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My favorite headphones don't adhere to recent trends. They're the Massdrop x Sennheiser HD 6XXs, and unlike the latest from Bose or Sony, they do not ‘actively cancel’ noise; they just blast it into my ears. And with their open-back design, not all of it gets there. Unlike AirPods (vanilla or Pro), they do not play nice with an iPhone at all. Wireless protocols? Please, these babies are wired into my desktop with a 3.5mm plug. And while some headphones will contort into compact shapes and fit inside a carrying case, these cans are remorselessly large and unbending. It’s a decidedly low-tech experience. I can’t recommend it enough.
Don't get me wrong, AirPods are great. But like many modern gadgets, they’re designed for a specific purpose. When the iPod and its ilk made music mostly mobile for a whole new generation, headphones evolved to match that mobility. Wires that snag on doorknobs gave way to Bluetooth. Form factors shrunk to better suit backpacks and pockets. Once specially designed for pilots, active noise cancellation was turned to attack the sounds of the modern commute. But if you, like me, have not made a commute in over a year, it might be time to re-evaluate your priorities.
Once you’re tethered to a desk with no coworkers in sight, a great number of the advantages of high-end wireless headphones evaporate and a different animal reigns supreme. Wired headphones never run out of battery life. They’re impossible to misplace. Giant ear cups are almost cartoonishly comfortable. And the massive drivers they accommodate sound effortlessly better than anything you can squeeze into a “bud.”
Open-back headphones, the king of the form, take the logic to its excellent extreme. With skeletonized ear cups to let the air flow freely, the speakers can operate at peak efficiency, at the cost of a little sound leakage no one will be around to hear. And they are almost always more affordable than their more portable cousins to boot. Top of the line, wireless noise-cancelling cans like Bose’s Headphones 700 and Sony’s WH-1000XM4 will run you well over $300, even on sale. Airpods Pro clock in at a more modest $249, full price. But for just $220 you can get a roomy pair of HD 6XXs that you will literally never have to charge. And options like the honkin’-huge Audio-Technica ATH-AD700X get you all the way down toward $120 without throwing quality or comfort out the window.
Word of warning: going this route can open a Pandora’s box. A pair of nice wired headphones may lead to a dedicated headphone amp, and the next thing you know, you’re spending four figures on a portable music player with multiple DACs so you can listen to your FLAC files on the go.
Maybe that’s a bottle you’ll enthusiastically uncork. For me, though, it’s about more than just audio quality and comfort. A nice pair of wired headphones is truly a vibe. When I sit down at the desk in my home office, there’s a dozen different things I might do. Maybe I’ll bleed a few hours of my life into Twitter, or stare blankly at my inbox as the number ticks up. Maybe I’ll get right back up, or sink into my phone despite the giant screen in front of me.
But when it’s time to actually get to work, the first order of business is always the same: take my big, old headphones off their nail on the wall, pin the wire under my arm and start typing. At home, surrounded by distractions like the cat and the fridge and literally everything besides what I need to be doing, this ritual is an invaluable part of getting my brain into second gear. No fancy wireless pea-sized jobby can do that.