Some people are Philatelists and put stamps in a pretty little book instead of using them to send things. Others are Oenophiles and have bottles of wine to look at instead of drink. Sadly there isn't yet a name for my collection, so I'm going to call myself an Audioheadphoneologist; yes, I collect headphones. Music is an integral part of everyday life, so I have an insatiable desire to listen to it as close to what the creator intended; hence, this 'review' of 4 of the best headphones that can change your life (as they have mine).
Change your life may be a bit strong. It's not as though I'm reviewing the installation of a water pump in Ethiopia, but nevertheless, listening to music on bad headphones is just a waste of brainpower, so I do think this topic is worthy of the 'change your life' syndrome. So let's start with noise cancelling headphones.
I know what you're thinking "Why on earth would I want to cancel the noise in headphones?" Well, have you ever been on a noisy plane and had to turn up the volume so loud that you could be in a Metallica gig? Have you ever wanted to chill in a park to find you picked the one and only day the workers are digging up the pavement? Have you ever been to Wales and wanted the sheep to stop making their 'Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa' noise? Thought so. This is where the noise cancellation comes in.
This smart technology listens to the annoying external sounds that you don't want to hear, and through some clever wizardry, copies the sound waves and turns them 180 degrees, thereby cancelling the annoyance in your ear. Confusing? I wouldn't worry about it. Just trust me when I say this tech is a game-changer. So who are the best in the business? You only need to look at the logo of the headsets Pilots wear to realise the leader in this field are Bose.
Bose QuietComfort 35
I had a set of Bose QuietComfort Headphones for nearly 10 years. I started with the QuietComfort 15 and now have the 35. These headphones are stylish and cancel out the unwanted noise so well that you think the sheep haven't just been gagged, they've moved to Scotland. When you put them on, there is a strange sensation that you've been beamed at warp-speed to Uranus (I could have chosen Mars, but I'm still a child at heart). And going to another planet would be easy, as these things are also wireless; although they do their job so well I wouldn't recommend walking down the street as you'll end up mangled around a bike, or worse, another human.
I'm not one of these geeks who will spend 10 minutes unpacking a box, nor am I going to write about all the gadgets and gizmos of the product. I'll just tell you in simple words, the Bose is a fantastic product. From a sound perspective, they are typical of the company; they tighten up and fatten the bass, dip the mids and punch out the high-end. And in English that means Bose don't try and produce a flat, natural sound that the producer of the track wanted you to hear; they try to enhance it. Most of the times this works - and if you're listening to, ahem, popular music - so that's anything with drums and bass really, then I love the balance. Classical music, not so much.
They have a good battery life of around 20 hours, and when the batteries do die, then simply use the pre-historic lead to plug them in manually. As Aleksandr Orlov would say, "Simples!"
So what's the damage? Around £300 new. Although I'd never buy them for that price. You should be able to pick up a pair at a discount through the Bose Outlet shop, or discounted on Amazon.
The Bose QuietComfort 35 - they really are the best headphones for everyday use with noise cancellation.
So if Bose is perfect for everyday use of music with drums and bass, what are the ideal headphones for something a little more sophisticated?
Bang and Olufsen H9i
Firstly, let me be clear that these start at £450 and go up to a whopping £750. And yes, they are also noise cancelling; but compared to the Bose they have a lot to learn in that department. At the moment their noise cancelling is more noise dampening, and that's me being kind. The battery life also needs some of those Duracell bunnies, because it's not great. They also have this bold design where you can touch the surface of the earphone, and it controls the volume, changes the track, and if you press in the right place, makes you a cup of tea. Now let me be clear, this is a terrible feature. Every time you put them on, take them off or try to readjust them, you order a cup of Earl Grey and jump from Beethoven to Bieber. It's stupid. And for this money, they don't even come with a hard case. So why would I call the B&O H9i one of the 4 best headphones that can change your life? Because the sound quality is astonishing.
The composers Scriabin, Sibelius, Messiaen and Liszt all had synesthesia; the ability to associate sounds to colours. With these B&O headphones, you don't need to be blessed with synesthesia, as the colours the headphones paint in your mind are genuinely astonishing.
Listening to a symphony, or any piece of music with many layers is a joy on the H9i's. The Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi also has synesthesia, and when you listen to that theme tune on these headphones, you can tell. When you're on a plane, going through the clouds and wishing the turbulence would disappear, and then all of a sudden, it does. You lift out of the clouds to see the world below you. You feel in awe, like the king of the world, and like an insignificant ant all at the same time. This is my feeling when I listen to music on the B&O's. With the added advantage that they look seriously stylish.
The Bang and Olufsen H9i - the best headphones that look and sound like luxury.
So we have found the perfect noise cancelling and the best sounding headphones. What about exercise? I'm the guy who buys all the gear to exercise in, hoping and begging that it'll make me interested enough in moving my body regularly. Sadly, nothing has worked. Not even the Bose SoundSport. I'm the one who sits at the finish line of the Marathon, clapping people, wearing my SoundSports, and laughing that their health regime ends up in blisters, while my fitness plan consists of reaching over to put on my headphones, and occasionally sprint to the bar to get a G&T.
Bose SoundSport Pulse
So if I dislike sport so much, why did I spend £130 on these wireless headphones? Because for commuting, they are amazing.
When I was conducting every day in the West-End for two years, I'd spend nearly two hours commuting each way; all with my trusty Bose SoundSport pumping out whatever music I liked, in a high sound quality, but without looking like one of those plonkers who wear their great sounding, but HUMONGOUS headphones on the Piccadilly Line.
They are also great for making phone calls, as the little microphone on the control unit is super clear for the poor sod listening to you on the other end of the call.
Apparently, you can run with them without them falling out. I suppose that's quite important for a pair of sports headphones. I also opted for the Pulse upgrade, which features a built-in heart rate sensor that sends data to your smartphone. I can be confident that this was an unnecessary option considering my heart rate doesn't rise above the 'standing on the escalator smiling smugly at the people using the stairs' BPM.
I can tell you they are weather-resistant; which is a necessity in England. I can also tell you they sound pretty similar to the Bose QuietComfort 35's I mentioned above, but without the noise cancelling.
Battery life is even worse than the B&O's above, lasting a maximum of about five hours. However, my strong advice is to purchase the SoundSport charging case for £40. It keeps your headphones secure and charges them at the same time.
My final top tip is that if you own cats, they absolutely love chewing these due to the rubber-like texture. Great for them. Not so great for you.
The Bose SoundSport Pulse - the perfect headphones for your regular commute
So we have covered the best quality of sound, best noise cancelling and best on the go headphones. The only thing left is a really over-the-top, luxurious, utterly unnecessary pair of in-ear headphones.
At £1,460, the Ultimate Ears UE-18+ Pro are by far the most expensive things on this list. And to a non-professional musician, they are just a luxury in the same way a £6,500 Louis Vuitton bag is compared with the equivalent from Primarni. But for me, these things really have changed my life.
Ultimate Ears UE-18+ Pro
I'm always trying to protect my hearing. It's the one thing that is sure to deteriorate with age, and I want to reverse that effect for as long as possible. I do this by wearing my custom moulded UE-18+ whenever I can, especially if I'm conducting with any amplified instruments.
For a start, because they take a mould of your ear, these headphones, or to give them their proper name 'in-ear monitors', fit like a glove. They are so comfortable to wear that you quickly forget you're wearing them. And since the 'speaker' goes deeper into your ear canal, and that natural ambient sound around you is blocked because of their design (not noise cancelling with technology, but by merely blocking your ear with the unit), the volume level needed is far less. In fact, when I wear my UE-18+, I turn down the level by about 50%! So that's half the volume hitting my eardrum, without noticing that I'm listening to it at a depressed level.
This list of people who wear these is unbelievable: Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Christina Aguilera, Iron Maiden, Janet Jackson, John Legend, Justin Bieber, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Mariah Carey, Metallica, P Diddy, Peter Gabriel, Rihanna, Stevie Wonder, Taylor Swift, U2 and little me. The list just goes on and on!
I could spout out a load of garble discussing their frequency response, their impedance and the fact they have SIX drivers inside them. But I won't. Just know the build quality on these is flawless. You can personalise them with whatever you'd like. And most importantly, the sound quality has the clarity and precision that is like no other. Unlike the Bose that pushes the bass to try and improve the sound, these little babies are pretty neutral, meaning you hear the music as the mixer wanted - and chances are, if you spend this amount of money, you have a system where you can change the sound as required without being forced to by the headphone manufacturer.
So the Ultimate Ears remain my go-to headphones to conduct with; but are they useful for you? If you're a pro musician, yes. If you're not, no. Unless you are James Dyson, have all the money in the world to spend and like cool things, then yes - buy them anyway.
To make my 4 of the best headphones that can change your life list, I've tried easily another fifty over the years. I really do stand by my choices, but listening to music is a personal, indeterminable gift that humans have. This means, just like wine or underwear, what is right for me may be terrible for you. So find a great shop, go and have a listen and do a blind test. Alternatively, do what I did; buy twenty from Amazon and send sixteen back.
Remember to always look after your hearing, and after doing two years on Bat out of Hell the musical, I can safely say this was the best £2,000 I ever spent. After turning into an Audioheadphoneologist, my hearing is comparable to the day I met Meatloaf and added chiropterologist to my list.
Where to purchase your headphones
Bose QuietComfort 35 - the best headphones for everyday use with noise cancellation.
Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H9i - the best headphones that look and sound like luxury.
Bose SoundSport - the perfect headphones for your regular commute
Bose SoundSport Charging Case - the perfect charger and carry case for your SoundSports
UE 18+ - the best in-ear monitors on the market