Headphones quality test

We've assembled a panel of 20 people to see if they can tell the difference between cheap and expensive headphones based solely on sound quality

Darien Graham-Smith
12 Feb 2010

There’s a thriving market in third-party headphones intended to replace those that come with portable players. But will you hear a significant difference if you invest?

To find out, we played our judges the same selection of clips used in the media player test, but now invited them to listen with four different pairs of headphones and rate the quality once again. For a fair comparison, we used the same player throughout this test – the Cowon iAudio S9, a device with a relatively neutral tone.

The headphones we used included those that came with our cheap Reddmango player and the familiar white earbuds that accompany the iPod nano.

We also invited our judges to try a pair of Sony MDR-EX300 in-ear headphones, available online for around £30, and a top-end Sennheiser IE8 pair, with an eye-watering retail price of around £180. The judges weren’t given any information about the headphones, and tested them in random order.

The results

Almost every listener found the cheap Reddmango headphones unsatisfactory. Time and again we heard words such as “weak” and “tinny”, and 18 out of our 20 judges felt they were either the worst or second worst of the bunch.

The iPod headphones received a more ambivalent reception: a few judges hated their sound, but most found it merely average.

The third-party headphones were much more enthusiastically received. The Sony and Sennheiser models polled near-identical scores overall, each taking top marks from 11 judges (including four first-place ties).

The Sony headphones were generally agreed to give a “loud, powerful sound”, and many people also praised their ability to exclude external noise, thanks to a design that penetrates deeply into the ear canal.

The £180 Sennheiser units created a more refined impression: our judges described their tone in terms such as “rich” and “pure”, with one commenting that they were the only pair that didn’t sound like they were “struggling” with the detail in the music.

Sony verdict: "These are nice and loud, and they really shut out the outside world. They'd be perfect for the train."

Apple verdict: "They're not bad, but they don't exactly kick. It just feels like there isn't much depth to the music."

Reddmango verdict: "You need to chuck these in the bin, mate. If I'd paid money for these I'd be very disappointed."

Sennheiser verdict: "I didn't know you could get a sound like this from little headphones. So much depth and detail."



People may disagree over media players, but it seems that almost everyone can appreciate the difference between bog- standard in-box headphones and decent third-party replacements. That applies most obviously to the Reddmango, but even pricey high-end players often come with mediocre headphones.

The good news is that you don’t need to spend the earth to upgrade. The Sennheisers may take the audiophile crown, but our respondents’ scores indicate that they’d be just as happy with the pumping Sony units costing one sixth of the price.

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