Quest for new headphones

So, a while back my old headphones, a decent pair of ATH-M50X broke. They’ve served me well for over seven or eight years or so, though they did need some work. I ended up replacing the earpads with some velour ones, as the regular ones ended up making my ears really uncomfortable. I also ran into the standard problem with ATH-M50Xs, which is the broken hinge for which I had to insert a paperclip to keep it going. And, as they all tend to do in the end, the headband started flaking off, so I had to replace that with a cover. So, now that these have broken, I have been looking around for a new pair.

One thing that’s rather important for me in headphones is easy of replacing each part. I used to buy Sennheiser headphones before I had my ATH-M50X, and invariably the cable would break, rendering the otherwise fine headphones useless. With the ATH-M50X, however, I could replace the cables twice over its lifespan, and it still worked fine, up until the actual right speaker died on me. So, my first requirement is for parts of the headphones to be replaceable, and most importantly the cable. Secondary to that would be having non-proprietary parts; one downside to the ATH-M50X is that the cable has a proprietary hinge, meaning that you heavily limit the cables you can buy.

Back when I bought my other headphones, they were pretty top-of-the-line as far as budget headphones went. Now, of course, we’re almost a decade further on, and the market has apparently moved on quite a bit as well. I’m very tempted by the AKG K702, a set of open headphones that get rather good reviews (which, incidentally, is much cheaper in the Netherlands). The advantage of open headphones, apparently, is that they have a much larger soundstage than closed headphones, resulting in much more authentic sound. The downside of this is sound bleed: because the headphones are open, you will hear more outside noises, and the outside will hear what you’re listening to as well. So, these are generally recommended for indoor use.

Before, I used headphones quite a lot while out and about, because I had a four-hour commute daily. Now that I have moved, my travel time to work is reduced to only a couple of minutes. The main use for headphones while traveling now would be for airplanes, for which open headphones are decidedly unsuitable. During COVID-19, this isn’t so much of a concern, but once this apocalypse is over, Tracy and I would like to visit her family in America again on a regular basis, so it’s a serious consideration to make.

It looks like the AKG K371s are a decent compromise to make, or possibly a pair of AKG K271 for a similar form factor to the K702 (which I do appreciate quite a lot). I’m struggling with the question whether I should sacrifice the audio quality of an open-back set of headphones for a situation which, frankly, probably isn’t happening often anymore. Before COVID-19, I would likely travel by plane two or three times per year which, added to the several hours of commute per day, did necessitate the closed-back headphones. Now, though, I may just settle for a really good pair of headphones for around the apartment, and perhaps a much cheaper set for once we start traveling again.

Incidentally, right now, I’m using a set of Bose QuietComfort 35 II and they are just awful headphones. They are not comfortable to wear for longer periods at all, and the sound quality is surprisingly low. It’s overly bassy, and sounds quite boxy, with an extremely narrow soundstage (then again, what else to expect from Bluetooth headphones?). When Tracy tried them on, she described the experience as claustrophobic. The one thing that these headphones do much better than any other set I have ever used is active noise cancelling – without a doubt they are the king in that respect. If they weren’t so expensive, I would buy a pair of these just for plane travel.

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