December 8, 2005
I've talked about all the essential environmental things a programmer should have: a good chair, at least two monitors, and a great keyboard.
One thing I haven't talked about, though, is headphones. Headphones are probably the most optional item in that list. But if you're not blessed with a quiet workplace, they can be essential. There are lots of great choices in headphones, but the set I own and recommend is the Sennheiser 580.
Am I really advocating spending two hundred dollars on a set of headpones? Yes. Yes I am. Now, you could spend a lot more. This is about extracting the maximum bang for your buck:
- Unlike your computer, or your car, your headphones will never wear out or become obsolete. I hesitate to say lifetime, but they're multiple decade investments at the very least.
- The number one item that affects the music you hear is the speakers. Without a good set of headphones, everything else is irrelevant.
- The right headphones can deliver sound equivalent to extremely high-end floorstanding speakers worth thousands of dollars.
If you're the type of person who is perfectly happy listening to 64 kilobit MP3s through a $5 set of beige headphones, that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. Keep on scrolling; this post is not for you.
But if you're any kind of music enthusiast, or you work in noisy environments, a quality set of headphones will be one of the best $200 investments you could possibly make.
I'm a big fan of the guys at HeadRoom; not only are they a reputable vendor, they're a great source for unbiased information about headphones in general. You don't have to buy anything there, but it's definitely the first place you should start.
If you become a minor headphone enthusiast like myself, you might also want to invest in an inexpensive external headphone amplifier. It's not required by any means, but after a nice set of headphones, it can have the second biggest effect on the resulting sound you hear. The coolest model for computer geeks is the HeadRoom BitHead:
Take a BitHead, plug it into the USB port on your computer, then plug the best headphones you've got into the BitHead, and BAM, knock-your-socks-off sound. Then later, pack it up in a HeadRoom bag with your favorite portable player, and you've got one of the most aurally delightful portable audio systems on the planet. Think about it: a great back end for your computer and a sweet analog headphone amp to use with your portable player for only $199. Your ears will thank you.
The BitHead has a bit of a split personality: it is a battery powered miniature headphone amp for use with portable players. And it's a USB powered external sound card and headphone amp for computers.
Dan has a good review of the BitHead which goes into more depth. It garners a "highly recommended" from him and from me.
As far as I'm concerned, wires are the way to go for headphones. But if you demand freedom from the tyranny of wires, maybe these Sennheiser 65 wireless headphones are more your speed. If wireless is your bag, bear in mind that you need to be extra careful in this category-- wireless transmission isn't exactly synonymous with quality.
At the risk of sounding like a total Sennheiser shill, if you need a headset/microphone combination for things like Skype, the Sennheiser PC150 is passable and inexpensive. But the audio quality and comfort is nowhere near what you'll get out of the HD580s.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
I can personally attest to the Sennheiser 280 Pro's on headphone.com's top 10 list as well. They feel good and isolate sound really well. The only downside is that they look kinda campy. I had a great experience with Sennheiser's customer support as well. Somehow one of the wires in my cans got snipped, so I sent them back and they shipped me a new pair.
I used to have the Grado SR-80's. They sounded great, but not only did they look weird, they weren't very comfortable on my head.
My two cents.
I'm a coder sharing an office with up to three other folks, and sometimes they seem constitutionally incapable of shutting the !#$@ up. My sweetie got me the Sennheiser PCX250s for my birthday, and it reduces the chatter to something I can more easily ignore. They proved a simple way to improve my work environment.
The difference between the Grados and Sennheisers is usually a matter of taste; I find Sennheiser's supra-aureal (which covers yours ears, as opposed to Grado's "sit-on-your-ear" design) much more comortable, and the SR-60/80's sound is not at all comparable to the HD600 I use (the comparable model from Grado is, I believe, the SR-225 which I haven't heard).
Also, be advised that most computer sound cards have very mediocre amplification (particularly the various on-board sound cards, even the relatively modern ones like the NVidia SoundStorm). I would readily advise shelling out several hundred dollars for headphones (you can get the 580s for amazingly low prices on eBay, and they're almost as good as the 600s), but you should also spend on decent source equipment.
Finally, unless you really know how to take care of your equipment and don't have to share it with anyone, I would seriously doubt the headphones will remain in pristene [sp?] condition for more than 5 years or so (mine have just developed cable issues for the 3rd time in 5 years, although I did share them with family for much of that time).
What? No open vs. closed debate? ;)
My old BeyerDynamic DT550s lasted for around 15 years. In fact, they still work great but the ear cushions disintegrated leaving black stuff on my ears every time I wore them. TBFM, I can't find replacements and I've been trying to decide between Sennheiser 280 Pros or 580s.
Personally I prefer the Sennheiser HD590 but the difference is not very great.
But that's for the PC, and as you said, PC soundcards have shitty amplifiers. For my real stereo system I use an AKG K240 Monitor. 600 ohms, baby!
I bought a couple a pair of Sennheiser eH 250 after my old HD 457 broke. I think they are pretty awesome, really filters out noise well and the sound is amazing. I use them everywhere I go, which probably means I have to get new ones in a year or so. They work very well with my iPod (with video of course ;o)).
I forgot to mention that they were so nice that I got a pair for my girlfriend as well. Great gift ;o)
It's great that it's easy to get replacements, but it's not quite so easy outside the 'states. I'm very lucky in that Sennheiser switched their distributor here in Israel a few years ago; the old one sucked badly in terms of both service and prices (which I why I ordered my HD600 blind from an online shop - best deal I ever got, only around $200 and that's almost five years ago!). The new distributor is actually very fair, but it's still very annoying to have to replace the headphone cable every couple of years (although my headphones do have to handle ridiculous usage - often 10 hours a day and more).
Forget old fashioned headphones like these; get yourself a pair of sound isolating ear-plugs, like the Shure E2Cs.
It's all about the top 10 list:
There are some in-ear models in there, if that's your bag. Personally, I don't like the idea of wedging something all the way into my ear canal. The exhortations to "achiev[e] the all-important tight seal" make me more than a little nervous.
You're barking up the wrong tree! Forget old fashioned headphones like these; get yourself a pair of sound isolating ear-plugs, like the Shure E2Cs. They sound great and COMPLETELY cut out all foreign noise.
They take some time to put in, but once you have them on and music playing, you hear nothing but your music. The effect is incredible, especially when you try them for the first time.
I work in an open office layout that is VERY noise. There will be 3-4 conversations going on around me, and many people on the phone. The sound-isolaters completely cut out all that noise, and let me listen to my music in total piece.
The best part is that you don't have to crank-it-up to here. I use these in the NYC subway with my iPod set at 20% of max volume. With any kind of regular head phones, I need to keep the volume at 80% just to hear as I walk down the street, and when a bus or subway goes by, I have to crank it up to 100% just to hear over-driven static.
I prefer earbuds myself. It feels like the music is in your brain if you get the right ones. I really love my Etymotic ER-6s:
(That URL should be bbrown dot info, but the comment wouldn't be accepted with any sort of dot info URL. You know, Jeff, sometimes the .com isn't available.)
I use Sennheiser HD 212Pro. They cost about $100 2-3 years ago. Great sound, great look, and most important great feel. I can wear these headphones for many hours at a time. I think you can get these for around $60 now.
I still have my old Sennheiser HD540 Reference Gold set (a href="http://static.flickr.com/4/7193167_4566b0d2e5_o.jpg)"http://static.flickr.com/4/7193167_4566b0d2e5_o.jpg)/a from the 80's in the original rosewood box (sentimental sigh). No good for noise-blocking as they are featherweight and open design (ideal for around the house or in bed, no fatigue or sore ears, and I can still hear the phone ring or a knock at the door).
However, this is one option I don't take for several reasons:
1. Listening to music all day, even at moderate levels, slowly damages your hearing (and I enjoy music too much to do that).
2. Listening to music at a level sufficient to drown out background noise quickly damages your hearing. Some of my workmates have been noticed to be talking more loudly and saying "pardon?" a lot since they got into the habit of wearing headphones at work.
3. When my workplace is that unpleasant, I don't like to create a mental association between my music (which I use to relax at home) and work.
4. My coding productivity drops by about 50% when listening to music (I have little or no filtering mechanism, which makes noisy workspaces unbearable hell - up to 90 interruptions an hour in my previous workplace).
These are what I use a href="http://www.etymotic.com/ephp/er20.aspx"http://www.etymotic.com/ephp/er20.aspx/a
and they work well. You can still hear the people talking to you, but not anyone outside your immediate cubicle area (at least not at a disturbing level unless they are abnormally loud).
Best programming tool I have ever bought for the workplace at the price.
The headphone version is expensive, but hopefully a bit safer on the ears (as it blocks outside sound and can be run more quietly).
It should be pointed out that the Peopleware book you link to (via the other post) does mention the subject of headphones at work. They say that the music occupies your right brain, thus preventing you from making any intuitive leaps of understanding. I don't know if there's anything to this claim or not.
Personally I listen to music a lot less at work these days, but only if low ambient noise levels allow.
Also mild disagreement with the claim that headphones last forever. My current work pair are Sennheisser HD435s from the late 90s. They still sound OK but the earpads are disintegrating and the detachable cables are self-detaching with increasing regularity. Prior to that I had a pair of Grado SR-60s which also suffered disintegrating earpad syndrome.
My point being that nothing lasts forever.
Scoble recommends the Ulimate Ears UE-10. But at about $1000 a pop, it might be a bit much (WAY outa my range).
Here is Scobles post on it: http://radio.weblogs.com/0001011/2005/05/20.html#a10153
For myself, I am going to try the PC150's. I need the boom mike for Rosetta Stone.
My point being that nothing lasts forever.
This is why you can buy a replacement cable and pads from the Sennheiser store.
Thought I'd chime in with my Senheissers of choice, the HD-570. What makes me like it so much?
1) Detachable cable, so when it some-day goes bad, I can replace them.
2) Felt/Velvetty cups. I can't stand the feel of real or fake leather against my the side of my head. It's okay at first, but as the material warms up, it gets very uncomfortable. The HD-570's felt sides actually breathe. I can wear them for hours in total comfort.
3) While they are a large pair of ear-phones, they are surprisingly light.
listening to white noise is supposed to be the most relaxing thing and also helps concentration by overlaying noise from your surrounding environment
Well then, I should be super-mega-relaxed right now, since the air conditioning vent above my head does nothing but broadcast white noise 24/7..
I hear that listening to white noise is supposed to be the most relaxing thing and also helps concentration by overlaying noise from your surrounding environment - has anyone tried that?
There are quite a few decent headphones out there not mentioned that cost less than $100. I recommend going to any reputable music store and try them out FOR YOUR OWN EARS. Forget going to the Best Buys. I stumbled across the AKG K-55. I own a few pairs and do music recording. I think you can get them for $40 or so. Throw aways. They have a good balanced response and block out the sound well. They reproduce all types of music, from death metal to ambient to classical to rap. I have not found a better bang-for-the-buck for large speaker heaphones.
You want REAL silence AND comfort in a noisy environment?
Try these puppies:
Been using the Pillowsofts for years, and they are super comfy, block out better than any earphones, and give you silence. Only about $5 bucks at your local CVS too.
Hello, you headphone seekers. Just a clarification - the HD580 is a Circumaural headphone, because the pads go over and surround the ears. The Grados are the Supraaural ones, because they rest on the ears.
Since the time of the HD580, there have been two updates to this design - the HD600, and the HD650. Right now, the HD650 is really getting some well deserved press for a $300 headphone that can "do it all." But as suggested, I recommend an external amp to go with it, as 300ohms is a lot to ask of an onboard soundcard.
For more research on good office cans, check out www.head-fi.org and dive into the madness!
I bought a pair of Sennheiser HD490's a few years ago, for about $100 in South Africa. I was quite impressed by the sound when I listened to them. A co-worker who was with me and was also looking for good earphones, listened to a pair of 530's ($250) and was ready to buy them when the salesman suggested he listen to a pair of 570's "just to compare" ($400). He listened for 30 seconds and then bought them because the quality was so noticeably better. The salesman hinted that quality jump to the $500 HD600's was the same again, but he didn't have any in stock to demonstrate at the time.
What I did notice on his headphones was that it was possible to listen to the same music at a lower volume, because the sound quality was so much better that there was no need to substitute volume for quality.
I reckon that people can't appreciate true high-end goods immediately on leaping from consumer junk, you need time to adjust to one quality level before you can perceive the improvements at the next. Buying a set of HD600s may be a dream, but for most people the 500 range will be a great start, and you can always upgrade to 600s when you decide you need nothing less than the best.
i don't know off hand how many apirs of sennheisers i have right now, but i think that they are a safe good buy. the ONLY pair of sennhiesers i had a problem with and eventually sent back (because the headbnad broke) was the 280's.
the grado's are great if you can stand the comfort issue. but for me the sennheiser HD25's offer the best solution between home and portable use.
I've had my pair of Sennheiser HD320's for around 15 years now, and they still sound better than anything I've heard costing five times as much. They were around 40 when I bought them, and I've been through three headbands (one every five years) from the very good parts service here in the UK. They do take a beating though as I tend to stuff them into my Pakuma bag when I take them out and about with me, and the sponge padding on the earpads has all but vanished now. I just can't bring myself to retire them!
I had a similar problem to yours in my Sennheiser pair - and I repaired it just by opening that dead earpiece and... connecting the cable back to driver (simple plug it back onto pins).
To open it: pull out the pad, then unsnap all what's got visible and appears to be unsnappable, then open it... don't be afraid to use some force.
(Personally, I use AKG K701 for about 2-3 months and I love them - good bye Sennheisers...)
Looks like headpone.com doesn't sell the 580 anymore, the link in the initial post yields a not-found-page. I wonder what comes next to it from the currently available full-headphones.
These look quite comfy: I enjoy the bigger pads, they feel much more comfortable when you wear glasses. I had some silver Sennheisers (HD479 or something) and they pushed my ears against them; gradually it'd go from uncomfortable to headache-inducing pain. Not good.
I'm still happy with my Philips SBC-HP890, but sadly they're no longer made.
I'll second the Sennheiser PX 100. Wow, what a sound! Too bad everybody also listens to your music ;)
One downside of good headphones is that now you need at least 192 kbps MP3 since the lower bitrate ones sound noticeable muffed :(
About headphones never becoming obsolete, I'm sure a new technology will appear in 10 years which will be cheaper and better sounding (like neodymium magnets and aluminium voice coils in todays generation).
I'm curious how BitHead compares to an E-MU 0404 USB 2.0 audio interface, which is said to have one of the best 24 bit DAC in the world, but which is not really focused on use as a headphone amplifier.
I use the Sennheiser 555 headphones and love the sound quality. The problem I have with them is that they grip the sides of your head quite hard, and can press down on the top quite hard too. I haven't found the adjustment to be capable of fixing this issue, but I can mostly live with it. My wireless Sony headphones are much more comfortable in this respect, with two bands: one very wide and loose for support and one tight over your head to turn it on (shame it makes you look like a cyber-man from Doctor Who :). If the sound quality matched the Sennheiser's, I'd prefer them... but it doesn't.
Far more important to me right now is the headphone amplifier. I also use headphones while gaming or watching DVDs, so I bought a box of tricks from Creative that takes an optical input (Dolby Digital, Pro Logic, DTS or just old fashioned stereo) and outputs 'Dolby Headphones', which is some kind of virtual surround sound that works with any pair of headphones (and works surprisingly well, even if the included headphones were mediocre). Unfortunately, it works only on battery power and I don't know if a normal headphone amp would be better. For now I just bought a cheap power supply and wired it directly to the battery compartment.
just bought the SennHeiser PX 100. its great to have a worldclass headphone. Its like hearing the songs anew.
I'm all about high-end headphones and your headphone snobbery. I own a pair of Sennheiser 555 and 650 (the "best" ones) and each have their place in my office. The 555s have some wicked bass, for techno-style coding, and the 650s have the clearest/best sound reproduction I've ever heard. They are fantastic for classical music. The only downside of the two are they are open-aire, so everyone else can hear what you're listening to, but even if they weren't open, they still would because I'd have it cranked up to deafening levels!
$200-$400 is not a lot of money when you think of how much you *would* spend on a complete stereo.
The new AKG 701's which were $450 when they were first introduced a year or so ago, are now below $300 and up the anti beyond anything else available at the moment. They are incredibly comfortable as well.
The Total Bithead is an absolute must to drive these.
Google search the 701's. They are the current state of the art.
I have been using the Razer Barracuda headphones/soundcard combo.
It's awesome. When I first got them, I was playing around and found that if I turn them up about 3/4 of the way you don't even need to wear them to hear them. I've had people in the next room tell me to turn them down while I was watching a movie.
I just came across this page through your internal linkage and as a regular reader (which in itself should tell you something) and fellow enthusiast as far as computers, programming and headphones go, I feel almost obligated to express, for the very first time, that your (guessing its yours) claim #3 at the start of this article is way, way off mark. It just so happens I'm also (and probably foremost) a hi-end enthusiast and to draw any parallel whatsoever between any headphones and a pair of high-end floor standing speakers (paired with adequate amp of course) is pure nonsense.
While certainly, good headset will give great and realistic sound, they will never, ever come anywhere close to delivering a listening experience you get with good speakers because it is physically impossible, and should therefore never be expected either. Headphones will only be able to deliver so much to the ears, while good speakers will also provide, quite literally, some good vibrations to the entire body to go with whatever ears are receiving.
That is much the same as saying good speakers will make you feel you're right there in the crowd when listening to a live record recorded in a big venue. That might be a commonly used phrase, but it is of course total rubbish.
Just so it is mentioned as background info, I own BW 804S floor standing speakers (~$5000) and Sennheiser HD 595 (~$300) headphones.
Save a lot of money, and get better sounding headphones. Don't go to the high end consumer store. Go to the professional audio store, and buy what the pros do. They are better sounding and more durable.
Personally, I like the Sony MDR-7506 for about $100.
My headphones are the 30 year old Beyer Dynamic DT440s. The foam ear pads disintegrate with time. I have replaced them twice and I need to do this again soon (they are still available direct from Beyer UK). The headphone cable also started to give trouble with an intermittent connection and frequent crackling, and when I opened them up to investigate I noticed that the foam ballast around the transducers was disintegrating into grey powder.
I did consider sending them to Beyer UK to be reconditioned, or just ordering a replacement cable (also still available direct). I was seriously tempted by the offer of part-exchanging them for the latest version of the DT440 at 50% discount (direct from Beyer) but decided that with this as a fall back option I could do no harm in attempting a repair myself.
The decayed ballast was replaced with some (probably stiffer) foam I happened to have to hand, roughly cut to fit. I couldn't find a similarly sized twin screened cable to match the original in my local electronics store so instead I went for a round quad core cable with overall screening and paired up two conductors for each channel.
I was staggered by the improvement that I had effected for less than 5. Whereas before there was a background hiss in addition to the crackling that occurred when the cable was moved, now there was silence, except for the music which came through with a clarity long since forgotten. I guess they must have sounded this good 30 years ago, but I really can't remember!
Although I am sure there are much better headphones available now, mine were highly rated when I bought them and they still sound good today. So, before junking a pair of tired old cans I'd definitely recommend doing what I did. You may be surprised!
I don't have any personal experience with Bose noise canceling headphones, but my impression of that Bose has a reputation of being overpriced for their actual quality.
In terms of active noise canceling, I think companies like Sennheiser www.sennheiser.com and David Clark www.davidclark.com make professional aviation (classic high noise environment) noise canceling headphones, so might be a better bet.
I have two Sennheiser HD 570s that I bought about five years ago (refurbished, about $60 ea). Very nice phones and VERY comforable. I frequently wear these all day and barely even notice they're there.
Has anyone had any experience or comments on the various BOSE noise canceling headphones. I know most everything from BOSE is pricey but are they worth it?
My Best buy was the Sennheiser RS130 headphone which I use while I am taking notes on my Mobile Dry Erase Board.
Closed headphone due to social conflicts (open space), beyerDynamics DT660.
I ordered 1 USB DAC/AMP on ebay (HA-INFO NG27).
I set a bs2b alsa plugin.
The budget is not too heavy and the quality is good.
An amplifier is only really needed if you have high impedance headphones like the Sennheiser above. Most sound cards aren't powerful enough to drive such headphones by themselves.
For regular low impedance headphones it's not necessary to get an amplifier.
an amp is definitely necessary with high impedance headphones, the difference is astronomical!