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.



11 comments on “Rough Guide 1: Headphones”

  1. slabman says:

    B&W headphones are truly wonderful

  2. matt says:

    Well as you say you have found a pair that suits you but for me I do have to consider cost. You say the B&W are mid range but for me anything at the price they come in at is too expensive. Guess thats the difference between the haves and the have nots,,,,, I am not bitter Really I am not, Honest. I do realise you did state that you were leaving cost aside and giving an opionion on usability and sound quality it just made me realise how much a limited budget means you miss out on so much.

  3. Alan Morgsn says:

    Absolutely, and whenever out an audio book so I can still read whilst having to do irritating things in the real world. Albeit whilst sort-of reading then. I don’t even know what my cans are, they’re just big and getting on a bit now. But I’m a right miser too. Heading towards 50 and never had a bank loan nor a credit card. This is probably a good thing to wave at next year’s Christmas list. My better half’s grown up son seems to get through a pair of headphones a week but then he lives in them – every moment out of work he sprawls looking at his phone with his cyberman headphones on.

    Oh and happy Christmas and new year everyone. I’ve managed to not be on line for almost a whole month. It avoids work. 😀

  4. snowy says:

    Matt I’ll whisper this just to you. You are not missing out on anything, ‘high end’ headphones are snake oil and false promises. If I were to dismantle two sets of headphones, one budget and one expensive and mix up the bits that actually influence the sound output together I doubt either of us could tell them apart.

    Earbuds style ‘phones cost less than 20p to make, [even if they have a picture of a fruit on them], headband types, assuming they are made from plastic [and not carved from selected unicorn horn with ear cushions of hand stitched Madagasgan Badger scrotum], cost something around £5. The retail price covers transport, advertising and a whacking great profit.

    Before our host hunts me down and tortures me to death, [by hammering steel gramophone needles under my finger nails, probably] I’ll admit that ‘high end’ units can look nicer and can be more robustly made, sometimes. But after a certain point spending more money doesn’t translate into better sound quality.

    If you wear them a lot it is worth spending a few pounds extra for a set that are comfortable, not over heavy and fit your head shape. Match the style to what you are doing, going for a run? earbuds are great, relaxing in a wing back chair, drinking gin, listening to a bit of Debussy? massive ’70s style ‘cans’ are just the ticket.

    Good quality kit turns up in Car Boots and Charity shops all the time, if it has a cord it is thought ‘old-fashioned’ and discarded. They don’t really ‘wear out’, wires can be changed/replaced at home for a few pounds, ear cushions are a bit more tricky but can be done.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    How is it that we just _know_ that Snowy has the right of it? That advice just makes so much good sense. (sorry, Admin. Sometimes it seems you just lay out the column as a lure to draw Snowy into providing calming comment.)

  6. I think Snowy’s right, Matt. Plus, if I was broke I’d go without stuff I consider unnecessary in order to have music. We all choose what’s important – I think having a car is a luxury, whereas my brother can’t imagine life without one.

  7. Jennifer says:

    Bose noise cancelling ear buds. (I believe I was proselytizing about these last summer.) The battery is USB rechargeable and not much bigger than the thickness of a few credit cards. Fits in a pocket. And the plane noise is magnificently mitigating. And they are comfortable. And they stay in. I am positively evangelical about them, and can’t believe I have gone this long without buying them.

  8. Mark says:

    Koss Porta Pro are the best ones I’ve ever had and surprisingly affordable too.

  9. George says:

    I’ve been through about 4 sets of Koss Portapros. They’re cheap, very light and comfortable and sound great but don’t last very long at all! The weak point seems to be the connection between cable and plug – I even invested in a soldering iron so I could fix them myself. They’re very ‘leaky’ too, which is an advantage when cycling in traffic but a massive disadvantage on public transport, for both the listener and anybody sitting nearby. I now have AKG K501s which are double the price but so much better constructed.

  10. slabman says:

    @snowy – I’ve listened to a lot of headphones, domestic & pro. If I could afford those B&Ws, I’d buy them like a shot. I’ve tried them a few times and the sound is memorably good. My hobby is restoring vintage speakers so I’m not immune to the lure of old kit either!

  11. snowy says:

    They look like a nice product at the luxury end of the market, the price reflects the choice of materials and low volume production.

    In terms of just ‘pure’ acoustic performace, it would be possible to get the same for less. But then that is not the point of a ‘luxury product’.And life is always better for a little luxury.

    [I think I’ll stick with my current ‘shouty ear warmers’ for a while longer, since they don’t shoot over my nose every time I lean forward to get the milk out of the fridge. 🙂 ]

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