What I’m Looking For in a Pair of Headphones

Earlier in my life, particularly in my teenage years, I was obsessed with bass. My sole indicator of quality was whether or not my headphones had good response in the low end. If my headphones could produce what I refer to now as “subwoofer bass”, then they were great in my eyes.

Now, I know better.

Listening to music has long been one of the greatest joys in my life and that is because I have come to appreciate it as an art form and I now know what to look for when buying a pair of headphones. It’s easy to say that “sound quality” is my main motivator when it comes to picking out a pair of headphones but to really define what that means is a bit more difficult.

But I’m going to take a crack at it anyway.

Music is alive. You can feel it pulsing through your entire being when a favorite song of yours comes on and you are inspired to move, in tune with the music. Think about it. Could anything that wasn’t alive in some way compel you to do such a thing? I certainly don’t think so. The artist places his or her heart and soul into the sounds that they create and that feeling of life and energy is something that can only be conveyed by a pair of headphones that offer great sound quality. If a pair of headphones sounds lifeless then clearly, they are not capable or worthy of channeling music as it is meant to be experienced.

These days, I want headphones that provide excellent sonic reproduction across the frequency spectrum. After all, if a headphone’s only strength is powerful bass, it will inherently be handicapped in its presentation. What is a pair of headphones worth if strings are tinny and lifeless, percussion notes are weak and lack snappiness and chimes don’t resonate and sparkle as they are intended? What is a pair of headphones worth if it sounds muddy and congested instead of allowing instruments to exist separate from each other within the virtual “soundstage” that exists within (and outside of, if it’s done right) your head when you listen to a pair of headphones or in ear monitors? The answer? Not much. If a pair of headphones does not offer good sound quality across the frequency spectrum then they will be worthless to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love deep, powerful bass but only if it’s done properly. When I say that, I mean that I want bass that well textured, well extended, well controlled and punchy as well as powerful. If the bass is powerful but is so uncontrolled that it bleeds over the midrange, is entirely flat and doesn’t have enough of a punch, then what’s the point of it being powerful at all? After all, power without control is nothing.

I enjoy hearing headphones that offer musical and engaging sonic reproductions of my music. Whether that comes from a set of headphones/IEMs that are mid and treble biased, bass biased or neutral across the frequency range, I do not discriminate. If I can put on a pair of headphones and lose myself between the notes, immersed within the rich, smooth sounds of jazz music, the toe-tapping rhythm of my favorite hip-hop tracks or the edgy guitar riffs and head-nodding inducing sounds of alternative/rock tunes, then I will be pleased with them, no matter what degree of bias they may possess toward any particular frequency.

So there you have it. My definition of “sound quality” and why I believe it is so important in choosing a good pair of headphones.

About Justin McBride

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  1. im still in the early stages and i definitely want something with subwoofer like bass. any recommendations?

    ive went from some ATHs and the Koss Ksc75.. and the most recent purchase was with an Altec Lansing UHP304 which personally i think was as close as what i was looking for. but after a couple of months now the UHP304 is giving away with the left driver w/o any sound so im now looking for a replacement.

    budget is of course in the affordable $100 range cuz i do not feel the need to spend too much.
    Thanks in advance!

    • If you’re looking for subwoofer-like bass in a pair of headphones in your price range, I’m pretty sure the Sony XB700s would be perfect. They have a huge amount of bass and decent midrange and high end performance. I haven’t heard them personally but from what I’ve read, they are practically unbeatable in their price range for bass performance.

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