Sometimes, what you want is a simple, dedicated bit of kit that does one thing, and does it well.
These headphones aren't packed with fripperies that push up the price. We wanted to test nice big cans that simply played your music as well as can possible. Not only that, but we wanted to set a realistic budget so that you're not thinking about dropping hundreds of pounds just to listen to [insert cool band you like here].
We went for big over- or on-ear headphones this time round; they're comfortable to wear for hours at a time, and there's plenty of space for chunky drivers that are usually inexpensive (and bassier) compared to the miniature marvels used for in-ear headphones.
The good news is that we've found the perfect set of audio-focussed headphones - and they don't break the bank. Which ones? Read on…
How we selected...
Usually, we're very careful to select stuff that's specifically built for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch; with headphones, this often means in-line remotes and mics. Here, though, we just wanted pure 'phones focussed on music. We set the target price point at around £75 from an online retailer.
What we tested...
JVC HA-NC250 - £79
Philips SHO9560/10 - £70
Sennheiser HD 518 - £84
Shure SRH550DJ - £59
Sony MDR-ZX700 - £70
Headphones tested and scored
Test one: Audio quality
These headphones don't have any bells and whistles; they're all about just playing music as best they can. ('Listening to bells and whistles', you might say.) So audio quality is the most important thing to consider when we're picking our winner and you're deciding which to buy.
Breaking news! The headphones that cost the most sound the best! Yes, Sennheiser's HD 518s are undoubtedly the best choice if your budget stretches that far, and if you're making your choice on audio quality alone. (Spoiler: look below and you'll see they win overall anyway.)
But that said, it's not like the others don't put up a fight. In fact, the only set here that we actively disliked came from JVC. Now, you'll hear us say this kind of thing often: if we were to hand you a set of JVC's HA-NC250s, and you listened to them with no frame of reference, you might think they sound fine - and you wouldn't be wrong.
When you compare them directly to other headphones in this group test, however - even to those that cost significantly less - it becomes clear that the JVCs are underperforming. And so the litany of complaints begins: overall, the sound is muddy, and different frequencies are distinctly indistinct. The bass, which initially impresses especially if you listen to drum and bass or dance music, is criminally lacking in clarity.
Perhaps worse - yes! - than all this, though, is that music lacks any sort of drama, and not in a laudable neutral way, but in the same way that a studio album can feel flat compared to a gig or a live recording. They're irritatingly quiet too, though switching on the noise reduction circuitry does seem to boost the volume, saturation and overall appeal of the sound. That's enough negativity.
Let's pop the Sennheisers back on and be a bit more upbeat. Mmmm, Sennheiser. These really are a treat for the ears, and they wouldn't fare badly in a group test of headphones costing twice as much.
One caveat: while there's a decent amount of bass - and, uniquely among this group of headphones, it's bass that is crisp and well-defined - its restraint and control means that the bass here isn't as big and full as some might like. To our ears, it's a better sacrifice, and you can always tweak the EQ, but be aware. Otherwise, these sound just lovely, with no obvious holes in the frequency spread and plenty of definition to separate instruments.
Special in their own way
The other three sounded competent; better than the set from JVC, and not as good as the model from Sennheiser, but all for different reasons. Philips' 'The Stretch' set sounded warm and resonant - but, we felt, tipped over into too warm and resonant. All tracks felt like they were echoing around your ears inside the driver cups in a way that reminded us of an acoustic guitar's resonant cavity. It's not… bad, but it might not be to your taste.
Sony's MDR-ZX700s sound good if you're listening to mellow noodling, but there's an unfortunate tendency - perhaps to fight against the flabbiness endemic in so many similar headphones - to oversharpen percussion; it felt sometimes like you were being stabbed in the ear with a snare drum. The fact that this is clearly impossible didn't assuage the sensation.
Finally, Shure. Again, perfectly competent sound, but they're an uneasy mix of the audio signatures of the models from Sennheiser and Sony. At first listen, we thought we'd found the perfect balance: as crisp as the Sennheisers, but replacing their neutrality with a bit more fun and bombast. An Alfa Romeo rather than an BMW, if you will.
The longer we listened, though, especially when comparing with the HD 518s, the more we started to notice rough edges. Like the model from Sony, sharp percussion sometimes has an unpleasantly stabby quality, and actually the overall signature was disappointingly compressed and flattened. Still: it bears repeating that of the five headphones here, only JVC's HA-NC250s fall below our threshold of acceptability.
Test two: comfort
Without a shadow of doubt, the comfiest headphones here are Philips' SHO9560/10s. It's not just the big over-ear cans or the clever one-size-fits-all stretchy headband, but the fabric covered cord (which can split apart if you snag it - though with more resistance than we'd like) also gets tangled much less.
The models from Sennheiser (which felt a little more comfortable with the left/right cups switched; weird) and Sony also fit over your ears, so are comfy for long periods of wear.
We had hoped the Sennheisers' unique-here fabric cups might generate a little less, erm, sweat build-up, but no.
The JVCs feel light and not grippy enough, and the Shure's massive pads might not be to everyone's taste.
Test three: Features
The only set of headphones here to have an extra feature as such is the one from JVC: its active noise reduction circuitry, powered by a single AAA battery. Yet while this gives audio some welcome saturation and volume, it's not as good at actually cutting out noise as we'd hoped.
The HA-NC250s are also the only set here that include a proper case. The models from Sennheiser and Philips have a removable cable - thumbs up, as it means easier, cheaper repairs when this weakest component breaks.
The set from Sony has an extension cable. Cleverly, the 3.5mm to 6.35mm adapter that comes in the Shure box is threaded, great if you also use it for DJing - and the cups can rotate by 90° for one-ear listening.
And the winner is… Sennheiser HD 518 - £84
You buy headphones like these because you want high-fidelity audio - so buy the Sennheisers
Despite looking good on paper - active noise cancelling, carry case, a sensible enough price tag - the JVC NA-NC250s are out of the running here. Where it really matters - the audio playback - they sound manky next to the rest of the group. And despite sterling efforts from Philips, Shure and Sony, there's no doubt that the best set of cans here came from Sennheiser.
They're just so much more disciplined and balanced than the others, but that doesn't mean that they sound soulless. The sound has real warmth and richness to it, but without compromising on the clarity and definition of the music.
There are, mind you, a couple of caveats. The first is the price. They're the most expensive set, and next to the model from Shure, which we found online for under 60 quid, there's no doubt they look pricey. They're worth it, but £84 is a fair chunk of money. The Shures are worth a look if you're on a budget.
The second caveat is that these are the only set here to have an open-back design. This is good news for the sound, and doubtless contributes to its crispness, but it does mean that they leak a lot noise.
There's one more wrinkle. While the HD 518s are definitely the best headphones here, we kept finding ourselves reaching for the Philips set from the five laid out on the desk. Yes, their sound is a bit muffled and boomy, but they're just so comfortable to wear.
Though it seems like a small thing, the tough fabric cable rather than a snaggy plastic is most welcome. If we let our heart decide, they'd probably win. But we have to be sensible; the head says Sennheiser.