Listening In: Three Headphones

In 1979, Sony introduced the Walkman and changed our relationship to music. The obvious magic of the Walkman — and later MP3 players like the iPod — is that it made it easy to carry your music with you, providing a portable soundtrack for your life. But I think there was another, less obvious, transformation in music-listening spurred by the Walkman and its digital descendants: Suddenly, we all spent a lot more time listening to music through headphones. Sure, most people had a set of those big 70s corded cans sitting by the family stereo. And my dad had an earphone (singular) for his transistor radio to listen to the ballgame. But portable music players — tape, CD, or MP3 — are designed to be used with stereo headphones. And as a result, the listening experience is more immersive, more active, and almost universally delivers newfound appreciation for what you are hearing. Of course, what you hear depends a great deal on the technology you’re using to hear it. Many audiophiles argue that the most important part of a stereo system is the speakers. And headphones are nothing more than tiny speakers held up to your heads (or pushed in your ear.) Of course, the real secret to picking good headphones is simply to try them and see how they sound to you.


Here then are three pairs of my favorite on- or over-ear headphones that put those ubiquitous white earbuds to shame.


Bowers & Wilkins P3 ($199):
For two years, my go-to headphones have been B&W P5s. They sound lovely, look elegant, feel cushy, and keep my head clear of ambient annoyances. Like the Beats Studio, they’re also $299. But this summer, B&W introduced their smaller and less-expensive P3. Similarly styled but more compact, the P3s embody the familiar B&W elegance, fold up neatly into a hard-shell plastic case, and sound fabulous to my non-audiophile ears. In the last few weeks, they’ve bumped the P5s out of my laptop bag.



NewImageBeats by Dr. Dre Studio ($299):
In just a few years, the original Beats by Dr. Dre have become iconic cans. Like everyone, I was skeptical at first that these were just celebrity-branded junk gear. Early reports that the plastic was prone to snapping when you put them on didn’t help. But turns out, they actually sound fairly great, especially if you prefer bass-heavy sound. Meanwhile, their space age 60s-inspired design and bold colorways have made them perhaps the most recognizable phones beyond the iPhone earbuds. Now, Beats Studio have active noise-cancellation technology. As a rule, I can only handle active noise-cancellation for short periods. After a few hours, it feels like my brain is in a vice. And true in-ear headphones — the ones that feel like earplugs — are just too isolating for me. But for long plane rides, I pack the classic Beats Studios in my carry-on.



David Pescovitz / Boing Boing
David Pescovitz
As co-editor of Boing Boing, David Pescovitz is a collector of online anomalies, esoterica, and curiosities. He is also a research director at Institute for the Future.
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  • PeterK

    Beats over Grados?

    • Jason

      Yeah, I can’t abide by that call either. I carry B+W P5s on the plane, Westone’s for earbuds (can’t recall the model) and the LCD-3s are the go to home can. The HD-650s however are never far away and the HD-580s still see playtime.

    • mmdc0669

      The Grados stand head over shoulders over the Beats. Long-term high quality reputation over ‘hip-hop’ branding.

  • Nate Gann

    Beats are terrible headphones, if you look up the wave patterns you see tat you can actually get better sound out of 20-30$ headphones

    • Andrew Morrow

      What a delightfully pseudo-scientific comment! I never cease to take joy in watching audiophilic elitists spout hate. Me? Denon D7000′s with an AMB M3/S11 amp that I made myself. Sounds good to ME. I couldn’t begin to give a crap if it sounds good to anyone else, and won’t begrudge anyone the poor “wave patterns” of whatever sounds good to them.

      • brian

        That’s not pseudo science. That’s an actual fact. Objectively, they do measure quite horribly. 30 hz and below, the response is something akin to dropping a rock off a cliff. The square waves are indeed, all over the place…much like Michael J. Fox trying to draw a box. Subjectively, to each their own, but the 3 people I have let listen to my Denon D2000′s have all said that they blow their Beats Studios and Solos away.

        • El Tejon

          Some very solid analogies. Points to you sir. And as I mentioned above, beats aren’t worth the money.

  • devcoder

    Sony MDR-V6 over all, any sound card will do. Sub $100 headphones that are _actually used_ in studios because of their quality. Also they last 30 years.

    Kinda hard to beat.

    • corradodave

      Yup. I have a pair that I got over 20 years ago and they still sound great. When I needed a second pair a few years ago I bought another set.

      For something smaller, I really like the Sennheiser PXC150s

      Another excellent set of cans is the Grado SR60. Some people find them uncomfortable, but if they fit your head well, they’re an incredible bargain. My GF has a pair which she loves, and I agree, they sound wonderful. Plus, made in the USA.

  • Synerdata.Net Radio

    I have never experienced anything as good as my Sony MDR-605 open air
    headset, which in running a radio station, I wear daily for extended periods.

  • Jennie Lucas

    AKG. Preferred cans of the late great Jeff Porcaro. Even the low-end models make me feel like I’m in the recording studio.

  • Toby

    “chaise lounge” !

  • DKHolliday

    Wow, nothing like a site that promotes junk and has no clue over what is a real set of good audio headphones

  • Arbitrary_One

    How about the AKG Q701? The have a very open and detailed sound signature. I use them at home a lot!

  • El Tejon

    Beats are a total waste of money. Ya, they’re nice headphones but you can get something just as nice for half the price. You’re just paying for the brand.

  • al-pal

    loving my white Ath-M50′s ^^ such beauties.