I’ve been heavily into music for my entire life. From music class in grade school through touring the Midwest with my band, my escape is music. Also, I’m pretty into gadgets. I had an MP3 player before the iPod even existed. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve also had lots and lots of headphones over the years.
From my dad’s huge Koss cans in the 1970s to the Mpow bluetooth earbuds I use now, headphones have taken many shapes, and I’ve used a ton. In doing so, I’ve discovered a few tricks for optimizing the sound of any set of headphones.
One more qualifier about me – I’m cheap. Spending $100 or more on headphones of any kind sends chills up my spine. It’s too much pressure, and lowers the threshold for disappointment significantly. I much prefer to buy cheap and expect nothing. Sometimes, I’m happily surprised. Other times, a little tweaking can make a sub-par experience plenty fine.
With all of this in mind, here are some tips I’ve gathered over the years.
Positioning in your ear
This is a lesson I learned just before throwing in the towel on a set of Klipsch wired earbuds I had gotten for $15 from Woot.com. Just after sending them an email requesting an RMA based on my serious disappointment in the tinny, shallow sound coming from this set, I read a few more reviews of them and learned about their proprietary eartip design. Turns out they are not round like most eartips, but rather an oval shape to better fit the human ear.
Klipsch has a pretty great reputation for sound reproduction, but Woot.com was a clearinghouse for factory seconds or refurbished gear. I just assumed I rolled the dice and lost, but before returning them, I tried a few more things. When I routed the wires over the back of my ear and inserted the eartips upside down, it was like I had plugged in completely different headphones. Suddenly, the entire EQ range was present, and they went from being a failed experiment to a windfall. I still think of these as the best-sounding earphones I’ve owned.
With on-ear or over-the-ear headphones, positioning is less of an issue, but if you have a bigger head (like me), make sure you can get the speakers all the way over your ears. I have a wired gaming set from Logitech that has plenty of room. I don’t have the earcups fully extended. However, with the Monoprice BT cans I just bought, I have them fully extended and they just barely make it over the bottom of my ear. Reviews were helpful but I took a chance on these based on the price, anyhow.
More recently, I’ve been experimenting with cheap bluetooth earbuds. Some are from well-known brands (Samsung, Plantronics) and some from relative newcomers (Mpow) or no-names (Amoner?). Straight out of the box, they all have different sound characteristics, but typically, they’re similar to the Klipsch set I got a while ago – very little bass, and tinny, shallow sound. With some adjusting (usually pushing them further into my ear to try to create a better seal), I can hear that there’s more sound available. This leads me to my second tip…
After the luck I had in simply adjusting the Klipsch earbuds, I checked Amazon for a replacements when I lost a tip from a set of Samsung earbuds. Turns out there are tons of options. Not only a wide variety of sizes and colors, but I also found foam eartips that fit perfectly, and do a little more sound isolation than the stock tips. This means that they’re comfortable and block some outside noise, which allows me to play music at a lower volume.
On most earbuds, there is a stem with a flange where the eartip is seated (over the flange). You can simply pull the old eartip off and push the replacement on, making sure to get the lip of the eartip over the flange on the stem. It seems like there’s one ubiquitous size of stem, but if you plan to get replacement tips, you may want to measure to be sure.
Most of the earphones I’ve purchased have extra tips, but usually they’re different sizes. If they ship with size medium, there may be small and large tips in the package. If you lose one of the medium tips, you’re just out of luck. In one case, I swapped out the large tips when I lost one of the mediums, and was surprised to learn that the large tips worked much better. The sound improved and they were much more comfortable.
The point is that there are a number of ways that replacement eartips could be the difference in sound or feel.
Good music apps
This tip is for after you’ve already gotten pretty good sound from your headphones. It’s also fairly subjective, and my opinions should be taken with a grain of salt, considering that my hearing is somewhat compromised and I’m reaching the “get off my lawn” age range. In general, I don’t encode MP3s higher than CD sound (~256 kbps) and probably couldn’t hear the nuances if I went any higher. So, my requirements for music apps are not stringent.
There is a noticeable difference, though, depending on the service. Spotify has decent sound on its free tier, but it’s even better with the premium plan. Tidal hangs its hat on high-quality sound, and if you use a service like Plex, you can find discounts in Tidal plans. For me, any of these options are fine, but if you’ve spent money on headphones and maybe upgraded eartips, you might be interested in maximizing your investment.
With Spotify Premium or a Tidal account, you also get freedom to play what you want, when you want, and you can sync and download as you see fit, too. Google Play Music is another great option if you have your own music that you can’t find in streaming catalogs. I don’t like their player (lots of little UI issues), but the sound is fine and the utility of uploading up to 30,000 songs is convenient.
Pandora is another option that I use regularly. They created the algorithm that looked past popularity comparisons and really dug into what the various songs you listened to might have in common. This recommendation engine was superior to all others for a while, but I think most of the big names in streaming music have caught up by now.
There’s also Amazon Music, which was a contender early on as I was looking for the one player to adopt for regular use, but I’m honestly a little disappointed in the catalog I have access to with the Amazon Prime subscription. You can get their Amazon Music Unlimited plan for another $10/month, but Jeff Bezos is already getting plenty of my money. Plus, their player UI still leaves a lot to be desired.
I can’t comment on Apple products, but it sounds like iTunes is on its way out. I never liked the implementation on Windows and have generally steered clear of the whole Apple infrastructure.
Consider the type
This probably seems obvious, but if you’re not into trying ALL of the headphones (like me), then you should really consider what type will serve you best over the long haul. I use different types for different reasons. Playing games or working on the computer is best with wired Logitech gaming headphones. The sound is great and they are comfortable for as long as I wear them.
At work, I’ve usually used wired earbuds of some sort. They don’t require charging, sound good enough for work, and are inconspicuous. While larger, over-the-ear headphones are a better conversation deterrent, I usually need to be approachable.
For working out or riding bikes, I wear Bluetooth earbuds (wired to each other, not the phone) so that when I inevitably forget that I’m wearing them (or crash) my ears aren’t painfully stretched when the phone goes flying. All of the sets I own also have a mic, so I can answer calls if necessary, too. Within this category, I have tried lots of styles, but would ditch the rest for my new Mpow earbuds. The sound is great, and the soft earhooks route over my ears to keep everything in place. Plus, they’re dirt cheap, so even if I have to eventually replace them, it’s no sweat. (Pun intended.)
When I’m working on making my own music, I use Monoprice Bluetooth headphones that totally cover my ears and act as monitors. They isolate some sound, but not as much as a Sony Studio set would. That’s okay – I don’t practice loud enough for it to be an issue, and these headphones are loud enough for me to hear as I play. They also have the option to switch to wired if the battery runs out, but honestly, I’ll run out of energy first.
If you’re relying on battery power, then you need to plan your charges. This is an unfortunate side effect of being wire-free, but it’s not a terrible trade-off, in my opinion. Luckily, most wireless headphones I’ve encountered have smaller batteries and charge quickly as a result.
I’ve also noticed that many wireless sets will power down automatically if they haven’t processed a signal in a while. I’ve developed a habit of charging the headphones I use regularly every night, just like my phone.
Another option is a headphone amplifier. These devices are intended to maximize the sound of nicer headphones by removing artifacts or noise generated by the digital-to-analog conversion, and boosting the signal along the way. Mostly, these are 3–5 times the cost of the headphones I typically get, so I’ve held out on buying one. Plus, I have a feeling it would sound great the first few times I used it, but eventually it would normalize the premium sound, and all of my other devices would sound degraded as a result. On the other hand, for the audiophile, I think this is a must-have item.
Obviously, before you shell out cold, hard cash for new headphones of any type, do some research. No upgrades or advice can fix bad engineering, so read up on the devices that interest you. When you do take the plunge, keep these tips in mind if you run into issues.
One more thing – I’ve read a bunch about headphone “burn in,” which is the concept that headphones only start working optimally after a certain number of hours of use. I think that’s bunk. I offer no science but my own anecdotal experience to back this opinion.