Or: “A tale of six headphones”
With all of the headphones I have lying around the house, I thought it would be a good idea to do a head-to-head (no pun intended) comparison. Two are headphones (a band goes around the head), three are earbuds (mount on or around the ear), and one is a set of earphones – they go into the ear canal, like earplugs – also known as “canal-phones”, which sounds too much like waterway communications to me.
- Labtec Axis 502: This is my current set of home headphones. Originally bought for the computer, I have found them to be great for general use. Standard “old-skool” headphone design, with an over-the-top band and a boom microphone that can be flipped up so that it lays next to the headband. Lightweight with just the right amount of grip. Boasts about eight feet of cable and an inline volume control that I don’t really use. Having the largest drivers they are the least efficient – they need a lot of power to drive them, and so require higher volume settings than some of the others.
- Labtec Axis 002: This is actually the LVA-8012, the OEM version of the Axis 002; the main difference being that this one has no in-line volume control. This is my standard work headset; a “Headhugger” design with a band that goes around the back of the head.. It also features a microphone which can be flipped up out of the way. The foam earpads sit on the outside of the ear at what looks like an odd angle, bit sits on the head with just the right amount of pressure. Like the other Labtec it boasts an insanely long cable – about 8′, which can get in the way sometimes, but it also means that I can reach stuff on the other side of my office while wearing them. These are the most comfortable of the lot for me, and it shows – I am onto my third set – I tend to wear these things out every few years and I simply pick another one up on eBay. They are about as efficient as the other Labtecs.
- Sony MDR-E575: I bought these “Fontopia” (a word which, as far as I can tell, might be Japanese for “absolutely nothing”) earphones maybe twenty years ago back in my Walkman days, and they got a heck of a lot of wear back in the eighties. They spent about fifteen years in a drawer before they were recently returned to active duty. These are the classic black earbuds with little silver accents. Comfortable fit for my ears, but a tendency to slip out. Has a good-sized cable – about 5′ – which is asymmetric, and a beautifully-designed case. To give you an idea of how old they are, they were actually made in Japan. These earphones were made back in the day when the Sony brand meant excellence instead of arrogance, design instead of DRM, quality instead of Rootkits… when the words “It’s a Sony” actually meant something…
- Sennheiser MX400: I have been a fan of Sennheiser since I was a teenager. My first pair of headphones were Sennheisers – a cheap pair with yellow foam covers and surprisingly good sound that got “Best Budget Buy” reviews from the Hi-fi magazines of the day. After doing a little research, I found out that Sennheiser made earbuds. The nice ones were out of my price range, but the MX400s were inexpensive and got good reviews, so I gave them a try. At $11 shipped on eBay I had little to lose. The packaging was, to put it bluntly, garish – a “Yo Hip Dude” bright orange blister card does not endear your products to the over-40s, but then I suppose I am not yer typical consumer…The phones themselves are somewhat longer and more streamlined than the Sony ones, and a little less discreet. They fit my ears well, though the right one has a tendency to fall out occasionally.A wind-up case is supplied – a useful addition, that serves to protect the headphones while not in use, though it is a little “chunky” and not as well-designed as the Sony. It is also a lot larger than it needs to be, since the cable is only 3.5′ in length and symmetric. A little on the short side, methinks…
- JVC HA-E200: I bought these for Milady when we were in England. These are “over-the-ear-phones”, which have small rubberized arms that hook over the ear; she prefers these since headphones muss up the hair (something that does not bother me!), earphones don’t fit her cute li’l ears and earbuds are physically painful for her to wear. They’re pink in color, so I tend not to use them very often for reasons that I hope are obvious. No case is supplied, though the main cable retracts into one of the units, which is a cool feature. I just wish that they did the same thing with the cable between the two units.
- Skullcandy Smokin’ Buds Ink’d: Having never tried earbuds (the ones that go into your ear like earplugs) before, I saw these going for ten bucks from my local Circuit City, so I thought I would give them a go. Comes with three different sizes of silicon plugs, the smallest of which fit my ears. Surprisingly, no case; this is not a big deal, as they are so small and only a 3′ cable they will stow in a pocket, but I doubt that they will last long without some kind of protection. SkullCandy’s website is slow and complex, with plenty of pictures of “Yo hip dudes”, usually on skateboards hovering six feet in the air. And this product was not on their website.
The test rig for this comparison is my handy-dandy thrifty-nifty trusty-rusty iPod Classic 4G 40GB. No equalization was used. For the test I tried to find “real” sounds – acoustic instruments and voices, along with pieces with lots of detail…
- Vivaldi – Four Seasons/Spring. (Nothing like a bit of classical for a true objective comparison…)
- Charlotte Church/Carrickfergus (lush orchestration and that wonderful voice…)
- Joe Jackson/Breaking us in two (Great use of percussion. Watch for the low-flying bongos on the right!)
- David Arkenstone/The Turning of the year (Some great acoustic and synth work. A good tune, too.)
- Michael W. Smith/Freedom (nothing like a full symphony going at it full-bore. Watch for the “drums… drums in the deep” in the second half of the piece)
- Mike Oldfield/The Voyager (Multi-layered Irish Drumming, bagpipes and electric guitar)
- Acoustic Alchemy/Lazeez (nice guitar work, pardner!)
- Kathy Troccoli/Psalm Twenty-Three (Lots of detail and multi-layered vocals… watch for the triangle on the left!)
- Bee Gees/Spirits Having Flown (Cheesy, but has some nice synth/string work. True story: The first time I heard this was on a set of Wharfedale E70 speakers at a hi-fi show. I instantly fell in love with… the speakers!)
- Chris De Burgh/Diamond in the Dark (low drums and female “sigh”… very atmospheric), Rivers of Abraham (Lower vocals and general “pop muzik” test)
- ELO/Stranger & So Serious & Secret Messages (Just cos I like ELO…)
- Queen/A Winter’s Tale (Sung by a dying man through a great deal of pain. We miss you Freddie…)
All songs are 320kbps MP3s
Labtec Axis 502: Sound is bright, open and spacious. Vivaldi sounded like he meant business, bass was tight and pronounced but not overwhelming, high-end percussion is clear. That’s the way (uh-huh uh-huh) I like it (uh-huh uh-huh). Help! I’m trapped in the Seventies and I can’t get out..!
Labtec Axis 002: A slightly brighter sound, Bass is on the light side, but comfortable and easy on the ears. Sound is detailed and precise. Sound is almost as good as the 502s, but this one is more comfortable and does not mess with the ‘do…
Sony: More pronounced Bass, but it is imprecise and loses some of it’s “tightness”; mid-range is lacking in punch. Treble is lacking; it sounds almost underwater. After the last two this one was actually quite unpleasant. It pains me to think that once upon a time I actually thought that this sounded ok. But then I was young and did not know any better… Not available anymore, which might be a mercy.
Sennheiser: Well-balanced sound. more pronounced, tighter bass and clearer treble, though a little muffled at the high end. There were details that I could hear with these that were simply missing from the Sony.
JVC: The polar opposite of the Sony. This has the brightest sound of the lot; almost shrill at times. Not very efficient – needs lots of volume, but for those who prefer clarity to loudness, that is no bad thing. Sound is bright, clear and detailed, but lacking in bass and the lower vocal registers.
SkullCandy: If you like bass, this is the one. Lots of tight, low harmonics that are not obvious with the others come to the fore with this one. Drums, Cellos and Bass guitars sound floor-shakingly great, and male vocals are well-defined.
Moving up the midrange, it’s a different story. Piano and female vocals are a little muted. The bad news is that the high-end is conspicuous by its absence. Classical, and Jazz sound poor and the rest is lacking in openness and what I would call “fizz”; so I guess this one was not designed with the audiophile in mind.
Another issue is that unlike all of the other headphones I reviewed, when wearing these the music sounds like it is coming from “inside your head”. This is probably because the drivers are actually inside your head, or it may be because of the “closed” nature of in-ear phones.
Another oddity is that there is no way to tell left from right! Apparently Skullcandy thinks that today’s “Yo Hip Dude/tte” does not care for these things; I do. A spot of nail polish should take care of that, though it really should not be necessary…
Unlike all of the others in this test, these earbuds block out a lot of the external sounds, which makes it useful in noisy situations such as mowing the lawn or taking a flight. There is also a lot of percussive “cable noise” whenever you move your head or tap on the cable.
One redeeming feature is that the “ear-plug” nature is that you can hear yourself singing… and you will very quickly find out if you are off key! Given the miniscule size of the drivers, efficiency is unsurprisingly high; not much volume required to drive these things.
There is nothing like a good set of “cans”, big headphones that fit over the ears, block out all extraneous sound and regale the wearer with big sound from huge drivers. However, such headphones are impractical unless you are an audiophile or work in a recording studio. All of these headphones are compromises between practicality and sound quality.
These are the closest things I have to a “reference” set of headphones; they set the standard by which I judge all the others. And to a greater or lesser extent, all come up short.
Light, comfortable, with a crisp, clear sound. The long cable is a plus in the office and a minus on the street. When this one dies I will buy another. Nuff said.
Not as comfortable or good-sounding as either of the above two, but they are a heck of a lot more portable. The case fits nicely in one’s pocket without ruining the line of one’s trousers.
These were bought in London, and it shows: It seems that audio products aimed at the European and Asian markets are less bass-heavy than their American counterparts.
These are a throwback to the old days when manufacturers used to slap the word “Digital” on everything. By today’s standards, sound is poor.
Skullcandy Smokin’ Buds
I really wanted to like these earphones, but the way things are I could not bring myself to use them for serious listening to music. In terms of sound quality they leave something to be desired. Their small size and closed design make these the ones I would want to take on a plane, and they have become the earphones of choice for watching movies on my Palm or listening to podcasts, but but in most other situations they offer little to redeem them.