I've been on the hunt for a good pair of portable headphones for the longest time, my requirements are (seemingly) fairly simple:
- great sound, obviously
- portable, small enough that I can throw them in my travel bag
- good isolation, doesn't have to be superb but good enough for airplane travel and work environment
- efficient, need to be able to drive them with an iPhone, not interested in carrying an amp around
- forgiving, all the music on my iPhone is ripped at 256kbps so I need something that handles that compressed music well
- comfortable, I need to be able to wear these for several hours without any discomfort
- the above rules out IEMs, I have small ear canals and have never found a pair of IEMs that I can wear comfortably for hours
All requirements are non-negotiable, must-haves.
I'm going to spare everyone the listing of dozens of headphones that I went through. Let's just say I tried a bunch, and many of them didn't even make this comparison. In all, this is an experiment that's taken well over a year so far, and I'm out somewhere around $150 for return shipping, return fees, and net losses when selling some of the models I've tried, all in all not too bad over the course of a year for an experiment of this magnitude.
So what you'll find below is a list of the handful of headphones that I liked and some of my overall impressions.
Sennheiser HD25 II
This is a tough area to gauge because everyone has different ears. I'd say IF you can get the t50p in the proper position it's probably the most comfortable of the bunch. It has the smallest pads of the bunch and sorta sits in your ear a bit, such that (especially people with larger ears) you'll see your ear around the edges of the headphone. Given my ear size though I had to do a bit of work to get them into place and get a good seal and it seems like I repeat this process each time I put them on. So while I think most people will find it more comfortable, it's not my personal favorite.
The HD25 has a larger pad than the t50 but still small, but I feel like the clamping force is too high, I can't wear these for more than an hour or so without discomfort. I've read that washing the pads loosens them up and makes them fit better, but have not tried this myself.
The DT1350 sits similarly to the HD25 but with larger pads and less clamping force. Like the T50, these took some work to get the fit right. Overall these were very comfortable though once I got them in the right spot.
The M80 is comfortable right out of the box, although the clamping may be a bit tight for some people with really large heads. A nice feature here is that the headband is some kind of spring steel that, when you bend enough, will take shape and as a result the headpohone can be 'formed' somewhat to fit your head. The downside to the M80 is that the phones don't swivel left and right, they only swivel up and down, so getting the angle of the pads right takes a bit of effort. Luckily this issue is offset by the malleability of the headband, and you can simply 'twist' the headband so that the pads sit at the angle you like. I found these to be very comfortable overall. They can get a little warm if you're not in a cooled area, but in the environments I'm using them in this is a non-issue.
The P5s were my favorite of the bunch in terms of comfort, they fit very much like the M80 but were just a tad more comfortable overall. Like the M80s these can also get a little warm, but I'm nitpicking here.
Overall, I would not recommend any of these as active headphones, all of them (except for maybe the HD25) would easily fall off if you're exercising or running.
Although this is an important factor for me, I don't require super performance here. Of everything I've tried, the Bose headphones did the best job at noise cancelling. Unfortunately I didn't care for their sound at all, so they didn't even make the cut for this comparison.
Again with the T50 I found that if I could get them in the right position, they did the best job at blocking out sounds. This struggle may be less of an issue for someone with larger ears, but for me it was constant.
The DT1350 and HD25 also did a very good job of isolation, and with a bit less effort - they seemed to get a seal more easily.
The M80 and P5 are again very similar. Neither of these are bad at isolation, and both are good enough for what I need, but neither are as good as the other options.
Honestly all of these are perfectly portable cans, none of them really stand out more than the others. Some are smaller, but none of them are small enough to fit in your pocket or large enough so that they won't fit in a carry-on bag. So, in terms of what I'm looking for they're all equal.
Durability and Construction
This wasn't one of my requirements, but had some interesting results here nonetheless.
Compared to the others, both Beyers felt a bit fragile and light. That's not to say that they're poorly built, just that in comparison they don't feel as solid and like they'd hold up to abuse as well.
The Senns felt solid and like they could take more abuse. These are also put together in a way such that most of the parts appear to be replacable, such that if something did break I could fix it - though in fairness I've not attempted this.
The P5s feel and look very well constucted, they have a nice weight to them and you can see and feel the quality here. The only issue here is that these are so 'pretty' that I've found myself obsessed with taking care of them, can't really in good conscience just throw these around, but if I did I feel like they'd handle it fine.
The M80s are the real surprise here. These things are built like a tank/ They are screwed together such that, like the Senns, you can fully take them apart and all the parts are replacable. I've actually take these apart and everything is easy to get to. I've found videos online of the builder throwing these around a room and whatnot with no damage. These are apparently built to some type of military spec and are damn near indestructible. They also have a nice weight to them, feel very balanced overall.
Again, not a requirement but something I wanted to comment on. The Senns and Beyers are all in the "they look fine" category. There's nothing at all wrong with them, they're just regular looking headphones.
The M80s look and feel very nice. I have the White Pearl version and they really are good looking cans. The styling may be polrazing in that some may not like it at all, but I think they look great. Another feature here is that you can have custom engraving or line art put on the side plate, not some of interest to me but a nice touch. These are very well thought out, from the packaging to the accessories and of course the headphones themselves.
The P5s are the real winner here though. They're absolutely gorgeous and you can tell they're aimed at the Apple crowd. The New Zealand lamb pads to the metal construction and headband padding, it all just looks and feels wonderful, they're a very classy looking headphone. Even the packaging is well done, for those of you who've unboxed Apple products the unboxing of these headphones is very similar even down to how things are wrapped up.
In summary: if I were to buy any of these headphones based solely on looks and feel, I would take the B&W P5 overall followed closely by the M80. The other headphones, while not bad at all, were in all in a distant 3rd place if I factor in all above areas, though some perform better in certain aspects as noted above.
HOEWEVER, I've only covered some of the requirements, the the number one requirement still has not been addressed. So, how do they all perform?