Tech Talk

Sound Advice: Picking the Best Headphones

Tech guru Tshaka Armstrong explains how headphones can boost your media-viewing experience and offers some choice picks to buy.

by | August 23, 2016 | Comments

Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Let me tell you a little story. My wife hates having to adapt to new technologies. She’s actually quite brilliant, so it isn’t that it’s hard for her or anything like that. I work a lot, and there are a few things that fall on her plate when I’m busier than usual and can’t get to things around the house or with the kids. So when I bring a new thing into the house that she has to learn (which happens a lot), she’s a little resistant because she doesn’t see it as “fun” like I do. For her it’s another chore, another thing to cross off the to-do list. It took me some time to understand that — after all, everyone likes new gadgets, right?

As someone who reviews consumer electronics, watching her really shows me just how meaningful an addition to the average user’s life a particular gadget is going to be. Generally, when she adopts something new into her day-to-day routine, I know it’s going to be a hit. So what does this have to do with headphones?

With so many people consuming content via tablets and mobile devices these days, I think sound is an increasingly important item to consider. That said, most users are probably happy enough with the sound they get from their stock earbuds, or are willing to settle for the passable audio that comes out of most tablets or modern smartphones. The problem is that the audio fidelity you get that way, although serviceable, is actually pretty horrible in comparison to what you’d get if you invested in a decent pair of on-ear or over-the-ear headphones.

Back to my wife.

AudioTechnica

She loves sitting out on our balcony at night and listening to audiobooks or watching Netflix on her iPad. (We live in Southern California, so most nights are great for that.) From time to time, I’d suggest that she grab a pair of my headphones and use those, but she was happy with the iPad’s built-in speakers or her earbuds. One day, she picked up a pair of my mid-range (under $300) Sennheiser headphones. A few months later I noticed that she hadn’t put my — I mean her — headphones down. Now every night she’s out there, she’s listening to those books or streaming content using the Sennheisers. They’re over-the-ear (circumaural) headphones, and if you ask her, they’re very different — they’re more comfortable and provide a much more satisfying listening experience.

So what would my wife, the person who benefits from all this tech lying around but doesn’t geek out over it, tell you you’re going to get out of switching to headphones?

It completely blocks outside noises. “If you have babies or young children, these may not be for you. You’ll be in your own world when you put on a pair of these headphones. I’m often startled by a family member coming out onto the patio, because with these, you won’t hear them.” Not to be confused with headphones which have “active noise cancellation,” which is an actual technology, many over-the-ear headphones passively cancel outside noise by fitting completely over your ears. (Well, they may also feature a closed back design, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

The sound is crystal clear. ‘Nuff said? She tells me that, unlike the built-ins and earbuds she’s been using, the dialogue, soundtrack and everything else about the TV and movies she watches while using headphones is so clear, so well defined, it’s actually an appreciable difference to her, the average user — not an audiophile. That’s something.

They’re also very comfortable. The headphones she’s listening to have velour covers and fully fit over her ears, so they’ve been quite comfortable for extended periods of use. Unlike your stock earbuds which have a tendency to give most users ear fatigue after a while, over-the-ear headphones deliver a greater level of comfort.

Now, I’m not the type of guy to present a problem without also offering up a solution, so below are a few options for you to consider since you’re going to take my wife’s advice and run out and get yourself a decent pair of headphones when your budget allows for it. There are literally hundreds of different headphone makers on the market between the name brands, boutique products, lesser-known brands and the off-brand back alley knock-offs, so I’m just going to give you a few of my personal favorites from the many I’ve reviewed.

Sennheiser2

Audio Technica is known for their studio quality monitor headphones, delivered at great quality without breaking the bank. Check out the ATH-M50x, or ATH-MSR7. Both are wired and sound amazing! If it’s wireless you’re after, go with the Bluetooth enabled ATH-WS99BT. Sennheiser is my personal favorite right now, at the sub-$300 price point. You can get a great deal on Amazon on their tried and true HD598, or the pair my wife fell in love with, their Urbanite XL. They also have a wireless version of the XL available, so you may consider that one instead — it does come with wires, so you can use it wired or wirelessly via Bluetooth.

If you’re not a big fan of ordering off the web and prefer to hit a brick and mortar to get some hands on time with a product, Fry’s Electronics carries Sony headphones, and the MDR V6 is never a bad choice. The MDR V6s are actually used for monitoring audio at many professional television broadcast facilities. At Fry’s, Walmart, Target, or Best Buy, you can find Beats by Dre headphones. Although they’ve earned a reputation for being overpriced I will say that their Solo2 line delivers great, more evenly balanced sound quality than their first generation headphones. You can’t go wrong with the Solo2 or Solo2 wireless, and there are a few audiophile sites that tend to agree with me. HeadFi, I’m looking at you!

You’re probably thinking, “he totally missed the boat and didn’t mention X pair/brand of headphones!” Well, if you fancy yourself an audiophile but know how to give great recommendations for casual listeners, feel free to offer up your own suggestions in the comments section — I’d love to hear them.


Tshaka Armstrong is a huge nerd and activist who also writes for foxla.com and his own site, tshakaexplainsitall.com, where he talks about food, bearding properly, tech, family, and equality.

Follow Tshaka on Twitter: @tshakaarmstrong

Tag Cloud

Showtime The Arrangement robots Fantasy Marvel Studios San Diego Comic-Con USA Network scary movies elevated horror Superheroe YouTube Premium E! movies romance Peacock discovery TV Land The Witch Song of Ice and Fire VICE Marvel Television spider-man TBS Watching Series A&E teaser werewolf golden globes BBC America Britbox cartoon ABC Emmy Nominations E3 NYCC screenings batman cancelled TV shows Star Wars Election all-time period drama PBS DGA BET Fall TV TIFF dark Television Academy Sci-Fi Hear Us Out Paramount Network theme song docudrama Nominations CMT talk show Set visit Photos PaleyFest Comics on TV Spike Creative Arts Emmys revenge Summer Paramount Comic Book Pet Sematary Tomatazos Shondaland Mary Poppins Returns serial killer finale AMC RT History 007 Holiday space FOX political drama Rock Lifetime facebook nature spanish language El Rey renewed TV shows foreign Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Writers Guild of America Action Marathons medical drama cats supernatural SXSW 20th Century Fox Nat Geo adventure YouTube cults History 4/20 CNN Amazon Prime Video Amazon Studios green book Syfy reboot USA Arrowverse dceu crime thriller Sundance TV Comedy zombies The Walking Dead festivals dramedy Emmys Academy Awards YouTube Red Sundance blockbuster Hallmark cops natural history TCM 2015 Universal Kids & Family Biopics Disney Channel die hard Netflix Pride Month police drama Hulu Ovation Lifetime Christmas movies comic Rocky Musical GLAAD Pixar Box Office Grammys Turner Discovery Channel stoner Black Mirror Freeform biography YA award winner Countdown Heroines Brie Larson Crackle Netflix Christmas movies Dark Horse Comics dogs Podcast Nickelodeon Polls and Games doctor who spinoff Trivia Classic Film Disney anime Mystery mockumentary singing competition Crunchyroll quibi Acorn TV Super Bowl TNT Sony Pictures Disney Plus Mary poppins Valentine's Day Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Vudu Epix Travel Channel asian-american Western politics critics historical drama Teen DirecTV spain dc Year in Review slashers halloween New York Comic Con breaking bad animated travel Mary Tyler Moore joker Baby Yoda Thanksgiving transformers composers Awards Tour GIFs LGBTQ ABC Family crime drama Country Film Festival Extras Trophy Talk movie The CW diversity MTV television child's play sequel 2017 Avengers Animation MCU social media tv talk A24 Opinion indie Toys Schedule 71st Emmy Awards Walt Disney Pictures Cartoon Network south america TCA 2017 SDCC directors Calendar LGBT TLC Endgame mission: impossible Amazon Prime Film franchise Trailer what to watch Shudder First Reviews independent a nightmare on elm street APB technology unscripted zero dark thirty Pop Interview TV renewals best rotten movies we love streaming disaster SundanceTV Pirates CBS CBS All Access NBC TCA aliens Anna Paquin Ellie Kemper President war Best and Worst Women's History Month FXX X-Men Fox News game show psychological thriller crossover cooking Character Guide Martial Arts Pop TV Amazon Binge Guide MSNBC Star Trek 2016 Infographic comiccon Columbia Pictures book vampires Mudbound Reality TV 2020 Music Apple TV Plus Warner Bros. Bravo casting 2019 stand-up comedy TCA Winter 2020 cars Oscars christmas movies TruTV Holidays Tubi hispanic DC Comics Tarantino Cannes mutant Logo Horror sitcom true crime universal monsters ratings CW Seed Cosplay Esquire parents romantic comedy Red Carpet Lucasfilm Winners comedies Lionsgate video anthology cancelled television Reality Competition Comedy Central cancelled Disney+ Disney Plus toy story binge Funimation Superheroes WarnerMedia Musicals boxoffice ESPN based on movie Black History Month DC streaming service Chernobyl OWN chucky hist Marvel Starz sports spy thriller Disney streaming service concert zombie 45 Ghostbusters miniseries adaptation HBO name the review Adult Swim Apple Tumblr Drama Spectrum Originals American Society of Cinematographers Spring TV Elton John The Purge Christmas witnail criterion ITV Awards ghosts Apple TV+ FX on Hulu 2018 Family screen actors guild GoT VH1 versus game of thrones See It Skip It crime IFC Films Rocketman Stephen King series Rom-Com cinemax IFC harry potter reviews BBC richard e. Grant latino blaxploitation Food Network First Look Winter TV science fiction free movies documentary HBO Max canceled justice league thriller OneApp Premiere Dates 24 frames cancelled TV series strong female leads National Geographic jamie lee curtis Certified Fresh Masterpiece psycho WGN Video Games children's TV Sundance Now Mindy Kaling 21st Century Fox Captain marvel Quiz Turner Classic Movies comics sag awards FX canceled TV shows RT21 dragons DC Universe Sneak Peek Hallmark Christmas movies kids