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What headphones should I buy for my iPhone?

So a good friend of mine told me he just switched to an iPhone and that he wasn’t happy with the earbuds. Since I was going to get a bunch of links for him anyway, it’s a perfect excuse for a new sound roundup (see previous post here)! There are some new entries, and better yet new resources to check things out yourself. Between running, having an addiction to buying music, and producing Marketing Over Coffee I spend (waste) a lot of time worrying about audio.

There are two hard rules I can guarantee you – one, there is no substitute for testing. There’s no universal fit, and only you can decide what sound quality/price trade off you can stomach. Two, yes, the stock earbuds stink.

First is the fit category, I’ve cut into 4 options:

  1. Over the ear – These cover your ear completely and because they are so big this means you’ll get more bass than anything smaller
  2. On the ear – Slightly smaller, but personally I’ve found them more likely to hurt after prolonged use. Overall I ignore this category, if you have any you like in this segment I’d love to hear about them.
  3. In the ear – These are your standard earbud style. The key here is that they go in your ear but do not seal it shut like an earplug (that would be #4)
  4. In the ear canal – These have an airtight seal which has a tradeoff – they can sound much better than #3, but you can’t hear what’s going on around you as well. Some people don’t like cutting off the outside world, for example I prefer #3 for running so I still have some idea what’s going on around me. On the other hand, when on a plane or subway you may prefer this style to block out the noise around you

Other things to keep in mind:

  1. Bluetooth – If you want to go cordless then you might consider this. It’s a big trade off though – this means they’ll need a battery of some sort, one that requires charging or replacement. Audiophiles also write off Bluetooth as the sound quality is not as good as wired. However, see #4 for more on sound quality
  2. In-line controls – Having the ability to change volume or tracks, and having a microphone on the cable makes life easier in a number of situations. It’s a lot easier to hear calls through your earphones/headphones. It’s much easier to control while excercising rather than pulling out your phone.
  3. Celebrity Headphones – If a celebrity is getting paid, that’s money that didn’t go to sound quality. The Wirecutter article below goes in depth here, they’ve never had a celebrity headphone win its price class.
  4. Apple sucks, Bose doesn’t – The bottom line is that you make a lot of trade offs on a phone so that your battery lasts more than 2 hours. It takes energy to process a digital signal, and to drive headphones. Since the sound quality is not audiophile grade you don’t notice that the stock headphones are quite crummy (although this latest generation is much better than the last). This is also why you can get by with Bluetooth, unless you’re really listening it’s not going to make much difference on an average or less MP3 file. On the other side ofHeadphones the spectrum I’ll mention hometown team Bose. Yes, they are more expensive than gear that’s considered the same quality and yes, audiophiles tend to take issue with them. Until recently I’ve said “Do a little homework and you can get better for the same money, or get as good and save some money”. In the past couple of years though they’ve been crushing it – The QC15 (over ear), QC20 (in ear canal),SIE2i (sport headphones) and the Soundlink Mini (portable speaker like a Jambox) all are category leaders to my ear. So if you want good sound, you’ll have to pay. Bottom line is, although their stuff is expensive they don’t make any mid-grade or entry level junk. Anybody that buys Bose is usually happy with their purchase. Brands like Sony and Sennheiser make so many different models that you’ll have a hard time figuring out what’s best for you.
  5. Noise Reduction – there’s passive noise reduction, blocking outside noise by airtight seal and insulation, and active noise reduction where microphones measure the noise and cancelling sound waves are created. Many reviewers say Bose leads the pack here by a significant margin, and my testing agrees with that.

Resources: is still fantasic for a broad range of headphones, great advice and test results if you are hardcore. A new one to me, thanks to @gadgetboy is The Wirecutter. You can check out their buying guide and they are great for reviews on what’s the best in a number of tech categories. In fact, I’d start there first before going to my list below.

The stuff I like:

Over the ear: I still love my Bose QC15s. The sound is good, the noise reduction great. Hard to beat this for watching your own movies on a plane. If you’re not into that price range a great choice is the Sony MDR7506. At $85 these get rated higher than cans going up as high as $250.

On ear: Never like any enough to buy.

In the ear: For running the Bose SIE2i are the best sounding sport headphones I’ve ever had. Fair warning though, they are expensive and I’ve had to replace them once after a year and a half. Amazon reviews say that the microphone is a weak point if sweat gets in there. On my list to try are the Jaybird Bluebuds X which are guaranteed sweatproof.

In the ear canal: My Shure 530s are still going strong. I’ve had custom earmolds made so I can wear these all day with no problem and they block out a lot of noise. They no longer make these, the latest model is the 535 and it’s much better because you can replace the cable when they wear out. However, they are no longer the king of the hill, if you happen to have $1,000 just lying around the SE-846 has 4 drivers in each ear (not sure how they squeeze that all in there) which are supposed to sound better than Morgan Freeman telling your life story. On my wishlist here: Bose QC20. The noise reduction on these is much better than even the QC15 plus it’s a lot less to carry when traveling.

That’s where it’s at today, if you have any gear you love please tell me about it!

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