The Journey of the Audiophile Dilettante

Back in 2004, still in my early 20s, I did something that I never thought I would do: spend more on a pair of earphones than I would on a steak dinner. When I bought Sony E888 for about KRW 60,000 ($60, give or take), I did so with the distinct anxiety of someone diving into a rare extravagance. It just seemed so wild at the time – who would pay that much for something so commodified? There were literally thousands of different earphones that cost a fraction of E888. But I had just bought iPod mini and wanted something proper to listen with, something that would be better than the Apple earbuds which seemed to have an air of the disreputable among those who cared about these kinds of stuff.

 

That purchase started a mild obsession with earphones and headphones that has only recently abated. A decade of ever increasing expenditure – and ever diminishing returns – would eventually reach a point where I was seriously considering forking out $1,500 for the majestic Sennheiser HD800, whose sweet sound would haunt me in my dreams. After almost ceaseless purchases and sales, I’ve now calmed down enough to stick with the excellent Sennheiser HD600 at home and the dependable B&O Earset 3i on the go. The journey was long and filled with some blissful moments, as well as disappointments and very expensive lessons. Here, then are the products that helped define my music-listening experience.

 

 

Sony E888 (2004)

SonyMDR E888 00

While it was my first ‘audiophile’ moment, they weren’t an eye-opening experience. They sounded better and more refined than the average $10 earphones you get at convenient stores, but wasn’t revelatory or anything like that. What it did, though, was to sound just better enough that I was convinced of the merits of paying more for better sound. Another thing I remember about the E888 was that they were among the least physically robust I’ve used, breaking apart not many months into usage. Highly rated at a time when few people paid much attention to how mainstream earphones sounded, I think the current Apple EarPods are probably on par. 

 

Samsung EP-1 (2004 – 2008)

Samsung+ep1

Once upon a time Samsung made MP3 players. Not only your run-of-the-mill iPod mini-aping players, but also a diamond-studded, pocket-watch shaped premium MP3 player called the Yepp W3 that cost a thousand dollars. EP-1 was the bundled earphones, which Samsung also sold separately for about $100 for a while. It looked like B&O A8’s more industrial looking cousin. EP-1 was one of the very first things I bought online in those heady early 2000s days, and for a jobless bum fresh out of university sending some faceless company $100 and waiting an eternity (actually only a couple of days) to receive the package was a daunting experience. But thankfully the EP-1 sounded terrific, full and rounded without muddy mids or distorted treble. It was warm and clear like early summer skies, and the hangers that went over your earlobes meant it stayed stably in your ear. For a while it was a prized possession, but it would turn out to be the last non-IEM (in-ear monitor) I used regularly for more than 8 years. Once I discovered the IEM’s ability to completely block out all ambient noise, EP-1 and its ilk would be consigned to the shadows for a long time. I eventually gave it away when I sold an iPod Classic a few years later. On a separate note, it’s curious that Samsung has never again made a serious personal audio receiver. EP-1 is very good, and had the company stuck at it they might have had their own Beats to go along with the Galaxy phones.

 

 

Etymotic ER-6i Isolator Earphones (2005 – 2007)

Er6i

You don’t spend a few bucks on earphones without delving into the internet’s various audiophile communities. There was a Korean website called CDPKorea (now seeko.co.kr), as well as the renowned Head-fi.org. Very dangerous places, for they inspire the need to spend obscene amounts of money for very incremental gains. Anyway, I was looking for a way to listen to music in public places without being bothered by loud ambient noise, and came upon the concept of in-ear monitors, or IEMs for short. The consumer IEM market in mid-2000s wasn’t the wild jungle of abundant choice like now, and only 3-4 companies specialised in it. The best of them were Shure, Ultimate Ears (now owned by Logitech), and Etymotic Research. They each had distinctive characteristics: Shure had the bass, Etymotic had the treble, and UE had the varied lineup. After some research, I decided to buy one with the most reasonable price-to-performance ratio, and plumped for Etymotic’s ER-6i (at the Apple Store in London Regent Street, incidentally, which itself seems a world away in those pre-iPhone days).

If there ever was a moment when the whole audiophile thing clicked, this was it. IEMs were a revelation. It seemed to completely fill your head with music, and there was nothing else. Just music. The rest of the world was drowned out. It was ER-6i that gave me the bug, and from then on it became my mission to find the perfect IEM. Trying out various IEMs was probably the most pleasurable audiophile experience in that 10 year period, and also a rather addictive one.

Etymotic products are known for their treble-oriented sound. Head-fi was rife with arguments between Team Ety and Team Shure about whether Ety’s IEMs were accurate or not. Team Shure was adamant that treble-heavy did not equate to accuracy, while Team Ety found the Shure E-series IEMs’ bass to be ‘bloated’ and unbalanced. This heated rivalry only went away with the smartphone-driven IEM market saturation by all sorts of other vendors, most focusing not on the sound itself but on design and fashion. I digress; ER-6i indeed had very sharp treble, while the bass was tight and lean. Unfortunately, the treble was sharp to the point of being sibilant, and caused me moments of frowning angst every time a song hit high notes or a guitar solo kicked in. The more premium Etymotic ER-4P solved this problem, which I will get to later. Despite this glaring flaw, I loved ER-6i to death. It looked good, went great with my iPod mini, and made everything sound crystal clear. It will always have a place in my heart, not only for being the first IEM, but also as a damn good product.

 

 

Shure E5C (2007)

E5C

The rivalry between Etymotic and Shure made it almost impossible for me, as an ER-6i user, not to be curious about the latter’s sound. How do you get deep bass with such tiny units? What does the unknown sound like? The curiosity was amplified by the unattainability of high price. To go up from ER-6i, I had to bypass the affordable E3C and go straight for E5C (since the more sensibly priced E4C hadn’t come out yet), which cost more than $300. That price point was the forbidden fruit: it seemed almost obscene to spend that much on earphones, no matter how good, and I spent a long time wresting with my sense of self-control. To pay that price meant really committing to earphones as a hobby. It felt like crossing a point of no return, so of course I got my credit card out.

It was a different kind of revelation. E5C had bass like nothing I’d heard before: deep and booming, yet with definition. It was dominant, yet there was still quality to the mids and treble. The first time I experienced the fullness of sound given out by E5C was one of those rare moments of sonic pleasure that doesn’t happen too often. It presented different aspects of a song you’d long thought familiar. Listening in my room, it felt like the whole world was playing music to me and me alone.

The problem with E5C – and all subsequent high-end IEMs from Shure – was that I couldn’t get perfect isolation with it. Its somewhat chunky unit and the way the cable curved firmly around the top of the earlobes made fitting options restrictive, and none of the included tips created perfect vacuum in my ear. The triple-flange tips I used with ER-6i was the last throw of the dice, but their combination with E5C just made me feel mildly violated. Eventually I conceded defeat and reluctantly sold it.

Another reason for my giving up on E5C was that around that time I was able through a roommate to try out ER-4P extensively. ER-4P had none of ER-6i’s weaknesses and all of its positives, amplified to 11. I will wax lyrical about it below, but ER-4P’s brilliant treble also made E5C’s strong bass sound fatiguing. I resolved to jump ship, and so waved goodbye to a truly amazing IEM that I just wasn’t able to live with. Since then, Shure has refined and diversified the E-series IEMs, to the point where I have lost track of them.

 

 

Sennheiser HD570 (2006 – 2007)

HD570

The rule of thumb in audiophilia is that, no matter how expensive an IEM is, it will never be as good as a decent – and much cheaper – pair of over-the-ear headphones. Thus, for home use, there’s little point investing in amazing IEMs. Not just monetary but also comfort factor dictates that having some nice full-sized headphones makes a lot of sense.

Moving from earphones to headphones (the distinction being that the former goes in the ear either as earbuds or canal tips) is a logical one, yet something that is fraught with pitfalls. It’s a whole another world, one where dangerous beasts like aging and amplifiers and custom cables roam. It ensnares would-be audiophiles and traps them in a vicious cycle of upgrades and modifications, amp match-ups and pathological trips to the headphone shops for listening sessions. And you have a tonne of fun doing the most illogical things, like hooking up a Xin Supermicro to your iPod with audio-out cable worth hundreds of dollars – to listen at home.

Like all obsessions, it started small. I chanced upon a half-decent deal for the Sennheiser HD570, the red-headed step-child of the German company’s HD5- and HD6- lineup. Incongruously sibilant treble, rough bass and undistinguished mids meant that HD570 was nothing special, except for one thing. It had a very wide soundstage, much wider than headphones of this price range had any right to. And it was an apt choice for my first serious pair of full-sized headphones, because the one thing that IEMs don’t have is soundstage. Basically, soundstage is how wide the music sounds, without resorting to gimmicks like echo and reverb like you would get on PC soundcard software. IEMs have less than earbuds, which have much less of it than closed headphones, which in turn have it less than open headphones, which of course lose out to speakers. Generally, wider soundstage is valued in headphones, since one of the primary appeals of premium headphones is in roughly approximating good speakers at a fraction of cost, and soundstage – the sense of space in music – is usually speakers’ forte. Anyhow, HD570 at around $120 had a lot of it, and that made it possible to overlook its otherwise mediocre sound. It’s an interesting product, and like ER-6i did for IEMs, made me eager to see how much better headphones could get for more money.

 

 

Sennheiser HD595 (2007)

HD595

This was where things started to get really interesting. An excellent pair of headphones at a reasonable price, HD595’s sound characteristic is rather similar to an Etymotic product in that it is light and balanced with very clear and pleasing treble. And like the Etys, its soundstage was quite narrow. As a result, HD595 was known to be very un-Sennheiser, whose best-known headphones usually tended to be dark, heavy and wide. Looking back, had I stopped at HD595 I wouldn’t really have missed out on much. It had the kind of sound I have come to realise to be my favourite type, and if I could force a comparison, I think of HD600 as more or less HD595 with fuller sound. It was a shame that it saw such little service time with me, but my upgraditis was in full swing, and my eyes were firmly trained on the grandest of the Sennheiser prize. But before that…

 

 

Etymotic ER-4P (2007 – current)

ER 4P

Hands down, the greatest IEMs ever made in my opinion. A product with the most amount of price-to-satisfaction ratio I have ever known. A durable masterpiece that has stood the test of over 2 decades and countless competitors. An IEM that, sadly, is being increasingly overlooked in favour of brasher, louder and inferior products. What’s really mind-blowing is that ER-4P’s price point has pretty much remained stable at the $200 range, while other companies have jacked up the cost so much that the flagship IEMs from Sennheiser, AKG and Ultrasone, companies who until only a few years ago couldn’t have cared less about IEMs if they had suddenly developed mandibles and burst out screeching from engineers’ abdomen, all now cost more than $1,000. There’s been an arms race in IEMs, driven by the advent of smartphones and entry into the market of woefully overpriced fashion-oriented products from Beats and Monster. ER-4P has been marginalised, because its sound signature – heavenly treble and tight, controlled lows in perfect balance – isn’t in keeping with the current trend of bass uber alles. It burns me up to see this, because unless you’re going with the custom earmolds IEMs from JH Audio, Sensaphonics or FitEars, there’s no way in hell that the $1,000 IEMs are worth anywhere near that much. I remember listening to Sennheiser’s IE800 and being appalled – it sounds very good, but not nearly good enough to justify the astronomical price tag, and certainly not remotely worth four ER-4Ps. There was a time when IEM makers, though charging dearly for their work, mostly refrained from ripping people off. But what’s going on nowadays, with the sudden and completely unwarranted rise of the $1,000 club, is nothing less than a brazen attempt by companies to cash in on the recent surge in the public’s interest in high-end audiophile products.

All this just makes me appreciate ER-4P even more. It looks very unassuming and is made of simple plastic, but there’s nothing basic or backward about the sound it produces. Arguably more than any other IEMs, and certainly more than other IEMs in its price range, ER-4P enables the listener to appreciate the music without exaggeration or overt flaws. Most IEMs suffer from one or more of sibilant treble, weak treble that is pushed up into oblivion by lower ranges, hyperbolic bass, unfocused bass that bleeds into other ranges, anaemic mids, blurry mids, and so on. ER-4P has none of these problems. Its treble is its biggest selling point: clear, responsive, with absolutely no ceiling whatsoever. No matter what you throw at it, the highs remain soaringly vivid without distortion or adulteration. There are no cheap tricks, no gimmicks, no pseudo-scientific attempts to create an illusion of being more than an IEM. Bass is a point of contention for many, and indeed there’s very little ‘boom’ that you would find in other earphones. Depending on your preferences, this is either a very good thing or very bad, and for those who have to have ‘da bass’, ER-4P is going to sound weak and underwhelming. But I feel like they’re missing out on something quite special. Not having deep booming lows doesn’t mean there’s no bass. ER-4P boasts quality bass that’s lucid and balanced; it’s just that it doesn’t rattle your brain like Beats does. Other ranges don’t have to fight to be heard, so the entirety of the musical spectrum is presented to the listener in a way that carries excellent definition. At the other end of the scale, most bass-light IEMs achieve balance at the expense of clarity and excitement. The beauty of ER-4P is that somehow it manages to offer the best of both worlds. Another massive strength of Etymotic’s flagship is its fit. The unencumbered nature of the design means that compared to other high-end IEMs, ER-4P has a thin and lean profile, and combined with the triple flange tips, provides a perfect seal for the ear canals. The importance of this cannot be overstated. If you can’t find a good seal with IEMs, then no matter how expensive it is it’s not going to sound all that great. Rival IEMs elect to carry two or more transducers for the wider and more booming sound, and so have much bigger units, which don’t lend themselves to ready fit in the ear. ER-4P gives you the perfect seal each and every time.

I guess all this gushing reveals my true colours. Yes, I am a member of Team Etymotic, and will probably never ever sell my ER-4P. Even the customer support is unusually top notch. I had the units replaced twice during the course of my ownership free of charge including international shipping, long after the warranty period expired. Not just the best audiophile device I’ve owned, but one of the most satisfying consumer product I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.

 

 

Audio-Techncia EW9 (2007)

EW9

An impulse buy. It’s safe to say that EW9 is one of the most exquisite headphones ever made. Fashioned from Hokkaido cherry tree, the casing feels delightful in the hands, and everything about EW9 carries a premium feel that’s rare even among high-end headphones. It’s one of the more expensive clip-on headphones and the looks alone almost justify the price. Almost. Clip-on headphones are in a tricky place in that they will never sound as good as full-size headphones, and they will never provide the tight fit of IEMs or earbuds. As an impulse buy, it didn’t last long in my possession. EW9 goes down as the only serious clip-on headphones I’ve owned.

 

 

Sennheiser HD650 (2007 – 2008)

HD650

Not long after buying HD595, the upgraditis hit and I found myself selling it in order to move up the ladder. At the time, the king of headphones in the real world (as opposed to the fantasy land where Stax and Orpheus reign) was arguably Sennheiser HD650. It was more than twice the cost of HD595, and again I looked back with mixed feelings at the fact that I was considering spending so much where only a couple of years earlier I was recoiling at a fraction of the amount. My curiosity had to be satiated, though, and soon I was a proud owner of HD650, mercilessly repressing buyer’s remorse.

Despite the undoubtedly excellent sound quality, there’s something curiously dull and unexciting about HD650. People talk about ‘the Sennheiser veil’, and no headphones represent this more than HD650. It’s like there’s an intangible yet evident wall between yourself and the music, which prevents you from truly feeling it. It can, and for me did, become infuriating. Some headphones, like Grado’s, can be too forward. Others, like AKG, can sound too muted. HD650 is not muted – there’s clear definition and its imaging capabilities are top notch. But it should sound much more fun than it actually is, and in the end the veil made me listen to it less and less. Towards the end my HD650 was just sitting there like an ornament, and there’s nothing like an expensive pair of headphones going unused to make you feel like you’re misspending money. So I sold it and re-prioritised, with the idea that I would buy something that was good enough and affordable and not be an albatross on my audiophile shoulders.

 

 

Yuin PK1 (2008 – 2012)

PK1

Probably the first taste of the Chinese revolution that would in a few years come to be recognised across the audiophile world. In terms of pure sound PK1 is the best sounding earbuds I’ve ever heard. Its looks are unassuming to the point of anonymity, but its sound quality is pretty incredible for such small units. PK1 possesses uncannily wide soundstage while at the same time managing to sound clear and well-defined across the board. It comes closer than it has any right to full-size headphone experience, and although pricier than most other earbuds at the time, the performance you get with PK1 makes it a relative bargain. A real pleasure to listen to and a long-lasting companion for me.

 

 

Audio-Technica AD700 (2009 – 2012)

AD700

While I have significant reservations about Audio-Technica’s higher end products, I have nothing but good things to say about AD700. It’s the most comfortable pair I’ve ever used, sturdy, with versatile no-frills sound signature that is very, very enjoyable. I guess my colours are showing here, but AD700 is rather similar to ER-4P in that it has clean, treble-oriented sound that’s balanced and well defined. At its cost of low-$100s, AD700 is a terrific deal. Whether as a front-line pair or a back-up to more prestigious headphones, it gets the job done with minimum fuss. So far it is the longest-serving full-size headphones I’ve had, and I think it’s the perfect entry-level audiophile product for people looking to move up from their bundled headphones.

 

 

Sennheiser IE8 (2010 – 2014)

IE8

In 2010 I got a new job and decided to celebrate by spending a shitload of money – nearly $500 – on Sennheiser IE8. This was pretty much Sennheiser’s maiden foray into high-end IEMs, and being a big fan of their headphones I tried it out at a headphone shop in Hongdae. It sounded pretty great: big, full sound wider than most IEMs, generous and smooth sound. Bigger bass and less definition than ER-4P, but with more clarity and a certain je ne sais quoi compared to Shure’s high end products.

I used IE8 fairly extensively for about a year. But I eventually ran into the same problems I had with HD650: it didn’t excite me as much as it should’ve done, and there was a curious distance in presentation. I would go for IE8 less and less often, but it became difficult for me to sell it due to a collapse in second-hand market price, and it wouldn’t be until earlier this year when I decided to bite the bullet and flog it for next to nothing.

 

 

Sennheiser Amperior (2012)

Amperior

At one time I had the genius idea of using on-the-ear headphones on commutes, and spunked flipping big wadges of cash (Blackadder reference right there) on the then-newly released Amperior. As I will expound in the conclusion, I had become weary of using IEMs on the move as I got older. Having the tips lodged in my ear canals while walking was an increasingly tiring experience, and the noise the cables made when they bounced off my clothes or each other was jarring during the best of times. I wanted something more comfortable, something less trying on the ears. Hence the over-the-ear headphones. Amperior sounded better than the venerable HD-25, and looked pretty snazzy in an industrial sort of way. I’m a sucker for that stuff.

The experiment lasted a couple of days. I have a head that’s a mixture of an Easter Island statue and Kryten from Red Dwarf, and couldn’t for the life of me find a good fit with Amperior. Its ability to block out noise on the subway was miserably poor. I acted quickly and sold it while it was still very new and drawing a lot of curiosity from users. I had to find another way of listening to music comfortably on commutes. Amperior still looks really sexy though – one of the best looking headphones ever made, in my opinion.

 

 

Hifiman HE-400 (2012 – 2013)

HE 400

I was on the hunt for a front line full-size headphones, and went to try out various candidates at a store. There was the Hifiman HE-5, and it was the first time I heard orthodynamic headphones. The experience was fairly eye-opening. It sounded so warm and yet clear in an analogue sort of way. It made everything sound rich and authentic. I was really taken with HE-5, but it was too expensive, so I plumped for the cheapest orthodynamic headphones Hifiman had, which was HE-400.

Hifiman is at the forefront of the Chinese revolution, and HE-400 is emblematic of this new force in personal audio. It provides excellent sound quality at a very affordable price, but there are drawbacks in terms of build quality and comfort factor. I liked HE-400’s sound better than HD650, and at its price that is no mean feat. It sounds very open, clearly defined and a lot of fun. But it wasn’t designed with human ergonomics in mind. HE-400 was very stiff, clamped around the head very hard, and looked like it might come apart pretty soon. It made me pine for the superlative build quality of HD650 or the unfettered comfort level of AD700. After a while wearing HE-400 wasn’t a pleasant experience anymore, regardless of its sound, and so I decided to let it go. It did, however, convince me of the merits of Chinese products in this field, and with some more money I could see myself trying out a higher-end orthodynamic headphones from Hifiman.

 

 

AKG K550 (2013)

K550

By this point I realised that what I was really looking for in headphones was something similar to the sound signature of my beloved ER-4P. That is to say: clarity, balance, definition, fit, treble. Added to these were the headphones-specific requirement for comfort, a bitter lesson I learnt from HE-400. I started to hunt for headphones with those traits, and K550 seemingly fulfilled them. Or so I thought.

The thing about most AKG headphones is that they just sound so flat and uninteresting. K601, K701, K702, K712 – all audio equivalents of watching a fish tank with no fish, or an ant colony with no ants. Nothing stands out: treble is flat, mids are flat, bass is flat. It’s not balance when everything has been dampened down to sound equally meek and featureless. K550 is no exception. What I mistook for clarity and balance were actually a stubborn refusal for any range to stand out. Everything is made to sound demure and vague and uninspiring. It is very comfortable to wear, but that’s about it. Sony’s best-selling MDR-1R is very similar to K550 in its utter lack of ambition, a fact I find rather saddening given how popular it is. I ended up selling K550 fairly soon.

 

 

Sennheiser HD600 (2013 – current)

HD600

Having whiffed on K550, I continued my search. The same criteria applied: clarity, balance, definition, fit, treble. The answer was much closer to home than I expected. I had always overlooked HD600, using a rather linear reasoning that it was a lesser version of HD650. HD600 is in fact a completely different pair of headphones, even though they look almost identical. It combines the best of HD650 and HD595: the warmth and sound stage of the former, and the clear trebles and sharp definition of the latter. The result is a product that I find almost ideal. It’s a mystery to me why it’s cheaper than HD650, or indeed many of the higher-end headphones. I even prefer it to HD700 – which sounds really weird and sibilant – and if HD800 didn’t exist, I would swear HD600 was the best Sennheiser headphones on the consumer market. You can buy it for as little as KRW 400,000 nowadays in Korea, which represents tremendous value, offering superior sound at lower cost than cockamamy headphones from Shure, P&W, Audio-Technica and Denon. Again: cheaper doesn’t mean inferior. HD600 sounds legitimately better than the absolute majority of headphones out there at any price range. Here is finally the over-the-ear equivalent of ER-4P I’d been looking for, and it’s a keeper.

 

Bang & Olufsen Earset 3i (2013 – current)

Earset 3i

Commuting in Seoul is a hard thing. Twice every day, you have to walk really fast, jostle for position with a horde of fellow commuters, many of them not too familiar with the concepts of manners and etiquette, wait interminably for the right bus or train to arrive, and then try to keep yourself occupied with someone’s head in your face. Often, listening to music is the only saving grace during the daily ordeal. As such, it should be the most comfortable and trouble-free thing in your life. Using IEMs during commutes was increasingly becoming a chore. For reasons described somewhere above, ER-4P with its vacuum-tight seal became an uncomfortable sacrifice I was no longer ready to make. Walking around with the tips lodged up my ear canals gave me headaches, and the cables bouncing around created noise that delivered itself directly into my brain. So I went back to the beginning and looked for a nice pair of earbuds that would be good for commutes.

Bang & Olufsen’s Earset 3i is based on the venerable A8 earphones. Drawing from my experience with Samsung EP1, I understood that having the hangers that go over your ears makes the earbuds much less likely to fall off, which is important in crowded subway trains and rocking buses. Earset 3i has excellent build quality typical of B&O products and offers excellent fit inside the rim of the ear. The hangers themselves are thin but rounded, with rubbery covers so that they are very comfortable on the skin. Sound quality with the foams on is very good, not on the same level as PK1 but some steps above Apple’s EarBuds. All in all a very solid, refined and comfortable pair of earbuds with – there I go again – clean, balanced and well-defined sound that you can listen for hours on end without fatigue. Like all B&O products, Earset 3i is costly, but its sound quality is something very few companies seem to be able to get right. Looking at it from another perspective, it’s a funny thing because B&O used to be the epitome of unattainably expensive devices. Many in their lineup still are. But as more and more expensive audio devices have been released, I’m not sure that the A8/Earset 3i lineup can be considered overpriced as it used to be. Back in the day the Sony E888 was almost as good for half the price, but nowadays you can do a lot worse for the money.

 

 

Bose QuietComfort 15 (2014 – current)

QC15

I spend a lot of my free time in cafes, (pretending) to write. As with the commutes, I used to use ER-4P to drown out the ambient sound, but the fatigue factor caught up with me and I looked for other ways to block out the noise without the aid of IEMs.

Noise cancelling in consumer headphones is something I feel only one manufacturer has gotten right. Bose has a rough reputation as overpriced mediocrity particularly at places like Head-fi, but with the rise of Monster and Beats I’m not certain that reputation is strictly reserved for the Massachusetts company anymore. Bose has never sounded terrible, which cannot be said for some of the newer companies on the market. What Bose does do better than anyone else is producing noise cancelling headphones. I’ve tried NC headphones from Sony, Audio-Technica, Monster and Denon among others, and they are uniformly terrible at cancelling noise. All they do is jack up the bass, emit high-frequency hiss and hope for the best. I first tried Bose’s QuietComfort 15 on an aeroplane, and it provides very impressive NC without horribly distorting the sound quality of the music you’re playing. Treble is somewhat rolled off and bass is muddled, but the overall imaging QC15 provides is streets ahead of its competitors. It’s dependable, very comfortable to wear, and the accessories that come in the box aren’t the usual crap trinkets but are actually useful, especially the carrying case. At $300, it’s not cheap, until you realise that it is pretty much in a league of its own when it comes to noise cancelling headphones.

 

 

It’s been a ten year journey, and in a way I’ve come back full circle. I started off with earbuds and, through countless dalliances with IEMs and open headphones costing thousands of dollars cumulatively, have ended up using earbuds again. As I got a little older, priorities have changed, and I’ve come to value comfort and convenience more than pure sound quality. It used to be that I had to have the best sound possible, but now I find myself weighing other considerations which would not have even entered my mind before.

 

Another thing I find interesting: ten years ago, the prevalent rationale for the high price of head gears was that the audiophile industry was niche, and companies had to charge a lot owing to the lack of economy of scale. If more people bought high-end headphones, the argument went, cost would naturally go down. Fast forward to 2014, and the opposite has happened. Companies have taken advantage of the exponential increase in consumer interest in audiophile devices by releasing even higher-tier headphones at gasp-inducing prices. Prices of former flagships have not gone down at all. Even more amazing is how vendors like iRiver have reinvented themselves as makers of super high-fidelity digital music players, which cost upwards of $2,000 – absolutely unthinkable at the turn of the decade, and something rather ironic considering how convergence devices like the iPhone supposedly heralded the demise of dedicated MP3 players.

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