Just because you don't want to spend thousands of dollars on audio equipment (and as many hours configuring it) doesn't mean you can't enjoy quality audio. In the case of headphones, a single c-note can reap rewards.
For our budget headphone Battlemodo, we tested five pairs of headphones with an MSRP between $US50 and $US150. Sound quality was obviously the number one priority here, but it wasn't about hooking these up to elaborate rigs to see which headphones could most accurately reproduce wind instruments from an uncompressed FLAC file. Remember, we're talking about good sound on the cheap here. In pursuit of that goal, we used these cans like regular people: With our computers, smartphones and stereo systems. We used MP3s (albeit ones ripped at 320kbps), and we tested from a variety of genres ranging from classical to jazz to classic rock to modern pop and hip-hop and electronic. Different genres require different attributes from a headphone and we wanted to find the one which could best accomodate as many as possible. And then we looked at comfort, portability, durability and aesthetics. But enough of that, let's talk results.
5th Place: Nixon Apollo
The Nixon Apollos are the lightest and smallest cans of the bunch, which is ultimately a gift and a curse. Yes these will take up the least amount of space in a bag, and you can forget you're wearing them, but the metal headband is susceptible to bending and losing its shape. And after a while, they don't clamp around your head in a particularly firm manner.
As far as sound goes, the Apollos suffer from a lack of detail and clarity across all ends of the spectrum. utilising a smaller 30mm driver, the headphones don't have the big bass or the sonic resolution of its peers, and should probably cost less. But you'll look very nice wearing them; they're snazzy. $US70.
• Driver: 30mm Dynamic • Design: Closed back, On-ear • Sensitivity: 114 dB @ 1kHz • RRP: $US70 • Gizrank: 2
4th Place: UrbanEars Plattan Plus
The UrbanEars Plattan Plus cans have the benefit of being the most stylish and least expensive cans of the bunch, combining simple lines and matte looks with retro inspiration. They even have a quirky feature that let's a second person jack into your headphones and listen along, daisy chain style. Unfortunately, the function doesn't quite keep pace with the form.
The sound of the Plattans wasn't particularly offensive, with mids and highs that come through with a decent amount of detail and clarity. But throw on a track with bass and the boomy, muddy handling of the low end messes up your aural space. That said, if you're more interested in a pair of cans that can withstand a beating and fold up into a compact package, the Plattans are well qualified. $US70.
UrbanEars Plattan Plus
• Driver: 40mm Dynamic • Design: Closed, On-ear • Sensitivity: 115 dB @ 1kHz • MSRP: $US70 • Gizrank: 2.5
3rd Place: Sol Republic Tracks
The Sol Republic Tracks aren't the most expensive cans, but they're not the cheapest on the list either. The Tracks have a fairly small footprint, but they're not as portable as some of the others. That said, a slick design and a nearly indestructable headband make these an attractive pick for people on the go who want something that sounds pretty decent, but won't fall apart in a bag.
Sound isn't secondary to design in the world of Sol Republic, but with consumers in mind, they design their headphones to be brighter and more colourful than the headphones audiophiles generally gravitate towards. The result is a warmer headphone with emphasised bass that kicks and rumbles in an ear pleasing way, but not excessively so. Unfortunately, the mids lack that in-your-face clarity, creating a hollow sound, and distortion will occur if you turn the volume up too high. $US100.
Sol Republic Tracks
• Driver: Undisclosed • Design: Closed, On-ear • Sensitivity: Undisclosed • MSRP: $US100 • Gizrank: 3.5
2nd Place: Grado SR80i
Anyone considering Grados must realise that these headphones employ an open air design. They intentionally leak sound. This does not make them good for listening in an enclosed space full of strangers or in the office. But if you're ok with that, the lesser amounts of distortion these headphones produce is significant. Probably the most technically sophisticated headphones of the bunch, they're light, comfortable and well-built. And depending on what you're listening to, the sound is fantastic.
You can almost feel the breath of a singer whoosh past you as vocals pan from one side of your head to another. Background instruments really feel like they're living on the outer edges of your head. But that's when you're listening to genres like classical, or folk, or '60s pop. Instrumental stuff that recorded live in a studio. When you move into contemporary pop, hip-hop and electronic, many songs lose personality. At times the lows sound punchy, and the highs shrill. And that's kind of by design: Grado aims for a sound design that emphasises accurate sound reproduction of vocals and instruments above all. But we now live in a different musical era than when the first audiophiles hit the scene. Music is bassy. Music is synthesized and sampled. Music is digital. That's not to say we should celebrate the headphones that overwhelm you with bass at the expense of detail, but at what point do we stop championing the headphones which can't properly convey the current music of the masses? $US100.
• Driver: 40mm Dynamic • Design: Open, On-ear • Sensitivity: 98 dB @ 1kHz • MSRP: $US100 • Gizrank: 4.0
BESTMODO! Sennheiser HD280
With a closed-back, over-the-ear design and a durable design that has some portability, the Sennheiser HD280 cans are the king of the budget earphone mountain. They're not the cheapest, or the smallest, or the best looking, but they strike the best balance between clarity and resolution and the ability to handle multiple genres of music old and new.
You still get those minor sounds in the background of track mixes, but you don't sacrifice the vibrancy that makes new music sound great. Bass is responsive, but not loose. Vocals have texture that dance and move through the soundstage. Everything sounds full and present. The 280s are able to create a soundstage where different elements exist in their own defined areas, but still give your ears something to work with when the bass kicks in. The big, over-ear design may not be ideal for commuting, but the HD280s are light enough that it's not a burden to use these on the go. And while they carry a $US150 MSRP, you'll be hard pressed to find them for more than $US100 anywhere on the Web. $US150.
• Driver: 40mm Dynamic • Design: Closed, Over-ear • Sensitivity: 102 dB @ 1kHz • MSRP: $US150 • Gizrank: 4.5