Best Headphones and Earphones of 2014
Celebrate Christmas by blocking everyone out
The tidal wave of headphones and earphones that we’ve experienced over the last few years showed no real signs of slackening off in 2014.If you are looking to beef up your portable audio, your options at various price points is now vast to the point of bewildering. 2014 did show some slight changes to the pattern though. The rush of new brands arriving has slowed down and more established industry players have been reasserting their dominance. With that in mind, here are some of the highlights of the year.
Shure SE112 (SRP £46)
For a sense of perspective, it is perfectly simple for two normal people to spend more on a meal in Nando’s than on the newest and most affordable Shure earphone. Of course, you can indeed also spend less on a pair of earphones than the Shure but there are compelling reasons why should hold off the gristle in piri piri sauce and choose these. Your £46 buys you a solidly finished and entirely inoffensive looking earphone that comes with a decent choice of earbuds (with more available) and a two year warranty.
It also buys you genuinely excellent performance. The Shure manages to keep to the brand principles of an accurate and fundamentally honest performance that is consistently entertaining and often outright fun. It is easy to drive as well meaning that even weedy headphone amps in smartphones aren’t going to break sweat when running them. Judged by the standards of sub £100 earphones, the SE112 is good. Judged by the standards of sub £50 ones it is absolutely sensational. If you are looking for a truly joyous stocking filler, you’ve just found it.
Judged by the standards of sub £100 earphones, the SE112 is good. Judged by the standards of sub £50 ones it is absolutely sensational.
Focal Spirit One S (SRP £150)
Focal has clearly felt that its initial foray into the headphone business was worth the effort and has proceeded to begin refreshing their line-up. As the original member of the range, the Spirit One was the first under the knife and has emerged as the Spirit One S. The appearance- slightly odd colour aside- is unchanged but the drivers have seen an update in the pursuit of higher performance and the entire design has seen some little functionality tweaks. The end result is a headphone well suited to Focal’s ‘Digital Nomad’ concept. So far so good but what makes the One S unusual and rather exciting in this day and age is that these improvement come with a £50 saving over its predecessor.
The feeling of £50 saved won’t be the only reason why the One S puts a smile on your face either. The Focal- quite deliberately it seems- is happy to trade off the last nth of a percent of information for a greater desire to make music fun and in this regard, it succeeds admirably. The modifications to the design have improved sensitivity and made for a headphone that is consistently engaging to listen to and easy to use with a wide variety of devices. If you are looking for a headphone that works well on the move but allows a bit of home listening too, the Spirit One S is a bit of a bargain.
Audiofly AF140 (SRP £250)
The last review earphones of the year came a little out of leftfield- which in this case is Western Australia. A member of Audiofly’s new monitor range of earphones, the AF140 might be slightly uninspiring colour but there is little arguing with the spec. The twin armature and single dynamic driver design is unusual but logical and the build quality and supplied equipment- the carry case especially- are all top notch. The looped ear design is a matter of personal taste but the AF140 is a comfortable example of the type and likely to stay put when you need it too.
It is likely to stay put for long periods of time because the AF140 is a genuine pleasure to listen to and combines detail and realism with a refinement and smoothness that is consistently well judged. The AF140 manages to shine with well mastered material but be almost as happy with compressed files too. There are also very few earphones at this price or lower that can match the seriously impressive sense of scale that the Audiofly can generate with large scale music. Throw in decent sensitivity and you have a very talented earphone that offers a little slice of high end performance.
Grado SR225e (SRP £200)
It wouldn’t be a headphones of the year roundup without a Grado in the list. This year has seen the largest change to the model range in years with the new ‘e’ series models breaking cover. Not that you’d know it to look at them. The SR225e still looks like an escapee from a BBC live broadcast van circa 1953 and you’ll either love the looks or find them annoyingly retro (ignoring that they’ve always looked this way). Nonetheless, the build is good and although they aren’t exquisitely comfortable, they should fit a wide variety of heads.
The appearance might be the same as ever but the ‘e’ revisions have taken an already seriously talented headphone and made it incrementally better. If you want the unvarnished truth of what a recording sounds like, this is the headphone for you. Very little at the price can extract the fine detail of a piece that the SR225e can and fewer still can present it in such an airy or spacious way. With the understanding that the open backed design makes it wilfully unsuited to use on the move, the Grado is a truly great home headphone.
If you want the unvarnished truth of what a recording sounds like, this is the headphone for youSennheiser IE800 (SRP £600)
Let’s not beat around the bush. The IE800 is a single dynamic driver earphone the same as the Shure SE112. Despite this, it costs almost exactly thirteen times as much as the Shure. £600 is a spectacular sum of money to spend on earphones. There are a few indicators that the asking price has some foundation in reality though. The once piece ceramic housings are decidedly exotic and although there is only one driver per side, it boasts the widest frequency response of any such device I’ve ever encountered.
The result of this technical frenzy is a truly staggering performer. There is simply no sense when you are listening to the IE800 that you are listening to an earphone. There isn’t a trace of compression and the dynamics and scale are absolutely exceptional. What makes the Sennheiser truly extraordinary is that when you stop listening to high quality files, they will replay even heavily compressed material with sympathy and a sense of enjoyment. This is equivalent to a 4K display that excels with ultra HD material and still looks excellent when fed the Lifetime feed. When you throw in that the Sennheiser is no harder to use, fit or store than the Shure, you don’t just have the best earphone of the year, you have the best product I tested all year full stop. Yeah, it’s a lot of money but you’ll thank yourself later.
So there you have it. These are my picks of the year and hopefully there’s something to fit the bill but we welcome your comments below.
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