Seeking Out the Perfect Headphones

A custom electronics pro tells how he finds the right fit


The Iron Fist headphones from hard rockers Motorhead have piqued the interest of CE pro Joe Whitaker.

I am a man on a mission. Every year it seems I travel more. The act of traveling can be very stressful, very loud, and if you are not into people watching very boring.

I like to be entertained, but I’ve come to the point where I want my mobile experience to be of the same quality as I enjoy in my home — starting with music, and in particular headphones. I’ve had my hands on tons of headphones claiming quality sound and had my eyes on many during this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

As a custom electronics professional, here’s how I start sorting through all of the headphones that are out there. What I am after is: the perfect blend of comfort; understated styling — I do not want someone staring at the side of my head for two hours; balanced audio quality that is not too heavy in just bass/mid/highs; inherently loud enough to give me some power when using an underpowered player; and good ambient sound filtering without being totally noise canceling. Of course, I must mention that this year at CES we were introduced to Motorheadphones. Why does this excite me? Beside being a huge Motorhead fan, these headphones claim to be fine tuned for those of us that like it loud and clear.

So how do you separate, with the explosion in the headphone market that includes a wild range in prices, a good from a great product?

Headphone design is a somewhat black art and to get past all of the brands’ PR claims you really need to hear them. Not listen to them, but actually hear them. Clarity is one of the most important traits of a great headphone. Listen for the distinction of midrange sound during a bass heavy portion of a song. Can you clearly hear it? Do vocals get drowned out by opposing pieces of the music?

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The biggest problem that’s not really a problem is that you need to be a good judge of the type of music you listen to and will mostly be playing through the headphones. Sound is so subjective by subject matter and by the individual. This is why judging a great headphone is so difficult. For me it is insanely hard, as my music taste is all over the place! I look for very clear mids and vocals, while trying to find a solid but not overpowering bass tone.

I am often asked about demo music that I use for speaker reviews and testing. Note that I use the same list in my headphone tryouts, too. Here’s my “a little bit weird test list” that goes a bit all over the place. These are just a few, beginning with Lemmy Kilmister’s aforementioned band.

  • Motorhead / Ace of Spades
  • Norah Jones / Don’t Know Why
  • Star Wars / Theme from original soundtrack
  • AC/DC / Thunder Struck
  • Eagles / Hotel California
  • Tina Turner / Nutbush City Limit
  • Mozart / Clarinet Concerto in A / Il. Adagio
  • Stevie Ray Vaughan / Little Sister
  • Jimi Hendrix / All Along the Watchtower
  • George Strait /…. any that I have on hand
  • Rihanna / S.O.S.
  • Ace of Base….. OK just kidding.

The last piece of advice when checking out a pair of headphones is to compare the sound against your 2-channel music system at home. Can you match that feeling of musical enjoyment? Can you see yourself listening to the headphones instead of your tower speakers? This is the last caveat for me. I don’t listen to my towers as often as I would like. Partially due to my other half, partially due to the new baby, and partially to the fact that I just want to hone in on the sound in a much closer and intimate fashion that can only be accomplished with a great set of headphones. Me and my music, on the road, at work and in my home.


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