High-end headphones: can you get away with such a monstrously selfish treat?

    3 November 2016

    Wow! I do apologise for the puppyish and no doubt deeply uncool enthusiasm. But I’ve just been transported by Proustian magic back to my vanished youth, and the madeleines that did it for me were a series of high-end headphones, such as I haven’t worn since I was about 17.

    No, really. I know this will sound strange to those of you who’ve been wearing such things for years: the special noise-cancelling pair you bought at the airport so that you didn’t have to use the scuzzy free ones for the in-flight movies; the trendy, indestructible, possibly wireless ones for the gym or your morning jog; your DreBeats for when you want to get down with the kids, as Dave Cameron’s press man Craig Oliver was apparently so desperate to do; the calf’s-leather-padded, gold-plated ones you got in order to achieve peak fidelity on the ludicrously expensive hi-fi system you bought because, hey, you deserve it.

    But though I do have very fond memories of listening to stuff like Gary Numan’s The Pleasure Principle and Human League’s Dare through my black-and-yellow Sennheisers, I pretty much gave up on headphones when I went to university. Music, I felt, was something that should be shared among friends, rather than indulged alone like some solitary masturbator. How else would anyone ever know what immaculately good taste you had? How could you enjoy the same vibe except by skinning up and indulging communally in your favourite Supertramp album at full blast through your speakers?

    Then I tried all these posh headphones for this article and, lo!, my ears were opened and my mind was blown. Seriously, it felt like that moment in a club when the pills start coming on and it suddenly all makes sense. The trebles are crisper; the bass more belly-rumblingly rich; the melodies sweeter; but instead of having to negotiate lots of sweaty revellers with flickery eyes, it’s just you, alone, in your exclusive, cushioned, pleasure zone feeling sumptuously overindulged.

    Which ones to get, though? Well, of course, it all depends on how much you want to spend. The B & W P9 Signatures, for example, will set you back £700 — which is undoubtedly worth it in terms of style, sound quality and the credibility you will earn both from teenagers and chin-stroking audiophiles. These headphones, a special edition to celebrate Bowers and Wilkins’s 50th anniversary, are already a legend and have had nothing but five-star reviews. I tried them on Led Zeppelin, Skrillex, Purcell’s Queen Mary funeral music and Jack Cheshire and they did immaculate justice to the lot. Heavenly.

    The question is, though, will you be able to withstand the bollocking you’ll get from your wife (or similar) if she ever discovers how much you’ve splashed on this monstrously selfish treat? Also, are your ears really good enough to distinguish between these and some of the less expensive, but still super high-quality, models I’ve reviewed here?

    My advice is this. Go into a proper hi-fi shop and test out the full gamut from cheap to expensive, ideally while keeping the prices hidden. The problem — if you’re a man, anyway — is that it’s very tempting to gravitate towards the ones you can least afford simply out of pride and one-upmanship, whereas there might actually be a cheaper pair that suit your ears better.

    From left to right: 1. Bowers and Wilkins P9, £700 2. Master & Dynamic MW60s, £499 3. Denon AH-MM400, £249

    As an example of this, I give you the B&O Play Beoplay H6 Mk II (£239) vs the Denon AH-MM400 (£249 down from £349): similar price point, but utterly different in sound and styling. The ear cups on the B&Os are round, clean, austere in gunmetal and black leather; their sound is almost aggressively crisp, clear and bright. You can hear each musical track very distinctively. The Denons, by contrast, are deliberately fogeyish, inlaid with real walnut, which may help contribute to the much warmer, more cohesive sound in which the constituent parts of the music all merge pleasingly. If I were a young clubber I’d choose the first. Now, I think I’d be more comfortable with the second.

    Or, for perhaps the perfect compromise between all of the above, you might consider the exquisitely packaged and produced Master & Dynamic MW60s (around £499). Solid, luxuriously detailed and very lovely to look at with aluminium and leather cups that fold in a satisfyingly compact way, they work both with a cord or by Bluetooth. That can be a pain to set up but not in this case: I connected them within seconds to my iPod and the sound quality was magnificent.

    You’ll be more than happy with any of the above. Just one quibble: they’re all far too good for the music you’ll be mostly listening to, from Spotify or your iPhone. This will, for reasons to do with digitalisation and compression, be basically rubbish. That’s one thing about my late Seventies youth that modern technology will never recapture: the warmth and detail of analogue.

    Top photo: Bang & Oulfson Beoplay H6 MKII, £239