! in the past. My article on the Little Headroom amp and Grado Headphones goes into some of the issues I've had with headphone listening before, and is a good warm-up for this article. When I was done looking at that equipment, though, I felt no regrets whatsoever when I packed it all up and shipped it back. See, while it was nice, I didn't need headphone equipment for the home. If I'm there, I've got my big audio system on.

Your typical audiophile recommendation when you ask for good headphones usually takes one of two forms: they either suggest Grado or Sennheiser. These are totally wrong solutions for headphones on the go. The open design of both brands is great for getting excellent sound, but it presents two problems for the person who is headed into a more crowded area. First, the outside world is not blocked out nearly well enough. You still hear jet engine noise, you can make out the shouted comments of your coworker next door, it's just not enough isolation. Second, the people around can hear you. When I used to wear my Sennheiser phones at work, I got bothered all day by people asking "how loud do you have those turned up to? You must be going deaf." Compared with the sealed designs most are familiar with, there is considerably more sonic leakage, enough so that those sitting close can object to the volume they're hearing your music at even if you've playing something at a moderate level.

When I contacted the guys at HeadRoom this time, I was on a mission. I wanted a broad spectrum of headphones that sounded good and provided decent isolation between your music and the outside. I even went out and bought something HeadRoom didn't carry to fill in the bottom end of the market (after all, this is Fringe, so I'm allowed to break the usual reviewer rules and spend my own money). My CD source for all listening was the Panasonic SL-S320. Just to make sure its headphone jack wasn't the limiting factor, I also tried each of the headphones with the Cosmic HeadRoom ($599) connected with a Straight Wire mini-jack to RCA cable ($20). Four different sets of headphones, two amplifiers, four applications; I tried most of the 32 combinations to get a feel for what worked well and what didn't.

Sony Fontopid Twin Turbo MDR-E505 ($10)

To get a reference for what decent dirt-cheap headphones sound like, I picked up these cheap little Sony earbuds in, of all places, a jewelry store. The worst sound I've heard in recent memory was from the phones that come with the Panasonic SL-S320; these are far better than that. The low bass really doesn't come through on these, but that's partly a function of ear coupling: if you press the buds closely against your ear to get a good seal, the bass improves, but I was never able to get them to stay in that position unassisted. Oddly enough, the MDR- E505 sounds considerably worse on the Cosmic HeadRoom than it ever does running straight from the CD player. You can really hear how the sound is degraded with all the resolution the Cosmic throws in your face. I found the best sound from these was running straight from the portable, with (confession time) the XBS extra bass engaged. What do you want--the bass rolls off, the EQ helps a bit. It's little earbuds like this that they put that function in for, after all. When configured like this, the Sony units are surprisingly listenable. The bass is always muddy, the transients are always smeared, but the vocals are OK and you can hear most of the instruments. I really didn't find them all that comfortable in the long term. Usually they start to bother me after half an hour or so. And my ears feel kind of sore for a while after I remove them due to the way I have to wedge them in place. There isn't nearly enough isolation from the outside to effectively use these at work, commuting, or flying. But for a trip to the gym, these work just fine, and I find myself far less worried about sweating on these $10 jobs than I do with more serious gear. Plus, since half the other headphone listeners there are wearing something similar, you don't stick out as one of those deviant audiophile guys (this may or may not be an advantage for you).

Sennheiser MX3 ($15)

A deluxe set of earphones compared with the Sonys, the Sennheiser MX3 is certainly a nicer looking package. The attractive shiny blue case lets you wind up the cord and store your buds conveniently. The sound is definitely a step up from the cheaper model as well. While bass is still weak enough that you get better response by using some EQ, the treble is far superior to the Fontopids. With these headphones, you actually hear cymbals. The ear buds themselves are a bit larger, which feels like a huge difference in a small space like your ears. For me, I found that the larger MX3 allowed me to wedge them in a better space without needing to press into the more delicate parts of my ears. So for longer listening sessions, there wasn't nearly as much ear soreness afterwards. On the flip side, this different arrangement didn't feel nearly as secure, so it constantly seemed the ear buds were going to fall out. The isolation from the outside is actually a little bit worse than the Sony model because of this different fit, so I'd still say these are only really good solutions for the gym. The better sound quality and improved comfort does mean they are at least acceptable at the low budget range for other uses, especially considering how big the jump in price is to get something that works much better. Note that you may have totally different results in your ears as far as the fitting goes on these two, so it may be worth the trouble to try a couple of inexpensive ear buds if you aren't totally happy with the feel of the first ones you get.

Beyerdynamic DT-250 (80 ohm version, $199)

The whole time I was growing up, if I was listening to headphones, it was on the Koss Pro 4A (which, by the way, are now available again under the Koss name and from Radio Shack). With those sealed beasts, when you turned the volume up, you could just ignore what was going on around you. The Beyerdynamic DT-250 seemed like an old friend, because it has many of the same qualities. This is no surprise, as both are aimed primarily at studio use. Unlike the ancient Koss design, the Beyer headphones are very light, comfy, and sound modern, too. It's the comfort that really makes me like the DT-250. The plush ear pads fit around your ears, so you don't have the sensation that goes along with something touching a more sensitive area all the time. None of this would matter if the sound wasn't any good, but that's something else to like. These lean toward the warm side of things, with solid bass along with top frequencies that are never grating. While they are fairly compatible with the headphone jack on the Panasonic player, it's not a perfect match. As you turn the volume up, the sound breaks up noticeably before things get very loud. Use the Cosmic HeadRoom instead and they really come alive, with much sharper definition and a tighter bottom (much like the one I'm aiming for during my time at the gym). The DT-250 provides moderate isolation from the outside, with most normal level noise blocked out. When flying, though, I could still hear a portion of the engine rumbling, although this was much reduced compared with any open or earbud headphones I've ever tried. Considering how comfortable these are, I found the perfect place for these Beyers was at work. I can bang away on my keyboard all day with these on, something I can't say even about my Sennheisers (I find the foam pressing against my ears annoying after a couple of hours). Plus, an office is someplace where you could easily setup the kind of amplification that really makes these sound good at any volume.

Etymotic Research ER-4S ($330)

To be honest, I'd always dismissed these headphones as being a bit too far out for me. First, there's the price tag: three hundred dollars for headphones? My friends laugh at me when I tell them that's what those odd looking things protruding from my head cost (I know they're just jealous). Second, I'm not a fan at all of sticking things in my ears. The Etymotics are like ear plugs with a little hole housing a speaker bored through the middle. There are two types of plugs. The default type is made out of rubber, and feel very similar to Ear Planes (a product which, I might add, are an absolutely essential part of any trip involving flight-- check with your drug store to track some down). The other type of plug is made of foam and is just like the typical ear plugs for noise reduction that you compress and insert. If you're thinking of getting a set of ER-4S headphones, I recommend getting a set of Ear Planes and some foam ear plugs and trying both in your ears for a while (this will only set you back a few bucks). That will get you a feel for your tolerance for different types of material in your ears (warning: remove the Ear Planes by twisting and slowly pulling, don't just jerk them out or you'll be sorry). I really can't stand the rubber stuff for more than 15 minutes or so, but the foam I'm OK with for an hour or two. Note that both types of plugs will wear out, so you'll need to budget for the occasional replacement with whatever type you prefer (at $10 for 5 pair of rubber or 7 pair of foam). The design will also let nasty stuff from inside your ear leak onto a filter which needs to be changed occasionally, but I haven't noticed anything to worry about there in the months I've had them yet.

Experimenting with the items similar to the plugs is a useful warm-up to the Etymotic experience for another reason. You know how little of the outside you can hear with noise reducing ear plugs in? It's even better with the ER-4S. Let me tell you--with these in your ears and music playing, the outside world is gone. I've sat only a few feet away from a train pulling into the station, and if it weren't for the rumbling I felt in my feet and the breeze I wouldn't have known it was there, because I certainly didn't hear it. While some of the sound of your environment returns during the quiet passages, for the most part you are living on your own planet with these stuck in your ears. Planes, trains, automobiles, you can't hear any of them most of the time, although I can still pick up on police and ambulance sirens when they get close. My most recent coast to coast flight was over four hours in the air, and not hearing any engine noise the whole time was an immensely refreshing experience. Don't confuse these with those wimpy "noise canceling" headphones; these don't just cancel low frequency noise, they block out everything. This can be a problem in some circumstances. When walking around town, it's actually a bit dangerous because you can't hear cars coming toward you or (depending on the neighborhood) muggers sneaking up from behind.

While the isolation is nice, it's also true that Etymotic Research makes the best sounding headphones I've ever heard as well. There is nothing to fault with their reproduction; everything is as clean and solid as you could ask for. The response Etymotic has tailored for the stereo version of these reproducers really does make them sound like good loudspeakers in a room, albeit very close together. The small drive units mean you don't need a lot of power, either, so I find the performance acceptable at any volume level short of deafening even when using only the headphone jack on the Panasonic CD player. The Cosmic HeadRoom does make things a bit more crisp, and there's the always welcome enhancement of their processing circuitry, but given my typical mobile situation that improvement is hardly worth chasing after. An inexpensive CD player plus Etymotic ER-4S makes for an incredibly light and portable setup that sounds so good it's worth every penny of the $400 it will set you back. These are definitely the headphones you want if you're a frequent flyer, and they're excellent for train commuting as well. On the flip side, I find it tough to take something so expensive into the gym when the cheap earbuds work just fine there (it's tough to pick out the sonic differences over my own huffing and puffing). The ER-4S cord is pretty microphonic as well, so if I'm moving a lot it induces pops into the sound. I also don't really find them comfortable enough to wear for over eight hours at work. On that note, though, it's possible to get custom ear molds made that avoid the whole rubber and foam business. That will set you back from $70 to $100. I'm getting the suspicion that if you're going to spend $300 for the ER-4S, you might as well just plan on spending $400 instead and go for the custom molds. Expect to hear about the ear fitting I'm planning in a future Fringe column.

It's not just what you hear, it's what you don't hear

I've run my mouth about the advantages and disadvantages of these designs enough. For the moment, I'm alternating between the Sony MDR-E505 and Sennheiser MX3 at the gym, because I still haven't decided which works better there. HeadRoom tells me they like the $35 Koss KSC/35 best when working out, so you might want to consider them as well, but I just can't accept the odd way they look (I'm odd looking enough without any help). Sennhesier also makes a slightly better MX4 at $25 that I'll be trying out soon. The Beyerdynamic DT-250 hasn't been as useful to me lately because I'm working someplace now that I actually have some privacy. Note that Beyer also has models a bit more and a bit less expensive than the DT-250 available that are also good sealed units, although I'm told they are even less compatible with low powered headphone amplifiers. The Etymotic ER-4S goes with me whenever I'm taking the train into Manhattan. I'm pleased to report that when I'm walking around with obviously odd looking things sticking out of my ears I'm not harassed nearly as much for spare change (and I can't hear those requests, either). Considering how some of those guys look and sound, that might just be worth the purchase price all by itself. Now, if I can only get a filter for the smell...

.....GS (gsmith@westnet.com)

Review Source for all products: Headroom Corporation

Headroom Corporation
521 East Peach Street
Bozeman, MT 59715
Phone: 1-800-828-8184

Web-Site: http://headroom.headphone.com

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