Is there any gadget more irritating to shop for than headphones? Amazon has more than 200,000 varieties that pop up in a simple search; even the Wirecutter, the paragon of direct and blunt single-item recommendations, suggests some two dozen headphones across multiple categories and price points. If you’re an obsessive gearhead — the kind that likes to set aside an hour in the evening to properly research, across magazines and archived message boards, your product purchases — this is great. But if you just want headphones, the prospect of finding the right pair is daunting. Do you want in-ear, on-ear, or over-ear? Open-back or closed-? What kind of music do you listen to? What kind of bass response do you want? Do you prefer warm, dark, heavy, light sound?
I am here to tell you that none of that really matters.
I mean, of course it matters. There are hundreds of audiophiles probably already emailing me. So I should be clear: If you have sensitive and sophisticated ears, or if you have an enormous library of records and a several-thousand-dollar setup and want to make sure you’re listening to your LPs at the highest possible fidelity, you probably should be considering the many vectors of sound quality that audiophilia obligates you to. And if you’re the kind of consumer who just likes to have the “best” in a given category, I won’t stop you.
But generally speaking, headphones are like wine. If you’re not an expert, if you’re not rich, and if you don’t need to impress anyone, you’re going to get as much use and enjoyment out of the best stuff at the cheap end of the spectrum as you will out of the stuff that costs ten times as much. While there’s an obvious difference between your tinny bodega earbuds and an expensive pair of Sennheisers, gradations in quality, especially once you’ve reached a certain level, can be difficult to gauge, even to trained ears. It’s no accident that no other consumer tech category is more greased with snake oil — expensive boondoggles like this $10,000 ethernet cable, or this $180 “nano liquid contact enhancer.” What sounds heavenly to one person can sound dull and flat to another.
So my recommendation isn’t for the sophisticated audio palate. It’s for someone who mostly just listens to MP3s and streams music and needs to replace (or slightly upgrade) their iPhone’s earbuds. More than anything it’s for someone prone to losing or breaking their headphones. It’s the $15 table wine for the home-cooked weeknight dinner of Spotify.
I give you: The Panasonic RP-HT21 on-ear stereo headphones, usually in the $5 to $6 range on Amazon. They look impossibly dorky, yes; but headphones are, like bike helmets, inherently dorky, and any attempts to dress them up fashionably just calls attention to the wearer’s insecurity. They are “on-ear” headphones, yes, which means that if you have particularly sensitive ears you won’t want to wear them for more than a couple hours at a time — but my guess is that you wouldn’t be doing that anyway. Will they break? Maybe, probably (my pair, which I wear daily, have been going strong for four months) — but they only cost five bucks! Most importantly, they sound great, they’re cheap as hell, you can hang ‘em around your neck when you’re not listening, and you don’t have to read anything about how “warm” the sound is. Except what you just did.