Headphones are a big deal these days. It would seem that after a decade of suffering with the shitty earbuds that come with their smart-phones people have finally decided that they want something decent and comfortable on which to listen to their MP3s, Spotify Streams, Apple Music Playlists, or, if they are true nerds, those lossless rips that they have meticulously transferred by hand to a dedicated non-iPhone music player (why??).
I have always had a standard answer for the question “which headphones should I be using?” The answer has two parts:
If you are on a plane, use the Bose QC15 noise cancelling headphones. These sound like crap, but at least you can hear the music on the plane. There is no other reason to buy these. So that’s all I will say about them. They are just good enough to use on trips.
If you are not on a plane, use the Sony MDR-V6 headphones, or their twins the Sony MDR-7506 headphones. Get the V6 if you want red trim. Get the 7506 if you want blue.
Done and done. I have a bit more to say about the Sony though. There are three basic reasons why you should buy them.
Not stupidly expensive.
Sony has made them, unchanged and at the same price, for decades. I probably bought my first pair in the late 80s. This is important. If you need new ones they are always there.
The sound is basically right and the ergonomics are good. They are not too heavy but not too light. They block some outside sound but not too much. I always thought I didn’t like the big coiled cable, but I have come around on that issue (more on this later). Finally they sound … right. Not boomy, not tizzy. They don’t overemphasize particular things. They don’t leave anything out.
So for years I have had this happy arrangement. Bose QC-15 on the road. Sony at home. Being a dork though, I started to think: “I wonder if there are any headphones that are truly better in every way than these V6’s?”
A guy at the office started me on this when he bought the Beyerdynamic DT-880s. These are super comfy headphones that sound really really good. While the Sonys are very comfortable, they do sometimes do pinch a bit. The Beyer have these soft velour ear cups that are like wearing soft mittens on your ears. They also sound amazing, especially on the detailed acoustic and Classical music that I like. You can really hear the edges of those violin strings shaking back and forth. This was the first time I had really heard something better than the Sony.
But I stopped using them. Why? First, they don’t play well out of the laptop or the iPhone. You sort of need an amp. Second, they have a 10 foot cable. Which is stupidly long and super inconvenient. These are petty concerns but were annoying enough that the moderate improvement in sound was not really worth the extra hassle.
Now the game was on. I tried several more headphones and each one was OK, but also wrong:
Grado SR-80: nice but a bit tizzy. These don’t get too much wrong, though I could do without the two sided cable. They are also not a lot better than the Sony. No real point but if you want a nice open back headphone with hipster cred, these are it.
PSB M4U2. These sound great. But on my head they feel like they weigh 10 pounds. Cable is also too stiff.
Oppo PM-3: These are supposed to give you the quality of planar headphones with the convenience of the Sony. The sound is detailed and great, but again they did not pair well with the laptop. On my classical recordings they just did not reach a decent level of dynamics and everything sounded flat and rolled off in the high frequencies. The cables were also too stiff.
Beyer DT-770: Closed back version of the standard Beyer headphone. Sadly not as comfortable as the DT-880. Also did not really sound as good.
Beyer Tesla-T7p. A fancy new sort of closed headphone from Beyer. Cost $100 more than the DT-880 and out of the box one of the channels was flakey. I don’t need that hassle. Flat cable is also too stiff. Returned them. At this point I realized why coiled cables are better. They give the cable a bit of spring and flexibility that keeps it out of your way even if you are using thicker wire. The Sonys had done the right thing this whole time.
Audio Technica AT-50x. These are the Audio Technica version of the V6. Sound is a bit better, and they get the cable right (finally) but the things clamp on my head too tightly.
My lesson: stick with the Sony MDR-V6. You can spend a lot more money and try lots of different things, but no one has really improved on the whole package yet. You might get better sound, or more comfortable ear pads, or some other single improvement, but you always give up something else. The Sonys don’t do any particular thing better than anyone else, but they are still the best combination of cost, sound and ergonomics that you can buy. That’s a rare thing. So, go get some. Or, if you were going to blow the college fund on those $1500 electrostatic monsters, get 15 pair of these instead and you’ll be set for life.