Our headphones expert, Lauren Dragan, has been reviewing headphones for Wirecutter since February 2013 and just tested her 1,000th pair of headphones. Here’s a window into how technology has changed since she first started reviewing, how she preserves her hearing after all those tests, and what headphones she would really—no, really—take with her if she were stranded on a desert island.
Lauren Dragan: Well, at the risk of sounding evasive, there isn’t a best pair of headphones so much as a best pair for you. A pair that’s amazing for listening to your favorite album at home may be pretty terrible for use at the gym. And what fits one person’s ears may be totally wrong for another person. That’s what makes this category so tricky to review. It’s a little bit like matchmaking.
LD: Well, I think it’s okay to have as many as you enjoy and use regularly! But for most people, two to three is totally normal. One for everyday/work/school, one for workouts, and a cheap spare pair for emergencies. Musicians/podcasters/audio professionals can add at least one more to that. I’m really spoiled, because I rotate between an average of six in my non-testing day-to-day life.
LD: Holy cow, so much. First of all, music players didn’t have Bluetooth when I started reviewing audio in 2005 (this is pre-Wirecutter). Back then, the audio had to be very compressed to be sent wirelessly, which meant audio quality via Bluetooth was pretty bad. I remember I had a pair of Bluetooth headphones that came with a little transmitter that you plugged into the headphone jack.
That’s changed completely. Wireless audio, especially aptX HD, can sound really, really good. iPhones happened. Suddenly, you had a reason to have headphones with you all the time, and needed them with a remote and mic, which was something only headsets did before. Then, Beats happened. Love them or hate them, Beats made headphones mainstream again. Before that, they were geared toward audiophiles, professional musicians, or just throwaway earbuds. And now, we have headphones that have motion sensors, are waterproof, can monitor your heart rate … they’re becoming more computers in your ears as opposed to tiny speakers. (Also, if people want to do a blind listening test comparing various Bluetooth transmission methods, they can check out Wirecutter writer Brent Butterworth’s tests.)
LD: I often get asked why there aren’t any Bluetooth headphones for swimming that can play the music off of your device. The answer to that one is, sadly, physics. Water blocks radio signals. The only way around that are waterproof earbuds that store the music on the earbuds themselves.
I also get asked why there isn’t one pair of headphones that does all the things, does them well, and is affordable. For example: “Why aren’t there true wireless headphones that have active noise cancelling, are sweatproof, have a 22-hour battery life between charges, and cost under $100?” And generally speaking, the answer for now is that the tech isn’t there yet. The newer any given technology is, the more it costs to make. And just about the time that the prices would start to drop, we make another breakthrough and nobody wants the old, cheaper tech anymore. And so the circle of tech continues. (Insert Lion King song here.)
LD: Fit, fit, fit, fit, fit, fit, fit. Did I mention fit? Usually, when someone says to me that one of our picks have no bass, it’s a fit issue. When someone tells me that their headphones don’t cancel noise well, it’s a fit issue. When workout headphones don’t stay put? You guessed it. And of course, when people say they don’t like how earbuds feel, or that over-ear headphones give them a headache, it’s a fit issue.
I like to tell people to check to see if their headphones are sealed properly by doing this trick: Take your fingers by your ear and rub them together. Hear that tiny skin-on-skin sound? If you have earbuds or headphones that seal properly (open-backed is an exception) you won’t be able to hear that noise at all. Usually the solution for earbuds is bigger tips, but sometimes it may mean that that particular pair of headphones aren’t the right ones for your personal noggin. When that happens, email me and I can help! I keep notes of picks or fixes that might be good for folks with small heads, or large ears, or large ear canals!
LD: Primarily, musician earplugs. I keep them in my bag. I wear them at the gym for group classes, especially. Clubs, bars, concerts, even certain movie theaters are too loud, and I’ll wear my earplugs. And if I find myself randomly somewhere noisy without my earplugs, I’m not beyond ripping up napkins or tissues. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. Do I plug my ears when a fire truck goes by? Yes, I do.
Also, noise breaks. If I’m somewhere moderately loud for a while, like a subway, I’ll make a point to sit somewhere in silence for a while later on in the day. Regular breaks can allow your ears to recover and help prevent damage. It’s harder to do than you think, though. We’re surrounded by white noise in the city all the time. Air conditioners, traffic, TV … but it’s really important maintenance for your health, like brushing your teeth.
LD: Gah! I can’t answer that without knowing more about the island! Does it rain a lot there? How hot does it get? Will I need to be running around gathering food a lot, or do I have rations? Is there solar power supply?
LD: This question is literally making me squirm. I mean, do I go with the easy answer of the best-sounding headphones I’ve ever heard that require their own huge amplifier and DAC which tether me to one listening location (and cost $50,000)? Or do I compromise on sound for the benefits and joy of portability? Gah! I think, if I had to choose, I’d go with the ability to have headphones on for as many activities as possible, so the Jabra Elite Active 65t. They’re not audio perfection, but I can’t imagine I’d want to build a shelter or hunt for berries without music, and that pair will go with me for whatever adventures the island has in store. So there you go.
LD: Let’s! And maybe next time it won’t take me so much time overthinking to make a decision!
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