Best kept secrets for listening to music on the go
Words Oisin Fogarty Graveson
With Spotify venturing into offline streaming and Apple’s merciless expulsion of the beloved 3.5mm headphone jack, we thought it time to throw in our two-cents on how to get the absolute most from listening to music on phones, laptops and tablets.
As long as we all stay the hell away from Beats by Dre, then the leading audio brands can offer more than respectable, balanced sound for a bit of background music while cycling to work. But there are three lesser-known headsets which set the bar much higher; all fed with high-end technology, yet remaining at (loosely) entry level prices.
Built on a background of working with NASA materials and planar magnetic technology, California’s young start-up Audeze recently inducted a new member into their family. Now sitting alongside LCD-4, which clock in at just shy of four thousand euros, the Sine comes equipped with their CIPHER Lightning cable for that pesky iPhone 7 problem.
Funnily enough, that choice to “go Lightning” predates Apple’s announcement to rip out the headphone port by months. Audeze had already cracked offering a better quality of sound by opting for the new port, and adding a small amplifier and DAC (Digital Audio Convertor) about the size of a USB stick into the CIPHER cable itself (if you’re not sure what a DAC is, check out this article).
Unlike most headphones, Audeze uses a super thin magnetic diaphragm instead of dynamic drives. As thin as an human hair, the diaphragm changes rapidly to suit the input signal, resulting in a clear, accurate sound. With a robust, black aesthetic courtesy of Designworks (a subsidiary of BMW), they look the part of any top-end, high tech headset, and sit at €450.
An on-ear model of the Hifiman magnetic planar headphones had been missing off the market for a while. In 2016 with founder and chemical scientist Dr Bian Fang at the helm, the company broke the silence with the Edition S. What makes this model stand out is their open/close-back capabilities, with small magnetic pads that can be snapped on or off depending on the needs of the listener and the amount of people around to annoy.
Opening those barn doors makes a considerable difference to the sound, and although it’s certainly not great for the morning commute, there’s a lot to be said for the freedom of headphones which can offer both. The headphones do accentuate detail when the back is off, but with some recordings this can reveal some cracks or tinny sounds in the high end if there’s not a lot of meat in the mids. Closing the doors gives a cosy sound, flattening the mix a little, but allowing for the bass to cut through nicely.
Alongside the Hifiman Edition S’s open and close-back capabilities, a foldable, durable design (which weighs in at 248g) and an asymmetric cup to mould to the wearer’s ear are also key features. Although it’s marketed as on-ear, the cups comfortably fit over the ears. The folding mechanism is solid and never feels easily breakable. Working with the specs of their €2,000 + headphones, Hifiman has developed the Edition S as a €299 alternative to their high-end models.
Designed as a travel companion, Focal Listen is optimized for hours of listening. Focusing on comfort and immersive sound, its closed cup design keeps the world out and the music in, which is odd since it was only recently that Focal stopped only developing speakers.
Now they have three headphones and a set of in-earphones on the market, but what’s strange is that one of their headphones costs €4,000! Of which the initial (low) sales forecast was exceeded enormously, by up to ten times – crazy for a first time headphone manufacturer with a product that expensive. The €1,000 alternative came next, which could well be one of the best value for money headphones on the market.
The Listen is Focal once again branching out, this time into the affordable mobile headphone game. Their high density, heat sensitive ear-pieces were designed for long journeys spent zoning out to music, in order to keep the wearer as comfortable for as long as possible. Inside, the 40mm drivers work away to produce a tight bass, clear mids and crisp highs. At €200, these are the most affordable of the three headphones, but by no means the weakest.