The best headphones: JBL Synchros S700
I grew up with my dad instilling in me an appreciation for sounds. Maybe it was the Iron Butterfly while in the womb, or the vinyl records or the high-end audio gear, but I wound up with perfect pitch and a golden ear.
Like any audiophile, I think listening to heavily compressed music is a drag. Still, if your speakers aren't up to the task of clearly separating the frequencies, even the clearest recording can get muddy. Beats headphones are great if you want mushy music filled with thumps that have nothing to do with tonality -- they are merely a fashion accessory. The vast majority of headphones you pick up in airports and convenience stores wouldn't impress a bump on a log with their fidelity. And while I have long sported my Sony MDR-7506 headphones for all demanding audio tasks, I think I have a new favorite set of headphones. The JBL Synchros S700 are simply the most delightful set of ear goggles I've ever worn. They even have a mic and controller nub, so they are designed for mobile use.
The Synchros are a beauty right out of the black case (included). The soft leather mounted on the metal bar that rests upon your head is soft as can be, with enough padding to sit atop your noggin for hours without discomfort.
The ear pieces are similarly soft around the ears, although I did find the circular shape might be problematic for those with less-than-circular ear shapes. All of the metal on the headphones is high quality, and they have heft without too much weight to them as a result. They are sturdy, but not stiff.
The cords can be removed, and there are two: one for charging (I'll explain in a bit) and one that has the audio plug on either end. The one for audio includes a small controller/mic nub, with volume and stop/start buttons. The cords are black and nondescript, much like the Synchros I tried, although the mic nub felt like the cheapest part. This is mostly because the rest of the unit is absolutely gorgeous.
You'll need to charge the Synchros once in a while (the battery lasts a long time, like other JBL and Kardon products I've tested), as there's a button to engage the "LiveStage" sound. This enhances the audio to make it more like a live stage experience. In fact, I got to try the LiveStage sound while comparing to an actual live stage performance, and I can tell you the result was terribly impressive.
You see, there's quite a bit of science that Kardon has poured into audio research, specifically headphone design, and the product reflects this. In double-blind tests, more people preferred the balance and overall sound of the Synchros, even to Beats.
Myself, I've always loved my Sony MDR-7506 headphones for audio work. But my MDR's don't have a mic or LiveStage, so I don't see myself walking through the Atlanta airport with them. The Synchros have even cushier padding for the ears, and stow flat (in a very nice case) and do a good job of isolating sound, making them great for tuning out the world.
Without going into the science of it, I'll tell you how good the sound is on the S700s: You'll never notice the headphones. That's sort of the point. Unlike a performance instrument, which you want to have "character" (tiny imperfections that give an instrument a unique sound), headphones should not be judged based on how they distort your music. Beats, again, provide an example by way of largesse. Sure, Beats have strong bass response. Do you need that listening to Mozart? Do you need that listening to bluegrass? The defining characteristic of the Synchros is not their ability to assist one particular genre of music, but the ability to enhance all music, as though they were chameleons of sound reproduction. The Synchros get out of the way and allow you the best listening experience.
OK, JBL has made a near-perfect set of headphones with the Synchros S700. The bad news is they will cost you (the best-engineered things in life are not free). A pair of S700s will cost you US$349.95 from JBL, possibly slightly less elsewhere. Also, they're on pre-order right now and should be shipping in mid-January. If you love music and can afford them, I cannot recommend these headphones enough. They are, in my opinion, perhaps the best headphones you can buy for accurate sound reproduction.
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