I am not a headphone snob

hphonesYesterday, after many years of service, the connecting band of my headphones snapped in such a way as to not be repairable without an ugly application of “redneck’s chrome” (duct tape). In looking for recommendations for a new pair I can’t help but think that many hams are overbuying.

Sennheiser and Bose are often recommended/discussed on the Elecraft list and elsewhere. Amazon is full of glowing reviews for these and similar makes, though not often by hams. Do I need a $150 pair of headphones to listen to weak CW signals?

Of course not.

I believe wholeheartedly that it’s cheaper in the long run to buy a quality product rather than less expensive alternatives and I apply this belief (most of the time) to ham radio, photography and life in general.

But I also think it’s foolish to buy expensive products whose expense is geared toward applications I’ll never use. I think doing so must satisfy the same psychological urge that makes some people tell themselves that a freshly-cleaned car runs better.

They like to believe it; therefore they do.

Here’s what I want from a set of headphones: comfort, external sound isolation and the ability to reproduce the 440 Hz note that my sidetone/offset is tuned to. No need for “timbre”, depth and “full bass” in ‘phones used for CW.



  15 comments for “I am not a headphone snob

  1. August 13, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    Hey, John,

    I really like the Yamaha CM500s. My DXer buddies swear by these and I love them for both CW and SSB.
    I posted something on QRPer a while ago when they went on sale. Link is probably still good, though price may not be the same: http://qrper.com/2013/06/yamaha-cm500-headphones-on-sale-you-need-a-set/

    Anyway, just another option! Mic works beautifully with my KX3, by the way!


  2. Anthony
    August 13, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    I really like my Sony MDR-V6 headphones. They’re designed as studio monitors so they have a really flat response through the mid-range. They can usually be found on sale for ~$60.

  3. Bo
    August 13, 2013 at 8:08 pm

    When I got my KX3 (which is great), I used a cheap set of headphones from a plane flight in lieu of the speaker on the KX3. Right angle connector, very light cable, comfortable with foam ear pads enough to hear someone calling. I’m happy with them for now.


    PS Enjoy reading your blog.

  4. August 13, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    Tnx for the suggestions – I’ll check them out. Also looking at a couple of $50 models from Audio-Technica and Shure.

  5. phil ve3axl
    August 13, 2013 at 10:15 pm

    i keep trying different earphones but keep coming back to my ipod
    earbuds. Even carry a backup pair

  6. August 14, 2013 at 5:45 am

    For more than 10 years I used a Sennheiser HD 575 (now obsolete?). It has great audio, is light on the ears, ear pads are ‘velvetishly’ soft. Even after a 48 hour contest it didn’t bother me. It allows for some environment sounds to sip through. I could hear the XYL coming up the stairs, the doorbell ring or the dog bark. A real keeper as long as it lasts with intense usage.

    Then came a new amp. My old 1200W vacuum cleaner is 20dB down compared to that amp’s blowers. Bummer. The Sennheiser’s advantage (light on the ears and not shutting me down from the world around me) now turned into a drawback. The noise drove me crazy. I seem to get cranky when exposed to loud monotone noise for longer perdiods. I was focusing on the noise rather than copying the dits and dahs.

    By coincidence I read a report on the 3830 pages of a contester having a similar problem. He solved it with an Extreme Isolation EX-29. It turned out to be hard to get in EU but I eventually found a French eBay seller. At first I was as disappointed as when I first switched on the roaring amplifier. These phones provided great audio, so that’s good. But they were really tight on the ears to close all gaps. Not that it hurts, it isn’t even uncomfortable, but it’s not the light touch of the Sennheiser. And nomen est omen: you REALLY get extreme isolation. The amp’s blower noise is gone. But I jump off the chair when the XYL taps me on the shoulder: no more stairs to be heard. The dog only when he’s barking right under the shack’s window. And it didn’t come cheap (but most good stuff doesn’t).

    For the occasional SSB excursion I use a modified TV broadcast headset that I salvaged from the scrap yard. I replaced the mic element with a Heil HC-4 capsule. But the thing is darn heavy and begins to show its age.
    So I am in the market for an SSB headset too. Fancy Heil stuff is too expensive to my liking and wallet. I’m sure there is equal quality for half the price or less. Many US ops praise the Yamaha CM500 but it isn’t available in EU either. With S/H and 21% VAT the price starts to approximate a Heil.

    I know that (one of) the biggest EU M/M station used cheap multimedia PC / gaming headsets for plaque winning performance… So there you go: it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

    BTW: by accident I stubled across this recently:
    A new player on the headset market?


  7. Scotty
    August 14, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    I first used just some old JVC “Super Bass” that I had lying about when I got into radio, then some Sony headphones my wife had laying about, before settling on “Signal Corps US Army R14″ on the recommendation of an old CW operator. I quite like them, and at the right price (£20)they were reasonably priced. I picked up a set of mono headphones brand new called “HD1010″ that my emplyer was throwing out, and they are very comfortable, but I prefer the sound of the old R14s.

  8. August 14, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Lots of hits on this particular post – all due I’m sure to the links and recommendations provided here in the comments, so thank, guys. Now I have a lot more to go over ;-)

    For the moment, I’m using ear buds like VE3AXL mentions…always used them for portable QRP excursions back in “the day” and they are more than functional for home use as well, as I’m learning. But I don’t see myself using them for hours during CQWW and the 3 or 4 other contests that I like. And I’ve learned that not all earbuds are created equally – those that came with my Galaxy S3 and my XYL’s iPad are top-notch unlike many of those (even Koss) sold as consumer items.

    Franki, the EX29’s you mentioned are here:

    I like the isolation and will warn the XYL against sneaking up on me if I go with those. Meanwhile, also checking the link you posted.

    Thanks again, all – wouldn’t it be nice if we could try out headphones like we can a pair of shoes before deciding to plunk down our money…?

  9. August 14, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    This is why high-end headsets can actually be a hindrance for ham/SWL ops (from the site mentioned above by ON5ZO):

    Frequency response of 200Hz to 6000Hz means weak signals aren’t covered up by high frequency atmospheric or audio amplifier noise, and the 200Hz low end cut-off provides superb rich voice articulation and excellent narrow passband CW reception.

    Headphones designed for listening to music often have freq response up to 20 kHz which would manifest itself as noise in our use of them. I’m glad to see this being addressed by a manufacturer.

  10. Ed
    August 14, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    These may be a little above your price range, but they merit consideration. I’m very pleased with them and I will admit that I own about 15 different sets (but not all bought for ham radio). I like the AKG K240’s. While they may look big and bulky in a picture, they are light as a feather and the ‘ear muffs’ are not constricting whatsoever, never a problem with sweaty ears. The headband is great for long listening sessions and the cord is a mile long (ok, not really). What I especially like is the lack of white noise, they just sound phenomenal. Good luck with your selection.


  11. George K2WO
    August 15, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    I’ve had great luck with my Sony MDR-7506 headphones. They are very comfortable and they work quite well. They are generally used in a studio as “Monitor headphones” and have excellent fidelity and I use them for both CW and SSB. They are generally available for around $99.

  12. August 18, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Take a look at the Koss line of headphones. I have a set of full size cans, and they are very comfortable, and have good audio for both CW and SSB.

    You can spend from 35 to 350…..and I see no reason to spend more than the 35 based on the quality of mine. Can’t remember the model right off…..

  13. August 18, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    Heh. Had to go look it up. I have the Koss qz-99. Besides to good audio, they don’t take a lot of audio to drive them. That’s a big deal with my Elecraft K2 and its anemic audio output.

    Their passive noise reduction is good, and they are around-the-ear, part of their comfort level when combined with the headband cushion.

    The QZ-99 looks like it may have been discontinued, but is still available. Time for me to order a spare/backup!

  14. August 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    I ordered a set of these two days ago – they’ll be here Tuesday:

    I came real close – and I mean REAL close to odering these:
    because I like the fact that audio response is limited to spoken audio (as opposed to music) freqs – but almost $200…couldn’t do it, so I hope I’ll like the Shures.

  15. Mark, PA5MW
    August 19, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    Both a friend and me are 160m enthusiasts. During the years we have tested and used many headphones at contests.
    Recently we performed an extended listening test for finding the small but clear differences.
    Please read at:

    73 Mark, PA5MW

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