He's not quick to dismiss the quality found in celebrity-endorsed models.
Some are very good, he said. Others didn't perform well in Consumer Reports' rigorous testing.
"I wish there was a neat answer," Willcox said. "There's no guarantee that the price you pay or the endorsement is going to bring you a better quality headphone ... People are going to have to do a little bit of research."
Jorge Cervera is vice president of the Montana-based HeadRoom, which claims to be the largest headphone-dedicated retailer in the world. He said that technological advances have led to a golden age in high-quality portable audio.
"In the past four or five years, headphones have undergone a total revolution," Cervera said, whose company sells 30 different brands and racks up $5 million in sales annually. "Manufacturers have really gotten on board with how to make a portable headphone. There are a couple of dozen that are stellar in terms of bang for the buck and great sound quality."
Audio quality that would have cost you as much as $400 a decade or so ago is now available for as little as $100, he said. What's more, quality has improved dramatically on the lower end of the price range, too.
"The buy-in for a decent pair of headphones is $30 or $40 now," said Willcox. "People who are using the ear buds that came with their portable device can dramatically increase their listening experience for not much money."
Here are tips offered by experts on how to choose the right pair of headphones for you or someone on your holiday shopping list.
Choose your style. And we don't mean only color and design. On-ear models rest on the outside of the ear, but don't surround it with a cup. These can offer good fidelity and comfort, but don't necessarily contain the sound. If using the headphones in public, isolating the sound might be important. Over-the-ear models typically do a better job at isolation. Also, consider portability. Some models fold up so they can be easily stored in a purse or backpack.
Try them on, try them out. There's no substitute for a test drive. "Two things you have to pay the most attention to are sound quality and the fit," Willcox of Consumer Reports said. "Comfort is part of fit, but also headphones that don't fit you well aren't going to sound as good. Buyers have to make sure they fit and are securely positioned to give you the best sound."
Beware of sensitivity. It's becoming less common, but some high-end headphones are not made for use with portable devices such as iPods and mobile phones. "Make sure that they're sensitive enough that you're getting adequate volume," Willcox advised.
Sound is subjective. Some models are build with certain musical tastes in mind. For example, Willcox said that some SMS Audio 50 Cent models emphasized bass. "We found them really too bass heavy," he said. "But for some people who listen to bass-heavy music, they may like those more than we did. Some headphones just sound bad, others are tailored to certain frequencies in the music. Who you are as a listener matters."
Be careful where you buy. Purchasing online means you won't have a chance to try out the headphones before you hand over your money. It's best to buy from a retailer -- online or bricks and mortar -- that has a friendly exchange policy.
Models recommended through Consumer Reports testing:
Grado SR80i. Priced around $100, on-ear style. "They're not going to win any style awards. They look like something you would have bought 20 years ago," Willcox said. "But I don't know if you can buy a better headphone for that amount of money."
Audio-Technica ATH-WS70. Priced around $130, over-the-ear style.
Bose AE-2 and AE-2i. Priced around $150 and $180, respectively. Both over-the-ear style. The AE-2i includes controls for operating an iPhone.
Models recommended by D.J. Taylor of SoundApproach.com:
Grado SR80i. Priced around $100, on-ear style.
Beyerdynamic DXT 710. Priced around $69, on-ear style.
Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro. Priced around $200, over-the-ear style.
Model recommended by Jorge Cervera, vice president of HeadRoom Inc., http://www.headphone.com:
Shure SRH440. Priced around $99, over-the-ear style. "A ridiculously great-sounding headphone for under $100," Cervera said. "It has a folding feature, which makes it fairly handy for traveling ... It can do some pretty good isolation. It's also well padded."
(c)2012 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
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