I often get e-mail from readers asking about what audio equipment I use. While I’m not an audiophile, I do listen to music on decent equipment. While I like listening to music with headphones, I do realize that it is, in some ways, artificial to listen with them. Instruments that are off to one side sound much further away from the center of the soundscape than when you listen to a stereo. I like the effect of having the music "in my head," but for some types of music, and some recordings, this isn’t ideal. This is the case with some symphony recordings, and some recordings of string quartets, where the instruments are separated too much. Generally, rock and jazz sound fine with headphones, but with any kind of music, good headphones are unforgiving. It’s much easier to hear any weaknesses in a recording when listening with headphones. Nevertheless, I do use headphones often. Here are the headphones I use.
Note that I’ve updated this article several times since I first posted it in 2012; this latest update was written in October 2021.
When I’m podcasting, I need to hear both my own voice and the voice of my co-hosts and guests, but there is no need for audio quality, so I use a light, simple pair of headphones. I currently use the Sennheiser PX 100-IIi. I used to use these headphones on the go, and they are great, since they have an inline volume control and mic. This means that when I was walking, and listening to music on my iPhone, I could take a call without removing the headphones. For other uses, the volume control and play/pause button made it a bit easier to listen to music. The sound quality of this headphone is surprisingly good, though don’t expect a lot of bass from this headphone. But, again, for podcasting, I just need something light, and these are ideal. However, they are no longer available, and I’ll eventually need to replace them with something similar.
On the go
As mentioned above, I used to use light, wired headphones when I was out walking. Now, I use Apple’s AirPods; not the Pro model, because I don’t like in-canal earbuds, because I can hear my breathing. The AirPods are great for basic listening, the music quality isn’t great, but it’s good enough. The convenience factor is probably the most important. Since there’s no longer a headphone jack on the iPhone, I can’t use wired headphones on the go any more. (To be fair, you can use a Lightning to Headphone Jack adapter, but that’s one more gadget to have.)
Blocking out noise
There are times when I want to listen outdoors and not hear the sounds around me. My neighbors may be mowing lawns, which, where I live, are quite large. After having had a couple of different noise-cancelling headphones, I recently bought Apple’s AirPods Max, which, while overpriced, are extremely comfortable, and the noise cancellation is very effective. These are Bluetooth headphones, but with a Lightning to 3.5mm Audio Cable, you can plug the AirPods Max into a headphone jack and get the full quality of audio, rather than Bluetooth compression.
In the previous version of this article, back in 2012, I had only one type of wireless headphones. Now, as you can see above, I have two: AirPods and AirPods Max. So now I use one or the other when I want to listen unencumbered by cables.
Watching movies or TV shows
I had a revelation a few months ago, when I bought Apple’s AirPods Max. While I don’t like listening to music in Apple’s spatial audio, because it’s too artificial, but I enjoy watching movies and TV shows on my iPad, and the AirPods Max, which offer surround sound, are simply perfect. I don’t like the head-tracking feature – if you turn your head, the audio turns, as though you’re actually hearing it from the device you’re watching – but the surround sound is excellent.
I have to have one "good" over-ear headphone, though I have to admit that I rarely use this any more. I have AKG K702, which are very large, very comfortable, and airy with excellent sound. The bass isn’t overdone, the treble is clear, and the definition is subtle and balanced. These are open headphones, so you don’t want to use these if you’re listening to music with other people around you. The foam rings are soft and plush, and the headband is comfortable. I can wear these for hours and not get tired, which isn’t always the case with full-sized headphones. But for most serious listening, I use speakers.
It’s interesting that, compared to the previous version of this article, I’ve reduced the number of headphones I use. The headphones I use for podcasting don’t really count; they’re not for music, they’re just for a task. So that leaves me with two headphones I use regularly: Apple’s AirPods and AirPods Max.
I’m no longer that interested in headphones. Over the years, I’ve had a couple dozen different models, and I don’t feel that I need to try to get better and better headphones. These days, I’m mostly interested in flexibility. Yes, that means that I listen to Bluetooth headphones most of the time, which uses lossy compression, but things sound good enough. Though I don’t often listen to music on headphones and home, and prefer listening to music on speakers.
If you have any favorite headphones, feel free to mention them in the comments.