Headphones Buying Guide

Jul 26, 2011 No Comments by

There are several varieties of head/earphone and so many price points, choosing the right ones is a pain in the bum.  Hopefully this will help.

One thing before we get started though: if you cycle on public roads while listening to music through headphones you are a mentalist.

When/how will you listen?

For commuting or exercising go for small, in-ear buds.

Buds with tiny foam pads that sit in your ear, like the ones supplied with Apple devices, will only stay in place if your ears have an antitragus – a ridge of cartilage – to keep them there. Such earphones have an open-back which is why everyone else can hear the screeching crap you’re listening to.  They should be banned.

Better to get buds with silicone rubber tips that push (gently) into the ear canal.  They keep your tunes in and extraneous noise out.  Movement and sweat will dislodge them, so for exercising, get a pair with loops that hook over your ears.  Like these Sennheiser OCX 880 (above).
Even with ear hooks, the actual buds that sit in your ear canal may jiggle loose.  To counter this some such ‘phones are attached
to each end of a curved, plastic bar like these Sennheiser PMX 80The tension on the bar helps keep the buds in place. In theory. In practise they can be annoying and they also get in the way if you want to wear a hat or cap.  At least they tend to be cheap, so if you don’t get on with them you’re not risking your entire wad.

Be wary of earphones that promise to be water or sweat-proof.  The trade-off for such practicalities is often rubbish sound quality.

What to pay?

You can get perfectly fine in-ear buds for £30 or less.   Don’t pay over £100 unless you’re VERY fussy.

Some examples:
Klipsch Image S3 £34.50
Creative EP-630 £10.69
Head Direct HiFiMAN RE-ZERO Ltd Edition £69.99
Sennheiser CX 310 Adidas Originals £33.90
MEElectronics SP51P £49.99
Ultimate Ears 400vi £59.57

Listening on ‘planes.

Bose Quiet Comfort 3

Obviously, in ear buds are best.  They are small, unobtrusive and can sound wonderful.  But therein lies the problem; small and unobtrusive doesn’t cut it for many – especially those taking a short-haul flight in Cattle who would normally splash for Club on long-haul.  These people (ie men) need you to know that they could have afforded Club but chose not to.  The short-hand for communicating this is a pair of Bose Quiet Comfort.  There are several models – go to a Bose shop and check them out or click here to go to the Bose website.  There are, of course, other brands (Grado, Sennheiser) that are as good as, and better than, Bose but they aren’t as well known among the great unwashed.  Bose QC headphones nestle in a tough carry-case and even come with a supply of  business-sized calling cards that tell the curious everything they might need to know about those headphones.  Whatever headphones you choose for in-flight cocooning make sure they are noise-cancelling.  In ear-buds cancel out external racket passively; the snug fit takes care of business, whereas on- or over-ear ‘phones have ‘active’ noise-cancelling; the emanation of a gentle hiss that masks mewling brats and yammering cabin crew, which in turn requires batteries.

Over-Ear or On-Ear?

This is down to personal preference and practicalities.  Supra-aural (on-ear) or circumaural (over-ear) cans both have their merits; on-ear are more portable but marginally less appealing to audiophiles whereas larger, over-ear headphones can get uncomfortable and sweaty with prolonged use.

Open Back or Closed Back?

Open-backed headphones are generally preferred by nit-picky high-fidelity nerds but the downside with them is other people can hear what you’re listening to.  Closed-back headphones keep all the sound in but can sound somewhat ‘boomy’ – especially at the cheaper end of the market.


Wireless headphones are handy for watching TV or listening to Ministry with the volume turned up to 11.  Only you will be deafened.  Some, such as the Sennheiser RS 120 use RF (radio frequency) others such as the JayBird SB2 Sportsband use Bluetooth and some use infra-red (IR) to achieve their wirelessness.  Since most smartphones have Bluetooth such wireless headphones tend to be aimed at yoof wot run around a lot.  This sort of detail isn’t something any Fogey should be losing sleep over.

What to pay?

As you’ll see in the Fogey 5, great gobs of wonga can be shelled out on headphones of all types, but nowhere more so than with the over-ear, circumaural variety.  Personally I’d feel slightly queasy parting with more than £150 for on-ear or over-ear headphones.  Here are some decent cans of both types at around that price:

Sennheiser PXC 310 £139.73
SHURE SRH840 £138
Beyerdynamic DT990 PRO £137.66
Monster Beats by Dr. Dre Solo Headphones in White £148.99
M-Audio Studiophile Q40 £118

Are you a footballer?


If ‘yes’ then, while travelling to and from games and especially when disembarking aircraft, you will require a pair of Dr Dre’s Monster Beats, Fanny Wang On-Ear Wang or something by WeSC or maybe SkullCandy.  It will be enormously helpful if your team colour is red.  To complete the ‘personal bubble’ effect giant, wraparound sunglasses (preferably Belstaff) should also be worn. The sound quality of ‘fashion’ headphones might be somewhat variable (although the Beats and Fanny Wang can be found in the Fogey 5) but that’s hardly the point.  The headphone-as-style-statement (even if that statement is, ‘I am a dick’) is unequivocally with us.  And if you don’t believe me here’s an article from The Guardianthat proves it.