If you are looking for a pair of headphones, I have a surprising recommendation that manages to marry form, function, and fashion in a package that is appealing to both genders!
Amongst everything, two constants in my life have been books and music. I used to borrow books to read. Then I used to buy books to read. And now I download them to my Kindle (app). I used to listen to the radio, then got a cassette-recorder, a CD player and then started to download music, to my laptop and then to my iPod. And now I stream to my iPhone X and my computer. And I mostly listen to music on my headphones!
And like everyone, I have tried a lot of headphones — buying and selling them on eBay or Craigslist. And like everyone else, I confused brand names and price for quality headphones. Most of them were disappointments. Especially the ones that were lifestyle brands such as Beats. While I am not an audiophile, I can discern good sounding headphones from average ones.
I am not an audiophile and don’t care about testing with FLACs or other hi-resolution audio formats. I am one of the 150 million people who listen to music streams every year, and to me, that is the baseline of sound quality. Today that is what music means. Sure occasionally one can listen to vinyl on a turntable — and I do — and enjoy its purity, but I can’t take vinyl to go. Just as I enjoy taking photos with my Leica film camera when it comes to landscapes, I end up with my digital Leica. In other words, I am an analog man, who has embraced a digital reality.
So, from my point of view as an amateur, a good pair of headphones should have these following six attributes:
- The sound should be clean, clear and crisp. In other words, my Spotify Premium stream shouldn’t sound tinny or create artificial bass. I want music to sound like music.
- The headphones should render all types of music cleanly. My musical tastes vary from western classical to Indian traditional music, with a heavy bias towards Electronica, Blues, and Jazz.
- They should be over the ear closed models as I don’t want the sound to disturb fellow workers or travelers. The ear pads should cover the entire ear without pushing down the ear. And did I say they should be soft?
- They should be lightweight and well constructed, a rather hard to find combo. They should float on the head and not weigh me down.
- They should be made of materials that don’t make my ears sweat after long-term use.
- They should be wired, and come with rugged, and well made removable wires with an inline volume level controller.
As you might notice, I didn’t mention price, because frankly you can find good headphones for anywhere between $200 to $500 and the end selection is highly personal. At present, I have three sets of headphones:
- At home, I listen to Focal Clear, probably the best and the most expensive headphones I will ever owned. I have no desire to either upgrade or change these phones. They check all the boxes, except they are open and are too big to be worn in public. When I listen to music using my Schitt Audio amplifier connected to my MacBook Pro, the Spotify Stream feels like it got a Botox injection. I have listened to them for six hours straight and didn’t feel tired, or weighed down by the phones. They float on my head and being “open” I don’t feel confined, and they sound natural. They are the baseline for all my other headphones. I arrived at Focal after trying out Audeze, Grado, and a few other HeadFi recommendations. This one is perfect.
- For conference calls and phone conversations, I use Apple AirPods. They aren’t my choice for music, but for watching videos on my iPad, they are more than adequate.
- For long-haul flights, I have a pair of beat-up Bose headphones that take AA batteries and are as low-tech as Bose can get. They sit in my luggage and will be there until Bose stops making the replacement ear pads. They are not great for music, but on a loud aircraft, they are just a way to mute everything.
So most of my headphone experimentation is for every day/outside the apartment usage, say in coffee shops, in the office or when walking down the street. And as a result, I tend to avoid headphones that make me look dorky because I got that covered anyway! Yes, you can sneer at my desire for “fashion” headphones, but looking good and sounding good shouldn’t be mutually exclusive when it comes to headphones.
I have two current favorites — Bang & Olufsen’s H9 and Master & Dynamic’s MW60 are both wireless headphones. B&O is a bit small for my ears, and M&D are a bit heavy. They are both perfect for short haul usage – 30-45 minutes at a stretch. But that’s not the problem — I always forget to charge them and find myself without a pair at precisely the wrong time!
M&D, are better made but are also heavier than H8s. But I like them a lot. I have enough accessories for M&D for me to change the colors and look of the phones every day. I swap out ear pads and cables, quite often. That makes them more fun and personal.
Six months ago, a representative of Shinola, a divisive brand that is trying to reinterpret American luxury, reaches out to ask me whether I wanted to try out a pair of their new Canfield headphones. Candidly, I don’t much care for the brand. Their controversial approach to watch marketing — assembled in America of Swiss parts — doesn’t make their watches American Made. With a predisposition to dislike anything from the brand, I had no hopes for the product and boy was I wrong.
Shinola’s Canfield over the ear headphones checked all the boxes I need a headphone for on the go.
- Canfields sound clean, clear and crisp. My Spotify Stream sounds good, especially when paired with the MacBook Pro 15, without using an external amplifier. In comparison with my Focal Clear, it is about 70 percent as good, when plugged into Schitt Audio amplifier! At about third of the price, that is not bad.
- When used with iPhone X using a lightening adapter, you find that there is a little boost in the bass, especially when listening to more modern music. If you are a fan of the new R&B or Rap, the overall sound comes across as a bit too punchy, though nothing like the overpowering bass of Beats.
- The headphones sound great at not only low volume but even at mid-to-high volumes, though when you turn it up to the max, the sound loses its sweetness and becomes harsh. I wouldn’t recommend you do that anyway — you should never turn up the volume above 50 percent.
- Now let’s talk about the looks, materials and the construction. The headphones come with a well-made carry case. The headphones look familiar, as if from the past of radio studios, and yet they feel so now! The combination of soft leather (on-ear pads and headband) and the brushed aluminum (on cans and body) is what makes it happen. The ear pads are soft and supple. The soft foam pads are encased in thin leather. When you wear the headphones, you can sense the strength of the aluminum band, but only feel the soft leather which covers it touching your head. I don’t know how, but a week later the headphones had become one with my head. What I don’t like is that ear pads sometimes slip out of position, which is an unacceptable flaw, but seems like it is a problem with the review unit. A well made cable with a microphone and inline volume control makes it easy to use for making phone calls.
Canfields are one of the most beautiful objects I have seen, and I am surprised that it hasn’t gotten the attention of design nerds. It is classical, yet it is minimal. It is luxe and understated.
The Canfield over the ear headphones come in three colorways and cost $450 a pair, which is about $50 more than Master and Dynamic’s MW 40 and cheaper than MW 60 that cost $599 a pair. M&D has collaborations with Leica and Zegna, and those look unique.
Bottom line: regardless of my lukewarm feelings about Shinola brand, I will spend my dollars to buy these headphones and use them daily. They are fashionable and yet deliver on sound quality, by my standards.