Christmas 2012: Top 10 Best Headphones, Earbuds List for Chicago Music Lovers

With Black Friday 2012 behind us and Christmas 2012 rapidly appraoching, we expect to continue to see great deals on headphones and we are in the market for some earbuds or  headphones so we researched how to buy them and found some good ones.  We share our research with you below.  The portable audio market is packed with different types of headphones, many of which are designed for specific applications. So before you buy, here are some guidelines to help you pick the perfect pair of headphones for your lifestyle.     The right pair of headphones can solve a number of audio/video dilemmas. They can allow you to listen to music and movies late at night without keeping your family awake. They can let you take your favorite music with you — jogging, doing housework, doing yardwork — wherever. They can provide relief from distracting noise while you’re at work or traveling. Even if you just want to get better sound from your home A/V system, high-end headphones are a relatively affordable solution.


When choosing a good pair of headphones, you’ve got to consider two things: what need do you want the headphones to satisfy, and what kind of music do you generally listen to? Below, you’ll find information on the four basic types of headphones — home, portable, noise-canceling, and wireless — so you can choose the one that’ll best fit your activity the best. Then we’ll give you tips on features to look for to get the best sound for your listening habits.



Wired or Wireless
For an active lifestyle, consider the options of a wireless set of headphones. Wireless headphones work off Bluetooth that many smart phones have built-in. The downside: wireless headphones require batteries. Therefore, if you prefer traditional corded headphones, opt for a pair with a strong cord reinforced with something like Kevlar. For a good wireless option, keep your eyes peeled for deals on the Jabra SPORT Bluetooth Stereo Headset ($99.95 with free shipping).


Battery Life
The amount of electricity it takes to power your wireless headphones is also important. The more energy required, the shorter the battery life. You won’t be happy with a pair of earphones that drains your battery before you can complete your workout, so favor those with a low “impedance,” or the measurement (in ohms) of electricity used. 24 ohms or less is a target figure.


The frequency range of human hearing is 20Hz to 20kHz, so there’s no need for phones that exceed this range. If you’re a jazz or classical fan, opt for headphones rated strong in the midrange and high end. If you’re a fan of pop, rap, dance, or hip-hop, select a pair of headphones that are strong in the bass end of the spectrum.




Budget Picks: Shure SE215 (street price around $99.00; pictured right). The SE215 is a steal at $99.00, especially if you like your bass with a little extra thump. The SE215’s bass is emphasized, but yet bass detail is still quite good. The smooth mids and treble round out a level of performance well above the SE215’s price. With top-notch build quality, detachable cables, and excellent noise isolation, the SE215 is a very easy recommendation at $99.00. The SE215 could be improved with in-line controls and a little more treble presence, but, given the overall performance, this is really nitpicking.


If you like to wear headphones when you exercise, we ‘d also recommend the Sennheiser PMX 680 Sports Earbud Headphones ($50.00), which is the best fitness headphone we’ve ever used. It’s essentially a pair of earbuds held together with a behind-the-neck headband. The PMX 680 Sport sounds exceptional for headphones that can resist rain and sweat, and that can be rinsed under running water. Run hard, run fast, the PMX 680’s earpieces stay comfortably locked in place.


Midrange Pick: Etymotic Research HF5 Portable In-Ear Earphones, street price around $110.00. The HF5 is more neutral than Shure’s SE215, without the SE215’s less bass emphasis, and more overall resolution. Where one might describe the SE215 budget Shure as being more fun (for its bass emphasis), the HF5 has, to my ears, a sonic signature that we would describe as more reference-quality. Like the SE215, the HF5 isolates very well (maybe even a little more than the SE215), and the build quality is very good. The straight-body design makes for particularly easy ear insertion. Some might argue the HF5 could use a touch more bass, but we’re not one of them—we like it just fine, for what it is, and especially given its very reasonable price.


Wallet-Busting Picks: Like a bespoke suit, custom in-ear monitors (IEMs) are made just for you, are molded to the exact shape of your ears (usually by an audiologist)—and like a custom suit, custom IEMs are exceptionally comfortable, and usually trés expensive. To my ears, the best custom IEMs are some of the best sounding headphones of any type currently available. Only two years old but already a legend, JH Audio’s JH13 Pro (priced at $1,099.00), is coming up against several new competitors in the cost-no-object custom in-ear monitor realm, but it’s still the first custom IEM we recommend for those who aren’t quite sure what their preferred sound signature is. If you know you want more neutrality, consider the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor ($999.00) or Westone ES5 Earphones ($1,000.00). If you want more emphasized bass, go for the JH Audio JH16 Pro. But if you’re simply not sure (or if you’re on the fence), the JH13 Pro is the safest cost-no-object in-ear recommendation, as it provides mildly emphasized bass (and we find most people prefer mildly emphasized bass), with neutral mids and treble, and outstanding treble extension. Whichever custom you choose, expect to pay about an additional $50.00 to get molds of your ears made at a local audiologist (that you will then send in to the IEM maker).

Ear Pad Headphones


Budget Picks: Grado Prestige Series SR-60i Padded Headphones, around $79.00. This entry-level, open-back Grado headphone has probably created more headphone audiophiles than any other single headphone model. we’ve yet to find a headphone at or below its price that can so consistently bring smiles and wows from those new to the good stuff. The SR60i’s bass is full but balanced, mids are dynamic, treble is sparkly and detailed. Resolving and lively, the SR60i has bona fide audiophile street cred—and yet it’s also fun! Plus, the retro styling of the SR60i turns heads.

For an open-backed pick in this category, consider Sennheiser PX 100-II On Ear Miniheadphone (pictured right), which is around $90.00 (and make sure you’re getting the “II” version, as it is an improvement over the first-generation PX 200). A closed headphone, we’d recommend the PX 200-II over the Grado if you want isolation, and/or you want to keep your music from disturbing others nearby. Its tonal balance is on the more neutral, accurate side. The PX 200-II folds into a very small, tidy package for easy portability.


Midrange and Expensive Picks: Two of our favorite ear pad headphones over $100.00 are currently the venerable Sennheiser HD25-1 II Closed-Back Headphones (street price $200.00), and Beyerdynamic Tesla DT 1350 ($299.00). Both of these headphones target both the pro audio and audiophile markets. Both are closed, and both isolate as well as any other ear pad headphones we’ve used. Most importantly, these headphones are capable of delivering outstanding, reference-quality sound.



Full Size Headphones


Budget Pick: Shure SRH440 Professional Studio Headphones (around $100.00). A closed-back pro-audio-oriented headphone, the SRH440 has found popularity for studio use. Many audiophiles also appreciate its more neutral tonal balance, the SRH440 having none of the bass bloat that many of its closed competitors have. Though a full-size headphone, the SRH440 does fold into a pretty compact, portable bundle.


Midrange Picks: Audio-Technica ATHM50 (around $130.00). Of all the headphones we’ve mentioned in this piece, the ATH-M50 is the headphone we’ve spent the least time with. We’re including the closed-back ATH-M50 because it is a very strong favorite in this price range, with a tendency toward bass emphasis and sparkly treble.


For a nice open-backed full size headphone in this price range, Sennheiser HD 558 Headphones (around $180.00; pictured right) is one of the best choices we’ve come across. Lightweight, and well padded, the HD 558 is among my most comfortable headphones (at any price), and we have a lot of headphones here. And, thankfully, the HD 558 sounds as good as it is comfortable, projecting a wide, open sonic image. Though its bass presentation is more on the neutral side, there’s a sense of fullness down low. Smooth, yet with outstanding detail overall, is how we’d characterize this headphone.


Wallet-Busting Picks: All of my favorite cost-no-object full size headphones are open-back, and all benefit tremendously from dedicated headphone amplifiers Sennheiser HD800 (street price around $1500.00 – pictured right) is probably one of the most revealing headphones ever made. To wring the best performance out of it, the HD 800 absolutely needs to be matched well with a good headphone amplifier. It is a ruthlessly revealing headphone. Match it up poorly, and it can be overly bright. Drive it well, and the HD 800 will reward you with what will probably be the best sound quality you’ve ever heard. Yes, the HD 800 is picky, but, in my opinion, it’s worth the effort. Also, hands down, the HD 800 is the most comfortable headphone I’ve ever worn.


Two companies have pushed the envelope in planar magnetic driver design, HiFiMAN and Audeze. The new HiFiMan – HE-500 Headphones ($699.00) and the Audeze LCD-2 ($945.00) are designed to be efficient enough to be driven by portable devices like iPods and smart phones with good results, but both can scale to HD 800-class performance with top-notch headphone amplifiers. These top-tier planar magnetic driver assemblies are very heavy, though, and both the HE-500 and LCD-2 can feel heavy on the head, and aren’t nearly as comfortable as the HD 800. Less picky about amplification than the HD 800, it can be easier to build a world-class headphone rig around these top-tier planar magnetic headphones than around Sennheiser’s flagship HD 800.


Noise Cancelling Headphones


We haven’t yet tried an active noise cancelling headphone in the sub-$100 price range (or even close to it) that we felt was worth listening to my music through, so we have no budget recommendations here.

Bose® QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones ($299.00; pictured right) has the most effective active noise cancellation circuit we’ve yet used. If the amount of active noise attenuation is your primary consideration, the QC15 would be our top recommendation—it’s uncanny good in this regard. Musically, the QC15 sounds pretty good, but, if you’re used to better-quality headphones, it’s not likely to wow you with its output.


Sennheiser PXC 450 NoiseGard Active Noise-Canceling Headphones (around $350.00) has a good noise cancellation circuit, though it’s not quite as effective as the QC15’s. Where the PXC 450 does have an advantage, though, is in its sound quality, being more detailed and musical than any of Bose’s headphones. Another big advantage for the Sennheiser is its ability to be used as a passive headphone. With most active noise cancelers, the music stops when the battery dies. However, the PXC 450 has a bypass mode that you can use when the battery dies, or when you simply don’t need the active noise cancellation circuit.


Noise Isolation Headphones


Any of the in-ear headphones we recommended above (except the Sennheiser PMX 680, which does not isolate) will provide noise attenuation greater than any consumer active noise cancellation headphone we know of.   As for over-ear passive isolation, several of the models we mentioned above—namely the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II, beyerdynamic DT 1350, Audio-Technica ATH-M50, and Shure SRH-440—would be good choices for passive noise isolation (the Sennheiser and beyerdynamic being exceptionally good in this regard).     Another good over-ear passive isolator is the über-stylish Bowers & Wilkins P5 Mobile HiFi Stereo Headphones ($299.00). It doesn’t quite have the sound quality of the above choices (though it does still sound quite good), but does provide extremely effective noise isolation, inline controls and microphone, and is a fantastic travel headphone.


Wireless Headphones


Walk into any electronics store, and you’re likely to come across several wireless headphones and stereo headsets. However, the chance that any of them are worthwhile for music listening is probably slim to none. As with the active noise cancelers, we have no sub-$100 recommendations here.


Sennheiser MM 450-X Wireless Bluetooth Headphones (around $450.00) is a feat of engineering. Our experience with stereo Bluetooth headphones had not been at all encouraging until we came across the MM 450 Travel. This closed-back headphone is easily the best sounding Bluetooth stereo headphone we have ever heard. No, you won’t mistake it for Sennheiser’s flagship HD 800, but you also won’t believe your music is being piped to you through Bluetooth. The MM 450 also has very good active noise cancellation (no, not as good as the QC15’s, but still very good), can be used passively (via an included cable) when the battery dies (or when you’d rather not drain its rechargeable battery), includes a very nifty TalkThrough feature that allows you to hear the world around you (using its built-in stereo microphones), can be used as a Bluetooth headset, and has control buttons with which to easily control your calls and music.


For home use, the best sounding wireless headphone we’ve used so far is Sennheiser RS 170 Digital Wireless Headphone (around $280.00; pictured right). To maximize wireless sound quality, Sennheiser opted to license Kleer wireless technology (which allows for uncompressed CD-quality wireless transmission). The RS 170’s headphone is closed-back, and has very good sound quality for both music and movies.


If the idea of a hi-fi quality wireless in-ear monitor interests you, Sleek Audio makes its in-ear monitors available with a wireless option that, like Sennheiser’s RS 170, uses Kleer wireless technology. The Sleek Audio SA1 High-Fidelity wireless earphone system is priced at $170.00, and their top-of-the-line custom-molded CT7 W-1 comes in at around $800.00. They have a couple of systems that come in between these two, in terms of both price and performance.

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