Headphones and Earphones for Portable Players

No headphone fits all needs. I probably have a couple dozen sets of headphones and earphones...and I use at least six of them on a regular basis. My Grados are favored for rock music, while the Sony MDR-SA3000s do well with classical music and acoustic guitar. Of course, neither of these are really suitable for use on a plane, so I generally take along one of my Ultimate Ears for that purpose. When I work with audio files, I use my Sony V600s or Sennheiser HD212s. When I need to go wireless...well, you get the point.

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Bose QuietComfort 2 Headphones

Satisfactory set of circumaural (encloses the ear) headphones with very effective noise-cancellation circuitry. Typical Bose quality and a lot of nice features, including an audio cord that can be detached and replaced. Battery life is pretty good, especially with rechargeable NiMH batteries. Performance is excellent. A lot of people consider these to be extremely comfortable to wear for extended periods. I agree that they are pretty comfortable for circumaurals, but not as comfortable as the Sennheiser HD212's and not nearly as comfortable as most open-air headphones. Plus, they're pretty big...too big, in my book, to just tuck in a laptop case. If you're taking another type of carry-on bag on a plane, then these make good sense. Price-wise, these are near the top, at almost $300. (I got mine for free by using incentive points I had accumulated.) In one sense, these are a luxury item. You probably wouldn't buy and use them if other people never saw you had them. But they do work and they seem durable.

As far as the quality of sound and using them for primary listening at home...no way. Folks, if you are looking for a great headphone to use at home and then take with you on the plane, don't spend the money on these. Buy a set of Grados or Sennheisers. If you start out listening to these and think the sound is "just super", you're either deluded or trying to justify the money you spent on them. After listening to these for a few hours and then switching to a decent home stereo headphone, you'll feel like someone has pulled cotton out of your ears. The Bose cans will seem to be muffled and unbalanced. If you're already using these at home and think they're perfect...fine. I'm glad you're happy. (A set of Grado SR325i's, with infinitely better sound quality, cost less than a pair of these.)

  • QUALITY: Construction is very good to excellent. Much thought was put into the design, though the controls, being located on the headphones themselves, can be a bit awkward.
  • PERFORMANCE: Sound isolation is excellent and the noise-cancellation circuitry is very effective.
  • PROS: Well-built, thoughtful design, very effective at isolating you from external sounds, good bass and clarity of sound, comes with nice zippered carrying case.
  • CONS: Somewhat awkward controls, larger than many headphones, expensive, less comfortable than some other designs.
  • VALUE: One of the best, but proportionally expensive. I would not buy them at the MSRP, even after having a pair for over a year.
  • OVERALL OPINION: You can't really go wrong with these headphones, but they will set you back almost $300 and they really aren't the best choice for listening to music in locations that don't have a lot of ambient noise.
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    Brookstone SoundShield 250 Headphones

    A supraural (sits on top of the ears) design with an external circuit box/control/battery case. These are a bit more comfortable than the Bose QC2's, since your ears don't sweat as much, but they are also less effective both in cancelling noise and in reproducing low bass. Because the electronics are external, the headset itself is also significantly lighter than the Bose QC2's. The controls can remain in your lap where you can access them quickly, but this is a mixed bag when you are moving around or trying to get in or out of a plane seat. Battery life is about average.

  • QUALITY: Quality of construction is very good to excellent.
  • PERFORMANCE: Bass performance is not as accurate or robust as with circumaural headphones. Clarity is above-average.
  • PROS: Well-built, accessible controls, lightweight headset, comfortable, above-average sound quality, comes with nice zippered carrying case.
  • CONS: Less-effective noise-cancellation, less bass, separate control/battery pack can be cumbersome, size when packed is almost the same as the Bose QC2's.
  • VALUE: A worthwhile set of headphones for approximately $100.
  • OVERALL OPINION: More comfortable, but less effective, competitor for the Bose QC2's at about a third the price.
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    Grado SR60 Headphones

    These supraural open-air headphones look like something you'd see in a ham shack in the 1950's, but they are sweet, sweet, sweet! Every magazine and reviewer gives these a "Best Buy" rating, and you can see why. They are extremely comfortable to wear and provide great sound, including very substantial bass, for very little input. These work extremely well with most battery-powered headphone amps. They do not fold or store easily and the mounting rods for the earpieces extend above the headband, but the cables are pretty strong and would stand up well to use with portable players.

    Most headphone users agree that the Grados are great for rock music, with deep bass and an exciting mid-range, but many listeners don't think they have the definition necessary for classical music or jazz. I would tend to agree. The Sony MDR-SA300s are a tremendous contrast to the Grados, having a lot better definition in both the mid-range and high-end. When Gerry Rafferty goes into the CD player, the Sonys go on the shelf and the Grados come off. When a classical CD goes in, the process is reversed. But if you enjoy listening to popular music in general, you definitely want to go with the Grados, as they will do the best overall job for you.

  • QUALITY: Overall good quality, though the light weight and use of plastics may put some people off. You can send the unit back to Grado for repair and they will respond very quickly. I had to send mine back because I had an intermittent connection in one side of the cable (after eight years of use). They replaced the cable and had them back to me in less than ten days.
  • PERFORMANCE: Excellent sound at wide range of volume.
  • PROS: Extremely comfortable, wonderful sound, relatively inexpensive, very efficient.
  • CONS: Not intended for easy transport (they don't fold and the cable is bulky), open air design does not limit ambient noise.
  • VALUE: This is truly a "Best Buy".
  • OVERALL OPINION: A great all-around headphone.
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    Grado SR125 Headphones

    This is one of the SR60's big brothers, differing only in some minor visual aspects but greatly improved in performance. One of the first things you'll notice is that the foam cushions on the SR125 have holes cut in the centers. According to Grado Labs, this is done intentionally to match the performance of this model and these doughnut-shaped foam cushions aren't intended to be used on the SR60. Well, Grado makes great headphones, so I guess I'll take their word for it. I'm not an engineer. The SR125's have better bass and a more open sound than do the SR60's. According to Grado, the SR80's and SR125's are both designed to do a better job of damping than the SR60's, which helps to tighten bass. I've only listened to the SR80's in the store, so I can't say for sure that they are significantly inferior to the SR125's. I think that the SR80's sound better than the SR60's, but I'll have to draw the line there. Given the opportunity to select any of the Grado headphones as a "Best Buy", I'd probably choose the SR60's.

    As far as the suitability of the Grados for classical music and jazz, check out my comments above in the review of the SR60s.

  • QUALITY: Built almost exactly like the SR60's (above).
  • PERFORMANCE: Hard to fault. The only downside is that they are open-air design, which is not appropriate for some circumstances.
  • PROS: Extremely comfortable, wonderful sound, relatively inexpensive, very efficient.
  • CONS: Not intended for easy transport (they don't fold and the cable is bulky), open air design does not limit ambient noise.
  • VALUE: I'd rate these a perfect 6 if it weren't for the SR80's. I think that you can get virtually all the performance of the SR125's by buying the SR80's and saving some green.
  • OVERALL OPINION: If you want a set of great-sounding headphones to take with you, and you don't care about a lack of portability, I'd probably buy the SR60's. That way, you won't cry as much if something happens. If you want better performance, jump to the SR125's, which are a noticeable improvement. If you want MUCH better performance, take a look at the Grado SR325i or their Reference Series.
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    Grado SR325i Headphones

    This is another of the SR60's big brothers, though it's far superior in performance. The SR325i is the top-of-the-line in Grado's Prestige Series of headphones. These use a doughnut-shaped foam pad, like the SR80's, and the earpieces are made of a special anti-resonant metal alloy (along with some of the usual plastic). They share the same "retro" look of all the Grado headphones. Cost is actually quite reasonable, considering their great performance. Some people find the earpieces to be uncomfortable and end up changing the doughnut-shaped foam pads for the SR60-style flat foam pads. No matter which you use, these cans provide no isolation from external noise and will sound quite loud to anyone sitting in the same room with you.

    The sound quality itself is simply exceptional. Many people consider these to be the best headphones for less than $1000. I use mine with my Little Dot II++ Tube Headphone Amp and they are a great match. At 32 ohms nominal impedance, the SR325i's are quite efficient. Bass is prominent, but controlled. The mid-range is full and natural, with great percussive capabilities. The high-end is not as detailed as the MDR-SA3000's, but it is pleasing without being too bright. Unlike some headphones that try to provide improved spatial imaging by locating the drivers in a certain position relative to your ear (like the Ultrasones) or by designing the ear-cup in a certain way, Grado simply hangs the driver right at your ear, (basically) parallel to the side of your head. For this reason, many Grado users experiment with tilting the headband back to provide some spatial imaging. But imaging is pretty good even if you don't fiddle with their position. The sound is certainly open.

    These are probably my favorite headphones of the pairs I own. The only major negative is that the foam pads are sort of irritating to the ears. Unlike the SR60 pads, which are solid and seem softer, these pads are rather stiff and are coarse enough that they create rustling sounds when they move slightly on your ears.

  • QUALITY: Built similarly to the SR60's (above), but with better quality components.
  • PERFORMANCE: Outstanding. Being open-air cans, they may not fit your needs, but there's no arguing with the quality of the sound.
  • PROS: Extremely comfortable, exceptional sound, priced very reasonably (street price is under $300), very efficient and work well with portable media players.
  • CONS: Not intended for easy transport (they don't fold and the cable is bulky), open air design does not limit ambient noise, cushions are rather stiff and a bit uncomfortable.
  • VALUE: Thes cost about four times as much as the SR60's. Are they four times as good? Hard to say...it is a subjective judgement. But the improvement IS noticeable.
  • OVERALL OPINION: I don't have any super-audiophile headphones with which to compare these, but I can tell you that I prefer these to the Sony MDR-SA3000's and the Sennheiser HD-595's. If you're thinking about Grado headphones, I think you should consider either the SR60's, the SR125's, or the SR325i's (roughly...under $100, under $200, and under $300, respectively). Highly recommended.
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    Koss Porta-Pro Headphones

    Inexpensive supraural open-air headphones that fold relatively compactly for easy carry. The metal headband is a bit tricky...it keeps wanting to slide back together when you're spreading them to place on your head. Each earpiece has a small adjustment to increase or decrease the pressure on your head. I find that they stay on my head better when I increase the pressure, but that they are significantly less comfortable. If I decrease the pressure, they tend to wander around on my head while I'm walking. The sound is not quite as good as the Grado's, but is more than adequate for listening to portable players and is also enjoyable for home use. They are relatively efficient, but do benefit from the use of a headphone amplifier. The package includes a small pouch to carry the headphones when folded. These are a favorite of many portable music aficionados.

    Now for the part where everyone thinks I'm crazy: I swear that my pair is (are?) haunted. With certain compressed music files, I hear noises that remind me of scratchy pots (potentiometers) or AGC controls trying to adjust to the track volume. I don't hear the noises when I use my Grados, Sennheisers, or Sonys. Is it microphonic noise? Do I have a bad driver in an earpiece? I don't know. It's just strange. I DO think that it's more predominant in the earpiece that keeps coming off, but that may just be coincidence. (After all, it's a 50/50 chance.) Anyway, recently the Porta-Pros have started to give me the creeps. I switched over to the Sennheiser PX100s and my problems vanished. Frankly, I'm puzzled.

  • QUALITY: Good construction, but attachment of the earpieces is a bit flimsy. One of the earpieces on my pair actually came detached while it was still in the hard plastic package. Fortunately, they just snap back into place.
  • PERFORMANCE: Performance comments.
  • PROS: Inexpensive, very good sound, better than average efficiency folds and stores in nice drawstring pouch.
  • CONS: Steel headband tends to shift or close, open air design lets in ambient noise, music at loud volumes might irritate bystanders, attachment of earpieces to headband is a bit fragile.
  • VALUE: Very good headphones for the money.
  • OVERALL OPINION: Consider these as an alternative to less expensive earphones for mobile use, if ambient noise and irritating bystanders are not concerns.
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    Panasonic RP-HC70 Headphones

    Average $40 nose-cancelling headphones. These are supraural headphones with a separate circuitry/controls/battery enclosure. They are not open-air and are intended to seal against your outer ear, but the pads on the earpieces don't mold to your ear very well, so they might as well be open-air. This has a negative impact on bass performance, too. Since the earpieces pivot in only one direction, you have to play with the position of the headband to get them to seal to your ears at all. The headphones fold into a fairly small package, about the same size as the Koss Porta-Pro's, but with the separate controls/case attached to the cord. As with all headphones that have separate control enclosures, there are good and bad points about having them dangle from your cable.

  • QUALITY: Typical molded plastic, though the pads on the earpieces are surprisingly nice.
  • PERFORMANCE: If you can get them to seal on your ears, the bass isn't too bad. The mids and highs are a bit muffled.
  • PROS: Inexpensive, fold up into a relatively compact shape, controls are accessible when you're wearing them.
  • CONS: Don't seal well to most ears, limited adjustment for earpieces, average sound quality.
  • VALUE: Given my experience with them, I might buy a pair for $20 just to have around in case I need them. But they are not a serious contender for use in air travel.
  • OVERALL OPINION: Choose something else. They are a compromise between good-sounding headphones and noise-cancelling headphones, and they do neither function particularly well.
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    Sennheiser HD212 Headphones

    These circumaural headphones do a very nice job when you need to seal out ambient noise. The sound quality is way above average, though they tend to have a bit more bass than most classical music lovers would like. The plastic band is amazingly comfortable and I'm able to wear them for continuous periods of two or three hours. They are fairly efficient and can be run directly from a portable media player, but a headphone amp really kicks them up a notch. I use them a lot with my laptop when I want to watch a DVD with some privacy. One nice feature is that the cord is detachable for easy replacement. Oddly, the cord is about three times as long as it needs to be.

    It's difficult to convey to someone how comfortable or uncomfortable a certain pair of headphones is. We all have differently-shaped heads and some people are more willing to accept slight discomfort for the sake of sound isolation. The HD-212 does not have much adjustment other than the height of the cups on your head. The cups are slightly smaller than many ears and may pinch you a bit because of this. You need to try these out to see if they fit your own fat head.

  • QUALITY: They seem sort of cheap at first glance, but they have held up very well for me. I had to replace the cord once, but that was because I had damaged it by accidentally yanking on it. Cord replacement takes just a few seconds and you can order the cords directly from Sennheiser.
  • PERFORMANCE: Sound quality is above average and can be played at very high volumes. The bass is nice and tight, but a little pronounced.
  • PROS: Great sound, fairly comfortable, eliminates ambient noise, good efficiency, cord can be replaced by user.
  • CONS: A bit bass-heavy, headband may seem flimsy or cheap, cord is way too long, don't fold up at all and not suitable for being transported in a laptop case.
  • VALUE: Good buy for the price, but make sure they are comfortable for you.
  • OVERALL OPINION: These really aren't very practical to take with you in a laptop case or in your pocket, but the sound is great and they're very comfortable for sound-sealing headphones.
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    Sennheiser HD595 Headphones

    Sennheiser-lovers seem to fixate on the classic HD600s and HD650s, but, at half the price, I think I'll take the HD595s. Though these don't have the clarity of the Sony MDR-SA3000s, they compensate by having a much fuller sound and more pronounced bass. They also aren't as comfortable as the lightweight SA3000s, though more comfortable than the much-cheaper HD212s. With relatively high efficiency, they do pretty well with portable media players. The headset cord is user-replaceable. Overall, the sound balance reminds me a lot of the Grados. They do very well with heavy rock.

    In one area, there is absolutely no debate...these headphones are not nearly as comfortable as the Sony MDR-SA3000s. The SA3000s feel like they're suspended from the ceiling and happen to be resting lightly on your ears. The HD-595s feel like traditional headphones, clamping your head (slightly) due to the construction of the headband.

  • QUALITY: Typical Sennheiser construction...not too complex, with a molded plastic headband that may seem a little flimsy. The cable is more durable than on the cheaper models.
  • PERFORMANCE: Sound quality is way above average, even at very high volumes. The bass is nice and tight, but a little pronounced. Much clearer than the cheaper Sennheisers, but not up to the sound quality of the Grado SR325i's.
  • PROS: Great sound, comfortable, good efficiency, cord can be replaced by user.
  • CONS: A bit bass-heavy, cord is way too long for me, don't fold up at all and not suitable for being transported in a laptop case.
  • VALUE: Can be a great choice if you find them on sale. Mine cost about the same as my Sony MDR-SA3000s...you can buy both the HD595s and the SA3000s for what you would pay for a single pair of Sennheiser HD650s.
  • OVERALL OPINION: Nice alternative to the Grados, at nearly $100 less than the Grado SR325i's.
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    Sennheiser PX100 Headphones

    The PX100 and the PX200 (below) are closely-related models, sharing the same general size, construction, and even the cute hardshell carrying case. They are both supraural designs, but the PX100 is open-air and the PX200 is sound-sealing. The sound of the PX100 harkens back to earlier Sennheiser open-air headphones, with nice clear highs and surprising bass. They are very lightweight and comfortable, with great efficiency. The cute hardshell carrying case looks like a case for glasses, but is very useful in protecting the headphones from any sort of damage. It is a bit tricky to get the headphones in the case the first time you try it. Keep at it and it will become second nature to you. When in their case, these are some of the most compact headphones available.

    These are comparable to the Koss Porta-Pros, with slightly less volume. On the other hand, they get some extra points because of their compact size and the nifty carrying case.

  • QUALITY: Excellent quality of construction, with stainless steel headband. The cord seems pretty fragile, but I haven't damaged it yet.
  • PERFORMANCE: Clean, well-balanced sound.
  • PROS: Very comfortable, clean sound, good bass, great little carrying case.
  • CONS: Open-air design doesn't limit ambient noise, putting headphones in case can be tricky, somewhat expensive.
  • VALUE: You should be able to get a new pair for under $45, which makes them a very good value. If they were $35, they would be a GREAT value.
  • OVERALL OPINION: Hard to beat these headphones for the price. If you can handle the lack of sound isolation and don't need to use them on a plane, these are a great choice.
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    Sennheiser PX200 Headphones

    This sound-sealing brother to the PX100 (above) is not quite as successful. The only major difference between these and the PX100's is in the earpieces. Unfortunately, the PX200 earpieces are so small that it is difficult to get a good seal against the ear. If you don't get a good seal, the bass is weak and you don't get any significant sound isolation. I find that I have to move the headband pretty far forward on my head to get the right angle to seal my ears. They would never stay in position if I were walking or involved in some athletic endeavor. But when you get an effective seal, the sound is very good indeed. The hardshell carrying case and the small size of the headphones makes them a good choice for use on a plane, as long as you can get them positioned correctly.

  • QUALITY: Excellent quality of construction, with stainless steel headband. The cord seems pretty fragile, but I haven't damaged it yet.
  • PERFORMANCE: Good sound with adequate bass, if you can get a good seal with your ears.
  • PROS: Very comfortable, great little carrying case, clear mids and highs.
  • CONS: Very tricky to get a good seal between the earpieces and your ears, putting headphones in the case can be tricky.
  • VALUE: Good value, if they work for you.
  • OVERALL OPINION: You absolutely have to try these before you buy them. If you are able to get a good seal on your ears, they will sound great and you should consider them. If you can't get a good seal, or if it is very tricky and they keep sliding out of position, forget them.
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    Sennheiser RS130 Wireless Headphones

    I have some other wireless headphones, but these are the only ones that are actually worthwhile using. I got them so I could listen to TV while moving around the house or mowing outside. They do a surprisingly good job at broadcasting through walls and I can get almost to the edge of my property before they begin to drop out. These headphones operate on radio frequency (RF) and not the less-expensive infrared (IR) technology. Unlike the cheaper Sennheiser wireless models, these units are self-tuning and you can manually select one of three channels if you experience interference. The units charge whenever you place them on their stand. I've never really run the batteries down all the way, so I don't know how long a charge lasts. The sound quality is good...for wireless headphones. Face it, these headphones are receiving sound through a little FM radio setup and that (plus the limited power of the battery pack) is a limitation. These are fine to use with many stereo sources, but don't expect miracles.

  • QUALITY: Well-made and function flawlessly.
  • PERFORMANCE: Auto-tuning and channel selection on base and headphones works perfectly, sound quality is adequate for purpose.
  • PROS: Rechargeable (on stand), auto-tuning, superior transmission range, very good sound for wireless headphones.
  • CONS: Heavy headset, limited fidelity for critical listening.
  • VALUE: This is an expensive set of headphones compared to their limited sound quality. If you have to have wireless headphones, look at these. If you don't need them and you just think they'd be "neat" to have, you're going to regret buying them.
  • OVERALL OPINION: Best of breed in price range, but not for the critical listener. These are best used for TV shows and similar sources.
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    SkullCandy Smokin' Buds Earphones

    You would think that, with a name like "SkullCandy", these earphones would kick ass. They don't. Like Koss Sparkplugs and many other intraural (in-the-ear) earphones, these disappointed me. Even with Etymotic-type ear seals, these just don't perform that well. Poor bass, muddy sound, distortion at relatively low volumes. Plus, these don't want to stay in your ears. Cute case, but mediocre earphones.

  • QUALITY: Quality seems OK, but it should be a hint that many of them are sold along with Etymotic-style seals, as these are an improvement over the ones that come with them.
  • PERFORMANCE: Muddy sound with poor bass.
  • PROS: Very small, nice carrying case.
  • CONS: Poor sound, uncomfortable, tend to fall out of your ears, distortion at high volumes.
  • VALUE: Not worth the current street price.
  • OVERALL OPINION: I would suggest you avoid these in favor of something else. Save up a few more $$$ and buy quality earphones from Shure, Etymotic, or Ultimate Ears.
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    Sony MDR-E828LP Earphones

    Surprisingly good earphones at a cheap price. These usually cost less than $10 and are really pretty good for their price. You have to get used to them just sort of hanging in your ears. They don't really seal out any ambient noise, but they are very comfortable. One of the neatest things about them is that they come with a little circular case that let's you wind the cord up inside, like a fishing reel. I carry a pair in my laptop case "just in case." These are part of Sony's "Fontopia" line of earphones...I have no idea what significance "Fontopia" has.

  • QUALITY: Inexpensive, but they seem to last.
  • PERFORMANCE: Adequate sound for most non-critical uses.
  • PROS: Compact, comfortable, useful carrying case, inexpensive.
  • CONS: Not intended for true high-fidelity use, sometimes feel like they're falling out of your ears.
  • VALUE: Great for the price.
  • OVERALL OPINION: These are worth having just in case you need to listen to something with a headphone output. Toss them in your case and away you go.
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    Sony MDR-SA3000 Headphones

    I guess these are portable headphones in the sense that you can pick them up and move them, but I don't think I would take them on a plane. There's no "fold" to them. The Sony MDR-SA3000s are the middle-brother to the MDR-SA1000 on the low-end and the MDR-SA5000 on the high-end. Based on my listening experience with all three (in the store), I think that the SA3000s are much more similar to the SA5000s than the SA1000s, though they are not simply the same as the SA5000s with cloth in place of leather and carbon composite in place of metal. (In fact, the SA5000s and the SA3000s share the same instruction manual, which describes their construction, while the SA1000 manual is completely different.)

    The SA3000s have comfortable cloth-covered earpieces that don't really seal around your ears. The cloth is there more for comfort, I think. In fact, you can seal the earpieces against your head by pressing on them and the sound doesn't really change much at all. One noticeable characteristic of these headphones is that they are as loud to the outside world as they are to you. (I'm not kidding about this...you can turn the earpiece backwards and put it up to your ear and it sounds basically the same.) The mesh headband support is the part that actually rests on your head, and it is very comfortable. The very long, single-sided cord (hurrah!) is cloth-covered and seems quite durable. It connects at the left earpiece. The plug is a 1/8" gold-plated stereo plug, but it comes with a 1/4" gold-plated screw-on adapter. The appearance of the SA3000s is much more muted than the SA5000s, due to the replacement of metal with plastics and composites. In fact, both the SA5000s and the SA1000s look outright garish compared to the SA3000s.

    As far as the sound, these headphones are a bit of a challenge. They are merciless to poor-quality recordings. If you connect them directly to an MP3 player and listen to a lousy compressed file, you may pull the cans off and examine them to see if there's something wrong with them. It doesn't help that they are power-hungry. At 70 ohms nominal impedance, you would think that they would be fairly efficient, but they really work best with a separate headphone amplifier. Without a separate amp, I hardly hear any low-end at all. With a decent amp, it shows up, but is rather restrained. If you like rock music and listen to it almost exclusively, this is probably not the headphone for you...get a set of Grados or Sennheisers. If you do get the Sonys and you don't get quality electronics (and material), you're not going to be happy. I run these with my Little Dot II++ Tube Headphone Amp and they seem to be a good match. The "warm" tube sound takes the edge off the high-end of the SA3000s and there's plenty of power for them. Classical music and acoustic guitars shine.

    I am in earnest about this. When I first tried the SA3000s, I listened to The Cars' "Drive" and I was initially fascinated by what I thought was a whirring/warbling synthesizer part in the background. After a moment or two, I realized that I was hearing compression artifacts from the MP3 file. The file was compressed at 80 to 128 Kbs using VBR. After experimenting a bit, I found that I had to recompress it at around 192 Kbs before the artifacts went away. I also found that the artifacts were there permanently in some streamed audio, such as Rhapsody audio files. This is a problem.

    UPDATE: The bass on these has improved dramatically after about 100 hours of listening. I could hear them gradually begin to "loosen" up and now the bass is quite smooth and very pleasing. I still have to give the edge to the Grado SR325is, but these are getting used much more often now.

  • QUALITY: These are intended to be comfortable and so they are constructed in a very lightweight style. They're definitely a step up from the SA1000s, which use fabric on the earpieces, but a step down from the MA5000s, which use real leather. Unlike some users, I don't find them to be fragile, but I also wouldn't pack them in my suitcase without using a hard case of some type. The cloth-covered cable seems durable enough and I've had no quality problems so far.
  • PERFORMANCE: Great sound clarity, especially with acoustic instruments, but they don't have the deep bass that Sennheisers and Grados do. The bass extends downward quite far and it remains tight (good kick drums, for example), but they probably aren't your best choice for rock music.
  • PROS: VERY comfortable, great clarity in the mids and highs, single-sided long cord (which I value), relatively good efficiency, a good match for tube amps, tight bass.
  • CONS: Expensive, probably too fragile for heavy-duty use or traveling (definitely not for DJs), sound is almost as loud outside the cans as inside, use 1/8" plug instead of a 1/4", cables are a bit microphonic, will really show up flaws in your sources and equipment.
  • VALUE: Good value, if you really like to use headphones. These are a good compromise between the cheaper (and less sonically impressive) MDR-SA1000s and the MDR-SA5000s, which will usually set you back at least four bills.
  • OVERALL OPINION: I didn't really hear a lot of difference between these and their more expensive big brother, but these are definitely a big improvement over the much-cheaper SA1000s. These are not really suitable for using directly with your laptop or cheaper MP3 players. Mine stay at home next to my Little Tube II++ headphone amp and Fubar DAC, which seem to make a pretty good combination with the SA3000s. (The Fubar DAC takes a pure digital stream from my laptop's USB port and converts it to an analog signal for the Little Dot.) If I want to listen to something on an MP3 player, I use the PA2V2 headphone amp or one of my other better-quality amps.
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    Sony MDR-V600 Studio Headphones

    These headphones are a good choice, if you have the need for them. These are true DJ headphones, which suggests they have certain features, but doesn't necessarily mean that they sound that great. They are fairly neutral in sound, so a lot of listeners might find them "dull" or "muted" compared to other headphones. They are heavy and fit pretty tightly on your head...you won't want to wear these for more than an hour or so at a stretch. They are not terribly efficient and a headphone amplifier is a good idea. While they fold up, they don't fold very small. You'll end up with them in a pouch (provided) about the size of a grapefruit. Also, the coiled cord irritates me. BUT...these are the headphones I reach for if I need to clean up some WAV files or dub some music. They are faithful to the music and do a great job of sealing out ambient noises. They also have some cute little tricks, like having color coded right and left earpieces and allowing you to turn each earpiece so you can hold it to your ear to listen to a single channel.

  • QUALITY: Construction quality is excellent.
  • PERFORMANCE: Neutral sound may not be everybody's preference.
  • PROS: Nice design, very neutral sound, unit folds and comes with drawstring pouch, will play at astronomical volumes.
  • CONS: Expensive, can make your ears sweaty, aggravating coiled cord, not very high efficiency, still big when folded.
  • VALUE: Good value, if you have a need for this style of headphones.
  • OVERALL OPINION: Give this model some consideration if you have a specific need for studio-style headphones. If you don't, you will probably not be happy with these, as they are too big to take along easily, too heavy to be comfortable, and too neutral for popular music.
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    Ultimate Ears
    super.fi 3 Live Earphones

    This is a version of Ultimate Ears sold by Radio Shack. The only difference I can see between these and the regular super.fi 3 earphones is that these come with an airline adapter and they are a muted red instead of white or black. I have to confess that there are several features that make these preferable to the super.fi 5-EBs (see below). First, these use a much thicker cable that is transparent to the conductors. (The down-side of this is that the cable tends to hold curls more easily and needs to be straightened.) The earpieces themselves are smaller, since they only use a single driver, but are nicely retained in your ear by the flexible wire encased in the cable at the earpiece. The case that comes with them (which, by the way, is the same red color as the earphones) does not have the irritating insert that the case for the 5-EBs has, so the earphones fit into it very nicely. On the sound side, these do not have the punch that the 5-EBs have, but they are more than adequate. These are probably my new favorite to use on planes.

  • QUALITY: Very high quality of construction.
  • PERFORMANCE: Excellent.
  • PROS: Very comfortable, replaceable cable that is very durable, great sound, relatively inexpensive, nice set of accessories.
  • CONS: Color might not appeal to some, cable tends to hold curls and kins, not capable of volume or bass of its big brother.
  • VALUE: List price at Radio Shack was (I think) $70, which makes these a very good deal.
  • OVERALL OPINION: Probably much better suited than the 5-EBs for portable use and carry due to the stronger cable. A really great set of modestly-priced earphones and a good alternative to sound-canceling phones.
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    Ultimate Ears
    super.fi 5-EB Earphones

    Almost perfection! I was not a big fan of intraural earphones until I got these. Not only are these very efficient, rarely needing external amplification, but the sound levels and bass they provide are outstanding. They seal your ear canal easily and comfortably, relying on a semi-rigid wire encased in the cable at the earpiece. This passes behind your ear with the cable. The cable to each earphone is of equal length (as they should be) and the cable hangs naturally. The 5-EBs use two separate drivers in each earphone, with a larger bass driver than that in the regular models. This makes these significantly larger than the super-fi 5s, but you hardly notice the difference in size. (After all, you're usually not looking at your ears while you're listening.) They are very efficient and operate well with most standard MP3 players, though they benefit from external amplification when using "mini-players". The 5-EBs come with additional soft rubber tips of several sizes, two carrying cases, and a cleaning tool.

    One of the minor irritating things about these is that they don't really fit in the nice aluminum case provided for them. Being bigger than the standard 5s, they just won't sit in the case correctly due to a hard plastic insert. I always carry mine in the soft case. One other nice feature is that the cables are replaceable. There is a small two-pin connector that allows you to detach the cables from the earpieces. One of mine came unplugged accidentally and it was easily replaced, but I'd recommend not playing with this connection or unplugging them on a regular basis. In my experience, connections like these tend to loosen after time if manipulated.

  • QUALITY: Very high quality of construction.
  • PERFORMANCE: Excellent.
  • PROS: Very comfortable, replaceable cable, great sound, relatively inexpensive, nice set of accessories, capable of high volume and very strong bass.
  • CONS: Cable seems a bit flimsy, large size might put some people off, won't fit in aluminum carrying case.
  • VALUE: A bit on the expensive size. (For some reason, these often cost less than the standard 5's.)
  • OVERALL OPINION: I really like these earphones. Now that I have a pair of the 3's, I'll probably start using those when I travel, but these definitely have better sound.
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    Ultrasone
    HFI-700DVD Headphones

    A surprising combination of great sound and crappy construction, the HFI-700DVDs are truly a mixed bag. If you're looking for a comfortable sealed headphone for critical listening, look no further. But be aware that you can't travel with these. In fact, you can barely pick them up without the trim panels popping off, exposing circuitry inside the headband. This is especially frustrating in light of their price. The Sennheiser HD-212s and HD-280 Pros don't sound nearly as good and they are much less comfortable, but at least they are durable and the cord is user-replaceable.

    The low end is strong, but well-defined. The highs are quite transparent, though not on the same scale as the Sony MDR-SA3000s. The mid-range is where these really shine. Guitars sound very natural, as do voices and strings. The phones are quite light and don't clamp on your head like the Sennheisers, but the sound isolation is as good or better. The cushions are a leatherette material, so they are not as soft as many, but they clean up well and conform to your head easily.

    The imaging and sound field of these headphones is superior to many other phones, primarily because of the placement and positioning of the drivers in the housings. Ultrasone calls this placement "S-Logic," though the mechanism is purely mechanical placement and not any sort of electronic processing.

    In spite of my complaints about the construction, these remain my favorite sealed headphones. I just have to be sure not to twist them or place pressure on the plastic parts. The HFI-700DVDs have been replaced by the HFI-750s and then, in 2007, the HFI-780s. The design of these more recent models is better and they seem to be more durable, but I don't really hear much difference in the sound.

  • QUALITY: Quality of construction is only so-so. The plastic trim pieces on the headband keep popping off, exposing the conductors located below them. This is not desirable. The pieces snap back into place, but it is obviously a design flaw. Otherwise, they seem to be OK and I haven't had any functional problems with them yet.
  • PERFORMANCE: Excellent for a sealed headphone.
  • PROS: Very comfortable, good sound sealing, relatively inexpensive, above-average imaging and sound-field.
  • CONS: Plastic trim pieces keep popping off (shown in the detail images,) really don't perform until you provide them with more power than a typical portable player has, not suited for folding up and putting in a suitcase, have a 1/4" headphone plug so you must use an adapter with portable media players.
  • VALUE: Performance is great, but the build quality is not up to par. Buy them for the sound and the seal, not for the craftsmanship.
  • OVERALL OPINION: I have mixed feelings about these. I would only purchase these if I HAD to have sealed headphones (due to ambient noise or a desire to keep from disturbing those who are nearby). But, with that said, these are definitely the best sealed headphones at anywhere near their price.
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