The Headphone Hunt

The sonic battles continue, this time between the Ultrasone Proline 650s and the AKG 701s.
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Forget fighting over truth and justice: it's headphones people really want to scuffle about.

Recently, I picked a high-end headphone from AKG -- the 701 -- as the best of its kind for 2006.

For about the price of a decent French Bordeaux -- say, a 2000 La Mondotte at about $450 -- you could land yourself a powerful, crystal-clear sound as smooth as, well, a 2000 La Mondotte.

The folks at Ultrasone, another high-quality headphone maker, took issue.

The company felt its phones had been overlooked, and insisted on sending over a fresh pair of its midmarket Proline 650s ($299).

And I promised to spend a few weeks "testing" them -- that is, lying around the house like a 15-year-old, giving my music library a thorough listen.

My conclusion? The Proline 650s are definitely not in the same league as the AKG 701s.

In many ways it's not even fair to compare the two (more on that later), but the Ultrasones were impressive nonetheless.

They had real punch in the low-end, which is rare in any headphone.

And they had a decent ability to conjure a valid audio image: Charles Mingus sat where he should be on "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." Plus the Ultrasones were durable, foldable and not horrifyingly uncomfortable or dorky to look at -- a nice plus.

I would definitely consider the Proline 650s for the now-mandatory headphone upgrade to portable media players. (Yes, it's true. If you have an

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iPod and you are using the original headphones, you're wasting your time.)

Hearing Aid

Real headphones -- not the slight, in-ear models that are the rage right now, but ones that fully cover the ear (circumaural) -- come in two basic types: ones that are sealed from the sounds of the outside world and ones that are not.

In general, nonsealed, open headphones offer better sound because they let more air in near the ear. More air means more stuff for the headphones to push around and a better simulation of the original music.

But open headphones require quiet rooms, better sound systems and can be fussy to use. The AKG 701s are the classic open-muff headphones -- fabulous in your living room, but don't try bringing them to the beach.

Closed headphones such as the Ultrasones tend to offer a bit lower quality, but they block out the outside world, which always has its merits. (Nothing like tuning out that awful drone of the redeye from Los Angeles.)

A side note: if you want to get the best out of your headphones, whether you choose an open or closed model, you should consider using a quality headphone amp. I like what

Headroom is doing with its Desktop Amps ($599). These small units stand between your CD player, turntable or other audio source and add just enough power and signal clarity to drive the speakers in your headphones properly.

Notable Difference

The distinction between the two styles of headphones was immediately clear in my Ultrasone test-drive.

My young friend Sydney was in town from London and she was kind enough to lend me her iPod. I admit it, iPods bum me out. Most of the compressed music on these things is like listening to audio in a sock drawer -- cramped, dark and musty. The only thing excellent open-muff headphones can do is make that aural junk clearer.

Yes, Britney Spears and Coldplay were theoretically somewhere on Sydney's iPod, but I couldn't hear them. The pristine 701s just highlighted the clipped and brittle sound.

The closed-muff Ultrasones, on the other hand, were an excellent match for Sydney's mushed-up digital music.

Ultrasone specializes in a form of sound manipulation called S-Logic. The company mounts the speakers inside the headphones at a carefully calculated angle relative to the ear, which the company claims utilizes your head's shape to improve audio quality.

Does it work? Yes, maybe.

The Prolines did a nice job with Britney and Squeeze, and they did even better with better music: the phat low-end in The Chemical Brothers was very phat indeed. Moodrama was balanced and present. And these cans were surprisingly clear for simpler passages from Edith Piaf and Miles Davis.

Where the Ultrasones definitely did not hold up to the AKG 701s was in careful listening to classics.

Running directly out of my reference Sony CD player into my Headroom amp, the 701s were unmatchable. Polygram's work with the Velvet Underground and experimental stuff like Ray Kimber's recordings of Haydn were as alive as a spring morning.

Great headphones like the AKG 701s let you listen to the limits of what you can hear and understand. The attraction lies in the continual surprise of discovering new details in recordings that keeps your brain attuned and alive.

Take a step down to the Proline 650s and you'll find that, sure, they can keep up for awhile -- the music sounds fine.

But at some point your brain somehow knows it's hearing all it can hear. And then you're no longer hanging with Beethoven or Lou Reed, but worrying if the mortgage got paid or anyone picked up the dry cleaning.

In the end, for certain real-world applications (like the compressed digital rubbish they call recorded music these days), the closed-muff Proline 650s offer decent sound, good quality and real value. They are certainly worth checking out.

But for audio that reminds you that you are a living, breathing person who is listening to another living, breathing person, stick with open-muff headphones like the AKG 701s.

When it comes to music, choose life.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.