01st Mar 2013
This guide essentially covers headphones and In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) under Rs 6,000. That's the amount of money most average users are willing to spend on these products. Those with deeper pockets are hardened audiophiles, who don't frankly need much help to begin with. Another thing you will notice about this guide is that you won't find any relatively well-known brands here. For a good reason too!
I don't advise opting for easily visible brands, if your budget is under Rs 3000. Well-known manufacturers are too bloated with greater operational overheads to offer decent audio fidelity in the budget to mid-end IEM \ headphone segment. Their offerings have to incorporate sizeable profit margins, which affects overall quality for products with miniscule manufacturer margins. This way, you don't pay big money for the product alone, but for advertising, branding, and store presence.
Smaller brands, however, can include high-quality components in competitively priced products. Most importantly, small brands such as Grado and Alessandro are owned by highly motivated enthusiasts who are more audiophiles than businessmen, which is evident in their offerings. The product is bound to be good when most of the budget goes into better materials and R&D.
Budget IEMs (Less Than Rs 1000)
The budget segment is restricted to IEMs, because headphones are best avoided at this price range. The former may not provide the truest reproduction, but you do have a few options that provide excellent value for the price. The alternatives chosen in this category are comfortable and bassy enough to drown out high ambient noise encountered during commuting. Their bass-rich nature is courtesy of powerful neodymium magnets that are generally found only in considerably costlier IEMs. These are highly recommended if you're stuck with horrible ear buds bundled with your phone or PMP.
The JVC Marshmallows sound surprisingly good for their asking price of Rs 550. What's even more surprising is the incorporation of neodymium magnets and a specially designed cord that's good at reducing annoying friction-induced noise. The bass is plentiful, if not very accurate. The Marshmallows nonetheless play well with most music genres. They are great for daily outdoor usage, thanks to their comfortable fit.
The PL11's may cost a bit more than the Marshmallows, but you get a more balanced sound focusing on both the lows as well as highs. The cable length is also longer at 1.2 m over the latter's 1 m. The silicone ear tips do a good job of isolating ambient noise, which makes these IEMs ideal for music on the move.
Mid-Range IEMs (Less Than Rs 3000)
The choices in this range are priced just below Rs 3000, but offer considerable value for the price. The sound signature is significantly better with deeper and richer bass, good mid-range, and very detailed highs. Surprisingly, these IEMs also deliver decent soundstage, which is rather remarkable for such tiny drivers. Expect lots of bells and whistles such as ear tips of different configurations and materials, as well as braided wires, and fancy protective cases. These mid-range IEMs are good enough to be used indoors as well as outdoors.
The M2's large 10.7 mm dynamic drivers are meant for one main purpose, to provide deep and thumping bass, without compromising on speed and agility. Not only do these IEMs achieve that, but they deliver pretty decent mids and highs as well. It's rare to see good low-frequency performance without sacrificing on clarity and tonal balance, at this price range. The body is crafted out of metal, which gives it great durability when combined with thick braided cables. You also get Comply foam tips in addition to regular silicone ones, a hard carrying case, clip-on ear adapters, and shirt clip to keep the wires in place. Now, that's a lot of value in one package.
The SoundMagic PL50's are unlike your average IEM. These earphones incorporate micro balanced-armature drivers - pretty high-end stuff that delivers detailed highs, and hence excellent positional accuracy and soundstage. The lack of a dynamic driver does compromise bass delivery, but these IEMs deliver enough of it, so you're good, unless you solely listen to the infrasonically inclined hip-hop tracks. On the bright side, you do get brilliant tonal balance and very accurate sound reproduction in the bargain. The silicone tips provided also offer good mechanical sound isolation, which has been pegged at an impressive -20 dB by the manufacturer. Choose these IEMs if you love vocals, good soundstaging, and accurate sound reproduction over coloured sound.
High-End Headphones (More Than Rs 5000)
This segment is meant for those who seek excellent headphones for home usage. Armed with large drivers with exotic voice coils, the options here deliver excellent quality for a respectable amount of money. I have deliberately chosen audiophile-grade open-back designs for their uncoloured sound signature and comfort. However, they do tend to let a lot of ambient noise filter in, so make sure you use them indoors. If you happen to live in a noisy environment, you may want to pick up the Audio Technica ATH-M35 closed-back cans instead. These headphones deliver a level of quality that's hard to rival even with a budget of up to Rs 10,000. So look no further.
The Alessandro-Grado Music Series One (MS1) is a Grado SR60i, modified by amplifier specialist George Alessandro. George primarily makes and maintains guitar amplifiers for the likes of Eric Johnson and Eric Clapton. His keen ear for tone is evident through this headphone. Unlike the original SR60i, which has a bright (treble heavy) tonality, the MS1 features a balanced tone that exhibits a beautiful midrange (frequency range that include vocals and guitars, for example). This makes it just the right kind of headphone for those into guitar rock.
Despite sharing the Grado's body, there's a good reason for such a difference in audio signature. That's because the internals have been dramatically modified. The drivers have been reworked with powerful neodymium magnets and a low-mass polymer diaphragm that's both strong and agile. The voice coils feature high quality oxygen-free copper, and the same is extended to the visibly thicker cable. Like all good headphone designs, the MS1 adopts a vented enclosure that's responsible for deeper and more accurate bass and reduced colouration of sound. It's little wonder then that this headphone is an all-rounder, handling all genres of music with great aplomb.
The MS1, however, is marred by a narrow soundstage. This can be fixed either by opting for better quality cushions that place the drivers further away from the ear, or by employing the quick and easy quarter mod. The only thing that cannot be remedied, is its lack of ergonomics. These headphones will hurt your ears after a few hours of use. However, with an awesome bass delivery, detailed highs, and a beautiful midrange, you won't find a better deal for this price. The best part is that the manufacturer ships the headphones anywhere in the world, for free.
The Audio-Technica ATH-AD700 (AD700) sounds every bit as good as its looks expensive. The huge 53 mm drivers employ neodymium magnets and CCAW (Copper-Clad Aluminium Wire) voice coil. All that is enclosed in an open-back design just like the Alessandro-Grado MS1. However, unlike the MS1, the AD700 is a lot more comfortable thanks to a lightweight structure composed of perforated aluminium and magnesium components. The self-adjusting wing-like headband, makes it the most ergonomic pair of headphones I have ever come across. The AD700's light weight and comfortable padding ensures that it can be worn for the entire day without fatigue. The cable itself is long and would look right at home with much more expensive headphones.
The drivers are positioned at an angle and quite a distance away from the ear. This provides amazing spatial imaging. Even though it lacks an inbuilt microphone, there's a good reason why the AD700 is sworn by gamers for its positional accuracy. This is in great part due to its ability to resolve the higher frequencies quite well. Just a few hours of multiplayer gaming were enough to convince me of the Audio-Technica's pinpoint positional accuracy. The fact that you can not only hear footsteps and gunshots, but actually resolve their depth and direction, makes these headphones a must have for anyone who takes gaming seriously.
The amount of detail these headphones can dig out of high-quality recordings, is downright amazing. The AD700 works surprisingly well with music, unlike most gaming headphones. It bears a balanced tonality that favours neither the highs nor the lows, which makes them good for those who love their music devoid of any colouration. The AD700 will surprise you with its wide soundstage and amazing vocal clarity, no matter what your existing audio setup is. However, it isn't meant for those seeking bass extension. Unless you pair these headphones to a dedicated amplifier, you'll find the bass output lacking. At the end of the day, the AD700 is worth every paisa, thanks to its ability to excel at both gaming and music.
Summer 2012 Buyer's Guide: Headphones And In-Ear Monitors (IEMs) | TechTree.com
Summer 2012 Buyer's Guide: Headphones And In-Ear Monitors (IEMs)
Put an end to busting your wallet for great audio fidelity with this selection of products.
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