One thing I suggest to prospective customers for a specific headphone, if I have that headphone on hand, is for them to suggest 2 or 3 music tracks by a particular artist and composer that I can sample on that headphone, not so much for me to suggest how it sounds, but mostly to check if that headphone has any real sonic issues with that music. For example, a headphone that’s ideal for classical and acoustic music might sound too harsh with metal and industrial goth.
The Bose Frames are non-polarized sunglasses with special speakers built into each arm. The idea is that they’re designed to look like regular sunglasses, but also act as Bluetooth headphones. Since there’s no earbud that actually goes into your ears, the speakers have been engineered to shoot audio down into your ears; the neat thing is that the Bose Frames do a very good job at masking your audio so that the people around you can’t really hear what you’re listening to. They are available in two different frame styles, round (Rondo) or square (Aldo).
We use a commercially-available Bluetooth high-def interface with an S/PDIF output to test the Bluetooth output of four flagship phones. This way, we’re able to record test signal output and compare the datasets with our in-house analysis software. We kicked the tires on a 96kHz/24-bit test file to see how Bluetooth handled high-bitrate music, as well as normal 44.1kHz/16-bit files to see how each codec treated CD-quality streaming audio. We then measured the recorded sample against the original file. We used both lograrithmic sine sweeps, and complex signals like square waves in order to provide a more realistic set of tests for how people actually use Bluetooth headphones.
The fit isn’t always an easy thing to be sure of when you can’t try before buying, since some ear pads will not have a satisfactory fit to some ears. Power requirements aren’t a simple matter of looking at the impedance, since efficiency or sensitivity doesn’t always track directly with impedance. Another issue indirectly related to power requirements are whether the headphone has the option for ‘balanced’ use or some other connection that isn’t a 3.5 mm or 6.35 mm jack and plug.
Smaller earbud type earpieces, which plugged into the user's ear canal, were first developed for hearing aids. They became widely used with transistor radios, which commercially appeared in 1954 with the introduction of the Regency TR-1. The most popular audio device in history, the transistor radio changed listening habits, allowing people to listen to radio anywhere. The earbud uses either a moving iron driver or a piezoelectric crystal to produce sound. The 3.5 mm radio and phone connector, which is the most commonly used in portable application today, has been used at least since the Sony EFM-117J transistor radio, which was released in 1964. Its popularity was reinforced with its use on the Walkman portable tape player in 1979.
Despite big promises from Bluetooth’s only Hi-res codec, the standard doesn’t really deliver at best, and it falls far short with its basic 330kbps setting. Both the 660kbps and 990kbps connections offer decent quality, but the 330kbps setting has a lot of noise—and a comparatively poor frequency response with higher-def content. You probably won’t hear it, but it definitely falls short of the marketing.
The Samsung Galaxy Buds are one of the best-scoring portable Bluetooth headphones Consumer Reports has ever tested. That’s all the more impressive given their “true wireless” design, meaning the model doesn’t have a cord connecting the left earbud to the right. That’s the same design scheme popularized by Apple’s AirPods, but our testers say the Galaxy Buds sound dramatically better.
I will get to these today. Just imagine the sound you hear is a line stretching left to right, with bass at the left and treble to the right. Now the line is tilted toward the right so the bass is higher (stronger) and the treble lower (weaker). That’s an example of getting darker. It’s not a perfect analogy, since any complex combination of sounds or balance is possible, but in general when something sounds darker you’ll have less influence of the treble.
While Apple’s AirPods get a lot of attention for how well they work with other Apple products, there’s actually a more affordable option that’s just as tightly integrated: the Beats BeatsX Earphones. Apple owns the Beats brand, and it’s built the BeatsX earphones with the same W1 chip that’s in the AirPods. That means that the user experience is virtually identical – iOS makes it super easy to pair them with any iPhone or iPad. Our favorite part is they have a Fast Fuel feature, so when your battery is low, plugging them in for five minutes provides two hours of talk time. We’re also big fans of the COWIN E7 Headphones. They’re wireless, they’ve got on-board noise cancellation, and they can last up to 30 hours on a single charge. The E7’s have an impressive spec sheet for any price point, but the fact that they’re so affordable makes them an even better value. If you’re looking for affordable over-the-ear headphones that don’t make any compromises, this is the pair to get.
Portability can mean many things, such as appearance in public, having a secure fit so the headphone doesn’t shift off of your ears, amount of isolation from ambient noise (including active noise canceling), whether the headphone can be worn around the neck when not listening or it requires a carry case, and when extra amplification is required, whether a suitable amp can be found that’s OK to carry along with the portable music player.
Unlike with other codecs, AAC test signals from Android phones like the Huawei P20 Pro, LG V30, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 all vary wildly. Though we can’t definitively say why each Android device seems to handle AAC encoding differently, the fact of the matter is that only Apple can do it well. We suspect some of the power saving features baked into the Google ecosystem’s varying hardware has consequences for audio playback. Nowhere is this more apparent than Huawei’s power-sipping P20 Pro, which seems to cut out at around 14.25kHz.
I tend to regard the M50 as the minimum for hi-fi listening with no apologies for limitations. But if you have to go cheaper than the usual $125 USD for the M50, the B&O Form2 with a simple bass boost gives a real hi-fi sound, and it should be available for about $100. The Beyer DTX-501P (similar to soundmagic P30) is good for $100, but needs a slight treble boost. The LSTN Fillmore with wood cups is somewhat colored, but still a good listen and good for $100. Below $100 are the Sennheiser PX series – not hi-fi by any means. There are several good IEMs below $100, and Apple Earpods with a Dirac or Accudio Pro player are very hi-fi, and cheap.
If you won’t compromise on sound quality—and you’re willing to pay for it—the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay E6 may be for you. It doesn’t come cheap, but the Beoplay E6 is one of the best portable wireless models we’ve ever tested. In addition to sound quality, it has design perks including magnets that clip the earpieces together (and automatically turn the headphones off) for easy transport, a braided cable for added durability, and water resistance, according to the manufacturer.
Today they are typically used only in in-ear headphones and hearing aids, where their high efficiency and diminutive size is a major advantage. They generally are limited at the extremes of the hearing spectrum (e.g. below 20 Hz and above 16 kHz) and require a better seal than other types of drivers to deliver their full potential. Higher-end models may employ multiple armature drivers, dividing the frequency ranges between them using a passive crossover network. A few combine an armature driver with a small moving-coil driver for increased bass output.
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