It doesn’t get a lot of coverage in the press, but there is a terrible and debilitating disease that affects a significant number of people in the world. These poor people can’t tolerate even the slightest muddiness in their mid and high tones. Unless their frequency responses exceed the known limits of human hearing, they can become physically ill. Audio plugs not coated in gold can also evoke a serious allergic reaction.
What could this awful disease be? It’s known as audiophilia and the chances are that you’re never too far from someone who has it.
While there is no known cure for audiophilia, it’s possible to manage those symptoms with a pair of high-end headphones. It’s an expensive treatment to be sure, but if you choose the right pair they’ll keep an audiophile going for years. So if you or someone you know has a bad case of audiophilia, here are some things to look out for before buying.
High-end Does not Mean “Audiophile”
Not all headphones at the high-end of the market are designed for people who enjoy sound. “Professional” headphones may cost just as much as headphones aimed at audiophiles but are very different when you look at them closely.
For one thing, the sound you get from professional studio is very different. It’s designed to introduce as little bias into the audio signal as possible. The studio engineer needs to hear the actual sound as it’s being recorded, not an enhanced version. Often this means that music listened to with such headphones can sound lifeless without the frequency bias and other flavoring that consumer headphones perform.
Pro headphones are also not completely focused on audio quality. The equipment itself is designed to stand up to much more abuse than something meant for a home consumer. The cabling, materials and overall design is aimed at working all day, every day for years. Studio-grade equipment is made to a different durability standard and you have to understand that much of the money you’re paying is going towards that rather than sound quality.
Yes, audiophile headphones can cost a lot of money, but price by itself is never an indication of how good a pair of headphones will sound. This is one of the fundamental mistakes people make when buying ridiculously-prices headphones that have poor audio properties, but strong marketing, branding and double as a fashion statement.
Look carefully at the marketing material and see if they are emphasizing the audio quality of the unit or if they mainly care about telling you how much more attractive their headphones will make you. It’s not a foolproof method, but it’s a good start to narrowing down your options.
As a case in point, the legendary Koss PortaPro headphones are very cheap at $50. They’re not very robust and not particularly pretty, but for decades audiophiles have swooned over the sound they produce. The bottom line is you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars to get ear-tingling sound.
Stuff with Numbers
Headphones specifications (and audio gear in general) are filled with all sorts of arcane terms and numbers. It’s barely even clear whether a higher or lower number is better or even how much better one number is next to another. So just stick to the most important ones.
Impedance is pretty important. In general, the higher the impedance, the better the headphones will be in terms of audio quality. The problem is that high-impedance headphones (over 300 Ohms usually) need more power than a smartphone or computer socket will provide, so you’ll need a dedicated headphone amplifier.
Low impedance headphones tend to hiss and simply don’t have the volume and range you get with more power, but they can be used in a greater number of situations.
Frequency response refers to the range of frequencies the headphones can produce. Most headphones are rated for between 20Hz and 20 kHz, which (not coincidentally) is the normal human hearing range. Some makers will publish wider ranges, which are cool if you’re a dog. Although I have no idea how you’ll wear human headphones Fido.
The bottom line is that this number is pretty useless for figuring out whether headphones will sound good or not.
Total Harmonic Distortion is how much the sound distorts when the volume is pumped up. This should always be less than 1% and get pretty close to zero the more you pay. Simple.
So the bottom line is that good high-end headphones will tend to have an impedance of more than 300 Ohm and a THD as close to zero as possible.
Headphones come in different shapes and sizes. You get in-ear, on-ear and over-the-ear designs. Each with different implications for sound quality. It doesn’t matter what color they are, at least not when it comes to audio fidelity.
In general, the best sound quality comes from over-the-ear headphones, but there is an important split within that category: open- and closed- back.
Most people are familiar with closed-back headphones and they are generally great for keeping a barrier between you and the outside world. However, these headphones do come with significant sound quality compromises and an open-back pair can really give you an astounding audio experience. If you want the most natural-sounding audio, then open-back is the way to go. Hey, they’re still not going to bother your neighbours, although other people in the room may be annoyed
Trust Your Ears
In the end, there’s one core factor that matters more than anything else: what your ears tell you.
It’s an absolute must that you actually put headphones on your ears before you commit to buying them. At the ultra-high-end this is even more important. No spec sheet an ever tell you which headphones will sound the best to you. So make sure that you either get to a showroom with a given set on display or that your provider has a good returns policy. Also, be sure to demo a set with the type of music that you’ll actually listen to. It may be great at the current Top 40 selection, but terrible at your own weird selection of noise.
Still, need a little more help? OK, OK, go ahead and have a look at these ear-picked (eww) best audiophile headphones.