To some, they’re fashion statements. To others, useful entertainment purveyors. And if done right, headphones hit a home run on multiple counts, as good to look at as they are to wear and hear. That’s the holy grail that Gizmo Guy’s been pursuing this spring, stepping out with some snazzy sound makers wrapped around my ears. So what’s the fairest of them all?
First, the Ground Rules: A variety of internet radio and subscription music services were deployed, using current artists as diverse as Hurray for the Riff Raff and Drake, as I tested for comfort and ease of use on my 25-minute walk to work.
To keep the sonic comparisons even, though, I subjected the entire bunch, repeatedly, to a single, truth-telling tune nabbed from the Deezer Premium + high-resolution subscription service: Philadelphia-raised jazz saxophone legend John Coltrane and all-acoustic cohorts (including homies Lee Morgan on trumpet and Philly Joe Jones on drums, plus Paul Chambers on bass, Kenny Drew on piano, and Curtis Fuller on trombone) blowing a beautifully fluttery “I’m Old Fashioned” from the legendary 1958 Blue Train album.
Master of its Dynamic Domain: Penn grad (and collegiate-years La Terrasse manager) Jonathan Levine is the driving force behind the Master & Dynamic headphone brand, positioned, he says, “with one foot in luxury fashion and another in premium tech.”
Inspired by WWII-era aviator headphones he spotted at the Smithsonian “on a college exploratory trip to D.C. with my son” (now a Penn senior), M&D’s aluminum-framed, leather-padded phones are such a thing of beauty you’ll be tempted to buy the companion stand ($59) to display them.
Apple put M&Ds into its stores “even after they’d bought Beats,” notes Levine. The Rolling Stones had him issue a limited edition (“their first-ever headphone endorsement”) last year, and Cadillac worked 'em into a current TV commercial for its future-concept Escala.
Fine-tuned by an ex-Bose engineer, the corded MH40 Over-Ear Headphones ($399) have an admirably neutral and well-defined sound -- recommended for home use but maybe too clunky to lug around. For the latter application, the smaller and slightly less dynamic MW50 wireless Bluetooth model ($449) is likewise nouveau-retro stylish and about as comfortable as on-ear headphones ever get.
A Juicy Apple: Looking like Apple ear buds that had their wires snipped, the Bluetooth-wireless connected AirPods ($159.99) draw double-takes from passersby.
I suspect the novelty will wear off if the company learns how to sell them in quantity (still with that six-week back order!).
The tiny storage/battery recharging case that holds AirPods in place (with magnets) is a brilliant design. So are features like automatic music pause when one ear bud is removed and voice control awakened by taps on an earpiece. While lacking ear padding, AirPods are feather light, more comfortable than expected, and commendable for their sonic ambitions.
I was crestfallen, though, to hear some speaker rattling on Mr. Fuller’s 'bone solo. I hope they can fix it. BTW -- iPhone calls came in loud and clear, best I’ve heard on a cordless Bluetooth headset.
Liberating Libratone: True to Danish modern design aesthetics and hi-fi history, the Libratone Q Adapt on-ear Bluetooth headphones ($249) look cool and score well in sonic accuracy. Also special: Four-stage electronic noise reduction lets you eliminate some or all of the outside world.
Cupping a hand over the right earpiece pauses music; cupping again restarts it. E-Z! And volume is varied by spinning one finger around the perimeter of the earpiece. Not as comfortable as MW50s, though the compact Libratone ear cushions concentrate the clamping pressure on a smaller area.
Yours Alone: At CES, a specialist for the “bespoke” British audio firm Snugs pointed a custom, 3-D laser-fired device into my ears to take a scan of both ears’ shapes (far from identical!). Then it used the tracings to mold silicon ear buds in an amusing color, turquoise, for fitting to Echobox's spiffy Finder X1 Titanium Earphones ($229), also finely adjustable with three acoustic tuning rings.
With the Snugs pushed in and twisted “just so,” the Snugged-up sound is amazing, while the outside world disappears. And unlike everyday in-ear buds, these customs can be comfortably worn for many hours, ideal for a long plane ride.
The bad news: Until U.S. partners are finalized, you’ll have to fly to England to be laser-fitted for Snugs, though the company is willing to work up a pair from wax molds made at your local audiologist, starting at $197 including house-brand ear buds.
Good to the bones: Newtown-based inventor/marketer Tom Buroojy is behind the novel, horizontally wrap-around iHeadbones Bluetooth Bone Conduction Stereo phones (Series 501, $89.95).
Speaker drivers are meant to rest on and resonate through the cheekbones right in front of your ears, not on the ears proper. So others can still chat with you, car horns are heard, and hearing stress is minimized.
And if it’s already too late to prevent loss, you might find the (mildly vibrating) conductive transmission technology offers some hearing comeback; that's why they're "popular with seniors," Buroojy said.
501s work with a variety of Bluetooth transmitters (like the $25 TaoTronics) that connect to TV sets as well as with Bluetooth-enabled phones and tablets.
Bargain prices, mainstream appeal: Don’t want to spend a lot of money for tiny Bluetooth ear buds you could easily lose? The $29.99 list JVC Gumy Wireless are a deal, fit well, and don’t “rattle” Curtis Fuller’s 'bone any more than Apple AirPods do.
And the brand-new $59.99 JVC HA-EC30s are totally smooth operators, water resistant, with a rubbery hook that wraps around ears for extra snugness when you’re exercising. Both come in cute colors, too – including yellow, red, and a nice aubergine blue.