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programming and human factors

Headphone Snobbery

I've talked about all the essential environmental things a programmer should have: a good chair, at least two monitors, and a great keyboard.

One thing I haven't talked about, though, is headphones. Headphones are probably the most optional item in that list. But if you're not blessed with a quiet workplace, they can be essential. There are lots of great choices in headphones, but the set I own and recommend is the Sennheiser 580.

Sennheiser 580 Headphones

Am I really advocating spending two hundred dollars on a set of headpones? Yes. Yes I am. Now, you could spend a lot more. This is about extracting the maximum bang for your buck:

  1. Unlike your computer, or your car, your headphones will never wear out or become obsolete. I hesitate to say lifetime, but they're multiple decade investments at the very least.
  2. The number one item that affects the music you hear is the speakers. Without a good set of headphones, everything else is irrelevant.
  3. The right headphones can deliver sound equivalent to extremely high-end floorstanding speakers worth thousands of dollars.

If you're the type of person who is perfectly happy listening to 64 kilobit MP3s through a $5 set of beige headphones, that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. Keep on scrolling; this post is not for you.

But if you're any kind of music enthusiast, or you work in noisy environments, a quality set of headphones will be one of the best $200 investments you could possibly make.

I'm a big fan of the guys at HeadRoom; not only are they a reputable vendor, they're a great source for unbiased information about headphones in general. You don't have to buy anything there, but it's definitely the first place you should start.

If you become a minor headphone enthusiast like myself, you might also want to invest in an inexpensive external headphone amplifier. It's not required by any means, but after a nice set of headphones, it can have the second biggest effect on the resulting sound you hear. The coolest model for computer geeks is the HeadRoom BitHead:

Take a BitHead, plug it into the USB port on your computer, then plug the best headphones you've got into the BitHead, and BAM, knock-your-socks-off sound. Then later, pack it up in a HeadRoom bag with your favorite portable player, and you've got one of the most aurally delightful portable audio systems on the planet. Think about it: a great back end for your computer and a sweet analog headphone amp to use with your portable player for only $199. Your ears will thank you.

The BitHead has a bit of a split personality: it is a battery powered miniature headphone amp for use with portable players. And it's a USB powered external sound card and headphone amp for computers.

Dan has a good review of the BitHead which goes into more depth. It garners a "highly recommended" from him and from me.

As far as I'm concerned, wires are the way to go for headphones. But if you demand freedom from the tyranny of wires, maybe these Sennheiser 65 wireless headphones are more your speed. If wireless is your bag, bear in mind that you need to be extra careful in this category-- wireless transmission isn't exactly synonymous with quality.

At the risk of sounding like a total Sennheiser shill, if you need a headset/microphone combination for things like Skype, the Sennheiser PC150 is passable and inexpensive. But the audio quality and comfort is nowhere near what you'll get out of the HD580s.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror