Not too long ago, we did our first ever headphone prizefight, and it got me thinking about how headphones might be the most difficult product to be objective about during a review.
This observation was compounded by the recent parade of Ultimate Ears earphones that came across my desk. Although audio professionals, previous CNET reviewers, and many consumers have posted plenty of glowing praise for the company's products, I had a helluva time with all three sets of the headphones. They just did not fit me properly, ranging from mild discomfort with the Metro.fi 2 to supreme irritation with the Triple.fi 10.
During the review process, this issue of fit is worked out by letting several different people try them out and gathering their observations to add to my own. The review will still be colored somewhat by my own experience--as well it should be in deference to others who also have "uniquely sized" ears--but the input from others helps to keep the final outcome balanced. But consider that not all reviewers get the opinions of others, either because they don't have the luxury or because their process is not as diligent. (And of course I refer to non-CNET reviewers here.) Especially if the headphones are comfortable to this person: what's to make he or she doubt that they are anything but for anyone else?
Now, add to that the fact that sound quality can be highly subjective as well. Sure, there are headphones that sound exceptional to pretty much everyone, but many people prefer certain variances in their music. Some listeners prefer a heavier, more booming low-end, while others like brighter sound, and purists want the most balanced audio possible.
Plus, people actually hear differently based on personal experiences, age, and, I suspect, ear shape. (I wasn't able to find any evidence of this. I welcome feedback below.) The issue of sound quality in a review is also helped somewhat by having others listen to the headphones, but sometimes we can only get two test subjects, and that is by no means a representative cross-section of listening tastes and idiosyncrasies.
For the moment, I've become personally attached to the Philips SHE-9850 In-Ear Headphones, a noise-isolating ear-plug-style set that goes for just under 100 bucks. The earbuds are sleek and compact, the aperture is small, Philips includes compressible foam sleeves (a must for me), and the sound quality is nice and balanced, but could use a bit more bass to be perfect for me. Of course, plenty of people don't want headphones that they have to stick in their ears and still others would abhor the SHE-9850's lack of "oomph" on the low-end.
So, what's attached to your sound system or MP3 player right now? And what headphones have been sent back in disgust?