A few months ago, I treated myself to a new pair of headphones. Rather than my usual approach (the second least expensive pair in the shop, to make sure I wasn't getting a really bad set), these were going to be my "quality" pair of headphones.

Not just for blocking out the world on my daily commute, or listening to podcasts— these would be for serious listening; sitting down and listening to an album from start to finish, or for practicing the guitar quietly, for mixing multitrack recordings etc. stuff where the sound matters.

Because headphones have become more important to me over time. With kids, neighbours and a wife to worry about, when I'm settling down to listen to music — as opposed to doing something with music on in the background — I'm doing it through headphones. Also, with the intention to spend more time playing with Logic and Final Cut, a good quality set of headphones seemed like a sensible investment.

So, as is the usual first step for these sorts of things, I did a bit of googling for reviews and opinions. Which was where I hit my first stumbling block.

Sample review quotes;

The bass is slightly lean-sounding, but deep and well defined, and there’s a lovely, open, airy top end, and plenty of mid-range detail. Dynamics are portrayed very naturally.

I don't know what a 'lean but deep' bass sounds like. I think 'deep' sounds good, but 'lean' sounds… well, kind of like the opposite of 'deep', in terms of bass sounds.

The sound is extremely fast and revealing, translating both EQ and fader-level decisions with commendable solidity. The bass is impressive, despite its understatement, and as extended as that of the HD650s, but somehow more precise and tuneful.

I don't know what 'fast sound' sounds like. 'Understated' bass sounds like a good thing to me — I'm not after a massive pair of headphones that will make me feel like I'm standing next to the speakers in a nightclub. I can imagine that might not be what some people want, so this seems to be a useful piece of information.

The tone is evenly balanced, though slightly brittle and with a hint of boxiness at around 1kHz

(So I guess 1kHz is a bad place for boxiness…)

[…]but not enough to cause serious problems. There’s almost as much internal mix detail as with the MDR7509s, yet balances seem more representative and stable, and there’s an impressive sense of speed to higher-frequency transients without things becoming fatiguing.

I know what all of these words mean. But I can't understand this sentence. I think its saying good things though. (Detail, representative, stable = good. Fatiguing = bad.) It seems to be saying that too much 'speed' can become fatiguing. Which makes sense… but not in the context of sounds.

Bass representation is a strong point, with good, clean extension, gentle low-end roll-off, and no serious low mid-range flattery to confuse mix decisions. EQ judgements may not be as transportable as with some more expensive cans, but the K240 MkIIs punch above their weight for fundamental mix-balance judgements.

And so on and so forth…

My point is, I could put together a shortlist of headphones and spend hours reading these sorts of reviews, but I would come away with virtually no idea of what they actually sound like. Comments about comfort are useful to me — I don't want a heavy pair of headphones, or sweaty ears, or a headband so tight that it gives me a headache. But these are surely going to depend on the shape of your head – and few reviewers are including their own measurements to assist with interpreting these details.

The underlying problem is that, unless you are spending a lot of time in a very sound-focussed environment (working in a recording studio, for example), then you aren't going to be familiar with the language that is used to describe different sorts of sounds. (Or maybe more accurately, systems that reproduce sound, like headphones or speakers.)

Its reminiscent of wine tasting; unless you have tasted a glass of wine in the company of someone who can explain how that particular taste is described, you probably aren't going to be able to describe the sort of wines that you like to someone in a way that will make much sense to them.

So… Reading reviews weren't going to be helpful to me. I was going to have to actually go and find a shop and see for myself. Which, considering that I work in London (just off Tottenham Court Road — which is littered with hi-fi shops), that shouldn't be too hard.

Except… What I found instead were;

  • Shops with headphones boxed and sealed, with no way to listen to them.
  • Shops with a few headphones on display, but lots more in sealed boxes. (Often the ones I was interested in.)
  • Shops with headphones on display, plugged into a broken music system.
  • Shops with broken headphones on display.

The best place I found by far — and the only place I would recommend out of everywhere I visited — was London Pro Audio Centre] on Denmark Street [UPDATE - sadly, no longer in business - apparently taken over by the Wunjo Keyboard shop, which seems to be doing a similar kind of thing]. They had a huge range of headphones on display, plugged into a huge multi-disc CD player, stacked with a range of music (so listening to uncompressed audio, going through a decent amplifier - as opposed to plugging in an MP3 player and listening to your own compressed music through a cheap portable player — I'm no audiophile, but I do believe that this isn't the best way of getting good quality sound out of a recording.) So, very easy to compare different pairs of headphones in both comfort and sound. Which is basically what you want.

From everything they had on display, I ended up choosing between the Audio Technica ATH-M50 and Sennheiser HD 380, which I thought where the two best ones there — for different reasons. The Sennheisers had a good sound, which was very clean, but felt a little flat next the the ATH-M50. I got the feeling that the Audio Technicas weren't just 'representing' the sound, but polishing it up a little. If I were buying headphones purely for recording/monitoring (ie. as a 'studio' pair), then I probably would have bought the Sennheisers — but I also wanted to make my music sound good. So I went with the Audio Technica's instead.

So, if you are looking for a decent pair of headphones, I would recommend a trip to Denmark Street and trying several pairs out for yourself. If you can't find a decent shop, are sick of trying to make sense of 'pro' reviews and would rather be paying for the headphones (as opposed to supporting a fashion brand), then you can buy the HD 380s or ATH M50s from Amazon below. (And you'll be earning me a referral fee if you do.)