📅 March 19, 2015
Linux produces high-quality audio. At least as high-quality as the audio hardware will allow, but I have noticed that sound quality, whether it be music, video, recordings, or games, sounds superb when played from Linux.
But no matter how well Linux can generate sound, generation is only one-half of the sound equation. At some point, we need speakers or headphones, and this is the other half of the equation that involves hardware.
I have had the chance to listen to Linux-produced audio using a variety of headphones, and this article shares my opinions of these headphones after using them for months and even years.
Headphone quality makes a difference. The better the headphones, the better the sound. While people have different ears and hear things differently, here are my comparison results regarding these four headphones:
- Sennheiser PX-100
- UrbanEars Tanto
- AKG K712 Pro
- Bose SoundTrue (White)
To keep evaluation simple, I compared the headphones with each other based upon four points that are important to me:
This is most important. After all, if music sounds lackluster with a given pair of headphones, why bother?
No matter how good the sound might be, the headphones are useless if they are uncomfortable to wear.
Will the headphones withstand the rigors of travel? Are there any points that break the day after the warranty expires?
“Headphone hair?” you might ask. “What’s that?”
When you wear headphones, the band across the top will mash your hair flat over time. This largely depends upon the size of the headphone band and the pressure applied when wearing. Some headphones flatten the hair so much, that they produce a bald spot. More headphone hair produces a bald spot at the top of your head and gives the appearance of balding. It can also ruin your hair-do. So, if you value a neat head of hair to which you have paid careful attention, headphone hair becomes a major issue.
Let’s start with my top pick: The Sennheiser PX 100!(The PX 100 has been discontinued, so this is a link to the new model, the PX 100-II, instead for more information.
Of all headphones I have used over the years, the PX-100 is the undisputed winner. These are lightweight, foldable headphones with superb sound quality. Deep bass, clear highs. They’re perfect for on-the-go travel and home listening.
Sound Quality: Only the AKG K712 beats the PX 100 in sound quality. I was surprised by how well music sounded on these considering that they are portable headphones.
Comfort: Cozy, but not perfect. After six or more hours, my ears would ache. These are on-ear headphones, after all.
Durability: Wow! The band is metal and amazingly durable. These have been abused like nobody’s business, and they have never broke!
However, there is a dark side to the PX-100 that few will reveal: The connector is extremely fragile, and the wire often tears the day after the warranty expires. The rest of the headphone is tough in quality, but the connector is its weak point. I have had to replace the connector multiple times. The repair works for a time, until it tears again. I have lost track of the number of times I have repaired the connector. Why Sennheiser would use such a poor-quality audio connector when the rest of the headphone is of such exceptional quality is anybody’s guess. However, the sound quality, durability, and short-term comfort outweigh the one negative, so I endure.
Headphone hair: There is hardly any headphone hair due to the narrow band and the two cushions that rest the headphones on top of the head. You can wear these headphones for hours, and, when you take them off, your hair will still appear normal.
Note: The PX-100 has been discontinued in favor of the PX 100-II. I have not had a chance to try the PX 100-II.
They look small and dainty, but looks are deceiving. The UrbanEars Tantois a surprising marvel of audio technology. They are extremely light-weight, the metal band is flexible and very durable, and the sound quality is almost as good as the PX 100.
Sound Quality: Extremely good for light-weight headphones such as these. The sound quality is almost as good as the PX 100, but not quite. The bass is lighter than the PX 100, but mainly because the Tanto does not press against the ears as snugly as the PX 100. But, on the other hand, the Tanto feels lighter on the head due to the lighter touch. Highs are clear and lows are present, but not skull-rattling like the PX 100 can be.
Comfort: The Tanto is so light-weight that you barely feel it on your head. It’s possible to forget that you are wearing it. In terms of comfort, the Tanto is slightly more comfortable than the PX 100 because the PX 100 presses against the ear a little tighter. I can wear this for more than six hours at a time without feeling any discomfort. However, at the eight to ten hour mark, my ears become aware of its presence and seek relief.
Durability: How do you express, “Wow! I was not expecting this!”? The Tanto, with its skinny band, looks flimsy, but the band is made of metal that feels sturdy. These headphones have been dropped, kicked, stepped on, and suffered other forms of travel abuse without breaking. The cord is nylon, so it rarely tangles. Unlike the PX 100, the connector is well-made and has not torn–yet. The Tanto is built to last. I would say these are some of the most durable headphones I have ever owned. They do not fold down, but they are small and light-weight enough to hardly be noticeable.
Headphone Hair: Almost none. Of the four headphones mentioned in this article, the Tanto produces the least amount of headphone hair. Of course, if you adjust the band close to your head, then your hair might be affected, but not by much.
In addition, the Tanto includes a built-in microphone for devices that support it, but the Tanto works as a normal pair of headphones for any other device. I have noticed that plugging this into the Aspire One 722 netbook causes faint popping noises to be heard when sound is not playing. When sound plays through the netbook, the popping disappears. I think this is due to the built-in microphone and the three-contact connector not agreeing with the netbook. No other device exhibits this popping effect.
And if the headphone quality is not enough, the appearance is stylish. The Tanto sports a minimalist design in a multitude of colors without plastering logos all over the headphones.
AKG K712 Pro
Shhhh. Do you hear that?
That…is the sound of excellence.
For the elite who wishes the highest quality in sound reproduction, the AKG K712 Prowill fill the ears with the finest aural joy possible before stepping into the land of the prohibitively expensive audiophile gear. (Prices vary, so for those not willing to pay the price of the K712, I would also recommend considering the AKG K702 65th Anniversay Editiondue to its similar design and sound specifications. However, I have not had a chance to try the K612 65th Edition, so I cannot accurately describe the sound quality for myself.)
Sound Quality: The K712 is easily the best-sounding pair of headphones that I have ever used. The company boasts “hand-made in Vienna.” I have no way to prove that claim, but I can believe it based upon the sound quality.
Basses are rich and deep. Mid-range is just right. Highs are crystal clear. Wow! These amazing headphones reveal the audio wonders possible with Linux.
Note that these are reference headphones, so the frequency response will sound flat. This means that the headphones do not add any enhancements of their own. When you hear these headphones for the first time, you might be underwhelmed, but that is not the fault of the headphones. The K712 is designed to reproduce sound according to what you feed it. If you want more bass, then you must adjust the bass settings in the software or use a hardware equalizer. The K712 will not add bass for you.
This is were high-end audio equipment is a must because you will hear any flaws in music files or sound recordings when you listen to them through these headphones. Flaws in music files will become noticeable. For example, the compression in 192kbps mp3 files becomes an issue when heard through the K712. I can even sometimes hear a difference between true stereo and joint stereo in 256kbps mp3 files. Yes, the sound quality is that accurate. In fact, 320kbps stereo mp3 becomes the new minimum standard when using the K712, and even that is not good enough. I soon found myself wishing for FLAC after hearing the same music using the K712 after I had been using other headphones, such as the PX 100 and the Tanto.
Sound quality is so high with the K712, that I quickly noticed the flaws in my motherboard’s cheap audio output. Only optical and coaxial digital audio helped improved motherboard audio. Then, I found myself wanting to upgrade stereo components to a higher level in order to soak in the pure richness of the sound that the K712 could produce.
The K712 could handle anything I threw at it, but the resulting sound quality depended upon the source. A low-quality sound source still produces low-quality sound through the headphones, and the K712 makes this point painfully obvious.
But this is a good aspect. When I fed audio containing deep bass (modified with a software equalizer in Audacious), the K712 rattled alive with deep bass without ever becoming distorted. Sound remained crystal clear even at high volume levels.
And that is another point to be aware of: Other people will hear what you are hearing. Sound leaks.
Comfort: Surprisingly good considering the large size of the K712, but they do feel heavy and big on the head over time. The earpads completely cover the ears, and the memory foam feels soft and comfortable. Never does it feel stiff and itchy. Comfort all the way around. However, due to the size, I find that I do not like wearing these for more than three or four hours at a time since the earpads tend to cause my lower jaw to ache. The PX 100 and Tanto are much more comfortable and light-weight to wear for longer periods.
But the K712 is still comfortable. It does not press into the ears like other large headphones, such as the Sony MDR series. Ears feel free and open inside the K712 earpads. I have never experienced any ear itchiness, redness, or swelling with the K712 since the earpads rest around the ears.
Durability: Not entirely sure how these would endure travel. The K712 is made of plastic. Two orange, plastic tubes and a thick leather band hold the earpads together. However, given the cost, these would be used for home listening only, and when not in use, they would be carefully preserved in their own shrine.
Headphone Hair: A LOT! The thick leather band covers the top of the head. You *will* experience pronounced headphone hair. In fact, after only fifteen to thirty minutes of usage, you will have a bald spot so large you will wonder if wearing these causes you to lose hair. I would not recommend wearing these headphones before you go somewhere if you wish to look presentable. Despite the headphone hair, the K712 is still comfortable to wear.
Bottom Line: Truly, high-quality headphones, but expensive. You get what you pay for in this case.
Bose SoundTrue On-Ear
No, I am not saving the best for last. That prize was awarded to the AKG K712 Pro. The Bose SoundTrue On-Ear Headphonesare last because I liked them the least.
Sound Quality: Sound was quite good…at first. After listening for a few hours, I actually become annoyed with the SoundTrue design. First of all, the PX 100 still sounded better, and at a much, much lower price. Bass (without equalization) felt a bit muddled to me. The more I listened, the more underwhelmed I became.
But why? Every review I read regarding the Bose SoundTrue was a glowing flowerbed of praise and worship. Yet, I finally had my own pair, and, after one day, I was planning to return them. Why?
I discovered two deal-breaking reasons for me: First, the SoundTrue has a “sweet spot” listening zone. For my ears, I had to position both earpads in exactly the proper position. Then, the sound was superb. It sounded as good as the PX 100, if not slightly better. But if the SoundTrue got bumped, which it did many times, then I would lose the sweet spot, and the sound was lacking. This is because the closed earpad design rests on the ear and does not press tightly enough to stay in place. The other deal-breaker involved comfort discussed below.
Durability: I would rank this as having the lowest quality. It’s made entirely of plastic (that I could tell). I have used Bose headphones before, and they all broke due to their plastic designs. Every time a plastic Bose headphone broke, there was no way to repair it, leaving me with expensive, broken plastic.
Comfort: This is the second deal-breaker for me. At first, the SoundTrue’s light-weight design is comfortable to wear, but I soon found that the sweet spot was not comfortable at all. I had to adjust the earphones in such a way that made them feel uncomfortable to wear for more than fifteen minutes.
Another issue involves the flat, covered design of the earpads. They do not stay in place, which moves me out of the listening sweet spot. Move. Readjust. Move. Readjust. I felt like I was fighting the SoundTrue more than simply forgetting that the headphones were there and enjoying music. Lying down to listen was out of the question since that moved the sweet spot too, and reclining made it impossible to find that sweet spot again.
I might add that the earpads feel “puffy.” As a result, bass was lackluster. Good, but not as good as I was expecting for the high price tag. The flat design also made my ears itch after about thirty minutes of listening. The lack of comfort combined with sound no better than what I already had made me want to return these headphones for a refund.
Headphone Hair: Pronounced, but not as much as the AKG K712 Pro. The PX 100 and Tanto headphones produce fair less headphone hair, but the Bose SoundTrue will still give you a significant bald spot.
Thoughts: With the Bose SoundTrue (or any other Bose headphone), I feel like I am paying more for a brand name than for quality sound. At the time of purchase, the SoundTrue was expensive at over two-thirds the price of the AKG K712 Pro but at a much lower sound quality than the PX 100.
Here is a chart summarizing the comparisons:
Looking for a new headphone to enrich the flavor of your Linux sound system or Linux-based media box? Hopefully, these opinions might help. What kind of sound are you seeking? Unfortunately, the only way to tell if you will like a headphone or not is to hear it for yourself over a period of time in the comfort of your own recliner at home. I have found that store demos are useless. For example, I was impressed with the Bose SoundTrue demo in the store. I had to have it. But after I distanced myself from store distractions and had time to relax and listen to my own music, I quickly discovered the downsides. Headphones can be expensive, so always check the return policy before purchase.
If seeking audio quality, the K712 wins, but it’s big and bulky and not suitable for travel. If seeking quality sound for home or travel, then the PX 100 wins, but sound quality is not as great as the K712 and the connector breaks over time. Unable to find a PX 100? Then, the UrbanEars Tanto will fill the void. Choosing is a tradeoff since the “perfect headphones” do not seem to exist.
Also, headphones are as varied as the people who use them. What matters most is what sounds the best to your ears. Higher cost does not always result in better sounding headphones, as in the case of the Bose SoundTrue, but it can be a factor.
If the PX 100 headphones were still in production, I would recommend them for all-purpose home and travel. Since they are not, I would recommend the UrbanEars Tanto instead if the PX 100-II are inadequate. For quality, I would recommend the AKG K712, and if the K712 is not available, then the AKG K702 65th Anniversary Edition should be a similar substitute.
Audio is an art, and, like any art form, it can require a lifetime to master. Linux has reached a point where it can produce high-quality sound, so a high-quality pair of headphones are beneficial.