If you like music, you must have good headphones. It's that simple. To do otherwise would be to cheat yourself out of one of life's great pleasures. Why would you want to do that?
The difference in sound quality — and with that the quality of your life to an extent — between low-end earbuds and high-end in-ear headphones is akin to that between a rusted jalopy and a factory-fresh Lamborghini: immediately obvious.
Luckily, great-sounding headphones much cost less than even the most rusted-out beater. We generally recommend buying headphones that cost more than $US100, even if that means saving up or waiting for your birthday. But at those prices, it's no joke when your headphones break, which they do, every single time. Regardless of their construction, or how careful you are, it seems like all frequently-used headphones inevitably fray, lose a channel, shred, discombobulate, or otherwise become unusable… hopefully, later rather than sooner.
In the past 14 years or so of writing professionally about our evolving digital music experience, I have probably gone through thousands of dollars' worth of headphones, and I know I'm not alone. All of them — from the $US40 Sony pair bought in desparation at an airport vending machine to the $US330 Etymotics that sounded so great, while they lasted — eventually let me down. One after the other, my precious companions snagged on doorknobs, were slammed in doors, and, in one case, were utterly destroyed by the zipper on a backpack (at SXSW).
Enough is enough! We set out to find the best-sounding, most indestructible in-ear headphones on the planet — not just for you, but for us. We're as sick of breaking these things and re-buying them as you probably are.
Testing the resiliency of headphones is no simple feat, in the absence of a time machine to travel into the future and see how they held up after a year or two of standard usage. So to get started, we started by asking the experts at Headphone.com which brands they recommend for durability. Sales manager Ben Thiede got back to us with the following:
I think in the generic fit (non-custom) world, the Shures and Etymotics are usually the best. Some others that come to mind for durability would be Westone, Polk, and Sennheiser. I feel that the ultimate in durability comes from the custom fit products. The JHAudio products, although expensive, are an excellent solid mould with everything embedded inside. They feature detachable cables for easy replacement in the future, and I don't think there is much you could do to really hurt the earpiece itself. Also, they rival or surpass the performance of most full-sized headphones in their respective price points.
We only looked at in-ear headphones, because they offer the best combination of sound quality and portability. We asked for an inline mic too, because sometimes we like to talk on the phone. We looked for models that have replaceable cords, in case you break it. And for most of us, custom-fitted headphones are a bridge too far, so we ignored those, but know that if you have deep pockets, the JHAudio models are probably your best bet.
With those parameters in mind, we contacted all of the manufacturers Thiede suggested, plus Sony and Panasonic, asking for their most resilient in-ear headphones, and have been testing what they sent us on commutes, bike rides, and trips to Berlin (for Music Week) and Toronto.
Here are the most rugged, best-sounding in-ear headphones from the lot, which won't cost you an arm and a leg (ok, maybe just an arm). We're only recommending two models, because, well, why mess around?
If you value design over sheer ruggedness, but still don't want to break your headphones, the Westone Adventure Series Alpha ($200), released this summer, are a great option — stylish, thoughtfully designed, and tough enough for just about any adventure, as the name implies.
- The cord reflects light when it's dark out, and its woven fabric is fairly frictionless, which could help avoid snags.
- They're designed to loop over the ear, which is the proper way to wear in-ear headphones
- A unibody magnesium construction means they're ok in inclement weather.
- The hockey puck-style case fights tangles, prevents the headphones from being smushed, and resists weather.
- They sound great — they wouldn't be on this list if they didn't, but it bears mentioning.
- Unlike the Shures, they come with an inline mic and remote control for volume, and answering calls.
- Headphone cord can be replaced if it gets damaged.
- It comes with a little loop tool for removing earwax buildup (sort gross, but this is a reality with any in-ear headphones).
- It comes with a panopoly of earbud covers for various ear sizes. As with most other high-end earphones, these include silicone ones that let in a bit of sound (safer for jogging, biking) as well as foam ones that block out more sound.
- Better bass response than the Shures offer.
- The headphone cord can be replaced, as mentioned, but it's not easy; Westone tells us it involves squeezing the connection, twisting, and pulling (image).
- Some user reviews say that in-ear sweat from workouts can cause problems. We didn't encounter that.
- Some people aren't going to want to part with $US200 for headphones — even ones that are really well designed and resilient to damage. We would encourage those people to save up, perhaps, or wait for the holidays.
- They only come in black.
- The case is tough to close.
- Two years
- 6.5mm dynamic microdriver
- Impedance: 21 ohms
- Frequency response: 20 Hz-18 kHz
- Sensitivity: 97 dB
Every Shure headphones we've ever tested has a super thick cable, which is a good defence against the enemies of headphone longevity, so if the Shure SE215 is not for you, you might look elsewhere in Shure's line-up. However, these were the ones Shure specifically recommended to Evolver.fm as the most resilient.
- Shure offers the thickest headphone cable we've ever seen on in-ear headphones. Thick = resilient = good. And the part where the cord splits into left and right is particularly strong, which is also good. These are the toughest in-ear headphones with good sound that we have ever seen.
- They're a good deal.
- They, too, come with a little loop tool for dealing with the unfortunate reality of earwax buildup.
- The headphone cord is really easy to swap out, should anything ever happen to it (or should you want to swap in the one with the mic and controls).
- It comes in black or clear.
- The sound very clean, if not as bassy as the Westones.
- If you want a mic and volume controls — which should really come standard — you'll need to drop another $US50 for the M+ cable.
- Heavy wire doesn't stow well unless you use the case.
- They're missing the super-low bassy frequencies (20 Hz to 22 Hz).
- Fewer included eartips mean fewer size options.
- Soft case doesn't offer as much protection as the hard Westone one.
- Two years
- Dynamic microdriver
- Impedance 20 ohms
- Sensitivity: 107 dB
- Isolation: 37 dB (the Westones are probably about the same, because this is mostly about the foam or silicone tips).
- Yes, You Should Spend Over $US100 on Headphones
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- More hardware on Evolver.fm
Top picture: Flickr/sterno_inferno
Evolver.fm observes, tracks and analyses the music apps scene, with the belief that it's crucial to how humans experience music, and how that experience is evolving.