The Headphones I Use (Updated)

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.

Podcasting

Sennheiser px 100 iiiWhen 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

AirpodsAs 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

Airpods maxThere 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.

Wireless listening

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.

Serious listening

Akg k702I 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.

What’s next?

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.

31 thoughts on “The Headphones I Use (Updated)

  1. Very happy with Sennheiser HD598 for extended periods of use with the stereo (mainly classical). Neutral and crystal clear but no ear burn.

    Tried them with an iTunes HD movie rental going through an external DAC. Superb bass impact but no boom.

    The “Burl Wood Accents” are quite something, though…

    • When I see those, I think of the cream colored leather upholstery a friend had in a huge Mercury back in the late 70s. 🙂

      I’d love to be able to listen to these some day, but I have to admit, they look like something a Cylon would wear.

  2. Very happy with Sennheiser HD598 for extended periods of use with the stereo (mainly classical). Neutral and crystal clear but no ear burn.

    Tried them with an iTunes HD movie rental going through an external DAC. Superb bass impact but no boom.

    The “Burl Wood Accents” are quite something, though…

    • When I see those, I think of the cream colored leather upholstery a friend had in a huge Mercury back in the late 70s. 🙂

      I’d love to be able to listen to these some day, but I have to admit, they look like something a Cylon would wear.

  3. Ditto on the Sennheiser PX 100-IIi. I use it with my iPod, iPad, MBP and my office PC. Given their size and weight they sound truly spectacular. The mic and iPod controls are the cherry on top.

    For the higher end, I’ve always hesitated with the more expensive phones. I have a Sony MDR-V6 which I love for higher end listening and for recording in Garageband. It cost just under £61, collapsible. Not broadly available and highly recommended.

    Maybe someday I’ll go for something bigger…

    • Someone I know who’s in the classical music business swears by Sony headphones. I don’t recall the model number, but there around that price range. He said they were commonly used in recording studios.

  4. Ditto on the Sennheiser PX 100-IIi. I use it with my iPod, iPad, MBP and my office PC. Given their size and weight they sound truly spectacular. The mic and iPod controls are the cherry on top.

    For the higher end, I’ve always hesitated with the more expensive phones. I have a Sony MDR-V6 which I love for higher end listening and for recording in Garageband. It cost just under £61, collapsible. Not broadly available and highly recommended.

    Maybe someday I’ll go for something bigger…

    • Someone I know who’s in the classical music business swears by Sony headphones. I don’t recall the model number, but there around that price range. He said they were commonly used in recording studios.

  5. I’ve been happy with the Beyerdynamic DT 770s. They are fairly similar to your 990s, but with a closed design since I’m using them often when my officemates are in the room. I imagine the openness improves the sound quality somewhat? I’m not really an expert on headphone mechanics, but I know when I like how something sounds.

    • I’ve always had open headphones, at least for the good ones. I think if they’re closed, they may make the sound bounce around a bit, but I really don’t know. I kind of like the idea of hearing outside sounds, but I’ve never compared an open and closed headphone of the same model.

      But you got them for the right reason; hearing office-mates’ music can be annoying.

    • The DT-770s are the ones I use and the set I originally recommended to Kirk. I use them for audio mastering and not just recreational listening. They really have a very fine sound as Kirk describes.

  6. I’ve been happy with the Beyerdynamic DT 770s. They are fairly similar to your 990s, but with a closed design since I’m using them often when my officemates are in the room. I imagine the openness improves the sound quality somewhat? I’m not really an expert on headphone mechanics, but I know when I like how something sounds.

    • I’ve always had open headphones, at least for the good ones. I think if they’re closed, they may make the sound bounce around a bit, but I really don’t know. I kind of like the idea of hearing outside sounds, but I’ve never compared an open and closed headphone of the same model.

      But you got them for the right reason; hearing office-mates’ music can be annoying.

    • The DT-770s are the ones I use and the set I originally recommended to Kirk. I use them for audio mastering and not just recreational listening. They really have a very fine sound as Kirk describes.

  7. Kirk,

    Have you had issues with cracking on the AT unit? I’m on my second pair and seeing the same thing – cracks appearing on the curved section towards the base of the headpiece (the section that the adjustable band slides into and out of). AT replaced the first pair but the second pair are showing the same issue.

    (And my head is not large!).

    Thanks for a very interesting blog.

    Regards,

    Des Dougan

  8. Kirk,

    Have you had issues with cracking on the AT unit? I’m on my second pair and seeing the same thing – cracks appearing on the curved section towards the base of the headpiece (the section that the adjustable band slides into and out of). AT replaced the first pair but the second pair are showing the same issue.

    (And my head is not large!).

    Thanks for a very interesting blog.

    Regards,

    Des Dougan

  9. I started to see the issue almost immediately – the replacement pair came a few months ago and already have started to crack. I’ll be following up with AT again.

    Thanks for replying.

    Des

  10. I started to see the issue almost immediately – the replacement pair came a few months ago and already have started to crack. I’ll be following up with AT again.

    Thanks for replying.

    Des

  11. Interesting reading. In my job I get to use pretty good headphones to test, I’m lucky! My dilemma is that I love Jazz (ECM records my benchmark label) , Classical and electronic music, I’ve generally found that headphones that shine in acoustic music sound terrible on Kraftwerk and house music.
    With a wife and 2 kids diapers take precedence over headphones! Despite this I got a pair of Klipsch One’s for general wear (I use Apple Lossless files mainly on an iPod) they sound fantastic across all the music I love. They have recently released a new version that is Bluetooth and modified the wired ones, if I can sell one of my children I’m hoping to get a pair by Christmas) joking aside the Klipsch Ones are a great headphone for intimate chamber music or Simon Rattle whipping the Berliners! Thanks again for the post. Music is the answer love is the message!

  12. Interesting reading. In my job I get to use pretty good headphones to test, I’m lucky! My dilemma is that I love Jazz (ECM records my benchmark label) , Classical and electronic music, I’ve generally found that headphones that shine in acoustic music sound terrible on Kraftwerk and house music.
    With a wife and 2 kids diapers take precedence over headphones! Despite this I got a pair of Klipsch One’s for general wear (I use Apple Lossless files mainly on an iPod) they sound fantastic across all the music I love. They have recently released a new version that is Bluetooth and modified the wired ones, if I can sell one of my children I’m hoping to get a pair by Christmas) joking aside the Klipsch Ones are a great headphone for intimate chamber music or Simon Rattle whipping the Berliners! Thanks again for the post. Music is the answer love is the message!

  13. I suffer from a chronic pain condition and use music for pain control. I need the sound to take over my brain. The pain center location in the brain is very close to the place where we hear things. This is a very simplistic picture. If the song is one I really like, I find the pain lessens considerably as the electricity targets the music spot instead of the pain center, so I like my music to be intrusive. I use Bose Noise Cancelling headphones, not the over ear ones but the smaller ones.They seem to cancel sound as well as the bigger ones. I also have an old pair of Sony MDR-V300, Dynamic Stereo Headphones, Studio Monitor. I would go crazy without the music that allows me to be on low doses of pain meds, and have a life. I am attached about 5- 8 hours a day.

  14. I suffer from a chronic pain condition and use music for pain control. I need the sound to take over my brain. The pain center location in the brain is very close to the place where we hear things. This is a very simplistic picture. If the song is one I really like, I find the pain lessens considerably as the electricity targets the music spot instead of the pain center, so I like my music to be intrusive. I use Bose Noise Cancelling headphones, not the over ear ones but the smaller ones.They seem to cancel sound as well as the bigger ones. I also have an old pair of Sony MDR-V300, Dynamic Stereo Headphones, Studio Monitor. I would go crazy without the music that allows me to be on low doses of pain meds, and have a life. I am attached about 5- 8 hours a day.

  15. For the past year I’ve been using Aeropex by AfterShokz. It’s a Bluetooth headphone that uses bone conduction technology. I was surprised and impressed by the sound quality – they’re more than decent for music listening as well as for spoken voice. I bought them primarily for use while running/walking but they’ve since proved to be an excellent headset for zoom meetings/online classes as well. Because there’s nothing in or even resting on my ears, I can wear them for six hours a day without fatigue or discomfort. (They’re quite compatible with glasses too.) And they’re great when listening outdoors because I can still clearly hear traffic noise, people approaching from behind and other environmental noise – making them much safer than earbuds/in-ear monitors.

    I still love my Etymotic in-ear monitors (which are great for long-haul flights because they block external noise without noise-cancellation technology) but I pretty much use them only when travelling nowadays and the pandemic has put paid to that.

    I also have a pair of Beyerdynamic DT440 headphones, which are great for careful listening when I don’t have access to loudspeakers.

    And I have a pair of Shure SRH440 headphones, which are especially good when I’m listening in an office environment: closed back so my music doesn’t annoy others, offering excellent passive noise blocking, and very visible when worn so they work well as a “do not disturb” sign. On the latter point: the cable detaches from the headphone itself, so I can also wear them as “wireless” sound-blocking earmuffs when I want some peace and quiet for working but don’t want the distraction of music. (Music is my profession; I can’t work with background music.)

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