Best Headphone Recommendations

My friend Jon Callaghan asked me what I recommended in terms of audiophile headphones, so I thought I’d share my answer with the world here under the Ask Matt category. I use three headphones on a regular basis, and they fall pretty nicely into low, mid, a high-end. There’s a super-high end I’m not going to cover here, because once you get into the world of headphones requiring amps you might as well just build a good open air system. I’ve tried probably two dozen headphones ranging from $50 to $1,200.

Apple HeadphonesWhen I’m walking around on the street with my iPhone, my everyday buds are the step-up Apple In-Ear headphones, which come in around $80. They have a sweet triangle carrying case which makes them compact in my bag, and as a bonus the mic/volume remote thing works great with the 3GS, so I seldom take my phone out of my pocket. It’s also handy if you get a call, people have told me the voice quality is significantly better than calls I do on the cheapie included iPhone headphones, which always fell out of my ears too. They’re also easy to share with someone. So that’s my everyday pick.

HD-595sIf I’m listening to headphones at home or for a long period, I’m not a fan of in-ears because they aren’t as comfortable and my ears get “waxy” after more than about an hour. The most comfortable, best sounding, and least hassle headphones I’ve found for everyday use are the Sennheiser HD-595s, which I believe I discovered through Jeremy Zawodny. They’re big and bulky, and the cord is really long, but they’re just so darn comfortable. You can wear these all day and not mind at all. The price point is around $185–$220 on Amazon, which I linked above and I feel is an excellent value.

My final category of usage is travel, particularly on airplanes, where I want the highest fidelity, comfort, and sound isolation. Honestly in price point there’s a dead zone between around $250–$900, including all the Shures which I’ve tried and would not recommend anymore. (I used to be a Shure fan and have used their entire range.) This was the hardest category for me to crack, I tried various sound-cancellation models, but ultimately felt like they distorted the sound.

I finally ended up going with Ultimate Ear Custom line, first the UE-10 and later the UE-11. Now these are a bit of an experience, so let me walk you through what happens when you buy them. First you choose your options on the website, I’d recommend going all-clear for cord and buds, otherwise they look a bit weird. I’ve had both the 64 inch and 48 inch cord — the 48 is about exactly enough to go under a jacket and from your waist to your ears, but doesn’t give you a lot of room otherwise. I have the 64 inch now and the extra inches give me more flexibility and don’t get in the way.

UE-11sSo you go to the website, take out a second mortgage, and plop down $900 for the UE-10 or $1,150 for the UE-11. They then point you to a local ear specialist, which basically means someplace that does hearing aids, where they will make a mold of your ear. (Though the second time I did this it was at a cool rock and roll place in San Francisco. UE keep your molds on file, but apparently the shape changes and if it’s been more than a year you should get new ones made.) This is usually pretty cheap, and they’ll mail the molds directly to Ultimate Ears with your information. A few weeks later, your headphones show up in a fancy metal box, which now I think they put your name on.

I first got the UE-10s probably 5 years ago and the cost was really prohibitive, but then I realized that I had spent almost that much on a series of crappy headphones that kept breaking. They are also like a first-class upgrade on every flight — I’ve literally been sitting next to a crying baby in the back seat of economy and these headphones blocked the entire thing out. Close your eyes and let the music take you someplace else. They work so well because they fit your ear perfectly, so create a seal that blocks external noise, rather than having to juggle the sound to compensate like noise-canceling headphones do.

The Ultimate Ears have a feature where the cord pulls out of the buds if they get yanked really hard, presumably to prevent damage to your ear. Because I had gotten the shorter cord I kept doing this, and eventually (4 years in) I had done this so many times they didn’t really stay together properly and I kept dropping them. They also got a lot of abuse in my bag. Their ultimate demise was after I had dropped them the hundredth time and actually stepped on them, shattering the hard plastic mold. I probably could have gotten them repaired, but they were pretty far gone and decided to go for an upgrade instead for just a bit more, the UE-11s.

In the 4 years or so between my two purchases, UE definitely made some improvements to the line. The cord was thinner, didn’t have a wrap, and didn’t seem to tangle as much. The new ones came with a nice carrying case that if I had before I might not have broken the old ones so much. I’ve also never had a problem with the cord coming out like I did before. I talked Toni into the UE-10s and his new ones had all the same fit and finish. Unfortunately, don’t think the audio quality difference between the two warranted the $250 price difference.  I’ve been using them about 8 months, and they’ve travelled with me hundreds of thousands of miles around the globe. Overall the UE-11s just feel a bit heavier on the bass, but not really noticeably better than the UE-10s. If in 5 years I’m buying another pair I’ll go back to the UE-10s. A downside, or upside, of the Ultimate Ear Customs is no one else can use them.

My last bit of advice is to avoid everything Bose.

I’m curious what other people have tried, and what has been the best.

77 thoughts on “Best Headphone Recommendations

  1. Have you tried the Etymotics? A friend of mine reocommended them and I’ve never gone back. I got the mid-ranged (~$120-$150) 6isolators and they are great at noise cancelling.

    1. I tried a mid-range pair, around that that price, but they never really felt comfortable. It’s possible I did the ear bud thing wrong.

      1. They take a while to get used to, definitely. The foam tips are both more comfortable and better at isolating outside noise, but they look very medical.

      2. I highly recommend Etymotics as well, but in a different configuration. I’ve owned a set of their custom-molded Musicians Earplugs for the past 8+ years. I spent $130 for them because I like attending concerts, don’t want permanent hearing damage (ringing ears), and hate how foam earplugs remove all mid- and high-frequencies and leave only bass. These earplugs provide flat attenuation across the frequency spectrum, so the music sounds as it should, only quieter.

        Here’s the secondary benefit: you can remove the attenuation “buttons” from the custom-molded housings and install them on Etymotic headphones. So adding Etymotic hf2 or ER-6i headphones gives something similar to the Ultimate Ears Customs for about $300 total price, plus the added benefit of hearing protection. Stepping up to the ER-4 headphones + Musicians Earplugs would cost about $450 total. Much less expensive than Ultimate Ears and a similar result.

  2. I still haven’t found anything as good as what you describe the Ultimate Ears to be, but then again, I don’t listen to enough music on the go to spend a grand on earphones.

    I will say two things though:

    1. I bought some Etymotics that had zero bass and were pretty uncomfortable. I got some custom molds made to see that that would help and it really didn’t. If you don’t like the sound of a certain bud, sell or return them. Custom molds only make good sound more comfortable.

    2. I have Bose QC3’s that I pretty much only use on planes. You may be right to dismiss the sound quality (they are a bit “shaped”), but the noise canceling is second to none. If you just want a comfortable set of headphones that cancel airplane noise and have “reasonable” sound, you could do worse than Bose.

    1. You’d be surprised at how comfortable the Sennheiser’s are, even on top of your head. There’s no weight on your ears like there is with the behind-the-ear variety like you linked. But if you’re comfortable, you’re fine! Everyone’s head and ears are different.

    2. The cord on the Sennheisers is replaceable… it opens up and you can disconnect it inside. As for the ear puffs, they’re not made of foam, they’re fabric. I haven’t noticed any wear. I wear them for 6-10 hours a day and have been for 6 months or so.

      And seconded on comfort. I forget they’re on. They’re much lighter than they look, and the cans don’t clamp your head tightly (and I have a big head).

  3. I, too, love my Sennheiser open airs, so I can definitely relate.

    As for in-ear buds+mic for my iPhone, though, I massively prefer the Etymotic hf2 set: http://www.etymotic.com/ephp/hf2.aspx

    Sounds like I need to try Utlimate Ears though. Heard of them before, but couldn’t ever find someone with firsthand experience to tell me if they were worth it.

  4. I also (independently) settled on the Sennheiser HD-595s. They sound great, but can be powered with a MacBook Pro or a desktop computer with a decent sound card, whereas the more expensive Sennheisers require a bulky headphone amp. They’re so comfortable, I tend to keep them on even if I’m not listening to music. Really. And they’re incredibly light. The cord comes out of one side, to reduce entanglements, and it comes with a nice storage “hook” that clamps to your desk. Recommended without reservation.

    For travel, I have the Etymotic Research hf2 canal phones, which I reviewed here. I’m not completely happy with them. They’re uncomfortable over long periods of time, and if you’re moving around, the seal in your ear canal can be broken, letting in a “whoosh” of sound. That, of course, is subjective, depending on the shape of your ear canal. They’re pretty good if you’re on a plane, holding still. They block out so much noise that you have to take one out whenever a flight attendant wants to talk to you. You can’t even hear your own voice! I’d considered a custom mold pair, but wanted to see if I’d be happy with a cheaper solution. Thanks for the OE-10 recommendation… I might check that out. How is the comfort level over extended periods?

  5. Ah yes, the custom-fitted UE have been on the top of my “must-have” list for quite some time. I made do with the Triple-Fi for a while, but the cord frayed every 6 months or so, and I eventually grew tired of replacing it.

    Right now I’m using a pair of Shures every day! I’m surprised you haven’t had luck with them. I have the SE530s, and I find the sound and comfort to be comparable to the UEs.

  6. Hey Matt,

    Total audio junkie here!! Glad to see your post. You and I have done pretty much the same thing. I went with the Etymotics ER-6i and, like you, went to a local shop to have some ear molds custom-fit. *That* was an experience — as I’m sure you can attest! I use the custom 6i’s all the time on planes, etc. I have had them for at least 5 years and they are still working great.

    If I had to purchase again, I’d probably go with the $900 ones you mentioned. I know Scoble raved about them. But I won’t upgrade until my 6i’s get mauled, and they’ll probably hold out for a while yet.

    Also like you, at home, I have a pair of Sennheisers. I have the HD-590s, which Richard has pretty much stolen at this point ;) I bought them when they were the equivalent of the 595s — YEARS ago!

    Surprised you didn’t mention what speakers you have. If you don’t have some super-awesome speakers, I’d be surprised! I splurged on myself for my birthday last year and had Jim Salk of Salk Sound build me some custom towers. Here’s the link to what I purchased:
    http://www.salksound.com/v3.shtml

    I got the custom wood job and worked with Jim to pick out the exact slab of wood that would become my speakers. They were delivered in September and they are AMAZING! They truly blow many $25,000 speakers out of the water. Plus, they look sexy. And I think it’s super-cool to support a guy who builds speakers in Michigan vs. big-name companies that build them in far away factories.

    I hooked them up to my computer via a Stereo-Link (stereo-link.com) adapter, which is also worth every penny. If you use your computer’s internal sound card to drive sound, you have no idea what you’re missing!

    The Stereo-Link is hooked up to a Bob Carver Sunfire stereo amp. Not sure I’d recommend the Sunfire; many cheaper amps would do the same job. I’d probably go with a different brand of stereo amp next time.

    Anyway, from one audio nut to another, thanks for posting this! :) I love when I see a post about good audio without the bragging about how much you spent (*cough*AVSForum*cough*). I emphasize quality, not high price! (Tho I do love AVSForum for helping me find Jim Salk.)

    -Erica

  7. I was traveling a lot for business myself a couple of years ago and stumbled upon in-ear models as opposed to earbuds in my research. After a lot of looking into options and figuring out what I could afford, I landed on the ER-6i models from Etymotic Research.

    They list for $150, but I found mine for around $80 and they were a solid investment for being on the lower-end of the cost spectrum. They come with several interchangeable tips (including foam ones) to fit different ear canals, and do a pretty good job of blocking out external noise, though I don’t think the bass response is all that awesome. They do sell a step-up model at twice the price for better quality.

    After using good in-ear models that block out external noise, it’s hard to go back to using anything else, especially when flying.

  8. Matt,
    You rock. This is exactly what I was looking for, and your answer is proves why I was wise to ask you :).
    Thank you.
    I’ve some shopping to do.
    Jc

  9. I’ve played with Shure, Etymotic Research and Ultimate Ears MetroFi – all $25-$150. The Etymotic Research HF2 is actually a great headset for around $125 with nice sound and a good seal plus a mic that is naturally positioned in the right spot (unfortunately i lost that pair in under a month). The Ultimate Ears MetroFi is one of the best deals right now – Amazon is offering them for $25 marked down from $60. For the custom molds, I had musician earplugs made that block out the high and low damaging frequencies. It was much cheaper than the custom earbuds and health insurance paid, though I can’t listen to personal audio with them in:(

  10. Something I forgot to mention, the Ultimate Ears looks sort odd, and so I wear them and listen to music all the time when you’re not supposed to on plane take-offs and landings and the stewards never say anything — maybe once in the past year they’ve noticed.

  11. The audio thing I use actually a ton when I’m on the road that I never expected is the built-in speaker on the iPhone. I find if I want to show someone a song, a quick Youtube video, or want some music while I’m packing it’s “fine” just to put some tunes in the air, even though it’s as far as you can get from audiophile as possible. Sometimes I just need the barest recreation and my imagination fills in the rest, it also makes you appreciate it more when you get into a real system.

    1. That’s probably the biggest thing I find lacking about the first gen iPod Touch compared to the second gen one — speakers.

      Luckily my crappy free phone has a poor speaker and can play MP3’s in a pinch.

  12. I love Sennheiser headphones. I have had 3 pairs over the years and i’m currently using the Sennheiser PC350 headset, mind you these headphones are aimed at gamers. I spend about 4 hours a day gaming and the PC350’s are perfect for CoD and TF2.

  13. Why the stern no to Bose? Bad experience?

    A friend just got the UE’s and I am on the brink, might hold off for a bit… but looks like the next purchase might be them.

    BTW, Joolz might be doing a design for me as well. Love his portfolio.

  14. I’m a Sennheiser fan and my at-work day-to-day cans are a pair of HD 580’s. Fantastic sound, particularly when mated to a good amp. I’ve since tried the 595’s and found them very similar indeed.

    I struggle with the fit of isolated headphones (weird shaped ears?) but I reckon the UE’s would be fantastic. Too expensive to justify for me, though if I were clocking up more air miles I may change my mind… Instead, for flying, I have a pair of Sennheiser PXC 250’s which are…adequate. Compared to similarly-priced competitors they’re good but the sound is definitely compromised with the cancelling on. But *so* much better than ‘regular’ ear bud headphones on a plane.

    Connected to my iPod are a pair of Sennheiser CX300’s which are excellent for the price. Cheap but decent.

  15. I had the 595’s for a while and upgraded to the 650’s – I strongly recommend that you do so. The improvement is well worth it. Lots of people say you’ll need an expensive headphone amp for the 650’s but try them with your current source first and then you might fancy going amped later (the Corda Arietta is good value and works great with the 650’s). Happy listening!

  16. I used to have Boss on-ear which were really great, but stupidly lost them. I tried Boss around-ear and they were far too trebly.

    These days I use Koss headphones – a pair of Porta Pro when I am out and a pair of UR-40 when at my desk. The sounds quality is great, the only downside is that they don’t block out much ambient noise. They’re really inexpensive, too.

  17. As far as headphones, the UE-10 does sound very interesting indeed. However, I need a headset with a microphone, so for years I use the Sennheiser PC 151 (~€40/$55). But now I may very well consider an alternative for travels because the PC 151 is so bulky.

  18. Hi Matt,

    First of all, great post and recommendations.

    I am just curious as to your statement, to wit: Avoid everything Bose. Why? Care to elaborate?

    I am a Bose user now and is looking for an upgrade. I am not a Bose fan or anything and I don’t have brand-specific biases. I just would like to find out what makes Bose unloved compared to other manufacturers.

    Thanks!

      1. I second that. Bose stuff is always overpriced and always under delivers in sound quality.

      1. Mine did too. I had the e4’s. Although, shure’s support is awesome, they replaced them three times and never charged me.

        I ended up selling them and getting the then just released westone um3x, which have been great.

  19. I just got the Sennheiser MM50IP earbuds for my iPhone. They have better bass than the Apple In-Ear ones and also include a mic and button for making calls. Only negatives are they don’t have the volume control buttons and I don’t like how the right ear cord is supposed to go behind your neck. But they sound way better to me than the Apple In-Ears.

  20. Totally agree on the problems with earbud style headphones when you’re sitting at your desk.

    But I can’t handle cords so I want high fidelity (wonderful phrase) and Bluetooth and a reasonable price andnot neckbased ones (which are uncomfortable in my experience…

    At the moment this appears to be very hard to find – I would love to know if they exist or I may be forced to write a Bluetooth headphone review (and we don’t want that). The ones I previously had which have just died were the Plantronics P590s but annoyingly they don’t appear to make them any longer.

    If anyone ever finds any I would love to know (contact me c/o Drivelry.com).

  21. Other than the Apple headphones for the 3GS (which I use too), I’ve never been big on headphones (mainly because I’ve never really sat down and tried to find a pair I like). Normally when I work I’m at home, and I have a fairly decent home audio set up, so I just listen to everything on that.

  22. How do these differ from say mid to high end Beyerdynamic headphones? Are they better somehow?

      1. I’ve had pair of Beyerdynamic DT 770 headphones for a few years now and I absolutely love them. I think they set me back about $300. Great noise cancellation and comfort.

  23. Hi Matt
    I was really searching for this cool headphone details.
    Thanks very much .I would really like to purchase one for me.
    Thanks….:)

  24. But what do people use for working out? I don’t subject my UE-10s to that. Are the Apple In-Ear any good, or do people recommend something else. I think I’ve trashed some Apple standard buds due to moisture that is inherent with a good workout.

  25. Finally, someone else who has the earbuds-falling-out problem! I thought my ears were just wrongly shaped, because those dang iPod earbuds never stay in.

    I’ve been wondering for a while about those noise-cancelling headphones. I appreciate your review, though I think I won’t be getting any soon– first I’ve got to save up for a Kindle. :-)

  26. I’ve been using the Etymotic Labs’ ER6i for about two years now. They are amazing at blocking out sounds which is great for when I’m in the airplane for 12+ hours. I wear them all day at the office too, though since they are inner-ear headphones my ears tend to get all bitchy towards the end of the day. Sound quality is amazing, too.

    Last week I started looking for new headphones and this time around-ear ones. I settled with Sennheiser’s HD380. I had to order them from America as they are non-existent in Asia (I’m living and working in South Korea), so I’m waiting for them to come here. Can’t wait to try them out, have heard great things about them!

    Thanks for the article! One day I’ll get me one of those custom-made headphones, hehe :-).

  27. If anyone’s looking for a cheapie set of sound-good comfy on-ear headphones, Sennheiser’s PX100 pair are great, and come with a hard carrying case they fold into as well. No good for sound isolation, but great for general use.

    Even though I run a home recording podcast, I don’t have any genuinely high-end headphones. My recording cans are Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50 and Sennheiser’s HD280Pro. Both are boring black and closed-back, so they provide a lot of isolation (especially the Senns). The audio quality isn’t as good as the HD595 or 600 or 650 or 800, or high-end Grados or AKGs or whatever, but they are very neutral (clinical, if you don’t like that), stay on tight and keep the sound in and out, great for recording (even drums). The ATs are a little more comfortable, but the Senns give more isolation.

    I agree that Shure in-ear buds are sometimes fragile, but you can get great isolation out of any in-ear monitors.

    Also look at Ultrasone. They make the best-sounding closed-back reference headphones I’ve ever heard (the PRO650), as well as some other really good-sounding models for audiophile use. Grado’s cans are fine all across the line too, from the low to the (very!) high end, even if they look a bit old-fashioned.

    I recommend headphone.com as a place that sells good headphones, but also reviews them honestly, with frequency charts and recommendations.

  28. How could I have missed this one.

    I’ve gone through maybe more headphones than you ;) The ultimate most comfortable yet BEST SOUNDING EVER? The Denon AH-D5000 – they can be had for around $450 (a lot, yet so little once you try them on).

    Not to mention, the Denon’s have natural wood Mahogany enclosures too!

  29. Great post, thanks!
    What about the Beyerdynamics DT880? I heard wonders about them and they compete with the HD595.

    thanks!

  30. Thanks for all of the great information. I’ve been looking around the web for recommendations on headphones for weeks, but nothing was as concrete as your reviews. Thanks! I’ll be picking up the Sennheisers soon. I’ll add the UE’s to my wish list.

  31. Emanuel… I have the Beyerdynamics DT880 … the sound is incredible … and for me they are also the most comfortable headphones money can buy. They are also generally less expensive than the comparable AKG and Sennheisers.

    For portable in-ear use, I use the q-jays. They are the smallest duel driver IEM on the market and are very balanced. The bass is not heavy, so they aren’t going to be for everyone, but for someone looking for a super small IEM that sounds great, it’s a good choice at $200. I think people considering the UE-10 who are on a limited budget should give them a test drive.

  32. On the basis of the recommendations here, I picked up some Sennheiser HD595 Headphones and a Pro-Ject Head Box MKII Headphone Amplifier.

    So far, I am extremely pleased with the setup.

  33. If you really want a durable pair of quality (yet budget minded) In Ear Monitors…

    Look no further than the Westone UM-1 !!

    Very nice, unbreakable (for Iems!) phones, a great value and easily driven by any pmp…(“just right” impedance).

    All the Best!

    Simmessa.

  34. I have the Sennheiser HD280 Pro’s – not bad, not the best either – but they’ve been with me through college and then some. They’re not that expensive where i’m worried about breaking or losing them, but they offer an impressive step up from the usual.

  35. Wow, this is a coincidence. I just bought the ASUS XONAR Essence STX PCIe Audio Card; and decided new headphones were in order.

    I was just about to click the button on a pair of the Sennheiser 595’s when I started reading Matt’s thread. I’ll have to go do some homework on everyones recommendations. Thanks folks!
    Although, the Sennheiser’s are recommended all over the planet – they must be well worth the money.

  36. Totally agree with Matt on the no-Bose rule. I bought a pair of the QC2s back in the day (against my better judgement, b/c I don’t care for their speakers either) and I think it spent less than 5 minutes on my ears before I returned them.

    I next tried the Audio Technica QuietPoint ATH-ANC7 (noise canceling). I love ‘em. They’re my airplane and ‘block the world out, I’m in a zone’ headphones. Really surprised no one else mentioned them.

    I’ll throw in a vote for Sennheisers as well. Loved the last pair I had.

    PS> if you’re looking at AblePlanet stuff, I’d probably stay away if I were you. I reviewed a pair on Gizmos For Geeks (http://bit.ly/7XescT), and didn’t much care for them.

  37. UE sounds like something I would love to try. I’m a fan of everything custom-made and the idea of earphones matched to my ear sounds like a lot of fun :)

  38. I knew two gentlemen who had audio shops. One was very proper the other had Sony and Bose. the chap with the proper gear told me to never have Bose as well. He said:

    “Bose. Better Of with Something Else”

  39. outside use: sennheiser hd25! tight! high output! short cord! Make sure to buy the optional suede pads! Ohh..

    Inside use: beyerdynamic dt990. Like two cushions on the ear. Mmm….

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