Head Room: Six Audiophile Headphones Tested

EVERYWHERE YOU GO, it’s so easy to listen to music, thanks to smartphones, tablets, and MP3 players. But it’s kind of a bummer that millions of people now hear most of their music through earbuds with drivers smaller than a dime.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Even if you get all your music from a handheld device, there’s no reason why you can’t upgrade your sound — especially when you’re safely snuggled in your favorite recliner. For just a few hundred bucks, you can get a set of audiophile-style over-ear headphones that’ll sound a lot better than those little earbuds. And they’ll be more comfortable.

For the last few years, we at Sound+Vision have focused most of our attention on in-ear and on-ear headphones, the kind that are easy to wear on the plane or the subway and easy to slip into a briefcase or backpack. For this issue, though, we decided to settle down for some serious listening at home. We borrowed six sets of over-ear headphones, at list prices ranging from about $250 to $500. All but one are open-back designs. Open-back ’phones tend to sound more spacious, but they offer little isolation from outside sound and also tend to leak sound out into your surroundings. Thus, as long as you have a relatively quiet environment, they’re great for home use — but they’re lousy for portable use. Indeed, all of these headphones come with nice, long cables to make it easier to plug them into a receiver’s headphone output jack.

Knowing that listeners’ opinions of headphones tend to vary, I decided not to rely solely on my own impressions. To bring in some outside opinions, I called in a crew of serious listeners: fellow S+V contributing technical editor Geoffrey Morrison, L.A. jazz musician Will Huff, and Howard and Joe Rodgers, the father-and-son team who recently resurrected the Rogersound Labs (RSL) speaker brand.

I connected all of the headphones to a Rane HC 6S professional headphone amp. The panelists played the music of their choice, including CDs as well as tunes from their phones or MP3 players, at whatever volume they liked. After the panel test, I tried each set of headphones with my Motorola Droid Pro smartphone, to see if they’d work okay when driven by the relatively low-fi amps built into most phones, computers, and MP3 players. (All of them did.) I then finished off the evaluation with a complete set of lab measurements for all the headphones

So settle back and check out these six (mostly) sweet sets of cans — then hit your local audio dealer or hi-fi show and hear a couple of them for yourself.