I've used and loved a pair of Sennheiser HD280s at home & work for over a decade. Two pairs, in fact; one pair broke after a respectable 8 years of daily usage. They're great: amazing sound, solid build quality, spare parts are available, people nearby can't hear your music, and they smother enough ambient noise to make open-plan offices more peaceful. But they are indoor headphones: they look ridiculous if worn outside, and they're too bulky for that anyway. So the Sennheisers live on my desk, and I use earbud headphones when out in the world.
The particular choice of earbuds has varied through the years. I used some Sennheisers for a while, and they were fine. When I got an iPhone the convenience of the remote/microphone made me switch to the included EarPods. And I liked them a lot! The sound was acceptable, the remote/mic was useful2, and the build quality was good. Well, the build quality was OK. Kind of OK. Not... not that OK.
The earpieces themselves are solid, and the remote's always worked fine. But I've owned several pairs of EarPods, and they all end up like this:
Designers generally include strain relief when a cable meets a plug. This prevents the wire from being pulled into sharp angles and getting damaged. The EarPods have this too, but it's just a small piece of rubber. Over time, this gets broken and splits off. Then the headphones start to cut out in one ear, and the remote goes wild when you're not touching it. It's easy enough to add some heatshrink to compensate for this if you have a nearby Hackspace, and this fixes things for a while, but you're now on borrowed time. The cable will fail, and your headphones will crackle or be silent.
I've gone through at least 3 sets of EarPods since 2012, and when my latest pair started to fail I decided enough was enough. Surely I could spend a little more, and get something that doesn't consistently fail in the same way? I knew I didn't want Apple's AirPods3, so I looked around, read some reviews, and settled on Beyerdynamic's Byron headphones. Around $65 from Amazon, compared to $35 for the EarPods.
When looking around, here's what I thought my priorities were:
- They've got to sound good. They don't have to be amazing4, but it's got to be good. At least as good as the EarPods.
- They've got to have a remote.
- They've got to have decent build quality. If I'm spending a bit more money, they should last longer than the EarPods.
- They've got to be wired. I don't need another gadget to charge in my life, and can deal with trailing cables.
Let's start with their good points. They've got a slightly longer cable, which was more convenient than I expected. The build quality seems stronger, particularly around the plug. Just look at that strain relief! It's going to last way longer than the EarPods. They cut down a lot of outside noise – great for plane/coach trips – and they're more comfortable to sleep with. Finally, the sound quality can be great. There's been a couple of times when I've listened to music I knew well, and I heard something new – something I'd missed even on my big Sennheisers. That's strong praise.
But despite these upsides, I cannot recommend them. More than that: I feel that people must be warned. It turns out I had a greater priority, one I never realised. One I never thought to enumerate:
- They've got to stay in your ears.
And they don't! They just don't. Whenever I go for a run they fall out constantly, and I look like a newscaster who thinks he's lost contact with the studio. These headphones are pushed into the ear canal, yet still fall out constantly. The EarPods just sat on your ear-shelf, but never fell out. It's genuinely baffling, and it fills me with anger. The Byron's earpieces are made from grippy rubber, they fit tightly, and have more surface area in contact with the ear. Yet they're not as secure as the EarPods? How is that possible? It's not just running, either: it happens when walking around the city too. Not as much, but it's still a notable flaw.
But let's put that to one side, and return to the sound quality. I said before it can be great - but it can also be terrible. The Byrons will sound great when sitting at exactly the right point in your ears. Too deep, and they will be thuddy and dull and overbearing. And if they're loosening – which they will be – they're just empty, with nothing but high frequencies. But that's not all: if the cable moves at all you'll get an annoying constant sub-bass rumble. This is annoying on a treadmill, and a bit irritating at other times. I'm not convinced this is a problem specific to the Byrons – I suspect it's a problem with all in-canal headphones – but it's still a reason not to buy them.
Beyerdynamic themselves recommend that you could buy some alternative ear pieces for sports. I briefly considered this, before realising that it was completely bananas to spend another $20 in the hope that these headphones were not a lost cause. You get 3 sizes of ear pieces in the box and I have tried them all. None of them seem to make any difference.
The remote is another problem – though this one's my fault. The Byrons are designed for Android phones. This really means that a couple of the connections in the TRRS jack are transposed, so the remote/mic won't work with Apple devices. I should have read the description more closely before buying, and I could live with a non-functional remote. But the remote works! To different levels on every device!
- On my iPhone, the remote acts completely normally. Yaaaaay.
- On my iPad, the volume buttons don't work but the play/pause button does.
- On my laptop, the volume buttons move the volume in the correct direction, but don't stop moving it. So I have a "Turn sound off" or "Destroy my ears" buttons.
As I say: my fault. But if it's going to work weirdly, could it at least be consistent? Or maybe include an adapter in the box, if Android/Apple compatibility is just a case of transposing two connections?
Finally, let's take a closer look at the headphones after a month or so of use.
Look closely at the driver on the top. No mesh! Somehow, the mesh has fallen out somewhere. I don't know how I'll try to clean this when it gets gunky. I've also managed to lose two of the rubber cups somewhere – so now both ears fit poorly and differently. An asymmetrical annoyance.
I bought a pair of Beyerdynamic Byrons this year, and I hate them.
This is an affiliate link, as other the other Amazon links in this article. If you follow it to the Byrons, I recommend you buy something else. ↩
Extremely useful after I switched to a MacBook Pro. I always had the EarPods on me, so I always had an acceptable Skype headset. Perfect for surprise calls wherever I was. ↩
Which discombobulates me, as they have astonishingly good reviews, but I don't think they'd work for me. I worry about them falling out when running/cycling, I would miss the remote, and I really don't want to own something that needs to be charged several times a day. ↩
Sound quality is pretty closely tied to the size of the driver, so in-ear headphones will almost always sound worse than over-ear headphones. ↩