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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. ↩︎