I’ve thought of writing a thread like this for at least a year, but since I’m home with a cold, and nothing better to do, I thought I’d start it out. It’s meant to provide basic pointers for newbies who might be a little overwhelmed, as many of us were when we first found this site. I tried to think of all the threads I’ve seen and what might be helpful in general terms. You can agree with me on things or not, and that’s fine. These are just my thoughts. Please forgive the typos I’m sure are rampant.
Most of us come to this website with a love of music, a musical background, a background in audio gear, or in nothing at all, but often have very little or no prior knowledge about headphones. Folks on this board are friendly, enthusiastic and helpful, but sometimes that’s the problem: ask one question and get 50 answers, many of them contradicting each other….and who the heck are these people telling me things anyway? Hope these thoughts can help you find your way a little more easily.
Before buying headphones
1. Think about the whole system and budget for that. I can’t stress this enough. There are really good sounding headphones to suit almost any budget and any system requirements, but you really need to know what you’re getting into. Don't just think about the headphone. If you’re looking to buy a headphone, you also need to know what else you need (or don't need) to make it sound good. If you’re buying a reference quality headphone, they most often (not always) require dedicated home components to bring out the qualities that people talk about. That’s just the way it is. They require a well-matched amp that can drive them well. Many will be revealing of poor quality recordings and low bit rate downloads if you’re using your computer. If, for example, you're interested in the HD650 because you’ve read it’s good, just know that you might be disappointed if you don’t amp it properly, and if you amp it properly, you might be disappointed in the sound you’re getting if your source and/or recordings don’t cut it. On the other side of things, there are really good headphones that sound just fine without an amp and straight out of an ipod or computer soundcard if that’s what you want. You can get good sound in a lot of different ways at almost any price point, but research what you’re looking for, and put what you need in your budget before you decide on anything. It will actually save you money in the long run.
2.Portable amps aren’t the answer. Okay, sometimes they’re the answer, but mostly when portable headphones are involved. I know I’m going to get grief for this one, but so be it. I like portable amps, have owned some really nice ones, and have listened to a lot more. They are great for portable headphones, and do okay with some headphones designed for home use, but they do not take the place of a decent dedicated home amp when using headphones that were created for audiophile listening at home. Sure, they’ll make your headphones louder, but loudness does not equal sound quality, which is the real purpose of amplification. A properly driven headphone sounds amazing at very low volumes. If your lifestyle dictates that you need portability, then I suggest researching the many excellent choices in headphones that are not demanding when it comes to amplification. Don’t rush out and get a K702 because you heard it’s great with classical and expect to hear anything close to how it can sound with a portable amp. If you’re choosing a headphone that needs a amp, a portable amp may be a good stepping stone if you’re slowly building a system like I and many others did, but again, be aware of the compromise you’re making, and be happy with whatever you choose. Just think: if portable headphones were the best option for all headphones, no one would be making home amps, and that’s just not happening.
[Currawong's Note: This was written prior to the introduction of balanced portable amps as well as some others that offer close to desktop-level capability.]
3.Source matters. Yes, it does. High quality headphones reveal your source. That’s their job. Garbage in, garbage out. I love my ipod, but when I’m using it, I choose headphones that sound good, but are more forgiving of my source’s flaws when listening. If I were to use one of my more revealing headphones, I wouldn’t be enjoying the music nearly as much. Whether you consider getting a good dac, a dedicated cdp, or lod for an ipod, there are a lot of different ways to go. For portable, I like choosing forgiving headphones and not worrying about amp or source; for home, I prefer the best cdp I can afford, and one day, I'd like a good turntable. Others may choose differently, but if you’re looking at getting high quality headphones, know that they’re only as good as what you’re feeding them.
Navigating this forum
1.Read before posting. Research before posting. Use the search function before posting. There are answers to almost every question you have and ones you didn’t know you had buried everywhere in this forum. Please do a little research before asking, “What’s the best headphone for $100?” There are already 900 threads answering questions about good headphones for bass, and gaming, and jazz, and trance, and classical, and there was even a not surprisingly lengthy thread about what headphones for were good for dirty movies. Think about your purpose, what type of music you like, your budget and what you want in a rig, and start reading. Then, if you’re ready for some personalized attention and want to start a thread, you’ll have a frame of reference by which to ask questions and judge responses. More experienced members will also be more inclined to be helpful if it’s obvious that you’ve done a little reading.
2.Post-count means nada. Some of the most knowledgeable members on this forum have low post counts, and some of the biggest buffoons have the highest. Do not judge recommendations by someone’s post-count. It often, sadly, only means they like to post for the sake of posting. Though that’s not always true, just know it often is.
3.Be aware and ask questions. Along the same lines as above, this forum constantly amazes me with the wealth of genuine knowledge and experience available on a daily basis. On the other hand, it also amazes and saddens me that some members post without knowledge, but in a manner that masquerades as knowledge. Although not the majority, there are more than a few that will recommend or trash gear that they’ve never heard or seen. There are also those who have experience with one or two headphones or amps, but post as if they are experts on all things. I want to emphasize that most members are not like this, but it's the internet, so you get all kinds, and some of the offenders like to post a lot. Before you take anyone’s advice on anything, read profiles for gear lists, and don’t be afraid to ask questions of members that require more detailed answers about their listening experience with a product or in general. If someone is saying X headphone is the “best,” go ahead and ask, "As compared to what other headphones?"….or amps….or whatever. It’s good people recommend gear they’re enthusiastic about, even if it’s their first and only headphone, but it’s a-okay to get a pulse on why they think it’s good and their frame of reference for what good is. Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion, but reality also dictates that some opinions are more informed than others and not all opinions are equal. It’s your money you’re spending. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the people who are telling you how to spend it.
4.Don’t take things personally. If I don’t like a particular headphone or amp, I just don’t like it, and I’ll be happy to answer questions as to why. It’s not a personal attack. It’s a perspective and an opinion. I’m not putting you down in any way or trying to discredit you personally. It’s gear. Just gear. You’re also quite free to not like the things that please me. I don’t take it personally. This is an audio forum. We should be free to talk about what we like and dislike, be it inexpensive or expensive, or in-between; we should be free to make comparisons and disagree, sometimes emphatically, about things without people taking personal offense and crying “snob” or shooting off at the mouth if something they love isn’t to another’s liking. Some of the members here, whom I respect the most, and who have the most knowledge and experience with a wide variety of gear, hear things much as I do and yet often make different choices as to what pleases them. It’s even quite funny. But, it’s also quite sad when folks get their panties in a bunch (I stole that line from grawk) over someone simply not liking something. Egad.
5. Beware of Flavor of the Month threads. Everyone wants to be in on the next best thing. It’s even better if it’s “giant killer.” Put those two together, and you’ve got FOTM threads that just run crazy. There’s nothing wrong with them, and such enthusiasm is great for the hobby in lots of ways, but the problem is that it’s easy to confuse the fervor surrounding these products with what’s real. The product in question may turn out to be as wonderful as everyone is saying, but I’ve also experienced the opposite as well. Just use common sense. If five people, who have never owned a high-end amp or headphone before, are claiming product X is the best thing going, know it means they like it and very little more. It doesn’t mean they’ve any points of reference to make or support such a claim. It also doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Just don’t be afraid to ask people to back up their statements and ask lots of questions. If you find yourself believing certain posts without having any evidence that the poster knows what he or she is talking about, don’t be afraid to question yourself and why the heck you’re falling for straight-up bullhooey. I think many of us have gotten caught up in FOTMs before, and I probably will do so again. It’s fun as long as you’re aware what’s really going on, and that it can be hit and miss as far as you liking what others are touting.
6.Meet impressions are your friend. (and tying all this together kinda) When you’re doing your research, don’t forget to read meet impressions threads. You’ll get the first-hand impressions of many different folks who are listening to whole rigs, and sometimes bringing headphones around to different rigs for comparison. That's really valuable information. People that go to meets often have been to more than a few, have owned or shared a lot of gear with each other, and even if it’s a first meet, members suddenly have points of comparison by which to make judgments, etc. At the larger meets, there’s almost always a full range of gear from the least expensive to the most. Vendors also frequently showcase their stuff and introduce new products at meets. If you can’t get to a meet (highly recommended), read the impressions threads, then follow up with research in the equipment forum threads. Meet impressions also have their drawbacks, so don't be afraid to ask questions there as well.
I know I’m leaving a lot out, but it's a start, and I’m hoping others will put in their two cents as well. These are the things that others passed on to me when I first joined, and still seem true today. Hope some have been helpful, and I wish you happy listening.
Some other helpful tidbits pulled from this thread:
One thing I'd like to add is that I firmly believe that gear recommendations should be taken in light of one's *primary* music genre preference. I tried a lot of gear out in the early days and just couldn't understand what the heck people were hearing. It took a year or two for me to realize this, and then I began implementing this extra dimension to my search criteria, by looking at a person's profile or asking directly before taking stock of what they said. Taken to the logical extreme, I even began seeking out people with similar music preferences and believe it or not, I found a much, much better "match rate" when trying out new gear.
Anyways, what an excellent thread!
Keep in mind how you will use your headphone
I always stress to people, be realistic about how you are going to use your headphones and the primary environment. For example, if the main purpose is to use something whilst commuting, it doesn't make sense to spend $300+ on earphones, incorporate a portable amp and load your DAP with nothing but lossless files which take up a heck of a lot more space than V0 MP3s. No matter how isolating IEMs can be, noisy environments will drown out subtleties that high-end earphones can offer. Not to mention the added risk of losing or damaging equipment in public situations and the tendency to increase volume levels to drown out said background noise which is not good for your precious hearing. Same thing goes for open headphones in a constant noisy environment such as a dorm room - not the ideal type of headphone.
Keep in check the tendency to overspend
As Boomana mentioned, there are plenty of terrific choices to fit all budgets. I've seen a number of FS postings of people selling equipment because they ultimately couldn't afford it (credit cards are very dangerous with this hobby). It is oh, so tempting to get the newest amp or the latest closed headphone or the much talked about this or that. I've read a number of posts stating something to the effect they shouldn't be spending this money but they just had to get a pair of X headphones or that amazing Y tube amp. The temptations are strong - believe me, I know - but with a bit of homework, you can find some gems with a relatively friendly price tag.
Never forget the main reason for this hobby
It is easy to get caught up in the equipment and lose sight of the main reason we got involved in this crazy hobby - the music. You can enjoy music equally as much on a $80 pair of headphones as an $800 pair.
Originally Posted by Anonymous by request
Hi Vicki, I was looking at your sticky again and some more tips came to mind that I'd like to suggest adding to it:
- Doing research on headphones & associated equipment is essential of course, but at some point, it makes sense to just do it and buy something! If you've narrowed things down to a short-list, flip a coin and just buy one of them. Worst-case scenario, if you don't like it, you can sell it on the FS forums or another classifieds venue and try something else (or alternately, keep an eye on the FS forum for a deal on a specific model you're interested in). And if you can't decide between two headphones, buy both from a reputable source with a return policy and you can return the one you don't like. TTVJ and HeadRoom offer 30-day return policies. --I'm personally very against using small vendors in this way as a plan. If you try something you end up hating, that's one thing, but to on purpose plan on returning something in advance so that the small vendors who support this hobby lose money by having to put in B stock isn't cool, imho. Just buy used in the FS forum, if that's your plan -- boomana
- Headphone amps at all price levels can and do make an audible difference, but more often than not, most people on Head-Fi discussing amps generally tend to overstate the differences they make - so don't worry if an amp is good enough or stress over a decision of which amp to buy. There are very few amps that are outright bad-sounding, in fact it's easy to make a decent-sounding one. So if you have a short-list, just pick an amp and buy it! The headphones will make far more of a sonic difference than any amp will - so pick your headphones first, and then an amp to match. And the matching amp will depend on highly subjective criteria like your sonic, feature set, and aesthetic preferences.
- Make an effort to attend a meet - local, regional, or the annual National Meet (which changes location every year). Meets are invaluable experiences not only for the variety of headphones you'll hear but for the social aspect of mingling with like-minded individuals willing to share anything they know.
Only thing I would add is to worry about your headphones/source/amp more then what cables you use and to buy used often and wisely from those you think you can trust based on their feedback and possible motives.
Here's a tip I would like to contribute.
Proper fit of your headphones is basic to getting the most out of your investment. By proper fit I am referring to the fit of your phones that enables them to deliver the best possible listening experience. Some headphones will have a better natural fit then others. Some headphones can be improperly fit and still be very comfortable to wear. With full sized headphones a good test for fit is to lightly press in on the earcups to provide for a firm but comfortable seal around your ears. If the sound quality improves then your phones were not properly fitted and you may need to adjust the headband to achieve proper fit. Some IEMs (in-ear monitors) can be pretty tricky to get a good fit, and they will not sound good until they are fitted correctly.
Hey boomana, if you're still updating, maybe you can help clear up some of the common misinformation going around. I can't really think of too much at the moment, but when I keep seeing people telling others that certain headphones don't need amps because their impedance is low, that just kills me. I saw a post by Cool_Torpedo in Currawong's blog that explained things pretty well:
OK, here we go, since I can't find the thread nor the reply, I'll try to explain a bit -again- how the impedance/sensitivity thing goes.
Headphones' drivers are transducers that convert AC electricity into sound. Dynamic drivers, the most common ones, use a coil -wounded wire around a hollow cylinder- into a magnetical field provided by a magnet, to convert the AC voltage into movement which is transferred to a membrane. The membrane's movement is transferred to the air particles in front of your ear. For the frequency characteristics of that vibration, and its pressure level, your brain interprets it as sound.
The voice coil of the driver has an impedance, which is the opposition it presents to the AC source (the amp or any headphone out) to the free flow of electrons thru it. The lower that impedance, the more freely the electrons travel and the closer is the scenario to a short-circuit. This means that your source of electricity needs to pump more current intensity to correctly drive the transducer. So you can take two conclussions from this:
- What makes the AC to drive any coil is its voltage. The minute variations of voltage follow the signal originally recorded.
- The current intensity is important to keep the coil excited, and you need more current intensity the lower is the impedance. There's a relation between the current voltage and the intensity which is the power measured in watts. Power is the product of the voltage and the intensity: P=V*I. This is why amps are rated for their power output and not only for their voltage capabilites.
Up to this moment there's no relation between the impedance and how loud the transducer will sound. However there's a parameter named sensitivity which tells you how loud will a transducer "sound" for a given amount of power you're feeding it. The sensitivity is rated in dB/mW for headphones, so a pair of phones delivering a SPL of 100dB/mW are more sensitive (can sound louder) than a pair rated at 90dB/mW.
So the easy or hard to drive a pair of phones is, depends on both parameters, the sensitivity and the impedance. The worst case would be a pair of phones of very low sensitivity and also a very low impedance. Why? because they'll be asking to the source more watts to sound equally loud as a more sensitive pair, and an important part of that power will be asked in the form of current intensity, which is something that most portable players, headphone outs in receivers and players, etc. aren't designed to deliver. This is the case of cans like AKG 701 or Denon D5000.
If your cans are low impedance but are very sensitive (the case of Grados and most IEMs) then despite their asking more current from the source, they still manage to sound very loud because they need very little power to do so.
Most people tend to think that low impedance equals to louder sound, but this is plainly wrong. It all depends on the sensitivity and how much power the cans need to give a high SPL. Also take into account that not all manufacturers offer their sensitivity values and not all them do in dB/mW but do in dB/mV. It's not much of a problem, you just need to convert the mV in mW knowing the phones impedance.
Torpedo, if you see this, I'm assuming it's OK for me to repost. If not, my apologies.
My advice to newbies is to spend time with whatever you get first, and not judge it right away. That way, if you upgrade, you'll have more eperience with which to base your evaluation.
I have a couple bits of advice:
1. If you're new to this, your first setup isn't that critical to get right. Don't buy junk, but it seems like 99% of people move onto other gear a few months later. Agonizing over reviews and posting multiple threads trying to nail down the perfect setup ultimately results in little benefit. Just get something affordable, preferably used, and enjoy it. When you get a frame of reference for what's out there, then you can zero in on a dream rig.
2. There should be a caution about soundcards. Some people are making them out to be the be-all-end-all to amplification. Not so. Most of them amplify no more than a portable amp. And the highly modded ones can cost as much as, if not more, than a solid desktop amp.
Cables should be the last thing upgraded, after every other part of the chain. Cables are for tweaking.