Thursday, January 2, 2014

Headphone Shopping


It's a little hard to shop for in-ear headphones.  You can't go to a store and just try them out.  It wouldn't exactly be sanitary, and you'd have to play with them, change the ear-pads, make sure you get a good fit.  There's also the possibility that headphones may need to be "broken in" for 15-20 hours before they sound their best.  I've heard people make this claim before, but I don't how true it is. Another sticky part of it is the naming conventions.  They tack new letters and numbers onto old model numbers with little to know indication of if or how the models are connected.  The B3st is succeeded by the B3st-1.  Did they change the design, alter their manufacturing process?  Perhaps this is exactly the same model with an in-line mic or remote.  Or is it a completely new set of cans with a popular-looking number slapped on it?

I don't want to sound too much like Andy Rooney here, but if they have a model that has a good reputation, why do they discontinue it to be replaced with a potentially bad model?  If researching online has taught me anything, every company that has a few good models also has a few shitty ones.  Name brand doesn't mean much---it certainly doesn't mean you can go pick a new model off of the shelf without reading some reviews first.

Well I was looking for a decent buying guide for earbuds.  There are a lot, some are more useful than others.  My favorite so far has been on The Wirecutter.  Towards the end of last year they published a few lists, but the two I got the most use out of are The Best $100 In-Ear Headphones (of which the best was actually $50), and The Best $200 In-Ear Headphones (of which the best was $180).

This is an interesting list, first by how they narrowed down the finalists:

 As always, we read a ton of reviews. Pro reviews, buyer reviews, audio blog reviews. I scoured Crutchfield, Amazon, Head-Fi. Of the 45 or so models on the market, I seriously looked into around 30. I emailed professionals in the field for their picks: people like Steve Guttenberg of CNET and Tyll Hertsens of Inner Fidelity. After coming across several headphones that seemed to be consistent top choices, I brought the top eight (yes, eight!) in for a faceoff.
Then, when explaining why they chose the RBH EP2s as their winner:
In a word: consistency. Every reviewer on our panel touted their sound, everyone found them comfortable, and everyone liked the lightness of their small, simple build. That universal appeal means that you can order them online without worrying that they won’t work for you. Many times when dealing with in-ears what is comfortable to one kind of ear is miserable to another.
I'm not a fan of best of lists where the contributors have to come to a consensus on the final list.  This is not that kind of consensus.  They didn't force everybody to agree on one thing, they found a pair of headphones everybody liked.  They liked the sound and the fit, two very important things.  And as someone who seems to have smaller ear canals (or one smaller ear canal, it feels like sometimes) I like that in the guide they break down the other headphones and what each tester had to say about them, fit and all.

There is one fairly large drawback to this list though.  Their $100 list is sold out on Amazon.  Their $200 pick has had such a sales demand that it's manufacturer is fulfilling orders in an "improvised packing solution" until February.  They're lucky they only ran out of packaging and still had enough actual headphones to meet the demand.  They're currently running a sale until January 12th, $25 off, which I take to indicate that they haven't been completely smashed by current demand.

Another problem is how extremely subjective sound is.  There's a thread on the Head-Fi forums talking about RBH EP2s and the aforementioned $200 list.  It's an interesting read for dissenting opinions, and some of them don't seem to think much of the reviewers or their process, but the people on the forum who own the RBH EP2s like them, and two reviews are linked as well that paint them as good, though not the best.

I bit the bullet and ordered a pair.  We'll see how I like them.  I've always suspected that there's not a big difference between high-end and low-end headphones.  Meaning, I've heard really cheap "muddy" headphones, and of course higher-end headphones will sound better (though "higher-end" in this scenario isn't saying much").  But I exclusively have used earbuds in the $30-$60 range, and I'm really curious to see the difference a well-renowned more expensive pair will have over a known-decent cheaper pair.

I'll see soon enough,


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