Choosing the right headphones for you: from budget options to high-end audio delights
Thursday, June 22, 2023
From affordable to extravagant: unveiling a diverse range of headphone options for every audiophile
The arrival of a new generation of one of the classic headphone choices – Sennheiser’s HD660, now in ‘S2’ form – demonstrates how important the whole arena of ‘personal hi-fi’ has become. But the market has also changed: once, there were a handful of headphones one could describe as delivering truly high-quality sound, rather than being something only resorted to when forced by circumstances, and a poor substitute for listening via speakers, but in recent years there’s been an explosion in the availability of high-end models, and the growth of a whole ‘head‑fi’ market.
That has led to the availability of a huge range of headphone models, at all kinds of prices, meaning that it really is possible to spend as much as you want – and a lot more – on what was once considered a budget listening option: Sennheiser, for example, will sell you its Orpheus headphone system, which comes complete with a marble-clad, valve-powered, amplifier, for somewhere north of £50,000. However, most headphone models are rather more affordable, although there’s no shortage of pairs costing as much as a decent pair of speakers.
The kind of headphones you buy may well be determined by where you listen: if it’s out and about on the move, or perhaps even while you work in a noisy office, a pair of earphones which fit into the ears and exclude external noise exceptionally well, may well be the best choice, and some models even come with built-in electronic noise cancelling. I’ve had good results from a pair of Lypertek PurePlay Z5 ’phones, which cost less than £100 and yet have active noise cancellation and, like most wireless earphones, come complete with a charging case able to top up their batteries on the go.
Lypertek PurePlay Z5
A twist on this thinking is the Zorloo Zophia, which sells for $169 direct from its manufacturer and – though it doesn’t have active noise cancellation – offers a choice between wireless operation and wired, the latter enabling it to handle ultra-high-resolution music formats.
If you’d rather buy a more familiar brand, the new in-ear models from Bowers & Wilkins, the Pi5 S2 and Pi7 S2, are the latest arrivals in a highly regarded personal audio range from the speaker company, the more expensive Pi7 S2 model also having Adaptive Noise Cancellation and the ability to connect the charging case to a hi-fi system, and stream from that to the earbuds. Control is via the company’s Music app.
Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2
Another flagship earphone is the new Final ZE8000 model from a Japanese headphone specialist which has been making personal audio under its previous Final Audio name since 2009. The ZE8000, like its other models, uses a raft of in-house technology, including an ultra-low distortion f-CORE driver, Class AB amplification – despite compact dimensions normally requiring Class D – and the company’s own Active Noise Cancelling, with control via a proprietary final Connect app, which also brings a graphic equaliser and adjustment of the steps of the volume control, for more precise setting.
While many earphones and headphones come from specialist brands, this is one area in which several of the big consumer electronics names still have a foothold. Technics has its own range, and Sony’s models, such as the class-leading WF-1000MX4 and the LinkBuds S, claimed to be the world’s smallest and lightest wireless ’phones – each earpiece weighs just 4.8g – are exceptional examples of the breed. And in the full-size over-ear market Sony also scores well, with its WH-1000XM4 offering superb sound, along with clever technology including an app able to analyse an image of your ear in order to adjust the equalisation of the headphone to offer optimum performance.
With ‘clean’ design and a choice of four finishes – black, silver, white and midnight blue – the Sony headphone will also appeal to the style-conscious, which has become a major part of the headphone equation ever since Apple paid $3.2bn for fashion-driven headphone and music company Beats nearly a decade ago. And it seems many brands realise the value of associating their products with style icons: French brand Focal is no stranger to style, with models such as its recent Bathys wireless noise-cancelling headphones having very distinctive aesthetics, but a while back it partnered with Paris jeweller to create its Utopia by Tournaire, a one-off designed to grab attention, not least for its £120,000+ price tag!
And more recently British company Bowers & Wilkins followed up the launch of its excellent PX8 wireless noise-cancelling headphones with two special editions: a midnight blue ‘007’ version, celebrating 60 years of the James Bond films, and a tie-in with McLaren, with detailing in the supercar and Formula 1 company’s trademark Papaya Orange. It seems the fashion for headphones shows no sign of slowing.
Bowers & Wilkins PX8, McLaren edition