We love walkmans, and headphones are an important factor for truly enjoying them. Choosing the right headphones can be a difference like night and day. Your walkman can be excellent as a source but a wrong headphone can make you hear not-so-good (or actually bad) sound. So, which ones are better?
My first recommendation is to forget included headphones. Except very few mentions, all them are mediocre and not up to the task of reproducing music in its full quality from that source.
Headphones have improved so much since the eighties and you can find now a pair of very good ones for quite low prices. Generally, very old headphones (70's and 80's) are not so good, so it's better that you look for some that were made in 90's or later.
If you want to fully enjoy the audio quality
of your walkman (given that it has enough quality) you must consider spending some money in a good headphone. But if you expect to find excellent headphones for 20$ or less… well, you may reconsider your thoughts.
And, no, when I say high quality headphones, I’m not talking about Monster Beats by Dr Dre (read the original article at Innerfidelity); I mean high quality ones (like a good Grados, Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, AKG…) but not costing you an arm and a leg…
Good headphones can be found for budget, but usually not that low. If you really want a very good pair of headphones, you should expect to spend 150€ or more. There are many options in the 100-200 € range.
There are many types of headphones. From the smallest ones to the biggest, we can classify them in the following categories:
In-ear headphones (IEM). They are the smallest, because they fit in the internal ear tunnel. They block most of the outside noise, making them very adequate for train/plane travels. There are some that sound really well, but if you want a really good sounding ones, be prepared to spend a good amount of money. Many people use them for the street, but you have to be careful because you can’t be aware of some real dangers, like crossing the street and so on.
One of the problems of the IEMs is the comfort (and the lack of that). Look for ones that come with many cups for different sizes, to pick the right one for your ears so that fit comfortably.
Sennheiser Momentum in-ear.
Earphones. These are the most common, but also one of the worst sounding ones. The white ones from Apple are amongst the most popular ones nowadays, but SONY & AIWA made similar ones back in 80's and 90's. The main problem is that they never fit perfectly in your ears, so part (if not most) of the sound leaks and the quality suffers a lot. If you hold them and press a bit into your head they can sound good, but only if you get very good ones, not the supplied ones. Many SONY ‘Turbo’ headphones are actually earphones with headband, so the same statements applies to them. I would recommend a pair of BOSE TriPort, which are 50% earbuds, 50% IEM. The sound is powerful, with plenty of good bass, although a bit dark sound (some lack of treble).
BOSE TriPort earphones
Earpad sealed. Many people wear these headphones in the street, because they sound good, offer some outside noise isolation and are cheap. I personally don’t like earpads so much because they tend to flatten the ear and worsen the soundstage of the music (the spatial sensation) and they are not so confortable for lengthy listening sessions. But if you are looking for something small, foldable, cheap and with a modern look, maybe these are for you. However, I recommend you to avoid the Dr Dre Beats Solo (for their high price and bad sound) and the SONY MDR-ZX100 for the bad sound. Yes, they are amongst the most widespread out there, but a good look doesn’t mean a good sound. I would add the BOSE AE2, which are now out of production but you can easily find them on Amazon or eBay. I have the AE2 and I can tell you that they are worth the price.
BOSE AE2, a very decent headphone. Good isolation and good soundstage for a good price.
Earpad open. These are a much better option than the previous one. Yes, they can leak some sound outside (so people beside you can hear what you’re listening to) but they still isolate well, so that you can still hear your phone ringing. However, they sound better than sealed ones, with a wider soundstage and more ‘air’. I mean: the sound is not into your head, but it is placed also outside and in front of you. Here you have some good recommendations at Innerfidelity and some more at Headfonia. I’d say the GRADO SR-80 & SR-125 are an excellent choice and have an old look that will match perfectly with your Walkman ;-).
Full-size sealed. Now things get serious. These headphones can sound extremely well but they are quite big and much heavier than previous. The quality is very high and you can truly enter the top HI-FI with them. Be sure to connect them to an excellent walkman or you will be ‘enjoying’ every sound artifact that it produces, rather than being truly enjoying the music. There are some pretty cheap ones, like the Creative Aurvana Live! (just 60$). Here are some good recommendations at Innerfidelity. I’d add the Sennheiser HD280 Pro. Not the best ones, but they're sharp, with good bass and very good isolation. Cons: not so good soundstage, a bit high pressure on the head and a bit uncomfortable on hot weather.
Sennheiser HD280 Pro. Very neutral response and excellent bass, but narrow soundstage.
Full-size open. Simply put, these headphones are the best. If you really want the best of the best in sound, you'll get something with a sound that is in pair with the best amplifiers and speakers. Yes, you can have it… but be prepared to spend a leg and an arm on one, as some can cost more than 5000$ (only headphone, but it needs a special amplifier -> 2000-5000$ more). But don’t be scared, there are much cheaper options that still sound pretty good. They offer the best sharpness, speed, neutrality and punch as well as an excellent soundstage, but they leak some soundto the outside. A very good headphone amplifier is highly recommended to get the most out of them. Try to pick low impedance headphones unless you use a portable amplifier (like the JDS CMoy). SONY DDs are highly recommended, specially the D6C and the DC2 with or without an external portable amp. It’s not necessary that you go for one of the best ones, like the Sennheiser HD800 (1500$), but the HD600 (399$) could be excellent and it seems that the Philips (yes, Philips) Fidelio X2 (299$) is very good too. I’d personally recommend the good old Beyerdynamic DT990 (less than 160€) and especially the Grado SR325, especially after upgrading to G-cushions: it’s deadly sharp although it has a clearly bright sound.
GRADO SR325i, an excellent headphone. Sharp, open and bright sound.
Sound cancelling headphones. These headphones have microphones into every pad, so they capture the outside noise, send it to a sound processor, invert the phase and send it out to the headphone, so the inverted sound neutralizes the real one. The process is so fast that is made in real time. It works very well in planes and trains, but not as good with real sounds in the street.
Wireless headphones. I simply don’t like these headphones. The sound quality is not so good (due to a small and simple headphone amplifier), and there are some problems: interferences, some quality is lost on transmission (due to compression), they are heavy (mainly because of the batts), only run for some time and need to be recharged. And all of these problems can be easily solved: just choose a wired one, and that’s all! Bonus: a wired one will probably be cheaper too! And, hey: do you know headphone cable extenders do exist and they are very cheap?