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Suggestions for daily train commute headphones?

  1. matt_garman
    I did a little searching, and didn't see any terribly recent threads on this topic... I'm looking for some headphones to wear on the train on my daily commute. My priorities are, ordered by most-important first:
    • Hearing safety
    • Zero/minimal cable noise
    • Noise isolation
    • Portability
    • Sound quality

    I suspect at least some of these are inter-related. To give a little more detail: in terms of hearing safety, I did some searching of this forum, but didn't see any specific conclusion. Common sense says the lower the decibels, the better for long-term hearing safety. So I'm guessing that better isolation means I can get away with a lower volume. I'd rather err on the side of caution and have things too quiet than risk hearing loss for "total immersion" in the music.

    For noise isolation: I'd prefer passive, although if you can convince me active noise cancellation is the way to go, I'll consider it. But I just don't see how active noise cancellation can work that well, particularly with "dynamic" or unpredictable noises. Typical noise on the train is mechanical/structural noise from the train itself (varies widely depending on day of the week, which car I sit in, and where I sit on the car); also, no shortage of people talking (from groups of people laughing and carrying on, to the one guy who is compelled to yell into his phone).

    Hopefully it's not blasphemy on this forum to put sound quality as the last priority. But I'm coming from this perspective: what good is top-notch sound quality if it's constantly drowned-out by background noise? or if I have to crank the volume and risk hearing damage? Also, at least for now, my source is MP3s on my phone, so there's already a sound-quality ceiling (though a nicer DAP isn't out of the question in the future).

    Currently I'm using a set of Etymotic Research ER6 IEMs. The biggest problem with these is the cable noise. For example: I had these on while lying still in bed and the gentle movement of my chest from breathing induced enough cable noise to make quiet passages nearly un-listenable. If I haven't shaved and move my head at all I might as well be listening to recordings of paper being crumpled. They seem to do a decent job of filtering out background noise, but not great. I've had them for a long time, so maybe new ear pieces would improve that situation? But even then, the see my complaints on cable noise.

    Also for reference, at work I use JVC HA-RX700. These were suggested to me a very long time ago as cheap but high value for the money phones. Good enough for work, but too big/clumsy for commuter cans.

    I guess the first question then, is what's the best type of headphone for me? Can smaller over-the-ear cans (e.g. Beyerdynamic DT-1350) compete with (C)IEMs in terms of passive noise isolation?

    As for music types I listen to: a bit of everything, minus hip-hop. I'm now on a big classical kick. In fact, I'm making a concerted effort to better learn and appreciate classical music, and this is largely what is driving this request for recommendations. I'm listening to a lot of symphonies right now that have very quiet passages. If I turn the music up enough to hear the quiet passages over the background noise, it's painfully loud when things get un-quiet. And I'm exploring new music, so don't yet know when to anticipate the loud parts and turn down the volume---and even if I did already know the loud parts, I don't want to be constantly playing volume jockey. (Not that I support it, but I can kinda see where the loudness wars/low dynamic range trend is coming from.)

    I'm sure someone will ask about budget, but I don't like the idea of getting stuck into certain models by price range. Basically I'm looking for the "value sweet spot". I feel most products have a somewhat linear price/performance ratio, but only up to a point, where you start spending a lot more to get only a tiny improvement. I want to get in on the most efficient part of that curve. That said, if someone puts a gun to my head and says "Give me a number!" I'll say that I can't justify going over $500, and even then that's really more than I'd like to spend. $200 or less is quite comfortable.

  2. Pablosammy
    As a cheap option, can the ER6s be worn inverted with the cable over and behind the ear, Shure style? That would help the microphonics.
  3. matt_garman
    I've employed that trick in the past, and it definitely helps (though not with the case where I want to listen in bed before going to sleep).

    But the problem now is the spring-loaded clip on my ER6 cable broke a few days ago. So when I wrap the cables over and behind my ears, the "cable memory" prevents them from reliably staying in that position. Before the clip broke I could better hold them in place.

    To be honest, solving cable noise alone is worth some cash to me. Just now I rubbed the cable of these cheap JVC cans against my three-day stubble, and all I hear is the same noise I hear with the headphones off, i.e. not the "extra" noise induced by the microphonics (or whatever) of the cable itself.
  4. cossix
    I use the Momentum 2 on the train and they work pretty well in noisy environments. They aren't quite the "value sweet spot" but if you can find a used pair or one on sale for $250 or less then that's a good option!
  5. rkw
    Here are some headphones to consider (I don't have personal experience with these):

    I think you are dismissing active noise cancellation too quickly and I suggest you at least give it a try. Best Buy has a 15 day return policy, and 60 days at Crutchfield. I use an older Bose on my own train commute and they make a big difference for listening to music and making the trip more enjoyable. The best currently available are Sony 1000X and Bose QC35. These two also have Bluetooth (though you can use them wired) which means no cable noise and the freedom of wireless.

    Edit: the newest Sony 1000XM2 is reported to be capable of reducing voices:
    Last edited: Oct 12, 2017
  6. wu wei
    1More Triple Driver
    Great price performance. Kind of bassy but overall an enjoyable listen, I didn't have any big complaints. Isolation was very good to my memory, and I don't recall it having a noisy cable. My initial impression was "Seriously? 80 dollars?!"
    Comes with lots of tips.

    Happy hunting.
    Womaz likes this.
  7. rkw
    I have the 1More Triple Driver and use it in the office. Great sound and value, but it is a shallow insertion IEM and isolation is only modest. I've tried it on my train commute and my Bose QC 20 noise cancelling works much better.
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2017
  8. matt_garman
    Thank you everyone for the feedback! Clearly, there's no obvious answer. :)

    After looking at the suggestions above, and doing some more reading, I'm starting to narrow things down a bit, thinking maybe a reasonably portable over-the-ear set of phones, better IEMs without cable noise, or maybe Custom IEMs.

    For over the ear, the Momentum 2.0 suggested above look pretty decent. Anything else in this space worth considering? I've seen a number of over the ear cans that claim to have good isolation, but don't look too travel-worthy or portable.

    For IEMs, is there a set that offers good isolation and little to no cable noise?

    Lastly: looks like custom IEMs are a huge price jump over universal IEMs. Is the isolation that much better due to the custom fit? I feel I get a decent fit with the ER6s I have now. Thoughts?

    Thanks again!
  9. trott3r
    Not tried the momentum 2.0 but do have the original version 1 and they are the most comfy pair of cans i have worn.
    I have been using them for my commute on the bus for years.

    Currently trying the akg prodj100 for a change which have some midrange lift.
  10. matt_garman
    I bought a pair of Audio Technica ATH-40x. Refurbished, only a bit over $70 from Amazon. The more I looked, the more I kept reducing my budget. I've only had them a few days now. I like them, but they really don't cut it for me in terms of blocking out train noise. Ignoring the sound isolation aspect, they do sound better to me than the JVCs I have at work and even my ER6 IEMs. So I think I'll keep them, either for work (to replace the JVCs) or for "bedtime" headphones.

    I'm coming around to this perspective. :) I was in Costco the other day, and tried on a random set of active noise cancelling headphones (I don't remember the brand or model). I didn't realize how loud Costco's background noise is until I put them on! Also, turns out my buddy has a set of Bose noise cancelling headhpones he's going to let me borrow. So I can get ANC a try without spending any cash.
  11. fianbarr
    I picked up a pair of momentum 1 over ear's (the bigger ones) when they introduced version 2 (they were about half the price of the v2). I am using them daily with great pleasure on the train. They have a bit of bass in them but nothing as obnoxious as Beats, just compared to AKG's (702, 553) they have a bit more bass.
  12. alex2750
    My favorite IEMs for my commute are the KZ ZS3. They have a universal CIEM shape - supposedly they took the average of 100 custom impressions - and fit nearly perfectly in my ears. The isolation is second to none; I rode three trains each morning on the NYC subway system over the summer and they blocked out all noise. At $8, they fit literally any budget, and though sound isn't your top priority, they also sound much better than their price would suggest.

    If you have a bigger budget, an actual CIEM will likely have better isolation, but the ZS3 has the best passive isolation of any IEM I've seen and I can't recommend them more.
  13. matt_garman
    Still thinking on this! For the last couple weeks, I've been using some Bose QC15 headphones that a friend lent me. I know that in terms of ANC, these are a couple generations behind. But Internet hearsay suggests the improvements from one gen to the next, while real, aren't dramatic. So, if nothing else, I think I have a good representation of ANC.

    I'm going to say they are the best I've tried in this role thus far. Still far from perfect, though. They are roughly what I expected: constant background noises are eliminated, but "random" or non-consistent noises still come through. I've come to realize that my train has a mix of both constant background noise that ANC does great at blocking; but there is also a non-trivial amount of random noise that's harder to mask.

    Not sure if I'm ready to drop $350 on the Sony XM2 or Bose QC35, when my buddy comes asking for his cans back. Another perk of current-gen ANC headphones is wireless. If I'm going to DSP the heck out of my music for ANC to work, might as well go whole-hog on digital manipulation with Bluetooth. I find cable noise is an issue even with the borrowed Bose QC15.

    They are around $12 to $15 on Amazon; but that's roughly the price of lunch for me, so I figured they were worth a try. I'm glad I ordered from Amazon though, as the left ear piece stopped working before I had even found the right tip size. (I tried re-seating the cable, and even swapping left/right cables, left side is dead.) What little I got to hear them, they did seem promising, and certainly better-sounding than I expected for $15. Not sure if I want to give them another try or not though.

    But, I have come full-circle, and am once again open to IEMs. The 5-minute teaser I had with the ZS3s suggested that the "memory wire" over-the-ear cable might be enough to address the cable noise issue for me. Now I'm looking at the Shure se215s, as they seem to get high marks for isolation quality (and build quality). Dunno, more research is in order first.

    Another thought I had, is to double-down on passive isolation: use good IEMs for music and one tier of isolation. Then add a pair of industrial or shooter's headphones on top of that (i.e. the kind intended purely for hearing protection, with no electronics whatsoever). But that's a big trade-off in convenience.
    alex2750 likes this.
  14. Asim lau
    Hey, how are you?

    Here are some headphones for your consideration:

    Best Audio-Technica Headphones

    I think you will be on your own train commute because they make a big difference for listening to music and making the trip more enjoyable.

    Hope to help you, best day for you.

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