I’m a rookie when it comes to listening to music, and chances are, so are you. Like me, you’re just fine using whatever headphones were supplied with your smartphone. You know there are better headphones out there, but you think, “What’s the point? I can hear the music just fine.”
You can, but there are vastly better headphones out there.
For this piece, I’m going to compare three different types of headphones at three different price points. This makes an apples-to-apples comparison tricky to make, but the point of this piece is not to fully explore the world of headphones, but rather to begin to understand how the headphones world is built.
I deliberately did not research all of the attributes that make or break a good set of headphones. There are legions of audiophiles who will angrily shake their fingers at my lack of due diligence, and I’m eagerly waiting to hear their feedback and criticism. But my requirements for a good set of headphones have little to do with whether the headphones are based on a moving coil or electrostatic driver. My requirements are simple: I want to listen to my music as it was intended to be heard with a minimum of fuss anywhere on the planet.
You may not know much about the state of the art in headphones, but you are intimately familiar with hearing. This is an article for folks who like to hear.
The Hardware, The Tests, and a Great Song
For my selection of headphones, I wanted to test the Apple-supplied earbuds against both a high-end in-ear selection as as well as a set of full-sized headphones. For the full-sized headphones, I asked Marco for his recommendation, since he’s obsessed a lot more about headphones. He suggested the Sennheiser HD 380 Pro (~$170.00). For in-ear, I went to Twitter for recommendations, and the good people at Klipsch provided me with a pair of their X10i model, which retail for around $349.00.
For the song, I chose Titanium by David Guetta and featuring Sia, which is, first, a great song, but also features thumping bass accompanied by Sia’s bold and raging vocals that test the high end of the sound spectrum. I listened to the song on each of the three headphones in two different locations. The first location was a half-full bar at an airport. There was light to medium ambient noise from nearby conversations, as well as soul crushing techno-elevator music descending from the ceiling. The second location was at 32k feet over Greenland in the bubble of a 747 – heavy continuous white noise.
I chose these two test locations because they are where I need my headphones the most: when I’m traveling and when there is a lot of noise. Any headphones I use need to contend with the noise of traveling. Yes, I use my headphones at home, but not a lot. See, there is a wife and kids in the house, and while they’re cool with my playing of video games, they are not cool with the way that any good headphones completely remove me from the Planet Earth.
For each set of headphones, I listened to Titanium a few times in each location. For different parts of the song, I’d often swap back and forth between the different headphones to hear precise differences. What I’ve captured are my thoughts about each set of headphones relative to sound and noise reduction as well as comfort, convenience, and quirks.
Apple EarPods, in-ear ($29.00, but included with iPhone, iPads, and iPods)
The sound quality of the Apple EarPods is fine, and by fine I mean until you spend any sort of money on your headphones. Both of the headphones below have instantly recognizable superior sound quality. Both in the bar and especially on the airplane, I found myself turning the volume up on my MacBook to ~ 75% of the maximum to get what I consider full sound with the EarPods. The same volume level for both the Klipsch and the Sennheiser was blaring; I had to turn it down.
Apple claims there is noise reduction in this latest generation of the headphones, and I believe them, but for my test cases — the bar and the airplane — all of the external sound was dulling the sound of the song, and again, giving me the impression that I needed to keep turning the sound up.
Apple’s headphones are well designed. One of my favorite features is that because of their distinct shape and molding, you can tell left from right purely by feel. Each time I put on my other headphones, I’m compulsively checking the earbud, looking for that L or R. With the Apple headphones, it’s an effortless process. For me, the EarPods are tied with the Klipsch for comfort. They fit snugly and firmly in my ears and I just forget about them for hours. No issues.
One of the quirks of the Apple in-ear headphones is one of its more useful features – I can hear what’s going on around me. Both the Klipsch and the Sennheiser almost completely remove all external sound, which means when Frank the bartender looks me straight in the eye and asks me if I want another round, I give him a blank stare – I can’t hear a thing. Apple headphones are my go-to headphones when I’m on the go and need to maintain situational awareness.
Klipsch, X10i, in-ear ($349.00)
The first indication of the vastly superior sound of the X10is is the fact that when I swap from EarPods, I have to turn the sound down – way down. This is a function of the seal the headphones make with your ear, which I’ll talk about in a moment, but once you’ve got the right volume, you’re in for a treat. The sound of the X10is is transcendent and complete. Your music will completely and wholly fill your head. Big huge bass, crisp highs, and simple, complete sound, but it comes with a cost.
The beauty of the Klipsch is the seal that it makes with the inside of your ear. It’s at that point that the crystal clear sound comes pouring into your ear, but this seal is problematic. First, the seal between the plastic ear buds and the skin of your ears not only seals sound in, it also creates a perfect medium for sound to travel through any part of the headphone assembly. Sitting here right now in the back of a car heading to the airport, all I need to do to remember what type of headphones I’m wearing is shake my head. As the cables hanging from my ears drag across the wool coat I’m wearing, the scratching sound races up the cords with perfect, annoying fidelity. If I happen to be eating peanuts while wearing these headphones, I hear the death cry of each and every peanut I consume.
Additionally, the Klipsch earbuds make you intimately aware of a part of your body that you, perhaps, would prefer to take for granted: your inner ear. I’m certain that it is for very good evolutionary reasons that my body produces ear wax. I would thank billions of years of evolution that have given me this strategic waxy advantage, but I would prefer to take ear wax for granted. I’ve been using my Klipsch headphones steadily for several weeks, and in the last week I’ve noticed the sound in my right ear degrading. The issue? Yeah, ear wax. A quick cleaning with a Klipsch-provided cleaning tool and we’re hunky dory, but for roughly 18.5 seconds I’m sitting there contending with… ear wax. This unavoidable ear wax tax is an annoying price to pay for both the sound quality and convenience of the Klipsch headphones.
Lastly, with the by far best sound quality of the three headphones, one of the more frustrating minor quirks of the the X10is is the cord quality – I constantly have to untangle them. I carefully wrap up the cord each time I’m done, but upon removal from my pouch, it’s tangled. Apple allegedly partially solved for the tangle problem, but my impression is all the science involved is - wait for it - making the cords thicker, and therefore stiffer, which is harder to tangle. As I’ve been constantly pulling both of the headphones out of my travel pouch, I can confirm that Apple’s headphones tangle less and the acoustically superior Klipsch headphones feel cheaper because they’re tangled.
Sennheiser HD 380 Pro, over-ear ($199.95)
Like the Klipsches, the Sennheisers are a huge step above the Apple headphones in terms of sound quality. It’s a shocking comparison that you should try at least once to understand how much sound you’re missing. Compared to the X10is, the sound quality of the Sennheisers is slightly inferior. Audiophiles likely have dictionaries full of sound-specific words to describe the quality, but all I have is crispness. After jumping back and forth between each headphone on the same part of the song a half-dozen times, the Sennheisers are really good, but lack the crispness of the X10is – I feel like I’m hearing more of the song with the x10is. The same goes for the bass; the Klipsch bass is rounder and deeper than the Sennheiser.
In terms of noise reduction, there’s a world of difference between the Apple and Sennheiser headphones, but again, the Klipsch has superior noise reduction. It’s not clear to me whether this is a function of the electronics or the design the headphones. I have the same thought about the Klipsch seal. Are they better simply because of the complete seal they make? How much of the noise reduction is actual electronics? I can give the Sennheisers a noise-reducing boost simply by pressing the headphones harder against my head.
One of my favorite conveniences of the Sennheisers is really a quirk. The 1.5 inches that each headphone provides is a surprisingly convenient headrest on long haul flights.
Many airlines provide head support in the form of fold-out head supports on both sides of your headrest, but the problem is that even with the pads folded completely forward, your head has a lot of room to bounce around. While I’m certain this wasn’t a design goal for Sennheiser, their headphones do a splendid job of filling that space. They hold my head at a comfortable angle and allow me to sleep better. Combined with the simple muffling provided by the headphones, I often sleep with headphones on but with no music at all.
While they are an unexpected sleep aid, the Sennheisers are not at all convenient. They’re a huge travel accessory only made larger by their traveling case, which I recommend using on trips. Here’s why: I’m on my third set of Sennheisers because I tossed the first two in a fit of rage. I’d been lugging them around the world without the case, because they do fold flat, and once you’ve wrapped the cord around them, they’re compact-ish. Problem is, the plug is exposed, and if that plug is bent, sound on one of your headphones gets spotty. You have to twist the plug just right to get everything to work. And another tip: attempting to re-bend the plug does not work. There are easier ways to protect the plug, but after having spent three hours on a transcontinental flight holding the plug just right I’m protecting the headphones in the supplied case, which makes the headphones the size of a late 80s mobile CD player.
Apples to Apples
I am a regular audio human. I’ve have no significant demands of my headphones. This article takes a very high level approach to looking at headphones, and I know there is much more to learn. While the lessons above might be broad, I’m eager to learn more. Again, it’s tricky to compare the three sets of headphones listed above, but I can finish by answering a few questions:
Can I just get by with the Apple EarPods? Yes, even with the blaring white noise of an airplane, the Apple headphones are just fine. They work. You can hear your music. You could also learn to write in dirt using just your fingers on paper you found on the street. My point: if you’re obsessing about your pens, backpacks, and notebooks, why wouldn’t you obsess about your headphones? A single comparison to any other headphones will show you what you’re missing.
Are the ginormous Sennheisers ever worth it? It seems to be fashionable to be walking around with huge headphones hanging around your neck. I think this is a fashion statement, not an auditory statement. I’m sure these headphones are good, but each time I see someone walking through the airport with their massive headphones, I think of every single moment that they have to contend with their bulk. The Sennheisers’ long cord and high degree of comfort do make them my go-to home setup, but that’s only when the kids and wife aren’t home. I’ve had Sennheisers for a while, and in a world where they were the only higher end headphones I knew about, I would’ve been very happy.
Would I ever pay $350 for headphones? If you asked this before I started this article, I would have laughed in your face. $100? Maybe. $200? Probably not. $350. Never. It wasn’t until I did the headphones to headphones comparison on the same song at the same time that I realized the stunning sound quality of the x10is. I sat at the bar listening to Titanium for the 18th time. I just finished with the Sennheisers, placed the Klipsches on for the first time, started the song and said, “Holy shit.” I might’ve yelled it, but I didn’t know because I couldn’t hear a thing.