Beyond Beats: a comprehensive guide to headphones

This past holiday season, people filled their shopping carts with gifts for others (and themselves). Music is an integral part of many people’s lives, and headphones and earbuds were a common purchase during the holidays.

Unfortunately, style and marketing have overtaken the original point of headphones – the sound. People sport headphones around their neck as a fashion piece; the sole reason being that a famous musician slapped his/her name and logo onto them.

I have created a headphone and earbud buying guide that does not consider prestige and fashion appeal, but quality of sound and listening experience. It has been separated into four price ranges, with my pick of headphones and IEM (see terminology guide below) for the price range. Not every pair of headphones out there sounds good with every type of music, but I have selected pairs that will perform well in all genres. Unfortunately, many of these brands are easily accessible in terms of testing them out. Don’t let that deter you into buying a pair of overpriced, lacking pair of headphones. Take my word and give these selections a chance – you may have not heard of the brand, but you will not be disappointed.

Terminology guide:

Earbud: These are the headphones that come with iPods and other MP3 players. They provide little isolation and sit in the outside of the ear. There are not many quality options in this style, which is why many consider IEMs to be superior.

IEMs: Stands for in-ear monitors. Unlike earbuds, they go a step further by nesting in your ear canal. They generally provide a tight seal and better isolation, which is why there are more high end options in this style.

On Ear/Over Ear: On ear headphones sit on the ear. Over ear headphones cover the ear.

Mids, highs, bass (lows): These terms are used to describe the pitch of the sound you hear. Bass/low pitch sounds are simple: think of a kick drum in an electronic song, or an actual bass in a rock song. Mids typically tend to be sounds like a singer’s voice, or a rhythm guitar. Highs, the sounds with the highest pitch, are sounds made by a flute, cymbal, etc.

Note: The prices on the guide are subject to change. They were pulled from Amazon. However, prices on Amazon tend not to fluctuate that much, so expect prices to stick throughout the year.

Cheap picks ($0-50):

JVC HA-FX101B – IEM – $20: JBL delivers audiophile level sound for a great price. The soundstage is wide, and the bass is clear. Mids and highs are on point as well. A solid seal eliminates most outside noise.

Monoprice 8323 – On ear – ~$30: With on ear headphones in this price range, you get what you pay for in terms of build quality. The 8323s are plastic and come with fake leather ear cushions, but they do offer perks such as portability (they can fold). Another huge perk is the detachable cable (you can use any 3.5mm cable with these). The sound range should satisfy fans of any genres; the bass is heavy and the midrange is full-bodied.

Entry level ($50-100)

Shure SRH440 – On ear – $99: These are an excellent pair of critical listening headphones. The precision sound lets you hear every guitar pluck and bass chord. The lows, mids, and highs are balanced flat, like an equalizer setting. I wouldn’t recommend these for bass junkies as the bass is very smooth and not punchy. These are great for people who listen to multiple genres as they deliver accurate and clear sound all around.

MEElectronics A161P – IEM – $70: Simply put, the A161P’s are “immersive” – they aren’t perfect, but for under $100 they are a great deal. Bass is loud (but not too overpowering) and the mids and highs are clear.

Mid Range: ($100-200)

Audio Technica ATH M50 – Over ear – $105: Let me be clear: at the price point they are selling at now on Amazon, these are an absolute steal. These headphones will obliterate any Beats by Dre product on the market – they are simply amazing. There might as well be a subwoofer in each earpiece as the bass is phenomenal. The highs are absolutely pristine. The mids are solid – voices come out clear and articulated. These headphones are perfect for any genre, and I truly believe that currently they are the best deal on the market.

Shure SE215-CL – IEM – $100: Sound quality is excellent. The main feature of these IEMs is that they cancel noise. This is a rare feature in IEMs, and the Shures pull it off very well. Be careful – they cancel noise so much that you might not hear sounds you need to hear while listening to earphones – streets, train stations, etc.

Upper Range: ($200+)

V-Moda M100 – On ear – $300: V-Moda sells a good portion of its product through online retailers, which is why they are lesser known than brands such as Sennheiser. However, the M-100 is an absolute beast of a headphone. Steel construction makes them virtually unbreakable, and the cord is made out of kevlar (used in the making of armored vests). The sound is on another level – no headphone in this price range can even come close. The bass is clear and crisp, the highs are sharp, and the midrange is vivid. There is minimal sound leakage from the headphone and they cancel out outside noise as well. The price is high, but these headphones are an extremely solid investment.

Monster Turbine Copper Pro – IEM – $400: First, I would recommend buying these when they go on sale – they frequently drop down to below $230. The soundstage of the IEM is solid; the range will please people from dubstep to classical. With an assortment of accessories to make the listening experience as comfortable as possible, these are an excellent pair of premium IEMs.