What’s With All The ‘Phones?

April 17, 2012
2 mins read
Sony XBA4 balanced armature earphones

I’ve been asked why I’m reviewing so many earphones and headphones lately (and there are more to come, along with some headphone amps and DACs like the NuForce Icon iDo review that just went live). “What happened to the hi-fi gear?” they ask. Well, there’s plenty of hi-fi coming too but head-fi is where I spend a great deal of my time these days. Like many of our readers I suspect, most of my music listening happens in the car and through a set of ‘phones.

Car stereos are something we haven’t spent much time on (and maybe we should) but ‘phones and their accessories are one of the areas where huge improvements in sound quality can be had for comparatively little outlay. The reason for this is that in almost all cases, the earphones supplied with smartphones and portable media players are lackluster afterthoughts – how else does one explain the enormous aftermarket earphone segment? I’ve haven’t encountered a semi-decent set of supplied ‘phones in the last few years, although the Sony models seem to be at the top of the pile but even these are easily surpassed by budget aftermarket units – Sennheiser’s MX460 for example is one I often refer to as a superior cheap choice, I’ve recommend them to many friends over the years and not even the tin-eared ones have come back moaning that they couldn’t hear a difference.

Spend a little more (or a lot more depending on your dedication and budget) and you can elevate the performance of a portable player to unprecedented levels, especially if your music files are ripped at high bitrates. The Paradigm Shift E3m I reviewed here puts on a very impressive performance for under a hundy and there are heaps of choices around that price point – for example, we’ve just got a set of Sony’s latest single balanced armature driver XBA1 ‘phones in for review and they retail for $99 (I’ve also got my grubby paws on the $399 four driver XBA4 model).

Sony XBA1 balanced armature earphones

If you haven’t tried a good set of aftermarket ‘phones, I urge you to do so post haste rather than having swill shoveled into your ears by the standard ‘phones you found in the box with your portable device.

The bigger headphones have their place too, even in a household that prides itself on its hi-fi excellence. Sometimes there are family concerns that limit the enjoyment of a stereo system after certain hours, while other readers will have small systems in small rooms that just can’t do justice to specific types of music. Then there’s the prodigious amount of money that needs to be spent on a loudspeaker based system if it’s to come vaguely close to the detail and impact rendering capabilities of a really good head-fi system, which can be had for not a great deal of money.

However you look at ‘phones, they make sense and if you spend any real time with portable music, then the ‘phones become the most critical part of the signal chain besides your ears (and musical taste of course – talking to Sean in Charlotte here). So we’ll keep looking at the things we like to stick in our ears and the other things we wear over them. Head-fi is a great deal of fun and it’s still the cheapest way to get intimately close to and deeply involved with your music.


  1. Senn 460’s are great.

    Esp as I can’t wear the in ear canal types and the on ear canal ones are few and far between.

  2. The latest apple earphones are much better than the ones i got 5 years ago.

    In fact although everyone seems to slag them off I think they are alright. In ear canal phonehave a better seal and so have the advantage of potentially better sound. But for basic earbuds they aren’t half bad.

    Ps. I use a variety of hps depending on use and music type. Grado gs1000, 80’s, SEN650, 414, 25ii, 200ii, Akg701 etc. But for walking the dog I tend to use the apple earbuds.

  3. I first spent more than $20 US that is based on your recommendations for my son. I loved the UE noise cancelling phones, about $37 here. I see myself heading for something more as other sets give out. That said, whats wrong with Techno/Trance?

  4. Frankie – thanks for the feedback. My most recent Apple ‘phones were from a year or so back and sounded much like the ones I had from a year before that. They’re not the end of the world in terms of their sonics, certainly not as bad as the ones I got with a succession of Korean made MP3 players (some of which were as abominable as a Yeti) but I still found the good old 460s to be much nicer overall – for around NZ$30, you can’t go wrong. I’m one of those lucky individuals who can tolerate the in-ear models with no issues at all, even over multiple long haul flights.

  5. Sean (in Charlotte) – G’day mate, how’s the weather? Glad to hear that you’re moving upmarket sonically. There’s nothing wrong with techno/trance, although I admit that I might be mentally scarred from hearing it played with you behind the wheel of your Hyundai – fear of death leading to a negative association you see 🙂

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