Geek Zen: The quest for the ultimate headphone

Focal Spirit One

There’s no such thing as the perfect headphone.

I recently purchased the Focal Spirit One headphones. I was sold on the sound, construction and functionality. I purchased them because for some time now, I’ve been wanting some excellent headphones. Along that quest, I’ve picked a few examples, which I’ve kept based on other priorities. I don’t think it’s possible for me to own just one set. The Focals I might call my all-around superior ones. Great sound, great bass, they don’t have any loose pieces and they feel solid. They will not fall from my head and the over-the-ear muffs seal the sound in. Noise cancelling headphones actually have a signal, and for some reason I can’t get used to it. The Focals just have a very good seal and no sound leak without any noise cancelling. They also have the control talk that I like for my iPhone, with a braided cable.

They are not perfect though. I’ll get to that.

Monster Beats Solo by Dr. Dre

The other headphones that I used to own until a couple of days ago, were the Monster Beats Solo. They had one distinct advantage over the Focals: a lot lighter. Biggest disadvantage? Construction.

The muffs are removable. You turn them counter clock wise and they detach. You have to be careful not do it in the middle of the street or the pieces will fall off. I could live without the feature.

The cable for the Monster Beats is control talk, but it’s a plastic coating. Bending the cable even by accident could cause it to break.

The upper cushion beneath the band is not connected air tight to the headphone band. It leaves an edge. One time in an overnight trip on a bus, someone passed briskly in the dark and that edge somehow got snagged and that piece went flying and got lost.

Even thought the Monster beats still worked, I just wanted out of these headphones. Just bad karma. Functionally they were intact, but a piece was missing. Fortunately a friend of mine didn’t mind and bought them from me. I sold them cheap because I didn’t want my friend to pay even half of what they cost me.

Marley Freedom Stir It Up

But before I found the Focals, I took another replacement for the Monster Beats… the Marley Freedom Stir It Up.

This environmentally conscious product is allegedly made using recycled materials. Don’t worry, it doesn’t feel weird. It just looks like it’s going to feel weird. It has a very good sound, and even a braided cable with control talk and Jamaican style colors. That’s wood on the outside of the speakers.

These headphones seem quite durable and the construction is solid. However… A few things stand out. They are extremely heavy. Heaviest than any other headphones ever. Don’t throw them at someone, they’ll get hurt. The band grabs your head like a vice. Also, edges and corners made of metal are an accident waiting to happen.

So after having both the Monster Beats and the Marleys, the Focals seemed like a good middle point. They are solidly built, and feel heavy but nothing compared to the Marleys. Construction wise, they are also very solid, not as menacing as the steel parts in the Marleys and not as jiggly as the Monster Beats. They are also a bit tight when new, but all around the Focals seem like the best headphones I can get… for now.

I’ve lost some portability though. Speaking about that, perhaps that is the biggest reason why I needed another kind of headphone. Mainly one that doesn’t get snagged easily by another person walking by. In small spaces, like buses, metros and planes, takes one second and cables are ripped off.

Sennheiser MM100

Enter the lightest of the solutions, and by no means a superior headphone: These are the Sennheiser MM100. To be honest, I’ve had these for a few years now.

With a Bluetooth connection to my phone I don’t have to worry about cables. Built in rechargeable battery through USB. The band doesn’t go on top of your head but behind it. They are essentially more of a bluetooth headset. They’ve got an omnidirectional microphone – nothing sticks out. It’s like an invisible mike.

Biggest drawback? The wireless bluetooth thing cuts out sometimes. It only happens depending on locations. Inside a building, no problem. Outside, specially when you reach a corner, it seems to be vulnerable to radio signals of some sort because I have to turn my head to get the signal back. Major leakage. You get sound coming in and I know people can hear me. The control talk is built into the side but it’s very intuitive. You can figure volume and forward/backward buttons in a snap. The portability factor makes these my everyday choice despite the fact that the sound is not the very best. No cables means no chances for door-handles/umbrellas/pointy-noses accidents.

Sennheiser HD 219

So this should be enough, right? Well… not for every situation. At least not for me. I’ve also had the Sennheiser HD 129 for a while too. This is your run-of-the-mill headphone. Light, comfortable, good sound but really falls off my head so despite it being lite, I literally can’t walk a step without it sliding off. That also means major sound leakage.

Plus the headphone plug is enormous. I guess they wanted to make sure it wouldn’t snap off and would be easy to unplug but it’s like having a usb stick plugged into your phone. The cable is super thin and extra long. Snagging is always a possibility with this one. Way easy to confuse it with a piece of thread and cut it off too, so I’m keeping this one indoors.

I choose to keep this one attached to my workstation computer so I can quickly hear something and then put it away. I really can’t sell it since I don’t think anybody would ever give me anything worthy for it. It’s better if I keep it so it can do something that sell it for a few bucks that won’t buy any worthy replacement.

Sony MDR-XB300

Any sane person would stop there, but I didn’t. Here’s the Sony MDR-XB300.

So, why? Well… for traveling. I needed headphones that would be portable. Light. These are. They also sound decent and have very little leakage. They don’t fall off your head.

But most important, you can find them pretty cheap which means that in the eventuality of them getting lost or broken in a trip, there is no big loss.

Plus they’re wired, the cable is not round but kinda flat like a fetuccini noodle. However, this allows me to used them in a plane where bluetooth is prohibited. No control talk, but since they will probably be used with my Nexus 7 tablet, I don’t need it.

Yeah, the Focals are the all around champions for me so far, but until the band is loosen they’re  a bit grippy. They’re also a bit heavier. Not as vice-like or as heavy as the Marleys but still expensive enough that I don’t feel comfortable leaving on an airplane. Not because they could get stolen, but because things get crampy on planes and gadgets get squished or trampled on. So I needed one last category: inexpensive but fairly decent headphones for travel.

That will do for now.

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  1. #1 by Joel on October 1, 2012 - 8:38 am

    How do you determine the level of sound leakage? Simply ask someone around you for their opinion? Or do you have a more scientific method?

    • #2 by The Editor on October 1, 2012 - 9:58 am

      Well, if you can still hear stuff around you clearly that means it’s leaking in. If you hold them against something (say, put a pillow instead of your head) and you can hear the music coming out, they’re leaking out. If it has a low level of leakage you should hear next to nothing.

      • #3 by Joel on October 1, 2012 - 1:59 pm

        Good idea with the pillow. I’ll try that.

        I tried squishing the two ear-cups together on my new headphones but I still hear music. I suspect they leak. Bah.

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