I’m not a professional headphone reviewer. But, like the professionals, I still have methods for testing out a headphone. Let’s get right into it:
Comfort — This one’s easy. I put on the headphones, and in about ten minutes, I see if I have any pain or discomfort. Putting on the headphones in the first place can be tough, because I have a big head and I wear glasses, so if I can’t even get the headphones on, they are automatically disqualified and returned. If I have to adjust them to their maximum size to get them on, that makes me leery, because it’s always nice to have a little extra wiggle room.
Why do I wait ten minutes? Lots of modern headphones use memory foam. Memory foam is dense, and so it has a tendency to start stiff, and then loosen up as it conforms to your head. So, a headphone that seems a little uncomfortable at first might just need a few minutes to settle. The Blue Mo-Fi, which I’m in the midst of reviewing right now, is a perfect example of that.
The best headphones for comfort disappear on your head, but other styles can be comfortable too even if you are still aware of them.
Sound Quality — I listen to a wide range of musical samples I enjoy. Some people like to listen to games and movies…and I do that occasionally, but I find I can get the quickest idea of quality through music, which encompasses a wide range of frequencies in a short amount of time. Here’s some of my favs.
“Unwritten” by Natasha Bedingfield. This is a catchy pop song with some serious range to its instrumentation and frequency. It has good thumping base, good female vocals, guitars, and a choir. I know this sort of bouncy pop is not everyone’s cup o’ tea, but it gives me a great quick idea of the way a headphone renders different frequencies.
“Birdland” by Manhattan Transfer. A great test of the sound of vocals, and also soundstage. This has a lot of purposeful reverb mixed into it. You’ll hear vocals in one channel, then hear them echo in another, as if they’re bouncing off a distant wall. It has a good sense of space, and lots of little background information that gets lost in lesser-quality headphones. Jazz in general is a great genre to test headphones and speaker equipment.
“Digital Witness” by St. Vincent. This has some good, powerful bass…and unlike most songs, has the guts to try and mix some stereo separation into its bass notes. It’s hard to do this and have it sound good, as we tend to perceive bass frequencies in mono, but I think this song delivers.
“Right Through You (Acoustic)” by Alanis Morissette. Again, this is a good test of soundstage and instrumentation.
This is a small sample of the tracks I use. I could go on forever. It’s important to use tracks that you’re very familiar with, so you can get a sense for what makes one headphone different from another. Listening to a wide variety of genres is also good, because different genres are mixed differently. Overall, I look for the “natural” characteristics of the sound. Do the voices sound like real human voices? Do the instruments sound close to how they’d sound live? Etc.
Design — Design is completely subjective. Most headphones these days are designed either for the studio or for use in public/the home. Studio headphones tend to be a little bulkier, and often are built like tanks. I don’t really have a preference for headphone designs. It’s nice when they’re portable. It’s nice when they come in multiple colors. It’s nice when they feel durable.
That’s it! That’s really all I think about! I spend about a week with a pair before posting a review, and I use it in a variety of settings…from the quietness of my home to the loud environment of a local coffee shop. Taking headphones to the coffee shop usually makes them smell like coffee. I am weirdly okay with this.