What’s the best under $100 in-ear headphone?

mone8 May 28, 2012 Comments Off

I wrote a very favorable review of the Velodyne vPulse in-ear headphones a few months ago, but for one reason or another I’m still listening to the vPulse. Not exclusively, I listen to my own headphones and headphones I’m reviewing, of course, but there’s something about the vPulse that still draws me in.

The Velodyne vPulse

(Credit:
Steve Guttenberg)

Part of the appeal is comfort; it’s exceptional in that regard, and most of my vPulse listening time is on the New York subway. At home the vPulse has too much bass, but the quality of the bass is so good I don’t mind the overabundance of low-frequency energy when I’m on the subway. So the vPulse’s sound isn’t “flat” or accurate, yet it’s enjoyable even by a committed audiophile like myself.

Which brings me to the age-old audiophile conundrum: “Can sound quality measurements predict user preferences?” With headphones, that’s apparently more difficult than you might assume, so even Tyll Herstens, a dedicated headphone measurements-oriented reviewer, has some doubts. “I’m afraid that with headphones, finding a very accurate measure of neutral, flat, or transparent will forever elude us,” he writes. “But the data is reliable enough that inferences can be rationally made, and by observing the measured performance of very good-sounding headphones a reasonable approximation of neutral and accurate can become moderately apparent to the educated eye.”

OK, so what? Educated ears like mine can lead to the same conclusions.

Even if there ever was a perfect headphone or speaker, I doubt most people would like it. I’m confident about that because in my 16-year career as a hi-fi salesman, I did thousands of speaker comparisons for my customers, and I know there’s not a lot of consensus among hi-fi buyers. There are too many variables: price, visual appeal, sound quality, and music preferences. One customer wants to rock out, one listens at whisper-quiet levels, one lives in a 250-square-foot studio apartment, and one has a huge loft in Soho. They may all want great-sounding speakers, but they all wind up with different ones.

Trust me on this: you wouldn’t want a superaccurate speaker or headphone if you mostly listen to contemporary, heavily compressed music; there’s simply too much distortion and aggressive treble on today’s music, so you’d probably be happier with speakers or headphones with boosted bass and softened treble to take the edge off. Those preferences aren’t addressed by measurements or objective analysis, but they are in my reviews.

Back to the Velodyne vPulse; it’s not the least bit accurate, but it sounds great. Amazon sells it for $89, and there’s nothing remotely close to that price that sounds better with a wide range of music, to my ears.

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