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Tools of the Trade: Headphones and Earphones

Creating a language immersion environment is almost inevitably going to require the use of headphones. In this post, I’d like to share with you the headphones that have pleasured my ears with Japanese and Chinese sounds, and invite you to share your own recommendations, advice and experiences.

To start, I was faithfully served by a pair of Sony MDR-G42 behind-the-head headphones for almost the entire duration of the hardcore phase of my Japanese.

After that, for a year and change I used a pair of Sony MDR-NC22 noise-cancelling earphones, the first earphones that had ever fit my ears — I often forgot I was wearing them! They’re pricier, and I only justified buying them because it was for “educational” reasons. They were great back when I was using trains a lot — you know how loud that can get.

Currently I use speakers quite a bit at home (since my living arrangements allow it), supplemented by some Pioneer SE-MJ5 headphones.

On the road, I use a pair of Phillips SHE-9500 earphones. Good sound, nice small size…The cable’s kinda short though, so I often need to use the extension they came with. One thing that’s really amazing about these headphones is that you can actually sleep in them comfortably, despite the fact that they’re not marketed for that as such. Plus they don’t look as ridiculous as the actual “sleep headphones” that are on the market right now. When I’m sleeping, I want to know that I look good.
[Update 2008/12/4: It turns out these were making my ears itch…earphones and I just don’t seem to get on — so I went back to basics, to neckband-style headphones: Philips SHS8200]

Headphones are a peculiar product. For one thing, above about $15-20, there seems to be virtually no correlation between quality and price; my less-than-$40 Pioneers (SE-MJ5) destroyed all the $100-$300+ pairs around it at the store I went to — so you can’t just spend a lot and be guaranteed a good unit. Nor is there always a strong correlation between make and quality. While all my headphone choices so far have skewed to industry leaders, all the industry leaders produce both gold and duds [I don’t mean go get a no-name brand: those will almost certainly suck. I mean that you still need to find a good pair within a good brand. It seems like brand definitely matters in headphones, but by itself it only offers the possibility of quality, not a guarantee]. Moreover, headphones need to be equal parts good-sounding and comfortable; neither condition takes precedence over the other. Speaking of sound, if you listen to hip-hop, make sure your headphones have a good frequency range, especially at the low end (they should at least be able to go down to 8Hz [or, as close to single digits as possible] if not lower).

So, the best advice I can give you is not a single product recommendation; it is this: TRY ’em. And if the shop won’t let you try them, make sure they accept returns in the event of suckage. Try the headphones. Bring your player and play the things you listen to. Real, live experimentation is the only way to really guarantee getting something that’s worth it. Given the amount of time you’re going to be listening to audio to produce an immersion environment, the trip to the store or wherever will be worth it.

All the headphones I’ve mentioned do start to hurt eventually, but only after several hours of use. So, yeah, rich sound (to me, at least…I’m not an audio buff) and comfortable wearing. Anyway, what matters most is you and the shape of your head/ears; I think I must have weird ears, since most headphones simply don’t fit me. Or maybe headphones are a metaphor for life and how we need to take control if we want to be happy.


The floor is open to your comments and suggestions 😀 .

  27 comments for “Tools of the Trade: Headphones and Earphones

  1. Squintox
    October 1, 2008 at 20:16

    I’m thinking of buying a wireless headphone, I HATE wires.

  2. Rob
    October 1, 2008 at 21:26

    I bought this Sony wireless set a few months ago and highly reccommend them.

    I was actually a little surprised that the reviews weren’t higher on amazon. Some people were apparently having static issues but I’ve had no problem. Yes, if I actually walk out of my house the signal gets noisy, but anywhere inside comes through clearly. But the best thing about them is they are very comfortable, in fact they are the only headphones that I’ve ever used that don’t make my ears hurt after a couple hours of listening.

    Definitely go with wireless around the house. They are more conducive to AJATT because you can do other things while keeping the Japanese on and not be tied to your desktop.

  3. Kirt
    October 1, 2008 at 22:31

    Sennheiser, all the way.

    My favorite sub-$200 headphones i ever had were the HD497, which sound FANTASTIC. They used to be about $89 US. Sadly these aren’t made anymore and the replacement model doesn’t sound nearly as good.

    So, i picked up some highly recomennded Sennheiser PX100 headphones. They are portable, foldable, come with a really useful little hard case to keep them in. Best of all, they sound way better than anything else at this price point, are comfortable, and only cost about $50 US.

  4. Jon
    October 1, 2008 at 23:08

    Sony MDR-A34 headphones all the way. These are the best inexpensive headphones I’ve ever had. Clear sound, good bass response without sacrificing the trebles, pretty comfy. 買ったもん勝ち!

  5. vgambit
    October 1, 2008 at 23:20

    I’m gonna have to recommend the Steelsound 4H gaming series I bought from Woot. It has a mic, and is intended for use while playing PC games online, but it has never caused me any discomfort, even after playing for 12 hours straight.

    I also have a pair of Sony noise-canceling headphones, but those hurt after about 30 minutes.

  6. October 1, 2008 at 23:25

    Yes, I use wireless headphones (and earphones while commuting), but there’s one problem: my headphones always fall off when I’m falling asleep. Every worse: they fall on the ground, waking me up and possible damaging them. Any solution for this?

  7. DT
    October 2, 2008 at 00:42

    Be careful when using headphones while riding buses and in other places where there is a lot of noise. It’s too easy to turn up the volume so you can hear normally and not realize how loud you really have it.

    If you are concerned about this, consider taking note of the highest setting you would comfortably listen to in a silent environment, and pay attention that you never exceed it.

    Noise-cancelling headphones might be a better option, but I can’t say for sure; I haven’t tried them.

  8. quendidil
    October 2, 2008 at 02:01

    I have wrecked about 4 headphones while wearing them to sleep :D.

  9. Sutebun
    October 2, 2008 at 02:18

    These are my wireless headphones. Although I have a slightly older version I think (these look a little different from my own). They are very comfortable for me. Sound quality is also very important to me and these did not disappoint (Of course they lose out to my wired headphones which can match speaker quality even on high volume).

    Wireless headphones are good if you study at a desk and the wire gets in your way. It’s good if you want to cook and listen to stuff. It’s good if you have a roommate/significant other and don’t want to bother them with your noise but still want to have mobility while listening to stuff.

  10. Jonathan
    October 2, 2008 at 05:50

    I’m going to have to second the Sennheiser recommendation. They know their headphones, and they have a lot of quality products even in the budget range. I personally use the HD595 whenever I’m at home (I’m cool with just using some dinky little earbuds when I’m out and about), and regardless of what Khatz says, there’s totally a noticeable difference between quality headphones and cheap ones. They key is just to make sure that the headphones actually ARE high-quality, and not just expensive, because the two don’t always correlate.

  11. David
    October 2, 2008 at 09:29

    Behind-the-head ear phones are win. — I’ve used my set for years, sadly I need new ones. They’ve been revived from the dead way too many times. 😛

  12. uberstuber
    October 2, 2008 at 12:16

    I’m a fan of Grados for home use.
    The sennheiser rec’s above are also good.
    Koss ksc-75 are amazing given their price point and come with a lifetime full replacement warranty.
    My favorite headphones when I need quiet are Jays q-jays (a bit pricey)
    I’ve seen denon’s as a good go to brand for hip-hop/rap, though haven’t ever owned any.

    Generally the frequencies printed on the box of headphones are not good indicators of actual frequency response :/
    Poke around ‘s forums if you’re willing to open up your wallet a bit.

    For sleep and around campus I wear crappy earbuds, generally I’ll be listening to pure voice, where I don’t care about sq as much.

  13. October 2, 2008 at 12:47

    I use Sony MDR-EX51LP earphones ( for my MP3 player, which is a Panasonic SV-MP020. (

    For the computer, I use Sony MDR-V150 Monitor Series headphones. (

    I’ve tried out TONS of headphones and earphones, and I’ve gotta say that Sonys last the longest (we’re talking years, not months or weeks). They sound great too, and you can’t beat ’em for the price!


    P.S: Wow, I have a ton of links in my comment! Lol, I’m not trying to spam, honest!

  14. Shhhtephen
    October 2, 2008 at 13:07

    Um so yeah slightly on and off topic what is everyone listening to on their wide variety of personal listening devices through their wide variety of headphones. I know this site has like a few links to some stuff, but really what else is out their. Ive got a few Japanese CD’s but screw spending like $30.00 or more on that. I need some cheap down loadable quality listening.

  15. anon
    October 2, 2008 at 14:43


  16. Ed
    October 2, 2008 at 15:12

    8Hz? Wtf? Why would they make something that goes lower than the range of human sound response? Your ears might take some damage from something like that, but I have no clue.

    Also, these are my favorite pair of headphones that I have experimented with so far:

  17. uberstuber
    October 3, 2008 at 01:39

    You might not be able to ‘hear’ 8hz but you can feel it, which makes a difference if you like bass slam/extension. It’s perfectly safe for your ears, assuming you keep the volume low enough.

    Also, like I said earlier, what it says on the box rarely matches with what the headphones can actually produce, and a larger range doesn’t necessarily mean the headphone sounds better

  18. nest0r
    October 3, 2008 at 01:53

    Grado SR60s for me.

  19. nest0r
    October 3, 2008 at 01:55

    Oh and Bang & Olufsen A8s for my iPod.

  20. David
    October 3, 2008 at 03:21

    8Hz is under the threshold of hearing, yay~

  21. Ed
    October 4, 2008 at 02:37


    good point on the bass “slam” thing. didn’t think about that. Also, I agree that the guys pushing the headphones may exaggerate the truth a bit on the tech specs.

  22. lol-factory
    October 15, 2008 at 17:25

    For those of you sleep listeners, do you sleep on your face or sides?

    My earbuds always seem to fall out, and I end up getting frustrated.

  23. Chris
    October 17, 2008 at 20:28

    I’m currently using (or plan to use when I begin my hardcore Mandarin studies) is a pair of Philips SHS3200, which are just perfect for walking around, as the cord isn’t too long, and the earbuds themselves can’t fall out.


    In addition, and in order to reduce background noise when I’m on the bus or studying in the dining room when people have the TV going is a pair of Skullcandy earbuds. VERY comfortable to wear. More comfortable than my pair of Sennheissers which I use for music.

    The Skullcandy buds:

  24. RF Glenn
    December 15, 2008 at 06:30

    I’ve tended to use earbuds, which DO have a definite difference in the <20, <100, etc ranges. Spent a couple of months with a pair of Etymotic 6i-rs or whatever before I broke the wonderful things from overuse/abuse [they have GREAT sound quality, and they’re very isolating… meaning I listened to music on loud airplanes at minimum volume, meaning less hearing damage] [also, super comfortable]. I can still listen to music, thankfully, because I also have a set of speakers which I use often, an ipod + fm transmitter I use in the car, and a laptop that I use almost everywhere else.

    The great bit on earbuds is you can hide ’em and wear them to class. Can’t beat it.

  25. Kuri
    March 5, 2009 at 07:35

    Sennheiser CX300. Will set you back $20-40, shopping around recommended and be wary of knock-offs if you shop online.
    They are in-ear ‘passive’ noise reducing headphones with amazing sound for the price.
    Not everyone likes in-ear phones, but I can wear these all day in the office 7-9 hours without any discomfort whatsoever. The only discomfort caused is to my colleages, who now have to walk to my desk everytime they want to ask me someting – I simply don’t hear them.
    Even on long haul flights (London-Tokyo) they are great and if you fly with Virgin, you can plug them straight into the arm rest socket and have less noise and hear more movie. Sweet!

  26. killazys
    March 2, 2011 at 11:30

    For recommendations from audiophiles:

    Further reading:

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