A common theme in retail is brand loyalty. I get asked all the time what my favourite brand is. Though I understand where the question
comes from, I would flip the table (like a boss) and ask what the questioner is looking for. As with many manufacturers, there are different price points and markets which divide product lines and strategies, and what’s most important is the potential buyer’s values. At a high level, budget and application are the two large differentiators, but when it comes to making a purchase, there are many different questions to answer:
- What bothered you about the last headphones? eg. Cheap wires, too big, leaked sound, didn’t fit well, reminds you of your ex-boyfriend’s toe fungus
- What makes your use unique? eg. traveling by plane frequently, store it in this pocket in your bag, cold temperatures, cats chewing on the cord.
When I get asked the question about brands, I say it depends on what you’re looking for. I’ve been asked about waterproof headphones, fiber optic cables, and other crazy things. Despite all that, here’s my answer to the question.
They make two of my favourite headphones, the HD650 and HD800, arguably the best headphones in the world. They also make classics in the lower segment. They pretty much make headphones in every single segment, and they have for over 50 years. You can find winners in almost every category.
- Grado Labs
I love Grado for the storybook notion of John Grado working in the factory of his uncle Joe Grado, sweeping floors while the workers made phono cartridges, inheriting the business, and designing headphones around the rock and roll vinyls he grew up with. Grado headphones are best known for their rock and roll sound, and they match perfectly with a vinyl system and rock and roll records. They feature a very raw, live sound mated with an intimate listening experience.
I like Koss for their value. They make the best beginner headphones hands down, the KSC75 and the Porta Pro. This fact cannot be contested with their combination price, sound quality, and lifetime warranty. Koss also makes electrostatic headphones, some of the better ones from what I read. We’ll cover electrostatics in another post.
I like Shure for their universal fit in-ear-monitors (IEMs), those earpieces used by bands at live concerts. Great for beginners, and they have high-end models for the enthusiasts as well.
- Ultimate Ears
They make both universal and custom mold IEMs. There are others around there, but UE has one of the longest celebrity client lists you’ll find. These are the people you go to when your band starts touring and you have disposal income.
- Etymotic Research
In the IEM category, there was a bit of an arms race to fit as many drivers and crossovers as possible into the moldings. Etymotic stands out as a purist category. They’re the single malt scotch of IEMs, holding fast to the belief that a single balanced armature driver can more reproduce the full range of the audio spectrum with more fidelity than the multi-driver IEMs. Known primarily for their ER4 headphone, one of the oldest and most neutral IEMs. They don’t have the boomy bass sound characteristic that has gained popularity in the last 10-15 years. They’re very flat sounding, which is perfect for anyone looking for a revealing earphone. My brother, Chris, uses his for working out at the gym.
There are many more that make great headphones, but this post would just get way too long. AKG, Audio Technica, Beyerdynamic, Denon, Sony, Ultrasone, and there are newer brands (new to me) like Audeze, Monster, and HiFiMAN that are doing great things. You’ll find some brands and models surreptitiously missing, eg. Dre Beats, Bose, but we’ll hit that topic another day. I’ll also do another post about classic headphones (as if the last two posts didn’t speak enough about the same topic) for the heavy-hitting audiophiles. However, next week, I’ll be writing about who I really am in the audio scene. I mean, why should anyone really listen to this poser’s advice? His profile picture doesn’t even show his face. I’m pretty well-versed in the headphone area, but my area of interest lies more in the electronics, eg. amplifiers, digital-to-analog converters, etc. We’ll have some fun.
tl;dr – Best brand depends on market segment. Check this and the last two posts for good brands and models.