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How to Find the Right Headphones

Long-time goop friend and music manager Seth Friedman spends a lot of time with headphones on. Beyond the requirements of his job, he’s always on a plane (case in point: the goop classic, “Fly Better,” in which he gave us some of his travel tips). Below, he assembled a mini panel of musician Natasha Bedingfield and fashion executive Clement Kwan to test-drive some of the best headphones on the market—at all different price points.

The Hunt for the Best Sound

I am by no means an expert, but my theory on headphones is pretty simple: 50% performance, 50% design. I would never wear something that is ugly, and I would never use something that sounds like sh*t. It’s all about the balance. I split my headphone use pretty evenly between over-the-ear “headphones” and in-ear “earphone” or “earbud” styles. While walking around the city, especially in the warmer months, I prefer an in-ear style as they are not as hot and can easily be stowed in my pocket when I get to a meeting or a gig. I also use this style earphone on the all-too-rare occasion I make it to the gym.

There are a few key features that I look for: First, I really like to have flat, tangle-free “fettuccini”-style wires. There is nothing more annoying then spending two minutes untangling a mess of wires every time you walk out the door. I also like to have a microphone and controls that work with my iPhone. Though I don’t use Siri all that often, it’s nice to have that option. As far as fit goes, I have average sized ears, so fitting has never been a problem. If you have some sort of unique ear, there are a few custom options that may work great for you.

As with any technology purchase, make sure you check compatibility with your particular devices and look online. All of these products are heavily detailed on their respective websites if you want really technical data. And while most are on the higher-end of the price spectrum, I am quite sure there are some great values out there in the lower price brackets as well. Because not everyone is as average as me, I enlisted a couple of friends to help me talk about the headphone landscape:

  • Clement Kwan

    Clement Kwan

    Clement is an avid music fan and understands fashion and design better than almost anyone I know. As a fellow New Yorker—via Italy where he worked for D&G—he is now President of YOOX US and qualifies as an expert on what’s cool.

  • Natasha Bedingfield

    Natasha Bedingfield

    Natasha is a Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter with an impressive musical resume and the only thing better than incredible headphones, is listening to Natasha sing live. Also let it be known that Gwyneth does a mean cover of “Pocket Full of Sunshine” if properly coaxed.

Beats Tour

SETH: “I was lucky enough to work with Beats by Dre founding partner will.i.am for many years. I’ve had a variety of models over the years, but the ones that really stuck with me were the Tour, and then the Tour2. The sound is solid, if not a bit bass-heavy for most people. Along with iPhone controls and the flat wires, they have a “wingtip” piece that helps secure the earphones while working out. I am sure they don’t fit perfectly for everyone, but they supply a few tip sizes that should cover most.”

Bowers & Wilkins C5

NATASHA: “These in-ears are pretty genius. I love the unique way the wires are designed to fit into the larger part of the ear and help the headphones stay in place while you’re on the move. I don’t think I’ll ever take these off—it’s love at first listen, for sure. Don’t laugh, but I have little ears so I’ve always struggled with any earbud-type headphones, I find they just don’t fit me properly and end up falling out all the time. I’ve jumped around wearing these little B&W’s and they pass the movement test—I could probably even get away with wearing these on stage. From a sound point of view, Bowers and Wilkins are definitely one of my favorites—they are luxurious, like pampering your self with auditory heaven. There’s a warmth to the sound, like the effect of vinyl records.”

Bowers & Wilkins P5

SETH: “I wear over-the-ear headphones a lot when I fly. As I have said before, if you wear really big headphones on a flight, nobody bothers you—it’s great! I also wear them around New York on cold days. I have a variety of models that have active noise cancelling capabilities, that are wireless, and that have all sorts of bells and whistles. In general I prefer a pair that isolates sound by fitting well, and doesn’t need a charge or an app to run. That being said, some of the new technology out there is quite fun. I’ve been using B&W P5’s for quite some time. They are not OVER the ear, but lay flat on your head—great for sleeping on a plane. They are also very portable and sound very good for their size.”

CLEMENT: “I liked the sound of the P5, the only drawback is the size of the headphones. For a big-headed person, these headphones struggled to cover my entire ear, which detracted from my listening.” (To be clear…Clement actually has a large cranium, not a huge ego!)

Bowers & Wilkins P7

SETH: “The new P7 model is really great. They have much fuller sound than the P5 and the over-the-ear style blocks outside noise quite well. They have a great design that folds, so despite the relatively large size, they’re pretty easy to travel with.

NATASHA: “I equate the design of these to the flowing curves of a woman’s body and I could rave all day about how good Bowers and Wilkins’ sound is—so lush”

CLEMENT: “The design immediately reminds me of a Mercedes 190 SL, one of my favorite cars—classic and a strong vintage feel. The case to house the headphones is very high quality and adds a level of sophistication to an already beautiful product.”

Power Beats

SETH: “I recently got a pair of these designed specifically for working out. I’m not really a fan of wireless audio and I don’t particularly want another thing to charge—if the batteries die you are SOL. For a workout, however, it’s nice not to have a cable in the way, and it is usually (especially for me) a short period of time, so running out of charge is less likely. If you have the luxury of owning multiple pairs of headphones, I think these would be great specifically for the gym as the behind the ear fit holds incredibly well.

NATASHA: “I would like to point out that you can do a quick 15-minute charge that gives you an hour of use. I also like the case that comes with the earphones and the included USB charging cable.”

Nrml

SETH: “These guys have a big fancy store in Chelsea and Natasha and I were lucky enough to go in for a “fitting”, which consisted of taking a bunch of photos of our ears with a tricked out iPhone. This can also be done at home with their app, and sent directly to them for a custom build. The finished product took a minute to get used to. Because of the design, the drivers fire almost directly into your ear canal instead of the side of your head, so the audio quality is surprisingly good. Though they are custom built, they do not fit tightly inside your ear, nor do they block out sound from the outside. I have heard from a few people that the fit wasn’t great, but mine was fine after a day of getting used to it. These are good for the city since I don’t like to block out everything around me—I don’t feel safe walking around New York in an audio bubble, not hearing any cars, sirens, or people at all.”

NATASHA: “I was totally surprised when I plugged in these 3D-printed headphones and was rewarded with very good sound. After going for the fitting and seeing the machines that make them right in the room, I guess I just wasn’t expecting them to sound so good—and they fit nicely, too. Looks-wise, you can still tell when something has been made with a 3D printer, which is why I wasn’t expecting them to sound this good.”

Ultimate Ears 5 Pro

SETH: The UE-5 Pro are definitely high end, and probably not for the average consumer. They are 100% custom-made—similar to what professional musicians wear on stage as monitors so they can hear themselves and their band mates. Starting at around $600 and going up into the $2,500 range, they are not cheap. It takes a couple of weeks to have them made and require an in-person visit with them (or an audiologist) to get ear impressions made. They have a new 3-D ear scanner at their LA location, but it wasn’t working the day I went in, so I had the old-school inject-goo-into-my-ear-canal-style impressions made. Though not exactly fun, the process takes about 15 minutes and they keep your impression on file should anything happen. The finished product is unlike anything I’ve used before, and a bit difficult to get on and off at first, though it gets easier over time. They act as sound isolating earplugs, so you hear almost nothing from the outside while wearing them, and since they are designed for optimal sound, they don’t come with any controls or a mic; the braided wires are individual for each ear to improve sound quality. Having seen my artists wearing these for years it was really fun to finally experience them for myself. I wore them to the gym one day and I could have easily done backflips and they wouldn’t have budged.

Master & Dynamic

SETH: “These are sort of the new kid on the block and I use the MH40 pretty regularly. The design is nice, sort of a cross between what an architect or graphic designer and a rapper or basketball player would wear. The aluminum and leather are definitely higher in quality than a lot of the big players out there and are quite heavy while the sound is really full and pleasing. They may not have quite as much definition as the B&W P7, but they’re certainly on the same playing field. They come with a nice braided cable, and the microphone is placed close to your mouth, and separate from the controls, so it still sounds good while in phone mode. They also make a boom mic if you have the desire to look like an air traffic control operator. They also have a nice feature that lets you plug a second pair of headphones directly into one of the ear cups so you can share the music or a movie with a friend—the feature is not unique to M&D, but clever that they included it.”

NATASHA: “Everything about these is super sophisticated and high end. I would imagine someone who drives a Mercedes or a Jaguar would like these headphones. Miles Davis’ “All Kinds of Blue” and “Entanglement” by Imogen Heap both sounded incredible on these—you could hear every little sound and it feels as if a live band is playing all around you. I tested the bigger, over-the-ear style so they felt a bit more masculine than some others on the market, but personally, I quite like that about them, even though I’m a girly girl. I also liked the packaging—as you open the box you can smell Italian leather and the metal material comes across as both modern and vintage. Plus, I was given the option for either an extra long lead or one that has volume control.”

Parrot Zik 2.0

SETH: I totally geeked out at the touch-sensitive gesture control that’s built into side of the earcup, and the wonderful design by Philippe Starck. The new 2.0 version takes it all to the next level: There is a very detailed app that lets you select almost unlimited EQ options, artist pre sets, and an active noise cancellation setting. My favorite feature is the sensor built into the earcup that pauses the music automatically when they are taken off. The only fault I find with the Parrot is it gets a bit confused when changing devices (ie: from iPhone to laptop) because changing the settings requires a Bluetooth connection. Truthfully, I set up the setting I like and I haven’t changed it much since.

NATASHA: “As a song maker, I would rather people keep the balance I worked hard to create for them, but I get the appeal of being able to customize bass or drums levels. All that technology is great as long as the batteries are charged and the connection works. There’s a wired option if all else fails, and a clever “flight mode” that locks your settings and limits some of the functionality in exchange for up to 18 hours of battery life.”

CLEMENT: “The design is classic Philippe Starck, which brought me back to when the Delano Hotel had just opened in Miami (maybe because of the electric blue color of the headphones). The finger gesture controls are extremely innovative and the design is thoughtful and slick. The sound is concert quality and in trying all genres of music, the one that stuck with me was the Christmas album from Pentatonix—it made me a PTX believer! It takes some concentration to figure out all of the bells and whistles, but worth the effort.”

Dubs

SETH: “In closing, I also want to shout out Doppler Labs and their Dubs earplugs. At around $25 a pop, these would be a great gift for anyone who frequents live music shows—they are a life-saver. I try to wear earplugs whenever possible, and these are better than the cheap foam ones I have worn for years. Plus, they look good.”

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