I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Good Portable Headphones That Aren’t Beats

On last week’s podcast, we discussed why people love Beats headphones despite their sound being so undesirable to audiophiles. Since then, people keep asking me the same question: “What should I get instead?”

Different headphones suit different needs. A great model for working all day at your desk won’t be a great choice for portability, and vice versa. People also have different sound preferences: one person’s clarity is another’s harshness; one’s warmth is another’s muddiness; your “ample” bass might be overpowering to me.

These days, there are many great “desk” headphones that are huge, closed (sealed from the outside world), comfortable for long listening, very affordable, don’t need a separate amp, but might have long and unwieldy cables and don’t fold very small. You’ve seen this list — the Sony (Wirecutter), a Sennheiser or two, the Audio-Technica, the Beyerdynamic, and the AKG are usually on it. They’re great for keeping in one spot and listening for hours in noisy environments (like most offices), and bringing on occasional flights. But they’re definitely too big to walk around with, and might be a bit unwieldy on planes (especially those with coiled cords).

Note: I’m intentionally omitting all open-backed headphones from this article since their sound leakage — especially outward — makes them impractical at best and extremely rude to use around other people, on planes, or on mass transit.1 I’ve also omitted earbuds and in-ear-monitors (IEMs, or “canalphones”) because I can’t wear them without pain, so I can’t really judge them fairly.

Anyway, for portable use, priorities are different. Practicality trumps everything:

I haven’t tried every headphone on the market — far from it (much to my chagrin). But among those I’ve tried, there are some clear winners, and a handful of models I haven’t tried seem worth consideration since they’ve gotten so much acclaim.

Smallest, for maximum portability

I’ve only found one headphone that nails this: the Sennheiser PX 200-II i ($70). It’s my favorite portable set so far for two reasons: it’s the only one I’ve found that folds into a compact pretzel shape, and it has a good iPhone clicker. It’s also a good value.

But it has relatively poor sound quality — fine for podcasts, but not great for music. There’s also a major durability issue: I’ve lost three of them — one about every 18 months — to what I suspect are internal frays in the thin, non-replaceable cable. And its tiny on-ear design, which makes it so portable, also makes it uncomfortable after about an hour.

It’s great for commuting, walking the dog, or doing household chores, but poor for long listening and sound quality.

Midsized “on-ear” designs, but still portable

These sound much better than ultra-compact models, but since they’re still resting on the ear (rather than around it), they’re usually not comfortable for very long periods. They don’t fold very small, but can often still fit in a large jacket pocket.

Over-ear designs, portable only with a bag or case

These are “portable” in the sense that you can bring them on a plane, but you can’t just go somewhere with a jacket and have anywhere to put them except on your head. But their larger, around-ear designs are much more comfortable for long listening, so they can double as desk headphones.

What did I miss?

  1. If you want an open headphone anyway: Grado if you have little money and a high tolerance for pain, DT-880 otherwise, and T90 if you can afford it.

    The T90 has shockingly good sound that competes very well against many headphones that cost more than twice as much, including the venerable HD 800 (which I now use as my main home listening set because I have a headphone problem), and it can be easily driven by an iPhone or computer without another amp. ↩︎

V-Moda XS Review

I really thought I’d like the V-Moda XS headphones.

Last week, I argued that for portable headphones, sound quality takes a back seat to practicality. I knew the XS wouldn’t be as small as my favorite portable set, and I knew it wouldn’t sound as good as many full-sized models, but its reviews have been stellar as something in the middle.

Design and Size

When they arrived, I found the design a bit off-putting, mostly from all of the exposed screws.1

They’re much larger than I expected, and they’re very heavy for their size — at 195g, they’re slightly heavier than the larger Sennheiser Momentum and Bose QC-15.

The earcups don’t rotate to fold flat like many models. Instead, they swing upward and click into the headband cavity. This lets you fold them into a fairly small “ball”, but it won’t fit in most jacket pockets, and it’ll be awkward in small bags.

Here’s how they compare to some other portable headphones, plus a full-size set for perspective. The V-Modas are in the middle:

Left to right: PX 100-IIi,2 AKG K451,3 V-Moda XS, B&O H6,4 PSB M4U 15. I’ve elaborated before on most of these.

Same headphones, folded. See why I like the Sennheiser PX line?

Tired, fluffy dog for scale, in case you also have one to compare against.


Most small headphones are on-ear designs: their earpads rest directly on the ears. Larger models can use over-ear earpads that form circles around ears, resting on your head instead. Over-ear designs are usually much more comfortable, especially for long spans, and isolate better. And generally, the lighter the headphone, the more comfortable it can be.

The XS is an on-ear design, but it’s a very large one — possibly the largest I’ve seen, and almost certainly the heaviest.

The earpads concentrate their pressure in a thin outline ring on each ear. With most comfortable headphones, you can quickly forget that you’re wearing them. With the XS, I can never forget, and I never stop feeling that pressure outline on my ears.

I find them very uncomfortable after a few minutes.

The Cable

The XS is socketed, so the cable is replaceable and can be inserted into either side — a big win for practicality and longevity.

The cable is orange. Fun.

But it’s also too thick and too stiff, which makes it annoying to maneuver. The diagonal plug is strange, bringing the worst of both worlds: most of the awkwardness of a right-angle plug, with most of the protrusion of a straight plug.

The clicker is only one-button, and it’s a separate module further down from the microphone at roughly breast level when worn. Since it’s so far from the usual neck-level placement, I can’t access the clicker if I tuck the cable under a shirt or jacket.

Since it’s replaceable, I could just buy another cable from someone else. But who? Good replacements with a 3-button iPhone clicker are hard to find, most are either terrible or stupidly expensive, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll fit through another model’s narrow socket-surround. A replaceable cable is mostly only useful to replace with the same one from the manufacturer if yours breaks or fails.


Bass is a bit too strong and imprecise, and often gets boomy enough to mask other details. Upper treble is weak, making everything sound slightly muffled and muddy. But neither are extreme enough to be fatal, and neither are uncommon in small, closed headphones. You can get better-sounding closed headphones at this price, but they’re going to be much larger.

Overall, the XS sounds very good for its size. I’m impressed with its sound.

But it’s a strange size that brings the worst aspects of on-ear and over-ear together. It’s almost the size, weight, and price of a small over-ear model, so it misses much of the portability and practicality of many smaller on-ears. Its mediocre cable reduces the practicality even further, and its design is… “polarizing”.

For me, the biggest problem is simply comfort. I can almost still feel the hexagonal earpad outline pressed into my ears.

Ultimately, I decided to return the XS.

  1. I also ordered directly from V-Moda so I could get free custom-printed Overcast side plates, which looked much better in theory than in reality — the black screws and almost-gold color look pretty tacky in person. ↩︎

  2. Open; the PX 200-IIi is closed and has much better pads, but sounds worse. ↩︎

  3. Decent and comfortable, but an awful clicker with hinged buttons. ↩︎

  4. Extremely comfortable, but no bass. ↩︎

  5. Good, but overrated. ↩︎

File A Bug

Next week at WWDC, we’re likely to hear a familiar response to many requests: “File a bug.”

I’ve had countless Apple employees tell me over the years that filing bug reports is the most effective way to get actual bugs fixed and “vote” for new API features. (It’s also the only way that most people have.)

I’ve filed 15 bugs since 2009. Of those:

I’m not an anomaly. From Fix Radar or GTFO:

We file radars and we’re lucky to hear back about them. The majority of radars are either left untouched or marked as duplicates of other radars we cannot see. We may get a request for more information from engineering, but sometimes it is for irrelevant information or information already given in the original report. All this makes us feel like our radars make little difference. And this is important as our time is valuable.

From our point of view, there’s little reason to file bugs. Filing a good bug report takes a lot of testing and time, and it seems like Apple just disregards most of them. Of the few that get any response at all, it’s almost always a useless response or the obvious result of a careless engineer trying to clear out the bug backlog with as little work as possible.

With these results, what reason do we have to spend any time filing bugs?

Apple’s employees present a nice story: Apple cares! File a report! It matters! And I believe that those individuals truly believe that. The system works by the time it gets to them. And in the aggregate, they do need our bug reports.

But actions speak louder than words, and Apple’s actions tell a different story to the vast majority of developers who actually bother filing bugs.

Their abysmal communication and responsiveness, with most of the responses indicating carelessness or apathy, tells each individual developer, “Don’t bother filing that. Nothing will happen. It’s a waste of your time. We don’t care.”