By Don Lindich
Week 52, 2015
Q. I intended to buy two pairs of Super 66 headphones, one as a gift and one for myself, but they won’t be available again until mid-January. I want good comfort and clarity, and Bluetooth is not absolutely necessary. What else would you suggest, priced up to $250?
-Don Skeffington, Minneapolis, MN
A. Here is a round-up of my three other sub-$250 favorites from 2015, as well as one new entry to start things off for 2016.
I once wrote that the $75 SJCAM SJ4000 action camera was so successful that it quickly spawned cheap imitations that looked the same, but did not perform nearly as well. When I first saw the $39 Riot Audio headphones online, my immediate thought was someone is already cribbing the Super 66. I bought a pair and what I found was not a cheap imitation, but some quite good headphones from a different company that is undoubtedly sourcing them from the same Chinese factory. They share the same thickly padded adjustable headband that makes the Super 66 so comfortable, but with different earcups that resemble the Koss Pro4S discussed below. They do not have the Super 66’s Bluetooth connectivity, but a removable microphone cable is included for hands-free phone calls.
Though there are similarities to the Super 66 physically and sonically, there are distinct audible differences. The Riot’s vocals are slightly recessed in comparison, and the bass is kicked up a notch or two. The extra bass isn’t terrible, but one of the things that makes the Super 66 noteworthy is the evenly balanced sonic character. Adjusting the volume keeps the bass under control, and I think most people won’t mind these minor sonic shortcomings given the Riots are only $39. Of course, if you prefer extra bass you are all set. The value is undeniable, and you certainly won’t find better sounding, more comfortable or better-made headphones for under $40. They actually feel more premium and substantial than the pricier Grado and Koss headphones mentioned below. www.riotaudio.com
Next up is the $79 Grado SR60e. Grado’s SR60 series has long been considered the point where true audiophile sound begins, with sound that isn’t the last word in detail but is smooth, warm, natural, and incredibly listenable. The open-back design provides airiness and they do not isolate you from the outside world. All Grado headphones are handmade in Brooklyn, right here in the USA. www.gradolabs.com
The $149 Koss Pro4S headphones have accurate sound that is also bold and lively, finding many fans in the audio press. Of everything discussed here I think the Pro4S really nails the sweet spot between price and sound quality, perfect for those who want a truly premium sound experience without spending a fortune. Koss provides a lifetime warranty on everything they sell, and if you register on their site you get 15% off, bringing the price down to $126.65. www.koss.com
At the top we have the $249 Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7, the USA Today/reviewed.com “Best Headphones of the Year” award winner. Befitting the price, these headphones deliver rich, accurate sound, top-quality construction, and first-class packaging and presentation, including a headphone pouch and three different cables, including one with a microphone for making calls from your smartphone.www.audio-technica.com