Digital Crave

Headphones–Still Cool After All These Years

Digital Crave

First introduced in 1958 for consumers, headphones have morphed into high-quality fashion statements in all sizes, shapes and colors. Celebrity-endorsed headphones remain very popular as recording stars like Ludacris and 50 Cent promote eponymous models; Beats by Dr. Dre really started the trend.

Sure you can use the headphones supplied with most portable music players but truth be told, you're really missing out. An investment of as little as 25 bucks elevates your experience tremendously since you'll hear your favorite songs much more clearly and accurately. Naturally you can spend a lot more but anywhere from $75-$399 will do the trick but there are even $1,000-plus models available.

There are three basic types of headphones—in-ear (the classic ear buds), on-ear (supra-aural) that rest on your ears as well as circum-aural that completely cover and surround them. Within these three categories there are more options than you'll find on Toyota Prius. With all of them, a key tech spec is frequency response, the range of low notes to highs. 20 Hertz to 20 kHz is the range of human hearing so you should choose the one with the widest range among the models on your shopping list.

Headphone Highlights

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Monster's Gratitude in-ear headphones

At the giant electronics trade show, Monster partnered with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees Earth, Wind & Fire to launch a new line-up of CE gear inspired by the classic band. The first product to be released under the partnership is the "Gratitude" ($229) in-ear headphones. They have a sweet sound and come with an inline mic with iPhone/iPod/iPad controls plus volume and track up/down.

Sony—the company that created the portable music player—is one of the biggest headphone sellers. At CES 2012, it introduced a variety of new Balanced Armature (BA) in-ear headphones. The XBA-1, XBA-2, XBA-3 and XBA-4 include one (full range), two (full range + woofer), three (full range + woofer + tweeter), and four (full range + woofer + tweeter + super woofer) BA driver units, respectively. The ability to combine woofer and tweeter drivers in addition to the standard full-range driver delivers excellent sound which we heard at CES. For iPod, iPhone and iPad users, XBA-1iP through XBA-4iP have the Apple three-button control, adding a microphone, track and volume controls. Prices range from $79-$369.

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Sony XBA-3iP earbuds

Sync by 50 wireless headphones ($399) have Kleer wireless technology so up to four listeners can simultaneously listen to a single source with the included 3.5mm wireless transmitter which has a 50-foot range. Unlike standard Bluetooth wireless headphones, Kleer technology gives Sync by 50 16-bit digital sound, longer battery life, less interference and no feedback, according to the company. The wireless headphones are passive noise-cancelling. They're available in Shadow Black and Ghost White.

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Sync by 50

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House of Marley Little Bird on-ear headphones

Part of the House of Marley Jammin' series, the Little Bird over-ear headphones ($49, summer 2012) have an ultra thin, lightweight stainless steel frame design and are covered in earth-friendly fabric.

Sennheiser is one of my favorite headphone makers. The German company is the go-to brand for audiophiles of all types. You don't even have to be a music geek to appreciate them—they really sound good. New this year is the HD 700, headphones that are designed for at-home listening rather than the local fitness center. They feature advanced technologies that deliver a frequency response of 10 to 42 kHz, a spec that's hard to beat. Price is hard to top at $999. If you want to settle in for nice listening session, these are the headphones to wear.

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Sennheiser HD 700 audiophile-grade headphones

Targeted to frequent flyers, the new AKG K 495 NC ($349) are active noise-cancellation headphones that block ambient sound so you can hear your favorite tracks—not your seatmate's conversation or engine noise. They are charged via USB—not batteries—and continue to block noise in passive mode, unlike other noise-cancelling headphones. The on-ear headphones feature brushed-metal parts, leather ear cups and an adjustable leather headband.

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AKG K 495 NC noise-cancelling headphones

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Zik designed by Philippe Starck

Designed by Philippe Starck, the Zik Parrot by Starck Bluetooth active noise cancelling headphones were among the coolest we saw at CES—and there were dozens of brands beyond the ones mentioned here. Given we're in a world of swipe controls on our phones and tablets, they are the first headphones with a touch panel located on the entire surface of the right earpiece. Swipe the panel vertically to set the volume or swipe it horizontally to skip music forward/rewind. Zik also has a presence-sensor system. When you remove the headset it goes into standby mode automatically. The Zik is due to arrive sometime this year.

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