With millions rediscovering portable music thanks to the iPod, those same millions are discovering something else: the earbuds that come with their players suck. MP3-player earbuds are typically fragile with weak, tinny sound — overpowered by even light background noise. The best upgrade a music lover can make is to a pair of "circumaural" headphones: models with cups that completely surround the ear, providing hearty acoustics and great isolation. A new pair of Sennheiser cans, the HD 205, promise "powerful stereo sound." I put them to the test by throwing them in the ring against a tried-and-tested circumaural pair, Bose's Triport. Can the German challenger take down the champ?
Round 1: ComfortSlipping on the TriPort is a pleasure. It has extra-large cups that would fit even the most Dumbo-esque ears, and the lightweight (5 ounces) frame fits snugly without ever being too tight. Ventilation isn't great — after wearing the headphones for a few hours, my ears started to heat up a bit — but that's true of pretty much any pair of cans, including the HD 205. Just from holding the Sennheiser model, I could tell it wouldn't take me to the same comfort zone. The 205 is a more traditional model with a bulkier design. It's just 2 ounces heavier, but you can really feel that extra weight, and the earcups are a bit smaller, too. Sennheiser provides a hinge on one side to make single-ear listening easier (supposedly a convenient feature for DJs), but I found that it didn't swing the earcup far enough to be really that useful. And why not put hinges on both sides? For comfort, the TriPort easily nails the HD 205.
Round 2: DurabilityEverything that dragged the HD 205 down in Round 1 makes it a powerhouse here. Thanks to the Sennheiser's sturdy frame, you can push it, pull it, toss it around, and it'll keep singing. The TriPort, on the other hand, isn't quite so well constructed — it feels like the earcups will come right off the frame if you pull on them too hard. Not only that, but Bose made the unfortunate design choice of attaching each of the (very flimsy) ear wires to their respective cups; the HD 205 wisely has just a single, firmer wire connected to the left cup. Sennheiser shoves aside Bose on this score.
Round 3: SoundOf course, this contest really comes down to one thing: Which pair sounds better? Typical pop tunes, like tracks from the New Pornographers' Electric Version, sounded nearly identical on each, with music on the Bose ever so slightly more open and defined — possibly because the colossal earcups created larger sound cavities. But the whole idea behind the TriPort's design is bigger, better bass, and it delivered. The thumps and pumps in the Beastie Boys' "Right Right Now Now" on To the Five Boroughs were powerful and not overly boomy. But the HD 205 impressed here, too. To settle this once and for all, I turned to Aircraft Records' Round Sounds, a compilation of engine sounds from propeller airplanes — noises that would challenge even the heftiest of subwoofers. While the Sennheiser fought bravely, making it easy to imagine myself on the tarmac of an airfield, the Bose made me jump out of my seat when it belted out the rumble of an AT-6 flyby. Sweet.
DecisionThe Bose TriPort is still the champ, but the Sennheiser HD 205 went the distance. If price is no object (the TriPort is $149 while the HD 205 costs less than half that at $60), the easy-breezy comfort and excellent sound of the Bose TriPort give it an edge, even though a two-year-old could probably pull out its wires. If you have kids, say "ja" to Sennheiser.