Best headphones: 10 top headphones for sound quality
21st May 2013 | 12:00
High-end headband and in-ear headphones
Silence is golden, but music has become a necessity in the past few years as office workers get asked to do more and more work in ever noisier environments - it's no wonder sales of headphones have rocketed in recent years.
They're just as useful in noisy city streets and the aircraft cabin, where the dodgy headphones handed out to passengers in economy class can leave you straining to hear the dialogue in a film. Some are so uncomfortable that your ears can be burning by the time you touch down at your destination.
Noise cancelling is handy if you're flying or working in very loud offices, but forget Bluetooth at 40,000ft - and, actually forget Bluetooth completely; it's more of a pain to pair with a smartphone than untangling a pair of in-ears, and the headsets need regular charging, too, which makes them high maintenance. Wait for NFC connectivity.
For work, you'll need a comfy pair that doesn't spill noise sideways to colleagues, while for those in a home office - or listening to old LPs in the loft - that's not so important.
We've selected some old classics, newer styles and our favourites from throughout the genres, but they all have something in common: they all cost north of £150/$180, and for good reason.
Pioneer HDJ-1500-S - £150/US$180/AU$250
These headphones are all about loudness in noisy environments. A model designed primarily for DJs, they're very well made, with easily turnable hinges (which ought to help avoid accidental breakages) above the rather narrow leather ear-cups that spin 90 degrees without any friction.
Sporting a high-end yet sleek design and feel, these mid-range 305g (10.75oz) cans have a comfy foam and leather-backed headband and ship with a detachable coiled cable with a 3.5mm gold-plated connector that easily stretches out to around 3m.
Worn around the neck, these cups move easily, though they can feel a little restrictive despite their narrow design, which slips into a 27 x 23cm (10.6 x 9.1-inch) fake leather drawstring bag. A 6.35mm jack plug adaptor is also supplied.
Sound quality is best described as full - and loud; we're talking booming bass levels and plenty of dynamism. Probably the best aspect of these is that they are extremely efficient at blocking out ambient noise despite not having any active noise cancelling trickery.
However, a major factor in that success is that the leather-lined cups fasten onto the head just a little too tightly for comfort. Wear them for 20 minutes and they're thoroughly impressive, though much longer than that and they become quite uncomfortable. Available in silver or black, a little sound spillage makes these best used at home (the coiled cable is a little unwieldy for work) - or, of course, in the DJ booth.
Klipsch Image X7i - £150/US$200 (around AU$230)
Earphones with a three-button remote and a 'Made for iPhone' badge are ten-a-penny, but we've not come across a pair as tiny as the Klipsch X7i.
Working best with the iPhone 3GS and above, the teardrop-style inserts are so small we feared they'd never emerge post-test, but they did after a throughly comfortable and darned impressive few outings.
Sound quality is best described as warm, lively and full, with pin-sharp detail and stereo separation atop a mix that's got plenty of well-judged bass tones. Tunes go to high volumes without distorting, too, while blocking out more than enough ambient sound to rightly prove their 'noise isolating' claim; be careful when crossing roads. Being so small, they do occasionally slip and need repositioning, but rarely.
They sell with a small elliptical zipped pouch made from neoprene (diving suit material), and surprisingly well-made it is, too. This contains a two-prong airline seat adaptor, shirt clip and four contrasting sizes and styles of silicon in-ear tips. Our only complaint is that you have to pretty much rip off and destroy the sturdy box it sells in, which is a little unsettling having just spent all that money.
Available in black and white, the X7i has a flat cable that coils up instead of tangling, though there's much more to it than most cables, and it can drag the earphones downwards slightly.
Onkyo ES-HF300 - £180/US$180 (around AU$280)
Size-wise the Onkyo ES-HF300s are smaller than traditional on-ear headband models, weighing 244g (8.6oz) and sporting machine-engineered aluminium and a soft-touch plastic band that looks simple yet special. The sound inside the soft enclosing ear cups is equally special, with bass-heavy though richly detailed sonics that aren't dissimilar to the Sennheiser Momentums'. They're closed-back, too, and in use don't spill out much sound at all.
They are, however, not perfect. Although they fold flat, it's an outward movement that leaves cold, hard metal on skin if you hang them around your neck. Ouch. We're also not massively keen on the ES-HF300's one unique feature, its 'audiophile-grade' 110cm (43.3-inch) cable that detaches under stress. It uses two proprietary gold-plated MMCX connectors that pop out of the cups if, for example, the wheels of your office chair run them down, though in that scenario you could be left having to expensively replace the cables anyhow.
Also, the cable is Y-shaped so connects to both cups for maximum clutter (though they are attached at the back, so can be kept out of the way). On the plus side, the cable is rigid enough to curl instead of tangling.
Judged purely on sound, size and good looks, Onkyo's ES-HF300 are exceptionally versatile all-rounders for use at home, in the office or while travelling - though there are no smartphone navigation controls.
Grado Prestige Series SR125i - £195/US$150 (around AU$300)
The Grado Prestige Series SR125i is an open-back model that sits on the ears, spilling sound out all over the place and doing nothing to cut out surrounding sonic annoyance - so they're best used at home in quiet environments where you can't disturb anyone.
That's where they do best, anyhow, with a thick, straight crystal coper cable reaching 1.5m, compete with an unusual 6.35mm jack plug, though an adaptor is also supplied. These plus the lack of a carry case provide a few of clues as to the SR125i's favoured source; an amplifier.
Even if you haven't got a high-end hi-fi, these nicely retro-designed headphones are a class act with most music. There's a remarkable amount of detail hewn from all kinds of sources amid a balanced mix, though don't expect buckets of bass. Low frequency is handled very well, but you won't hear driving bass lines.
So, so comfortable and likely to become your favourite thing if used heavily, the thoroughly professional-grade SR125is - which weigh 220g (7.8oz) including the permanently attached audio cable - make for a fine investment for the home. Just keep them there.
PSB M4U 1 - £200/US$300 (around AU$310)
Completely passive and without any noise cancelling, PSB's M4U 1 headphones are nevertheless exquisitely designed and solid in terms of construction. Inside of the polycarbonate outer headband are the two ear cups, which rock gently in their sockets thanks to some clever gyro suspension that makes them some of the comfiest around.
Weighing 326g (11.5oz) and shipping with an extra set of soft foam ear cup pads, PSB has thought of everything; only one ear need be hooked up to an audio cable, though the choice is yours, which ought to suit both lefties and righties. The cable stretches to an impressive 150cm (59 inches) long, with an extra one supplied with an in-line instant mute and call answering for iPhone and Blackberry owners.
There's also a 6.35mm jack plug adaptor and a two-prong airline seat adaptor included, though the final accessory - a round hard case that somehow manages to house the folded up headphones - adds an extra 183g (6.5oz) and is too deep for storing easily in your hand luggage. That could be said for the PSB M4U 1s as a whole - they're pretty big, though hardly heavy.
Happily, there's a reward in the form of excellent, highly detailed sound. Don't expect a bass-heavy performance, but rather one that picks out some fine detailing and stereo separation within a rounded, realistic soundscape.
Sennheiser Momentum - £260/US$350/AU$400
A closed dynamic model, Sennheiser's latest headphones weigh just 190g (6.7oz) yet manage to achieve a remarkably high standard of build, design and sound quality.
Let's get straight to the music; it's so detailed, so involving and so utterly crystal clear that we're sure we heard the cello player breathing. The balance between treble details and low frequency is quite something - it sounds uncomplicated, uncompromised, and just natural.
On a par with the Grado Labs Prestige Series SR125i headphones and perfect for the modern musician about town, the Sennheiser Momentums are just so versatile. There's very little spillage, so they're great for the office, and they're easy to travel with thanks to their lightweight, narrow design - though there's no noise cancelling option.
We're not so sure about the 277g (9.8oz) of the carry case - it's far to big. Inside its moulded but soft innards is a secret Velcro door that reveals a 6.35mm jack plug adaptor and a plain alternative to the audio cable with iPhone navigation. Both are red, 125mm (49 inches) in length and terminated on a hinge to either enter a device straight-on, or at an L-shaped angle. That's a nice detail, and typical of these truly brilliant headphones.
PSB M4U 2 - £270/US$400 (around AU$420)
A second bite of the cherry for PSB, but this time it's all about noise cancelling that's not only among the best out there, but is purely optional; if the batteries die while you're travelling you can still listen to music. At last.
Running out of batteries mid-flight is therefore not the major worry it is with the Bose QuietComfort 15 and Ferrari by Logic3 R300 products featured here, but there's more to like here than versatility.
In fact, sound quality with noise cancelling mode deactivated - passive mode - is the equal of its highly impressive sibling, the M4U 1. For noise-cancelling, these circumaural headphones keep everything out, and in two positions; a slider on the back of the right ear cup activates noise-cancelling while also offering a battery-saving amp so music can go to louder volumes without the white-noise production. Nice idea.
As is the in-line iPhone/BlackBerry control and the spare pair of ear cup pads. With the same surprisingly compact folded position that makes them great for travelling despite their rather large headband, the gyro-suspension of the comfy ear cups, and the choice of side for the cable input, the M4U 2s are a great choice for noisy environments.
Ferrari by Logic3 R300 - £270 (around US$410/AU$420)
Part of Logic3's Scuderia Ferrari Collection, these noise-cancelling headphones' circum-aural design helps achieve a very quiet environment for the wearer, though despite the closed-back design, there's a lot of sound spillage, which makes them unsuitable for using in an office.
A Ferrari logo'd pause button on the outside of one of the cups - useful for when an air hostess asks which kind of champagne you'd like - is another give-away as to their intended destination, and a nice touch indeed.
In loud environments they do rather well, keeping out ambient noise and reaching impressively high volumes without distorting, but without their 3x AAA batteries they don't work at all. High treble detail can seem a little muffled; there's a definite emphasis on the other end of the spectrum, with deep and driving bass lines, though what acoustic music lacks in fine detail it gains in presence, which is crucial at 40,000ft. It's a powerful sound with plenty of presence.
The carbon fibre carry case supplied is too big for the cleverly folding cups of the 297g (10.5oz) R300, and adds a further 283g (10oz). Inside is a choice of woven audio 120cm (47.2-inch) cables with in-line control for Apple or Android/Blackberry/Windows devices, as well as a plain cable, a two-prong airline seat adaptor and a 6.35mm jack plug adaptor.
Bose QuietComfort 15 - £300/US$300/AU$400
Lightweight and partially foldable (they lay flat), these are an expensive option for travellers. Most likely to be seen at the front of the aircraft, the Bose QuietComfort 15s are very comfortable to wear, with reasonably small enclosing cups well padded. However, those cups are nicely angled and kept in place by a headband that sits a little further back than we're used to.
The QuietComfort 15s are all about top-quality noise cancelling; flick a switch beside the battery compartment on the right-hand side (it takes an AAA type) and surrounding sounds are dampened significantly, but there's no battery-free mode.
That's annoying, but what we did like was the in-line control option that pauses music and adjusts volume, though both are terminated in proprietary Bose connectors. And the 213g (7.5oz) carry case, which also houses a two-prong airline seat adaptor, is too big.
Noticeably lighter than the Ferrari R300 at 181g (6.4oz), the QuietComfort's sound isn't as powerful, yet it's pleasant enough. Vocals can sound a little thin and there's a definite slant towards the other end of the frequency range, but the rich bass leanings are enjoyable nonetheless, and there's plenty of detail around the edges. Noise cancelling is first class.
Shure SE535 - £400/US$480/AU$450
Stylish and good-looking they are not, but the Shure SE535s do sound utterly fantastic.
The units themselves are fairly chunky. They need to be, since each one contains three separate drivers, with two woofers and a tweeter in each one. This makes music played through the SE535s shimmer with crystal clarity.
The highs are crisp and clean, the bass is deep and silky smooth, while the oft-forgotten mid-range is full-blooded, meaty and wholesome.
There are caveats; they're certainly not cheap, and if you're looking for some iPod replacement earphones these probably aren't for you. They're bulky and can be a tad fiddly to put in your ears.
However, it's only when you treat yourself to a pair of earphones like this that you realise how good music can sound. These earphones are brilliant, and if you can afford them they'll do your music justice in ways most earphones can only aspire to.
Read our Shure SE535 review