hp1If you’ve noticed that more and more commuters are swapping their tiny earbuds for full headphones lately, well we’re following the Europeans where according to my observations anyway headphone commuters now out-number those with earbuds.

It’s all about the re-discovery of sound quality. Memory chips in portable music players, computers and tablets have now become big enough to store music files at full CD quality or even better. Chintzy ten-dollar earbuds simply don’t cut it when you have Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic bashing out Beethoven’s ninth in 24-bit/96-kilohertz definition. You need something that inspires, transcends and sings a song of joy. Especially when you’re on a bus.

And it’s when people switch from earbuds to headphones that they discover the other great benefit of spending more to get more – as well as sounding way better these things are a lot more comfortable.

So headphones are booming. It started a few years ago with head-banger models like Dr Dre and Sol Republic, aimed squarely at hip-hoppers prepared to pay a premium price for what was as much a statement of fashion as audio. Their success alerted the established brands to the potential of this market.

hp2Sennheiser jumped first in with its Momentum models, presenting a superb balance of comfort, sound quality, good looks and featherweight technology for $300 to $400 and it’s selling truckloads. And now the market is crowded with premium quality headphones aimed squarely at commuters. You can tell something’s happening when Bowers and Wilkins upgrades its already delicious P5 with the $450 P5 Series Two, and especially when McIntosh, a brand up there at the giddy top of the audio tree, unveils its first ever headphone, the MHP1000. It costs, wait for it, $2995.

Commuter headphones vary from home headphones in several ways. They have shorter cables, usually around 1.2 to 1.5 metres, that are less likely to tangle when you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with life’s fellow passengers. And they usually have cable-mounted controllers for taking calls when using with a phone.

Traditional headphones aimed for use at home not only have a much longer cord, usually around three metres, they often have a 6.3 mm plug for the large outlets on amplifiers and disc players while portables, phones and tablets almost always have a 3.5 mm plug. Actually many headphones these days are supplied with both plug sizes. If not, hi fi shops have adaptors.

A 1.3-metre cable may be great for commuting but it’s too short for use at home unless you can sit immediately adjacent to whatever it’s plugged into, and even then it’s limiting. The obvious solution is to buy a cable extension, just like an electrical extension cord. But be careful; unless the cable is first quality you’ll hear a marked drop-off in sound quality. This is not something only a purist will hear, the quality drop-off can be so obvious it’s annoying.

Of course top deck home headphones like Oppo and Stax come with their own amplifier to avoid headphone outlets that are sometimes a bit less than optimum, even on good quality amplifiers and source units. Oppo’s HA1 headphone amplifier is $1799 while the headphones that plug into it are $1099 to $1699. Or you can buy your own headphone amplifier from makers like Musical Fidelity and Beyerdynamic from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.

hp3Stax electrostatics (around $1700 to around $7500) have an airy delicacy that is sublime. I’ve owned two pairs but I’d never buy a third. My first pair lasted more than 20 years with almost daily use, my second literally fell apart in a mess of plastic and sticky glue about a year after the warranty expired. At prices like these that’s simply not acceptable. For all of that I love the fragile sound they create that seems to hang in the air. But they can’t match the Oppo’s low end responsiveness and speed. The Oppos are achingly good.

For the great bulk of listeners however, a budget of $250 to $500 buys sound quality and comfort that provides an exceptional experience. In this territory Sennheiser’s HD models, ranging from $300 to $1699, are always safe buying. SoundTrues by Bose at $229 are brilliant value, I also like PSB’s M4U2 at $369 and Focal’s Spirit models from $200 to $600. Austrian company AKG started making headphones in 1949 and has never stopped, and prices start from $59 for its K511s (terrific value) while its K551s at $429 and Q701s at $550 are solid buying for purists.

Sony and Bose lead the way in noise cancellation, and Sony, as well as being cheaper offers Bluetooth. But to my ears the Bose sound crisper and more defined, and are more comfortable. The new Bose QC25s come in an excellent travel case with apertures for a spare battery and for the supplied plug that connects them to in-flight entertainment systems.

hp4Big headphone brands, including Sennheiser, AKG, Dr Dre and Bose share a common problem; their products are so popular that counterfeits are being sold in street markets and on-line in numbers great enough to dint the brands’ sales performances as well as damage their reputations.

All these companies have warnings about counterfeits on their websites and they hear daily from people who have been ripped off, usually when they bring the product in for warranty work and discover the bitter truth.

The scariest story we’ve heard was a Melbourne guy who bought a cordless microphone on-line wearing a Sennheiser brand. He switched the voltage selector on the receiver from 110 to 240, plugged it in and it got hot as a toaster. So he took it the Sennheiser. Identifying it as a fake, the service people discovered the selector switch wasn’t even connected; if the guy hadn’t unplugged it he likely would have had a fire.

The best advice for spotting fakes we found was on the Dr Dre website. Don’t believe it if:
• the price is too good to be true,
• the unit price goes down for buying more,
• the packaging is faded or damaged, dodgy, loose or non-existent, or has miss-spelled words,
• and there’s no warranty information or manual.

Published December 2014