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The Wirecutter’s Headphones

Lauren Dragan’s guide at The Wirecutter, The Best $300 Over-Ear Headphones, was updated yesterday, the same day I published my similar mega-review.1

We agree on a lot: our opinions are very close on the PSB M4U 1 (their top pick), B&O H6, and B&W P7. We only have a few major disagreements:

They dismissed my top pick, the AKG K551, as being “tinny” and bass-light, but did not test it this time. They didn’t mention the newer AKG K545 at all, which is unfortunate since it improves on the K551 in some key areas.

They dismiss the NAD HP50, which is extremely similar to their top-picked PSB M4U 1 down to the same designer, parent company, and approximate frequency response, as measured by one of their panelists. The HP50 and M4U 1 are nearly indistinguishable in sound to me (exactly what you’d expect from the measurements), but I rated the HP50’s sound very slightly better, while they complained about the HP50’s “sparkling high end” and “bumping bass” and didn’t rank it.

They ranked the Blue Mo-Fi as “a (very close) runner-up” to the M4U 1 and actually rated its sound quality higher, while I don’t think it’s very close at all and ranked them far below the M4U 1. They recommend the Mo-Fi for “when you listen to live and acoustic instruments”, but live recordings and acoustic instruments are where you need treble presence and detail the most (and notice when they’re lacking), and the Mo-Fi has very poor treble response and detail. And while they did correctly note that the Mo-Fi is very heavy, they were much more forgiving on the fit and comfort than I was.

They ranked the Sennheiser Momentum as third-best, while I ranked it dead last. We agree that it’s uncomfortable, but disagree on the degree and importance of discomfort. We agree that they have too much bass, but while they say “the fit and sound were just barely off from our top slot”, I think there’s a large difference between the M4U’s sound and the Momentum’s: the Momentum has substantially less detail and an even more severe lack of treble (which most pro reviews have backed up), although I place it above the Mo-Fi in that regard.

We both thought the Beats Studio didn’t have great sound, but I rated the sound slightly better, and they didn’t mention its ANC (or the hiss). The wording suggests that Lauren didn’t actually test these with the others, yielding to a panelist’s year-old review instead. Since these are probably the most popular headphones in the world in this price class, I think they’re worth testing directly with the others. (That’s why I bought a pair to include in my test.)

They didn’t mention any models from Bose, which was strange since, again, they sell one of the world’s most popular $300 over-ear headphones: the QC15. It’s pretty good, too — so good that it’s The Wirecutter’s top pick in a nearby category. Maybe it was excluded from this review because it has active noise cancellation, but so do the Beats Studio and the sidebar-mentioned M4U 2.

That’s one of the biggest problems I have with their review: they don’t define the category or its boundaries very well, it doesn’t include some very popular models that people actually buy, and it recommends some models without appropriate warnings about their needs or side effects.

Should “$300-ish over-ear headphones” include noise-cancelling models? I think so, especially the very popular ones. Should it include open-backed headphones, large studio headphones that don’t fold, or models without phone clickers? I think not, since that probably doesn’t reflect what people expect today from an unqualified “best headphones” pick. Should a $2,000 orthodynamic flagship (that Lauren seemingly didn’t spend much time with) be mentioned in the review at all, especially without mentioning that it also requires a very powerful and expensive amp? I think not. That’s like saying “The best mid-priced car is the Honda Accord, but for a big step up, get the Ferrari 458” — correct but not helpful, lacking some big caveats, dismissing a huge range of great options in between, and nowhere near the whole story. They disagree with me on all of these choices before we even get to sound-quality evaluation.

Much of our disagreement on sound quality can be chalked up to different preferences. They clearly prefer the “laid-back” sound profile with reduced treble response, which I address in my review (and provide separate picks for, led by the HP50 and M4U 1). Sound quality is mostly objective but partly subjective, and they barely address those possible differences or dismiss them as wrong. And while objective measurements aren’t everything, some of their cited differences strongly contradict them.

That’s the problem with The Wirecutter’s approach: “This is the best one.” There is no single “best” headphone for around $300, just as there’s no single “best” of almost anything. In practice, it’s more complicated than that for almost every product category unless it’s defined more narrowly and consistently than the bounds they usually set.

  1. For the same reason: the Blue Mo-Fi embargo lifted yesterday. ↩︎