Rough Guide 1: Headphones
This is a new occasional series in which I attempt, in my own inept manner, to impart ‘wisdom’ on tools of the trade and ancillary items. It involves me making years of fundamental mistakes, then passing the summary on to you. In these pieces I won’t be discussing price as if you care about anything a lot you tend to buy the one you like regardless of whether you can actually afford it. Our ability to spend beyond our means is what separates us from monkeys.
As I find it difficult to work without playing music and hardly ever go anywhere without my laptop, it’s important to me that I have decent headphones. I’m a walking office, so like many people, I regard headphones as an essential office tool. Consequently I get through them at an unbelievable rate – but it’s taken a long time to find ones that work best for me.
Most portable of all are buds, but they have a limited range with high compression, too much top and very little bass. The Apple buds that come with most of its devices stay in well – they’re almost the only ones that don’t fall out of my jug ears – but sound like a very small band playing at the back of a very big biscuit tin. B&O over-the-ear buds have good sound but are so complicated to put on that they’re like an expensive camera; it’s easier to use something more basic than have the trouble of sorting out the better quality option.
Ear buds are rubbish on flights, as plane noise intrudes too much and I generally get sore ears from trying to screw the damned things deeper into my skull. Noise cancelling sets require a battery cache between the phones and the plug. This is usually hidden in ads, so you think they’ll be easier to tote around than they actually are, and they take an AA battery as well, so it can be a bit bulky. Plus you usually have to use a separate setting for the cancellation part.
This leaves cans – over-the-ear hair-flatteners. My first cans were a pair of hideously red plastic Beats. About those, let’s just say that you get what you pay for and leave it at that. I’ve learned that there are two types I must avoid; so-called ‘portable’ headphones, which have a complicated way of being folded up, as I can break a pair of these in a matter of days, and bluetooth headsets.
The problem with bluetooth is that they’re far from perfect. Even on the best set-ups there’s a good chance you’ll get pairing problems, drop-out and power issues. Sennheiser do a nice pair, but I gave up on those after a month because the side controls were not instinctive and I had to whip them off to alter settings all the time.
Next came the high-end Parrot Zik. These were comfortable and had amazing sound quality, but were like wearing the crown jewels on your head and make you look like Princess Leia. They weighed a ton, and for some reason refused to pair all of my devices no matter what I did. They now stay at home connected (with cord) to my computer.
At this point I felt like I was running out of options.
All was not lost, though. Finally, Better Sounds came to the rescue with a brilliant compromise. Bowers & Wilkins over-the-head cans come in a carry-pouch so even I can’t wreck them. They have leather pads over the speakers which naturally deaden outside noise almost as much as noise–cancelling sets, and the sound quality is superb. They’re genuinely portable as the speakers fold flat, they’re good value for money, being mid-range, and they’re so incredibly comfortable that I feel like wearing them even when I’m not playing music. There’s a folding pair too, which look just as good.