Headphones are easy enough to scrimp on. After all, they’re free with every iPhone and hanging in plastic packages near the toothpaste in most drug stores, right? However, true audiophiles know the difference between those gift-with-purchase earbuds and truly experiencing music through something engineered to bring out every note and sharp breath left hanging between the tracks is not comparing apples to oranges; it’s comparing apples to rotting, putrid apples.
Naturally when researching the best headphones out there, innumerable variations arise in each prospective listener: Which genres dominate your collection? On what device is the music being played? Are you simply enjoying the tunes at hand, or are you creating them yourself? These questions help facilitate the correct choice for each buyer, so we talked to a few very different consumers who are experts themselves, each playing different roles in the music industry but with the common thread of being both creators and fanatics themselves.
First up is Dave Davidson, the lead guitarist, singer, and primary songwriter of technical death metal titans Revocation and guitarist of Gargoyl, a more recently formed band focused on a dark, progressive grunge and heavy metal sound. Dave graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston and gives guitar lessons via Skype when he’s not busy on a seemingly non-stop world tour with either of his bands. When he’s not shredding the faces off his legions of metalhead loyalists, he dedicates his time to studying and pursuing quite the successful jazz career so there’s really no sound out there he’s not sure of how to master.
Next we asked John Darnielle to weigh in on the topic. He’s a renowned American novelist, but most of his passionate fans know him for his prolific musical work over the last three decades as (both solo and with his regular bandmates) the Mountain Goats. From proletariat beginnings in which he created and distributed his own music using basically only talent, a guitar, and a boombox, John has grown into an astute consumer and expert on all things audio as his musical career expanded into one that’s internationally adored by the type of music obsessives who worship the best of everything, words and equipment alike.
Becka Diamond is, modestly in her own words, a “DJ and label manager for NYC based imprint Hospital Productions.” She’s traveled around the world spinning, was once called the “New York Fashion Week It Girl” by the Guardian, and has been profiled by too many publications to count who all agree her musical and aesthetic taste is unbeatable. If you’re a DJ of any skill level yourself, you’ve come to the right place to find out which headphones Becka says you need in your collection.
Jay Ruston spoke to us from his perspective as one of the most respected producers in modern heavy music whose resume includes a diverse list of bands and artists from Anthrax and Meat Loaf to Diana Ross and Fall Out Boy meaning if there’s a sound to be mastered, he’s done it. He also engineers and mixes (as producers are wont to do these days) so most of his life is spent inside a recording studio studying, splicing, and fine-tooth combing over endless hours of music, meaning he’s tested more headphones than most and knows exactly which qualities make certain models stand out.
Read on to find out which set of headphones each artist ranks top of the line in their respective worlds.
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We talked to Dave first, and he didn’t hesitate with his top pick.
“I use the Sennheiser Momentums,” he explained. “They’re a Bluetooth headphone, but they also can be hardwired into whatever device you’re working on–I usually just use the hardwired function since that’s what I’m used to. They’ve got a noise canceling feature on them, which is awesome for when I’m touring.”
As someone who spends sometimes the majority of his time on the road, he unsurprisingly gravitates toward something that serves him well on his travels. He continues:
“My biggest pet peeve is when I’m listening to death metal or jazz or classical, anything that is a really intricate form of music that requires a lot of paying attention to the details, and there’s so much noise in the environment when you’re on a plane or in a loud van, so the noise cancellation works like a charm. You can hear the music so much more clearly versus on a pair where you don’t have the noise-canceling function. With jazz or classical, there’s tons of dynamics there, so with those really quiet parts up through the loud sections, these allow the subtleties of the music to come out rather than get lost in the wash or whatever background noise that’s coming through.
The quality of the headphones is also really great. I’m basically using them to do all my reference mixes and masters for the new Gargoyl record, so I mean, I’m using them like I would a good pair of studio-quality headphones. The quality is on par with those. When I’m actually doing work and listening back, you know really scrutinizing every little part of a performance, there’s no clicks and pops. They’re really useful across the board and have been my go-to headphone since I got them about six months ago, and I definitely don’t see myself changing it up anytime soon since I’m so satisfied.”
Update: The Momentum headphones have since been updated and are only available through the manufacturer in wireless form now, as seen in the link below.
John was, as anyone familiar with his general composure might expect, immediately amped to talk about his current favorites and pointed to a few different options he both owns and lusts after, including the gorgeous pair seen above.
“The thing I'm kind of into now is what audiophiles call ‘Chi-fi’ -- Chinese headphones that can be found for value,” he mused. “Tons of people are taking chances on cheap IEMs and doing unboxing videos–it's a whole thing. You can customize colors, cords, etc. It's a whole hobby. I got these cheap as dirt and they're very, very good–I don't know that they're as good as my JVCs [which he also said “can take a whipping!], which are sort of more ‘everybody knows this is a good pair’ and were more expensive, but they're quite good, and getting value for money is kind of a big deal with headphones because unless you're just sitting quietly at a desk and storing them in a drawer between listens, they're probably gonna take some bumps along the line. The pair I REALLY want but can't really afford is called, wait for it, MOONDROP BLESSING.”
The Shozy Form 1.1’s he currently uses are currently on a “request”-only basis, but John highly recommends using Drop.com for audiophile purposes and plenty of other shopping dreams come true. “The way it works is the manufacturer offers a sale,” he continues, “but X number of people have to buy in before the sale fires. When it does fire, you get deep discounts.”
John also points out that while the Moondrops he’s got his eye on are quite pricey, a more affordable and equally gorgeous pair by the same maker can be found here for just over $100: Those ones aren't bad on price! Which is how dummies like me say, ‘I can't afford the $400 pair,’ and then buy three 100-dollar pairs over the course of a year.” But of course, be whatever kind of dummy you want.
Next up it was time for Becka’s two cents on which headphones she likes to tote all over the world for her gigs at top-billed clubs (see some snaps from those on her Instagram), which she discovered on one of her regular excursions across the Atlantic to the undisputed world capital of electronic music. “I was on the hunt for a new pair whilst in Berlin and asked my friend and DJ Ancient Methods what he used, and these were it,” she recalls. “They're not clunky, have a clear and loud output with punch, and are fully matte black. I've been using them ever since.”
The sleek design and surprisingly affordable price tag are bonuses of this model, which are “made for DJs by DJs” and promise “punchy and intense sound representation focused on bass and low-end dynamics.” Another bonus is the thick, cushy PU leather on-ear cushions that won’t start to hurt during a particularly long set and provide top quality isolation and sound representation. An ideal choice for the professional during a live performance, the TMA-2 DJ headphones are perfect for those who need a reliable, quality pair that won’t cost thousands and are easy to stash for dancing across the globe.
Jay provided a few options, but his first up was a classic with decades of engineering and testing to back up the lofty claims that they “deliver accurate response and high-resolution sound with precise stereo imaging, and faithfully reproduce every nuance of the mid to high-end with tight bass.”
“Most producers and engineers are used to walking into a record studio and seeing a pair of Yamaha NS-10 speakers on the mixing desk,” he says. “I’ve been mixing on them since the 90’s. Yamaha also makes an incredible line of headphones called HPH. My favorites are the HPH-MT8, as they sound like a ‘speaker.’ They’re designed to sound like an NS-10.”
He wanted to give us the full range of quality and price, so Jay’s next recommendation is for seasoned pros only–or at least those who want to appear as such.
“These headphones sound unreal. Audeze has quite a few different models including in-ear monitoring, so research their line of products before buying. These are pretty much the best sounding headphones I’ve ever heard. Perfectly balanced across the entire frequency spectrum. When checking mixes these headphones also give me a very accurate comparison to speakers.” Another upside for producers who, like Jay, are passionate animal rights activists is the headphones come with the option to be leather-free so they’re not only created with studio wiz types in mind but also ethically-minded as well.