The 50 Best Headphones You Can Buy (Part 5)

10/19/2012 9:20:13 AM

Ratings: 5/5

Price: $300

Description: As the track builds, the headphones follow suit, delivering precise, substantial punch

As the track builds, the headphones follow suit, delivering precise, substantial punch

With so many of us doing the majority of our music listening on the move, it’s little wonder that we’re becoming willing to invest more money in portable headphones. It’s always good to be able to save a little bit, though, which is why it’s so nice that these Beyerdynamics have gradually dropped from their original $372 price to the $300 they now cost. Of course, the quality hasn’t dropped in the meantime, and the T50ps are quality indeed. The thin and lightweight construction masks some seriously sturdy build, while the styling somehow manages to be both industrial and elegant.

Great for the long haul

Thanks to being lightweight, comfortable and closed-back, these headphones are perfect for long journeys or regular commuting. More important than that though, they sound simply superb.

Play a really testing track, such as Bon Iver’s Perth, and the T50ps dig up all of the detail and nuance in the intertwined vocal strands that mark out the beginning of the track. More than that, as the track builds and the vigour of the drum beat increases, the headphones gamely follow suit, delivering substantial, precise punch before throwing out the huge crescendo with immense, dramatic force.

It’s this all-round ability that makes the Beyerdynamics so lovable and, unlike many other pairs of serious headphones, they even make the most of lower-resolution tracks. Switch to lossless or uncompressed if you can though – you’ll be doing the headphones and your ears a disservice if you don’t.

Best in-ears below $750 – Grado GR10

Ratings: 5/5

Price: $540

Description: If you source material is up to scratch, the Grados will put a big smile on your face

If you source material is up to scratch, the Grados will put a big smile on your face

When we first reviewed these Grados around a year ago we began by musing over whether a pair of in-ears could ever be capable of justifying a $532.5 price tag – for that’s how much they cost back then. In the end we decided that, in the right situation and with the right source, they could. But perhaps that point’s moot now that the $1500 AKG L3003i in-ears exist.

Anyway, back to that right situation: if you want to hear the GR10s at their best you’re going to need a source full of uncompressed (or better) music files, a capable DAC and a decent headphone amplifier. You’re also going to need to give them about 30 hours of running-in and a bit of fiddling to get them to properly fit your ears.

Rewards in the long run

Sounds like a lot of hassle, doesn’t it? But, boy, is it worth it. These are stunningly informative and enjoyable earphones with the kind of transparency and musicality we previously thought was unattainable from a pair of in-ears.

There’s astonishing detail, precision and agility here, yet the GR10s never sound too clinical – they dig up and present all of the detail but do so in a way that promotes enjoyment of the music rather than analysis.

Whether you’re prepared to invest in a setup that will make the most of the Grados’ talents, and whether you’re going to be happy spending so much money on something that’s so small and averagely styled is a matter of personality and resources. Even so, there’s no denying that those who do will soon be enjoying truly tremendous audio.

Superb all-round quality – PSB M4U2

Ratings: 5/5

Price: $450

Description: An on-board amp adds punch, but it’s the quality at all frequencies that really impresses

An on-board amp adds punch, but it’s the quality at all frequencies that really impresses

In case the fact that we’ve given them a whole page to themselves wasn’t enough of a hint, allow us to spell it out: of all the new pairs in this Top 50, it’s these PSB M4U2 headphones that you need to be really excited about.

If the PSB name isn’t familiar to you, you can be forgiven: although the company’s been around for some 40 years, we’ve not been blown away by any of its speakers for a while. This, its first pair of headphones, though, really is something worth shouting about. Not that anyone wearing a pair would hear the racket, because the M4U2s boast a combination of effective noise-cancelling and a solid around-ear seal to block out a great deal of din.

Switchable functions

Most interesting, though, is that as well as the facility to switch the noise-cancelling on or off (on the right cup), there’s an extra notch in the middle of that switch that activates the built-in amplifier but leaves the noise-cancelling switched off. As well as improving the overall sound quality, this has the benefit of extending your portable player’s battery life, as it isn’t working as hard to power the headphones. Very neat.

So, how is the sound? Awesome. While the overall balance is pretty uniform, there’s no denying that the M4U 2s sound their best with the amplifier activated, so keep some spare AAA batteries handy – rechargeable ones, preferably when you’re out and about.

Whether the noise cancelling is or isn’t activated has little real bearing on the sound they produce at normal volumes, though. Either way you’ve got substantial punch, weight and texture at the bottom-end (play Phat Planet by Leftfield for ample proof), plenty of sparkle and control at the top, and some of the most direct, clear and well-projected vocals in the entire test. It’s only when you crank it that the high frequencies get a little shouty in noise-cancelling mode.

In truth, the long-standing Bose QuietComfort 15s probably have the edge in terms of comfort, compactness and the effectiveness of their noise-cancelling tech, but if you want to turn your office, flight or train journey into a private listening experience of exceptional quality, these are the headphones to get.

Best for wireless at home – Sennheiser RS 220

Ratings: 4/5

Price: $525

Description: Tracks emerge from the comfy ear-cups in impressively clear, tonally balanced style

Tracks emerge from the comfy ear-cups in impressively clear, tonally balanced style

Listening through headphones can be untidy. Who among us hasn’t had our enjoyment interrupted by a pet, child or significant other getting tangled in the cables strung between system and sofa?

There are plenty of wireless cans out there, of course, but they always seem to involve too much in the way of sonic sacrifice. Well, Sennheiser certainly thinks it’s solved that particular problem with the RS 220s which, it claims, boast audiophile sound quality thanks to uncompressed 2.4GHz wireless transmission between the transmitter – which has optical, coaxial and analogue inputs and also acts as a neat charging dock – and the headphones.

Everything hangs together well

It largely works a treat, with tracks emerging from the firm but comfortable earcups in impressively clear, tonally balanced style. The soundstage is wide, capable of strong stereo focus and separation of different instruments and musical strands, yet everything still hangs together rather well.

Although there’s little of the background hiss you might expect from wireless headphones, we did experience the odd crackle, and it’s fair to say that $525 spent on wired headphones can result in greater excitement. Still, the RS 220s involve far less sacrifice than the majority of wireless solutions, so if it’s cable-free home listening you’re after they’re absolutely worth an audition.

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