It’s easy to overthink things in the hi-fi world. When you’re surrounded by products daily and have spent hundreds of hours in test rooms over the years, you sometimes find yourself looking for complicated answers to problems that don’t really exist. Take my recent adventures in the world of headphones.
I spend a lot of time in the company of some of the best wireless headphones on the planet. In particular, I’ve used the Sony WH-1000XM5 a lot recently. Partly because I went on vacation and wanted quality and convenience, and partly because I use them in the office to avoid background chatter.
But I’ve been looking to mix things up recently…
Less comfort, more quality
I’m willing to sacrifice a little more convenience in pursuit of extra quality. Not that the Sonys aren’t great at what they do – these are arguably the best wireless headphones you can buy right now at their particular price point. But when I’m at home, I don’t really need wireless. I don’t need powerful noise cancellation because I don’t have to struggle with train noise, road construction noise, and other elements of everyday life that you’d rather mute. I also listen to a decent amount of hi-res music, something wireless headphones can’t really handle well. Wired headphones aren’t limited in the same way.
And, you have to understand that being a master of wireless audio also comes with a certain degree of compromise. When pricing and specs headphones, part of Sony’s budget has to be spent on internals that perform Bluetooth, noise cancellation, and help with other features you don’t have to worry about with a traditional wired pair.
Wireless antennas, Active Noise Canceling (ANC) circuitry, microphones, Bluetooth receivers, amplifiers and DACs are not found on a pair of traditional wired over-ear headphones. Manufacturers only have to focus on the mechanical operation, which means they can really focus all of their spending on using the best music playback components possible. This is a big plus when looking for the best possible sound.
That’s why, in real terms, wired headphones can offer outrageous value for money when you compare the cost of a good pair to the amount you’d need to invest in a proper hi-fi system with separate components. . As I reminded myself recently, all you need is a source capable enough to drive them, and you can achieve truly mind-blowing results.
Closed back or open back?
So which headphones do I take for a spin? Well, I tried not one but two options from the same stable. In fact, the only thing that separates them is a single element of their design.
I pitted the Beyerdynamic DT 700 Pro X against their DT 900 Pro X siblings. The main difference between the two is that the 900s are open-backed, while the 700s are closed-backed. You have practical matters to think about here.
The 900s leak more sound, but their presentation is more spacious, with vocals particularly highlighted. The 700 sounds a bit more solid in the low end but you miss that extra level of openness. I learned that there is no right or wrong answer (I actually went with the 900 for now) but I also learned that you don’t have to plug them into a headphone amp/DAC for hours of musical enjoyment.
I plug them directly into my laptop (in this case, a MacBook Pro) – without worrying about sample rates, without checking my MacBook’s MIDI settings. They’re really just plug-and-play. And they sound fantastic.
They’re both touted as “premium studio headphones” and while detail-hungry audiophiles will be impressed with the level of resolution on offer, listeners who just want their headphones to entertain won’t be disappointed either.
The Beyers are also extremely comfortable, with soft padding that gives them a snug, slipper-like feel when they’re on your head. Long listening sessions are dispatched with ease, which is exactly what I want when I’m settling in for a writing marathon. They’re also very easy to drive, so you don’t have to be afraid to go the plug’n’play route like I did – they pair effortlessly with my MacBook Pro.
Sure, you could spend thousands on high-end audiophile headphones or a new hi-fi system, but you’ll be amazed at what wired headphones can offer for the price of an award-winning wireless pair.
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