iPhone Headphone Shootout

Everyone in the world has an opinion on headphones – and they're all different. Like anything else, how you like your music is intensely personal and subjective. What sounds great to one ear, sounds muddled to someone else. Take for example, one of the great audio marketing companies: Bose. Talk to many people who self-define as audiophiles, and they'll tell you the Bose sound spectrum is massively compressed to the center – with no clear highs and no clear lows. I tend to agree, but it's hard to argue with the number of units they sell annually.

So on to the headphone shootout. There were five competitors:

It essentially breaks down as two separate confrontations: over-the-ears and earbuds. Again, I preface this with everyone has their own headphone opinion, so take full advantage of return policies!




My personal preference (and baseline) has been the Grado Labs for a couple of years now. I have the entry-level SR60s, and most of the reviews point to these as the best of the under-$100 audiophile cans. Their sound is warm and very musical, with clear highs and pretty neutral bass. The do, however, bleed a fair amount of sound based on their design which probably takes away some of the overall clarity. That being said, the Grado folks know what they're doing on the design side.

The other odd benefit of these headphones is they’re so comfortable they turn out to be GREAT for long conference calls. I’m sure the audiophiles at Grado would cringe, but it’s almost impossible to describe just how easy-to-wear these are.

The Beats by Dr. Dre are one wild set of headphones. They are full over-the-ear, and create total sound isolation. After hearing the stories of how much Dre worked with Monster (yep, they're the technology and R&D behind the cans), what came out the other end is pretty impressive. The sound range is wider than the Grados, but the overall sound is way too 'produced' for my taste. As you might guess the bass is strong, but not overwhelming -- a decent surprise for me personally. I was expecting the over-the-ear version of sitting in Atlanta traffic during the good old Freaknik days. These have been massively tweaked for every sound nuance, and are the antithesis of reference speakers. So the summary is great sound, but highly 'stepped-on'.

So cost is a clear issue here when you're talking $69 Grados versus $349 Beats. For me, I'd spend the $200 for a pair of Grado SR225s and be done with it. In fact, those are definitely in the running for my next over-the-ear purchase.




If sound bouncing off your inner ear parts is your idea of fun, then I tested three mid-priced competitors: the Apple Double Drivers, the JBL Reference 220s and the Etymotic hf2. One key aspect to any earbud is ear placement. Make sure to read the instructions with the Etymotics on how to insert them. And the JBLs work best closer to the outer ear. But overall, I found the Apple to be the most forgiving. The short version of the story is mess around with in-ear position until you find a good dynamic range.

The Apple Double Drivers have solid bass, crisp highs and a very good dynamic range. I would say they're ~85% the sound quality of my JBLs – with considerably less effort in keeping them placed correctly. And for me, that's close enough after six months of tripping on headphone wires that were pretty much the length of a jump rope (see below). They're also very aggressively priced at $79, so carrying them around isn't quite as scary as some sets that are 2-3x that price.

One oddity that reportedly contributed to the initial shipping delay: the volume control only works for the iPod Touch, not the iPhone. For the longest time, the site listed them as not working with the iPhone, but the volume control was the only issue -- and an unimportant one for me personally. As long as the mic is inline and I can answer and hang-up, I'm golden.

The Etymotics have very strong highs and mids -- with a truly impressive overall sound. As the company freely admits, bass is not a priority in their world. One thing that puts me off a bit is how deep the buds must be worn in your ear to produce decent bass along with the great mids and highs. I can't really see myself wearing these for a 4-5 hours while flying across country. But again, great high-side sound.

The JBLs have a bit more compressed sound range with a considerably stronger focus on bass. The bass comes through clearly from mid-bass down to deep bass when positioned correctly in the ear. Their sound is very warm and they handle high volume with complete ease. For a wider range of sound (although slightly compressed), I prefer the JBLs.

Just recently, JBL upgraded the Reference 220 to Reference 230. And while I haven’t heard the 230s, I’d expect them to be much in the same vein sonically. Where JBL missed the mark for me was the new color combinations: blue & green or pink & orange. Not that I’m an ultra low-key guy, but I’m also not 12 so the neon colors are a bit much.

On the cost side, it's just about a wash when you add the Shure microphone adapter to the JBLs to make them iPhone ready. The Apple and Etymotics have it built right in.


The Verdict

So overall, the good news is my old standbys won handily (Apple for earbuds, and Grados for cans) although I was completely open to hearing something better. I can’t recommend anything higher than the Apple Double Drivers for their incredible combination of features, sound, price and durability. The same pair is going strong after over a year, which is a major achievement in my world!

My next headphone purchase will be yet another dilemma: the Grado SR225s mentioned above, or the latest newcomer getting rave reviews: the B&W P5s. I’ve got to go hands-on with both and make my decision soon…


0 # Paul Stamatiou 2010-04-21 18:39
Great shootout Dave. I just reviewed the Beats on my blog last week and gave them mixed results - mainly due to price. They would be better for at a $150 or $200 price, not the 350 MSRP. Although it should be noted that the standard price on Amazon/etc is around $299, and via Froogle you can find lots of $220-240 retailers.
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-04-21 21:02
I was pleasantly surprised by the Beats, but they just had too much technology between me and the music. I end up more on the 'reference' side of the equation when it comes to headphones. Have you head the new B&Ws yet? I'm dying to test drive them – maybe the Apple store stocks 'em??
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0 # lily 2010-08-07 02:32
Bose in ear headphones also come with a lanyard and clip for enhanced stability when youre on the move.
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0 # andy gan 2011-01-26 08:15
There are so many copied monster beats by dr. dre
in the market and my friends got them in some website ,well I think they are look good but have the different quality when listen to the music ,well the makers of who make the real one will be angry and crazy for the fake are so cheap ....
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