The One About Headphones

I am currently obsessing over phrases and words in rewrites of my first novel, and I thought it would be good to take a break to talk about a key part of the writing process that I actually feel qualified to speak to: music. Specifically, I can wax poetic about gear like headphones (and earbuds) instead of deciding how to handle a complicated character introduction. When everything else is a struggle, I still have my music.

I grew up with music always around me. My dad was a professional musician and voracious lover of music of all genres, and my mom was a singer (albeit, with a narrower scope of music she loved). Though the music they introduced me to was different, it was still constant, and I grew up thinking that everybody had a soundtrack to their lives. We would clean, read, work, and even sleep to music. By the time I was a teenager, I would fall asleep most nights with hardcore/metal in my headphones or earbuds as I peacefully drifted off (true story, and I can’t understand it today).

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to remind myself sometimes about the importance of music (though I remember as soon as I hear it), but the new magic of iPhones, wireless earbuds, and speakers connected to every room in the house mean that it’s getting easier than ever. There is no excuse for ever working, or heaven forbid writing, without a soundtrack to keep the keys typing (and if you say that’s impossible, I would at least recommend something like Philip Glass or the Her soundtrack).

All of this brings me to my “short” list of writing/working headphones.

Current Rotation

Ultrasone Pro 1480i

My most recent acquisition, these are my first open-backed headphones since I used to listen to my dad’s old Sennheisers as a teenager. If you don’t know, open-backed is (generally) the opposite of close-backed or “sealed” headphones (which keep out outside noise and also keep your music in). They’re like the early, cheap headphones that allowed your neighbors to hear exactly what you were listening to while only blocking out the rest of the world if you turned them up even louder (which is bad). This makes them impractical for a lot of situations unless you happen to have your own office (which I do at home), but it also means that they sound more like having perfectly tuned loudspeakers playing next to your ears; this experience is both amazing for sound quality and actually just refreshing to kind of “reintegrate” the rest of the small noises in the world back into your music—listening experience. When I wear them, I feel like I’m just adding music to the world around me, and they happen to sound amazing.

Amazon (non-affiliate link)

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x

Close-backed (so they block out the world), but with no active noise-cancelling, these were the headphones that brought me back into buying headphones “just for the music.” What I mean is that I had perfectly good wireless headphones that were solid workhorses and some great wired in-ears that were practical and sounded good, but I still bought these for no reason but the desire for a better listening experience when I could sit back and listen to music. They got me back into the world of audio for audio’s sake, and they made me happy. I still use them when my three-year-old isn’t running around with them on his head, because I’m already raising another audiophile.

Amazon (non-affiliate link)

Apple AirPods Pro

I resisted the original AirPods strongly at first. I didn’t need them. I knew they wouldn’t sound as good as my other options, and I couldn’t see the point in them. Then, they came out, and I kept hearing people I respected say how they offered a whole new experience, and I got curious. Those people turned out to be right, because they were life-changing. For me, the combination of the tiny case, earbuds light enough to forget about, and the simple pairing experience, all came together to providing something like a soundtrack for life again. There was no reason to not just have them in almost all the time (except when you’re talking to people because I’m still Generation X, and we don’t do that). Well, AirPods Pro were changing again because they were just all of that plus transparency mode so, like my open-backed headphones, you could wear them around and hear your music integrated into the rest of the world without cutting it off. Of course, the actual noise-cancellation is also good enough that you can still block out the rest of the world with a simple squeeze on the earbud.


Honorable Mentions and Related Gear

  • Bose QC35 — My wife got these for me about four years ago, and they still live up at my “real” office. They are great at blocking out the rest of the world, while still being wireless and sounding good for most music (or movies).
  • KZ ZSN Pro HiFi — Commonly referred to as “Chifi,” my buddy Chris introduced me to the world of inexpensive Chinese in-ear monitors that you can buy on Amazon. For under $30, they sound at least as good as my lower-range Ultimate Ears sounded years ago (and those cost a couple of hundred bucks).
  • Sonos speakers — Not headphones, I know, but I convinced my wife to let me get Sonos speakers for the rooms instead of wiring everything when we moved into a new house. She’s now a convert, and we love playing our music through the whole house when we’re cleaning, hosting, or just hanging out.
  • Schiit Fulla DAC/Amp — My desktop driver for all my wired headphones, this takes the digital feed from my computer, converts it to analog (hence, Digital-to-Analog Converter), and amplifies it for my headphones. It brings a little more depth and a lot of power to the table to make my listening experience just that much better. If you are happy now listening to the audio straight from your computer, I would recommend never A/B testing a good DAC/Amp. It will ruin you.