(Note: This section covers our favorite headphones, accessories, music players and any manner of device meant to bring music to the individual in a personal way. In other words it is for music lovers who have trouble wearing “Cans” on their heads.)
Written by James Hamel
We test a lot of cars, audio equipment, electronics and gadgets and who-zits here at Infotainment Experts. Sometimes we all share the same opinion of a product whereas there are other times we fight with the tenacity of Roman Gladiators—albeit Geeky, tech savvy and kind of pale Roman Gladiators. Nothing like Russell Crowe in “Gladiator” but the wordplay between us in these disagreements can get bloody. Okay, egos may be bruised but that’s about it.
Well now that we have gotten it out of the way that being kind of a geek is a requirement to write here, another requirement is to know how to explain things in a fun and simple way. With Awards season now upon us with Golden Globes, Grammy Awards and the Oscars all vying for attention, we figured there is no easier way to tell people what products we think are the smartest buys than by giving them the Infotainment Experts seal of Approval. We don’t actually have a seal of Approval but we have considered our test experience and handed out awards to brands and products we deemed the best in relation to various price points and market segments.
So without further adieu and definitely no dance numbers or awkward stage banter here are our picks for the 2016 InfotainmentExperts.com Best of the Best Awards. Hey, why not? We have way more credibility than the American Foreign Press but then who doesn’t? So let’s get started with our picks for best headphones and comments on our runner up cans. (FYI-Headphone geeks call them cans. Not sure why.)
Best Closed Back Over the Ear Headphones Under $500—Bowers & Wilkins P7
Priced at $399, we can think of no better place to invest your hard earned flagship headphone spending money. The strength of the Bowers P7 cans is the depth and breadth of their ability, it truly covers all the bases and is built with an attention to detail not found anywhere art this price. Sure, there may be headphones which spotlight bass more than the P7s but these headphones are meant to be able to play any kind of music, adapt to it and sound marvelous doing so.
Best Open Back Over the Ear Headphones Under $500—Sennheiser 650
With its enormous audiophile level ohm figure of over 600, the Sennheiser 650 can power through pretty much anything its clear and near perfect sounding cups can muster from whatever source you throw at it. The only thing with open back earphones is that while some say this design sounds better, it does mean everyone around you will hear what you are listening to. That’s because with these Sennheisers you will probably have the volume cranked. A great audio investment.
Best Headphones under $400—Oppo PM-3 Planar Magnetic
Prior to the release of the PM-3 model, Oppo specialized in making the kind of headphones that cost in the thousands of dollars which is a price range we have yet to cross into. Headphones had better wash my car for that kind of money. Anyway, the PM-3 model is no poor relation to other Oppo headphones as its construction is near to Bowers & Wilkins level for solidity and quality of materials. And the sound quality from the Planar Magnetic set-up has to be heard to be believed. We love this unit with our Meridian Explorer 2 Amp/Dac that we leave plugged into our computer. Oh yeah, scroll down a bit to read a bit more about our favorite headphone amp and we will explain why you will want one.
Best Starter Headphones under $200—Audio Technica ATH-M50X
Easily found online for well under $150, these simple and balanced sounding headphones are what Beats should have been at the start. So if you want to hear your music for the first time in a whole new way without any added sonic trickery or muddiness, we can’t recommend these more highly to the future audiophile. Soon you will look back on headphones for less than $150 as your “good old days.” We warned you.
Best Travel Headphones—NAD VISO HP-50
We are going to be honest here. Some headphones come with ridiculously huge cases and if you are a traveler you know what sizes will work and which won’t when the time comes to sliding your audio companions into your carry on. And to headphone makers who just provide a leather bag, we never travel with your headphones because we would rather carry our precious ear rockers in a plastic Ziploc bag.
Now, besides offering impressive, near audiophile audio quality from an earphone design that is both compact, lightweight yet substantial feeling enough to securely fit around many head sizes, the VISO HP-50 from the speaker and audio mavens at NAD is also priced at just $299 on Amazon. Hey, that’s an amazing price for a pair of headphones most people could live their whole lives with happily. And still have money left over for, um, travel.
Best Noise Isolating Headphones—(V Moda Over Ear Noise Isolating)
Not all of us adore how loud, jarring and downright frighteningly aural the World around us has become. With the world and everyone in it feeling they need to be the star of their own movie or music video with their personal beliefs (and noise) grandstanding from their every pore as they go about their day in a manner they think is quiet and unassuming. Okay, that may overstate the case with most folks but if we were talking about their Facebook profile commentaries we are sure the story would be quite the opposite.
Best Wireless Headphones—Bose Soundlink Around Ear
What? Another win stolen from the grasp of Beats Pro Wireless headphones simply because they are made of Kmart plastic? Well there is that plus the initial $376 asking price for thee admittedly now very capable sounding Bluetooth wireless headphones from Apple’s Beats subsidiary (all bass muddiness is gone along with usually about $100 from that aforementioned price if you shop around) but it can’t erase Bose with its patented silky smooth treatment of your favorite music as it politely slips into your eardrums.
Bose makes music like a beverage at the perfect temperature, it eliminates any harshness for the widest spectrum of ears making these light feeling, nice travelling cans (note to the normal: audio geeks call their headphones “cans”) make great gifts. So if you know anyone with a Birthday or who you are related to who is worth around $200, you might want to give these a thought.
What did we think of some of the other models we tested?
PSB M4U and PSB M4U2 Noise Cancelling
The sound is great from these headphones, definitely the equal of the NAD Viso HP-50 as they are made by the same company, but their only failing is in how bulky they are most especially the PSB M4U2 noise cancelling. We brought ours on a plane trip in coach all the way to the East Coast and we felt like we were wearing cans of soup on our ears and that they were surely going to smack into the person sitting next to us.
Harman Kardon SOHO On-Ear with Bluetooth
Stylish, portable with great sound and easy bluetooth connectivity so what is not to like? For one, our head was too big for the design. So we sent it along with a friend whose father (with a less rotund cranium no doubt) is now enjoying it on his long daily walks in the country. Apparently he thinks these HK Soho headphones are tremendous and we will take his word on it.
Bowers & Wilkins P5 On-Ear Headphones–(RECOMMENDED)
Available both with wires or with bluetooth connectivity as with its larger “over-ear” P7 sibling, we simply love the P5’s lightweight feel on our head and its ultra sturdy build quality. This is a headphone investment meant to last which is just as it should be given its price. Actually, that’s all we might change but we would by no means want it made to be “cheaper” if you get our meaning. A higher purchase price is worth it when the product is of high quality, and Bowers knows quality.
Bang and Olufsen BeoPlay H6
The whole line of Sweden’s Bang & Olufsen audio goodies is simply awash with hyper stylized, semi-over designed headphones and speakers whose appeal is generally as visceral as their ability to please their purchaser. But just as with any great guy made under the guise of lust, sometimes the expectations of one party can be a bit unrealistic. Or so we hope given Bang & Olufsen’s semi-flaky reputation occasionally for long term quality. We never saw this born out with the H6 headphones which look and sound like a million bucks, if only the leather felt as expensive.
Sennheiser Urbanite On-Ear Headphones
Attention, do not confuse these shoddily made, rotten sounding and shamefully overpriced headphones for Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 wireless which look somewhat similar in that they have round over ear cups. After listening to these Urbanites we not only felt like we were cheated out of our money but we felt like the good Sennheiser name and reputation was being watered down and besmirched for quick cash and widespread sales. We hope this set of cans (and they wound up recycled with our cans) is the Sennheiser exception not the rule.
NOW, HOW TO PIMP YOUR HEADPHONES!
Best Headphone Amp and DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter)—Meridian Explorer 2
Wait a minute, you have your iPod and some good “cans.” Now what the hell is this? And what is an Amp/DAC and how many more gadgets do I need to make my music sound its best? Well, how much do you have? No, kidding. An Amp/DAC is just an electronic gadget you plug your headphones into that amplifies the electronic signal coming from your Mp3 player, desktop, media player or what have you. A DAC is a little harder to explain.
Now most people when they transferred their music collection over to iTunes assumed they were going for the next step in enriching their audio experience. Sadly, in moving from CD’s to smaller, shrunken MP3’s many songs lost a great deal of their aural depth due to what amounted to enforced compression. To put it in easy to understand terms, you can’t squish the brilliance and depth of “Stairway to Heaven” into a 350 square foot studio apartment with a hot plate in the corner when it was used to living at the Playboy Mansion. Things will be lost and dumbed down.
Now, DAC stands for Digital to Analogue Converter and while $299 may seem like a lot to ask for what looks like an oblong and rather small NASA Space Probe. It even has the De Facto twinkling lights to hint at the magic going on inside this little wonder as it turns the information traveling via the USB ports and up your headphone cable and into your brain. There again in all of his glory you can hear John Bonham take a sharp breath right before he breaks into the most famous drum breakdown in rock history. It is those moments when you understand the power of music and why sometimes a band just can’t carry on with an integral piece of the puzzle suddenly gone.
Best Portable MP3 Player Headphone AMP/DAC—Teac HA-P50B
Teac not only makes a wide assortment of relatively affordable, smartly designed and compactly sized AMP/DAC’s you can just attach to your MP3 player or iPod with thoughtfully provided, high quality stiff rubber bands but they also have media players available to best utilize the benefits of their offerings. And the benefits are very clear if you plug this pair of Oppo PM-3 headphones into, even a basic FiiO X1 Hi-Res Song Player that just costs around $99 most places plus the cost of a mini memory card up to 164 GB. That’s the same amount of memory you get in a really expensive iPod Touch which hasn’t had a major technological advancement really since it was introduced.
So to sum up, if your iPod (no matter how Nano it may be) is still breathing then hang onto it. There is no reason to replace it as you can just improve the sound quality with a nice AMP/DAC from Teac or FiiO which also builds a number of them beyond its Hi-Def capable player offerings. Best bets if you want to turn your music collection into a pristine sonic library is to look to Sony’s new Hi-Def line-up of headphones and players or up your game to audiophile status with a brand like the prestigious Astell & Kern. Let us know if you ever buy from that brand how their wares sound in the elevated air up where music dreams we imagine turn into breathtaking reality.
(Note: All Headphones were purchased by the editorial and ownership staff of Infotainment Experts except units provided by Bowers & Wilkins whose generosity made this website possible.)