Non Sequitur Fridays

Buying Headphones for Work

This post is part of our Non Sequitur Fridays series, which will feature a different Wistia team member's take on a non-Wistia-related topic each week. It's like our "employee of the month" but less "of the month"-y. Robby Grossman is an engineer at Wistia.

A couple years ago, I found myself searching for a pair of office headphones. Unable to find a local retailer with demos of the models I was interested in, I ordered a half dozen pairs, compared them, and returned all but the keeper. Here are my reviews of each model in case anybody finds themselves on a similar search and wants to expend less effort.

Grado SR-60 ($74)

The Grado SR-60s came to me highly recommended from the head-fi.org forums, but my experience with them was less than flattering. The open design leaks a lot of sound, which is particularly unfortunate in an office where there's often chatter competing for your attention. Sonically speaking, they have a very airy quality to them. It's not a big deal if you're listening to hip-hop, heavy rock or other bass-heavy material, but if you listen to lighter acoustic tunes, a lot of the detail gets washed out. To their credit, they were very comfortable; I wore them for hours and forgot they were on my head.

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro ($99.95)

The Sennheiser HD 280 Pros were another well-reviewed value headphone that I wanted to try. I found them preferable to the Grados as work headphones because they have better noise isolation. They also have a more balanced sound than the Grados, with a mid-high range that's not overwhelming; however, they are a bit dry sounding. High marks for sonic fidelity, but if you appreciate warmth in your music, these are not for you. A dealbreaker for me was the pressure they put on my ears while wearing them; they became uncomfortable after 60 to 90 minutes of use.

Bose QuietComfort 3 ($349)

The first headphone I tried with active noise cancellation, the Bose Quiet Comfort 3 delivers on its name. Assessing purely by a standard of noise reduction, the Bose are the winner of the bunch, largely because they seal nicely around the ear and partly because the active noise cancellation circuitry helps to eliminate droning noise from the background. An important point on active noise cancellation, however, is that it only reduces low frequencies -- think airplane motors, construction equipment, air conditioners, etc. It's ineffective for silencing nearby chit chat, though it does take a little bit of bass out of people's voices.

The sound quality was good, but not quite up to expectation given the price point. The trebles and highs were slightly unbalanced, noticeable only on minimally-compressed acoustic recordings (Elliott Smith's Roman Candle and Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations). The bass was impressive for a noise-canceling headphone. Active noise cancellation requires manufacturers to do aggressive EQing to get bass to come through because it is those bass frequencies that they are canceling out to block exterior noise; Bose has done an admirable job with this.

A fatal flaw for those who travel for work: the QC 3 uses a proprietary battery, and it cannot be used (even without noise cancellation) when the battery is dead. For anybody who travels, I'd recommend checking out the QC 15, which uses AAA batteries.

Monoprice Active Noise Canceling Headphones #10010 ($101.33)

Monoprice is geek-famous for building high quality knockoffs of expensive products. Perhaps best known for their $4 versions of $30 Apple cables, they've expanded over the years to build everything from USB hubs to high-end projection screens. Their latest offering is an active noise canceling headphone, and for the price, they deliver a winner.

First, the bad: if sonic fidelity is critically important, these headphones are not for you. They're lacking in the mid-high range, creating a bit of a hollow sound and losing nuance and detail in acoustic recordings. On the plus side, the noise isolating over-ear seal is snug but comfortable, and the active noise cancellation is excellent; it's very close to the Bose Quiet Comforts. It features a built-in microphone so it can function as a complete headset. It uses a AAA battery for noise cancellation, but can be used in passive mode without it, so you're never unable to listen to your music. All in all, a great budget buy for those who prioritize distraction-free listening over high sound quality.

Sennheiser PXC 450 ($349.95)

The Sennheiser PXC 450 is a dreamy pair of cans. The noise cancellation is very close to the Bose QC 3, and the sound quality is excellent. They're the most durable headphone I've ever held: beefy plastic, nothing flimsy, even the cord was noticably thicker and better-built than the others with well-engineered right-angle stress reliefs to avoid strain. It also boasts a "Talk Thru" feature that lets you pass outside noise in without taking the headphones off (say, if someone comes by your desk to ask a question). Like the Monoprice headphones, the PXC 450 uses a AAA battery, and features a bypass mode you can use when the battery dies, so you're not stuck on a flight with no way to enjoy your music. If that's not enough to ice the cake, these were the most comfortable headphones of any that I tried.

The only cautionary note I provide is that these headphones are huge, by far the biggest I've ever worn. They fold flat for travel but they are enormous on your head, bigger than winter ear muffs. I didn't test it, but I imagine it'd be very difficult to sleep while wearing these on an airplane.

Sennheiser MM 550 ($299.99)

The Sennheiser MM 550 pick up where the PXC 450 left off, and make a series of sacrifices for a different kind of user. In exchange for a little bit of sound quality (and particularly, bass presence) and a hair of noise cancellation, you get a smaller set of headphones that's easier to travel with, a built-in microphone for complete headset functionality, and Bluetooth audio support for completely wireless listening. A cable is provided for use with devices that don't support Bluetooth audio, or for people who prefer the sonic fidelity of a wired connection. One downside to using these in Bluetooth mode is that the A2DP Bluetooth protocol applies heavy compression, which is particularly noticeable on the high end of the EQ range. It will be most audible on drums and white noise, but close listeners will find it also affects high harmonic frequencies.

Sennheiser MM 550-X ($343.38-$499, changes wildly)

I wasn't able to try the newer MM 550-X model because it wasn't available at the time of my trials, but they are worth mentioning because they are exactly the same as the aforementioned MM-550, except that they support the newer APT-X Bluetooth audio codec, which provides an order of magnitude higher audio bitrate, which should help quite a bit with the audio compression artifacts when listening wirelessly.

What Did I Go With?

I opted for the Sennheiser MM 550, and I bought an extra battery ($49.95) for it so that I could use noise canceling with one while the other charges. It was a difficult decision to give up the sound quality of the PXC 450, but the Bluetooth functionality won me over.

At work I frequently walk around near my desk to stretch my legs; at home I have a treadmill desk on which I walk while working. Not having to worry about a cable in these situations is a nice convenience. I also travel by air several times per year, and the more compact form factor of the MM 550 is great when flying. If I sat at my desk all day and didn't travel much, I'd have opted for the PXC 450.

If I were buying these today, I would spend the extra $43 and buy the MM 550-X with APT-X support.

Are High Quality Headphones Worth the Money?

Big purchases are always personal decisions, but one of the objective approaches I take with them is to keep the amortized cost in mind. For example, a $2000 laptop that lasts me three years costs me about $0.20 per hour of use.

I use these headphones every weekday for a few hours and I expect them to last five years or more, which gives me an amortized cost of less than $0.06 per hour. I think that's a steal.

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