Portable Headphones

AsSiMiLaTeDAsSiMiLaTeD Posts: 11,717
edited August 2012 in Headphones
I've been on the hunt for a good pair of portable headphones for the longest time, my requirements are (seemingly) fairly simple:

- great sound, obviously
- portable, small enough that I can throw them in my travel bag
- good isolation, doesn't have to be superb but good enough for airplane travel and work environment
- efficient, need to be able to drive them with an iPhone, not interested in carrying an amp around
- forgiving, all the music on my iPhone is ripped at 256kbps so I need something that handles that compressed music well
- comfortable, I need to be able to wear these for several hours without any discomfort
- the above rules out IEMs, I have small ear canals and have never found a pair of IEMs that I can wear comfortably for hours

All requirements are non-negotiable, must-haves.

I'm going to spare everyone the listing of dozens of headphones that I went through. Let's just say I tried a bunch, and many of them didn't even make this comparison. In all, this is an experiment that's taken well over a year so far, and I'm out somewhere around $150 for return shipping, return fees, and net losses when selling some of the models I've tried, all in all not too bad over the course of a year for an experiment of this magnitude.

So what you'll find below is a list of the handful of headphones that I liked and some of my overall impressions.

The Headphones
Sennheiser HD25 II
Beyerdynamic DT1350
Beyerdynamic T50p
B&W P5
V-Moda M80

This is a tough area to gauge because everyone has different ears. I'd say IF you can get the t50p in the proper position it's probably the most comfortable of the bunch. It has the smallest pads of the bunch and sorta sits in your ear a bit, such that (especially people with larger ears) you'll see your ear around the edges of the headphone. Given my ear size though I had to do a bit of work to get them into place and get a good seal and it seems like I repeat this process each time I put them on. So while I think most people will find it more comfortable, it's not my personal favorite.

The HD25 has a larger pad than the t50 but still small, but I feel like the clamping force is too high, I can't wear these for more than an hour or so without discomfort. I've read that washing the pads loosens them up and makes them fit better, but have not tried this myself.

The DT1350 sits similarly to the HD25 but with larger pads and less clamping force. Like the T50, these took some work to get the fit right. Overall these were very comfortable though once I got them in the right spot.

The M80 is comfortable right out of the box, although the clamping may be a bit tight for some people with really large heads. A nice feature here is that the headband is some kind of spring steel that, when you bend enough, will take shape and as a result the headpohone can be 'formed' somewhat to fit your head. The downside to the M80 is that the phones don't swivel left and right, they only swivel up and down, so getting the angle of the pads right takes a bit of effort. Luckily this issue is offset by the malleability of the headband, and you can simply 'twist' the headband so that the pads sit at the angle you like. I found these to be very comfortable overall. They can get a little warm if you're not in a cooled area, but in the environments I'm using them in this is a non-issue.

The P5s were my favorite of the bunch in terms of comfort, they fit very much like the M80 but were just a tad more comfortable overall. Like the M80s these can also get a little warm, but I'm nitpicking here.

Overall, I would not recommend any of these as active headphones, all of them (except for maybe the HD25) would easily fall off if you're exercising or running.

Although this is an important factor for me, I don't require super performance here. Of everything I've tried, the Bose headphones did the best job at noise cancelling. Unfortunately I didn't care for their sound at all, so they didn't even make the cut for this comparison.

Again with the T50 I found that if I could get them in the right position, they did the best job at blocking out sounds. This struggle may be less of an issue for someone with larger ears, but for me it was constant.

The DT1350 and HD25 also did a very good job of isolation, and with a bit less effort - they seemed to get a seal more easily.

The M80 and P5 are again very similar. Neither of these are bad at isolation, and both are good enough for what I need, but neither are as good as the other options.

Honestly all of these are perfectly portable cans, none of them really stand out more than the others. Some are smaller, but none of them are small enough to fit in your pocket or large enough so that they won't fit in a carry-on bag. So, in terms of what I'm looking for they're all equal.

Durability and Construction
This wasn't one of my requirements, but had some interesting results here nonetheless.

Compared to the others, both Beyers felt a bit fragile and light. That's not to say that they're poorly built, just that in comparison they don't feel as solid and like they'd hold up to abuse as well.

The Senns felt solid and like they could take more abuse. These are also put together in a way such that most of the parts appear to be replacable, such that if something did break I could fix it - though in fairness I've not attempted this.

The P5s feel and look very well constucted, they have a nice weight to them and you can see and feel the quality here. The only issue here is that these are so 'pretty' that I've found myself obsessed with taking care of them, can't really in good conscience just throw these around, but if I did I feel like they'd handle it fine.

The M80s are the real surprise here. These things are built like a tank/ They are screwed together such that, like the Senns, you can fully take them apart and all the parts are replacable. I've actually take these apart and everything is easy to get to. I've found videos online of the builder throwing these around a room and whatnot with no damage. These are apparently built to some type of military spec and are damn near indestructible. They also have a nice weight to them, feel very balanced overall.

Again, not a requirement but something I wanted to comment on. The Senns and Beyers are all in the "they look fine" category. There's nothing at all wrong with them, they're just regular looking headphones.

The M80s look and feel very nice. I have the White Pearl version and they really are good looking cans. The styling may be polrazing in that some may not like it at all, but I think they look great. Another feature here is that you can have custom engraving or line art put on the side plate, not some of interest to me but a nice touch. These are very well thought out, from the packaging to the accessories and of course the headphones themselves.

The P5s are the real winner here though. They're absolutely gorgeous and you can tell they're aimed at the Apple crowd. The New Zealand lamb pads to the metal construction and headband padding, it all just looks and feels wonderful, they're a very classy looking headphone. Even the packaging is well done, for those of you who've unboxed Apple products the unboxing of these headphones is very similar even down to how things are wrapped up.

In summary: if I were to buy any of these headphones based solely on looks and feel, I would take the B&W P5 overall followed closely by the M80. The other headphones, while not bad at all, were in all in a distant 3rd place if I factor in all above areas, though some perform better in certain aspects as noted above.

HOEWEVER, I've only covered some of the requirements, the the number one requirement still has not been addressed. So, how do they all perform?
Post edited by AsSiMiLaTeD on


  • AsSiMiLaTeDAsSiMiLaTeD Posts: 11,717
    edited June 2012
    Per my requirements, the material played back through these is all 256 kbps ripped via iTunes on the fly while syncing to iPhone (this is a great new feature in iTunes by the way, bumping the on the fly rip quality from 128 to 256, means I can ditch my separate mp3 library). All these were testing on the same iPhone playing the same quality files.

    Sennheiser HD25
    These have what I've often seen referred to as a V-shaped sound to them, such that if you were to plot a frequency response curve it would look like a V. So they have a fair amount of bass, somewhat recessed mids, and a fair amount of highs. THis is what you find in a lot of DJ and 'celebrity' headphones like Beats; really thumpy low end, no mids, and overly hot high end. However the Senns are not like any of those cans, because they're not as overdone. So yeah there's a good bit of bass but it's not boomy like alot of those other DJ can's, it's articulate and controlled and has great impact. They're not overly bright, but do have a hotter high end than some may prefer, they're not consistenly sibilant but can get there with some material at higher volumes. These are a very fun headphone to listen to and are very energetic. There's a reason these have been around and relatively unchanged for as long as they have.

    Beyerdynamic DT1350
    I've found the sound of these to be similar to the sound of my Beyer DT800, very 'accurate' bit a bit sterile. I've commented on that elsewhere before, but to summarize, the sound like they'd have a flat FR curve which is good technically but doesn't always translate to good sound. The greatest defficiency here is the bass, it's just not as strong and lacks impact. However, these do have a unique aspect in that the bass extension 'seems' really low, so for a headphone that isn't particularly adept at creating low frequencies, they sound like they actually extend lower than they probably do - my DT880 do the same thing. The mids are very good here, easily the best function of this headphone, they just sound superb. The highs are also good, but can become sibilant at times. The overall sound though like I said is a bit clinical or sterile, these 'sound' good but with a weak low end there's just very little impact to the music. For analytical listening these may be the best of the bunch.

    Beyerdynamic T50p
    I expected these to sound just like the DT1350, but they don't. If anything these sound more similar to the HD25, but with everything shifted to the right a bit. So the bass isn't quite as good, the mids are about the same, and the highs on this can are actually a little hotter. Like I said, placement is tricky, but even when I got ideal placement I still got a brighter sound out of these than the Senns. These sound vastly different than the other Beyers though. These are a much more fun headphone to listen to, but the bright top end kinda puts me off personally.

    B&W P5
    These headphones were more anticipated than any of the other models. I started the listening experience somewhat biased because these are so damn beautiful and comfortable I just knew they were the ones I'd keep. I was dishearted then when I listened to them. The sound is simply not on par with a headphone at this price. I was expecting a typical B&W sound and got nothing of the sort. The best way to describe these is muffled and dark. I tend to prefer my headphones neutral or just a tad warm, so when I say these are dark I mean they're DARK, not a tad warm of neutral. The bass on these seems bloated and not natural at times, and thin at others. The highs are rolled off so there's very little top end energy. The mids are all over the place, with Diana Krall Live in Paris the voice is just superb and then with Sting Ten Summoners Tales it sound off. These headphones are an enigma. I really wanted to love these, but at $300 they're just not at the price point in terms of sound. B&W is releasing the P3 very soon, and I've heard that it's going to sound better than the P5 but at a cheaper price and without some of the luxury of the P5. I'll be grabbing that they day it comes out and will report back here with my impressions on it.

    V-Moda M80
    Of the bunch these were the unknown brand for me. They have made DJ headphones for a while now, and while I've never heard a pair personally I've never really had a desire to. I bought a pair of their earbuds at Costco a while back for $29 and they were excellent for that price, but clearly not reference quality. The M80 are their first of the new 'Modiophile' series, designed with input from the Head-Fi community and aimed at people like us who want good sound. For me, the sound of these overall is superb, but may not be for everyone. These have a very natural, well balanced sound to them and fit my listening likes very well, if not just a tad warm at times for my taste. They have a very good bass response, not boomy, just very tight and impactful. The low end extension isn't quite as good as the DT1350, but the bass overall is very good. The mids sound very balanced and are very very good. The highs are what may put some people off, they sound like they'd have a fairly flat FR curve but are not overly energetic. These are not the final word in detail or clarity, but just have a wonderful sound overall. I call these the 'analog guy' of the bunch, not that the others are digital sounding, but these just have that 'real' and natural type of sound to them and are fun to listen to, especially over longer periods as there's absolutely no sign of fatigue here. V-Moda is also releasing a new model soon, the M100 which are going to be over the ear cans, and I can't wait to hear those.

    So do I have a favorite, which one do I recommend? Well I have a favorite, but won't necessarily recommend one model for everyone, here's my summary.

    - If looks and comfrot were the only factors, I'd take the B&W.
    - If I were looking for the most accurate cans or wanted to do critical listening, I'd opt for the DT1350.
    - If I just want an overall enjoyable listening experience and for a short duration I'd likely grab either the HD25 or M80. I'll mostly gravitate towards the M80, but for some material like metal where I want all the top end energy I'll probably grab the HD25, for most other music I'll grab the M80
    - If I want an enjoyable listening experience but want to listen for hours, I grab the M80 hands down. It's so enjoyable to listen to and without the hot top end never fatigues my ears.

    I can't keep them all, so here's where I'm at:

    - B&W P5, I've returned, they're nice and comfortable but just don't like the sound
    - DT1350, I've returned, accurate and critical listening is nice, but not something I ever do on the go, their sound signature wasn't suited for my purpose here
    - T50P, I've returned, I sorta thought these were a less good version of the HD25, didn't like them enough to keep them
    - HD25, kept, these were just too good to return, and although not used as much as the M80 they do have their place with some music and I've recently discovered that they're very nice with TV shows and movies on the plane
    - M80, kept, for me these were the most overall balanced of the bunch and are my go-to portable headphone now 95% of the time.

    If I did have to keep only one it would be the M80, but the M80 and HD25 both fit in my carry-on so that's not a choice I have to make

    There you have it, hopefully someone will find this useful
  • AsSiMiLaTeDAsSiMiLaTeD Posts: 11,717
    edited June 2012
    Here is a list of common recordings that I compred. This doesn't include everything and not everything was heard through every setup, but should give you an idea of where my tastes are musically. You'll notice that not all these are reference recordings, the ability to handle both excellently and poorly recorded music is important to me. I've marked those that I consider reference quality material with a *. Artist – Album - Track

    Tchaikovsky – Tchaikovsky Festival Leaper – Marche Slave *
    Yo Yo Ma – Vivalds' Cello – Converto in G Minor Allegro *
    Alison Krauss – New Favorite – Let Me touch You For A While
    Dream Theater – Dramatic Turn of Events – Bridges In The Sky (hi rez from hdtracks)
    Fleetwood Mac – Rumors – The Chain (hi rez from hdtracks)
    Head Fi – Open Your Ears – Money (hi rez from hdtracks) *
    Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here – Welcome to The Machine (hi rez rip) *
    Rush – Moving Pictures – Tom Sawyer (hi rez rip)
    Steely Dan – Gaucho – Hey Nineteen (hi rez from hdtracks) *
    Vinca Gauraldi – Charlie Brown Christmas – My Little Drum (hi rez rip)
    Al Di Meola – Friday Night in San Francisco – Mediterranina Sundance *
    Dave Brubeck – Time Out – Blue Rondo *
    Diana Krall – Live In Paris – Under My skin *
    John Coltrane – Blue Train – Moments Notice
    One O-Clock Lab Band – Lab 92 – Fingers
    Spies – By Way of the World – Bahia *
    Massive Attack – Heligoland – Splitting The Atom *
    Seal – Seal – Dreaming In Metaphors
    Chris Isaak – Heart Shaped World – Blue Spanish Sky
    Dire Straits – Brothers in Arms – Your Latest Trick *
    Dire Straits – Love Over Gold – Telegraph Road *
    Dream Theater – Awake – 6:00
    Eagles – Hell Freezes Over – Hotel California
    Mark Knopfler – Sailing to Philadelphia – Sailing to Philadelphia
    Muse – The Resistance – Symphony Part 1
    Opeth – Blackwater Park – The Drapery Falls
    Porcupine Tree – Fear of a Blank Planet – Anesthesize *
    Sting – Ten Summoner's Tales – Seven Days
    Hans Zimmer – POTC At Worlds End – I Don't Think Now is the Best Time *
    John Powell – Bourne Ultimatum – Tangiers
  • AsSiMiLaTeDAsSiMiLaTeD Posts: 11,717
    edited June 2012
    I should also add that I also have the PSB headphones and they sound superb. They did not make the comparison here because for me they're a little too large to call portable. If you're at work they're a very nice option, but for travel they're a bit large. I wanted to mention them though since the sound is so good on them
  • [Deleted User][Deleted User] Posts: 0
    edited June 2012
    I have the headphone/earphone bug now. Ever since the PXC 250 II's. I have been actively searching for in ears and thought it best because I could fall asleep with them on. I am very tempted to add on those over ear headphone's for work now. I am really digging the PSB's Practically everyone at my work place wear earphone/headphone for work. So I had the chance to try out different ones. For noise isolation/cancellation, it is true, I do not think anything could beat what Bose has. Sound quality is a different story. While the price tag of the PSB's are steep, I just have to give them a whirl and may bite. However, I am waiting to try out the new Polk Noise Canceler's first. Then add on amps, dacs, etc etc.. Damn, one rabbit hole leads to another when you get this deep!!

  • [Deleted User][Deleted User] Posts: 0
    edited June 2012
    If you head to Skip's place, let me know and please bring the PSB's. I will invite myself there too!
  • [Deleted User][Deleted User] Posts: 0
    edited June 2012
    Something is going on now! hahahah
  • AsSiMiLaTeDAsSiMiLaTeD Posts: 11,717
    edited June 2012
    DSkip wrote: »
    What's going on at my place?
    Oh, well this is uncomfortable...

    halen has PMng all us local DFW guys saying wild drunken party at your place this weekend. Is that not right? I've already got 3 kegs on order and the male stripper is already paid for...well he's coming to your place, with or without us there so you'll have him all to yourself :mrgreen:
  • coolsaxcoolsax Posts: 1,814
    edited June 2012
    I own the B&W p5s and really like them. but i use them for listening at work during lunch and for airplane travel and definitely not for critical listening, but i always find myself nodding my head to the music with them on. I've been wanting to check out the Vmoda's as well as i think they look really nice and hear only good things about them. I got the p5s used and I agree that for the msrp they are probably a little overpriced for the sound though not the build which is excellent.
    Main 2ch -
    BlueSound Node->Ethereal optical cable->Peachtree Audio Nova 150->GoldenEar Triton 2+
    TT - Pro-ject Classic SB with Sumiko Bluepoint.

    TV 3.1 system -
    Denon 3500 -> Dynaudio Excite 32/22
  • AsSiMiLaTeDAsSiMiLaTeD Posts: 11,717
    edited June 2012
    DSkip wrote: »
    The sad part is, I really don't know if you're kidding or not.
    You'll find out tomorrow, better get your wife and kids out of the house before it's too late...

    Seriously, I do need to make it up there and hear your setup, and we need to get you out here and introduce you to Magnepan.
  • KYFHOKYFHO Posts: 76
    edited June 2012
    halenhoang wrote: »
    I am really digging the PSB's Practically everyone at my work place wear earphone/headphone for work.


    I have the PSB headphones and honestly, they are the best cans I have heard. The noise cancelling is "okay" but not perfect. The sound quality is so good it makes the noise cancelling feature a non-issue. I use my PSB's with a Nu-Force HDP & Audioquest cables and they sound phenomenal! Best of luck if you go with the PSB's!
  • AsSiMiLaTeDAsSiMiLaTeD Posts: 11,717
    edited June 2012
    Yes the PSBs are very nice, they're probably my favorite headphone that doesn't require an external amp.
  • AsSiMiLaTeDAsSiMiLaTeD Posts: 11,717
    edited July 2012
    Looks like my local Best Buy now has the P3 in stock. I'm going to stop by on the way home and pick them up, will report back with my findings.
  • AsSiMiLaTeDAsSiMiLaTeD Posts: 11,717
    edited July 2012
    First impressions of the P3 are not good, I just don't see how anyone could listen to these and think they sound good.

    They become tolerable with equalization and obviously need to burn in, but that's my first impression nonetheless.
  • coolsaxcoolsax Posts: 1,814
    edited July 2012
    yeah i read a review from inner fidelity..
    Tyl said the drivers are nice but that there is way too much foam in the pads that makes them not sound very good at all.
    Main 2ch -
    BlueSound Node->Ethereal optical cable->Peachtree Audio Nova 150->GoldenEar Triton 2+
    TT - Pro-ject Classic SB with Sumiko Bluepoint.

    TV 3.1 system -
    Denon 3500 -> Dynaudio Excite 32/22
  • AsSiMiLaTeDAsSiMiLaTeD Posts: 11,717
    edited July 2012
    Still not burned in yet obviously, but the p3 is a huge miss for me.

    When you start comparing headphones within a given price range you generally find that different models are better at certain things, as was the case with my initial review here.

    This isn't the case with the p3 though, they're not good at anything and don't play any of my music better than the m80 or HD25. You'd expect at least a certain genre or album to sound better but I've been through the full regular list and nothing.

    These are truly the most disappointing product I've ever heard, I don't believe this to be a matter of perspective or 'everyone hears differently', these are truly bad.

    I'm wondering if the pair I have are defective, best buy did not have any out to listen, I may go check at another store this weekend.

    If these are the real deal though that's a shame, as they're great looking and comfy as well. There's just no way though that a real human at b&w listened to these and said "that sounds good, let's make a few thousand of those".
  • AsSiMiLaTeDAsSiMiLaTeD Posts: 11,717
    edited July 2012
    I realize this is pretty much only for my entertainment at this point, but that's ok. I figured instead of just bitching about these some more I could actually offer constructive feedback on how they sound.

    In a word, muffled. After 18 hours or so on continuous playback to break them in the sound really hasn't changed much at all, so I doubt it'll change much going forward either.

    First of all, out of the box and un-equalized these are borderline unlistenable. There is NO top end, and I don't mean that like "they're missing that last little bit of sparkle", no I mean no top end. There's lots of upper bass, midrange that is there but overshadowed by the bass and a top end that is virtually non-existant. I don't have the tools to measure them, but if I did I suspect the FR curve would be a line that goes from upper left to lower right with a few weird spikes. If you have music that is excessively bright to the point of unlistenable on other speakers it may work well on these - I do not have any and cannot think of any though and just see how any human with normal hearing could enjoy these unequalized.

    No problem, that's why we have equalizers right? Well first off I'm generally opposed to equalization on principle alone, but even moreso on portable devices because of the battery hit. However, to really give these a fair shake and be able to form any coherent opinion other than 'SUCK' I played around with the EQ settings on the iPhone.

    I tried all the options, and the two that sounded the best were bass reducer and treble booster. Treble booster just bumps up the treble while mostly leaving everything else alone, bass reducer drops the bass down a bit which results in the high end popping out a little bit. Treble boosters worked best 90% of the time but for music that was real bassy I went the other way. Even with the EQ engaged though, these still have a very dark sound to them. So with the treble engaged the highs were a bit better, they were at least there but were very thin sounding, but the overall sound of the headphone was still very colored and dark. That upper bass just overshadows the entire midrange and just throws the whole sound way out of balance.

    I also dug out the Zune to get a comparison on another device even though these are engineered to iDevices. The results on the Zune are exactly the same. In fact when playing back the same file the Zune and iPhone sound remarkably similar (I still hate the lack of physical volume buttons on my Zune though).

    So in review, not impressed
  • jwhitakrjwhitakr Posts: 568
    edited August 2012
    Sounds to me like the P3 you got was defective. or you had a horrible fit. From what I have read they are very senstive to on ear placement. Did you fiddle around with placement on your ears? Or did you try to get a replacement from either Best Buy or B&W?
    My HT
    HDTV: Panasonic PT-61LCX65 61" Rear Proj. LCD
    AVR: Harman Kardon AVR 235
    Video: 80GB PS3, Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD
    Fronts: Polk Audio RTi8
    Center: Polk Audio CSi3
    Amp: Emotiva LPA-1
    Surrounds: Polk Audio R150
    Sub: HSU STF-3

    The only true barrier to knowledge is the assumption that you already have it. - C.H. Dodd
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