The primary means for music storage and enjoyment now is the digital player, be it a purpose-built file player like an iPod or a smartphone. These units are technological marvels, even if the purists among us feel the sound that comes from them isn’t particularly great. There are a few reasons for it. The first is that many mp3s that are available are struck from old, first generation CDs and digital files. The bass signal is weak and the highs are thin and grating. The overall volume is lower too. Newer songs and files have the opposite detriments: ridiculously pumped-up bass, mastering that favors loudness for clarity, and the clipping that comes along with these. There isn’t much the individual can do about these circumstances.

The third reason why sound can be inferior is because listeners are still using nasty little earbuds to receive the soundwaves directly to the ear canal. Putting aside the grossness of the earbuds, which are tiny wired tubes that are physically inserted into the ear hole, there’s simply no surface to enact enough of a vibration to produce a beefy, pleasing sound. The trade off one makes for maximum portability is that the accessories to use with them might be inferior. So the secondary market for accessories has grown. Reasons abound: the Beatz by Dr. Dre line of headphones were seen as a fashion statement, more sought after for form versus function; with an economy looking better than it had been, individuals are stepping up to new cars, are jumping back into buying houses versus renting, and they’re investing in audio equipment for home theaters. It then hits them that the sound coming out of home units is so much bolder than the things in their pockets are producing. Also, their original headphone situations are getting worn out, and the inherent skeeviness of the earbud (which is like reusing earplugs again and again) requires a change.

2362That’s where I was at. I had a pair of Sony MDR-V150s as my go-to headset. Relatively speaking, it was the most affordable set on the market coming from a trusted manufacturer. It served the purpose required of it, but there were always things about it that were problematic. The headset itself was rigid, with the plastic strap that crosses the top of your head being completely unpadded. For someone with a lustrous, full head of hair this would not be a problem. For a big, bald head like mine, I could often feel it weighing on my scalp, if not actually cutting into it. Over time, that rigid strap would snap and need to be taped together. Even worse than that, the pads surrounding the earpieces (the actual “speaker” portions of the headsets) were covered with some plastic/vinyl/chemical-based material that over time would break down. This breakdown is usually actuated by sweat, and headsets will generally make your ears sweat. This meant that the dark surface would speckle and flake off, getting onto your ears and into the ear canal. That’s probably not good for you.

This is all a preamble to suggest the Onkyo ES-FC300 headset is a good replacement for your listening experience, as it certainly was for mine. I know, I know, you’re saying “did you like it or not already!” I did. Here’s why.

The unit is not too heavy, so we haven’t fully reverted back to the leaden, plastic halos of the ’80s with the coil-cords (I’m looking at you, 1980’s Radio Shack headphones that could have crushed a rhino’s skull). It is, however, heavy enough so that you have a sense these things can take a little punishment. The top band is padded and sits comfortably on top of the head. The ear pads are just immersive enough, surrounding your ear so that you can — after some time — forget that you’re wearing headphones. That’s important because you want to engage with the sound more than with where it is coming from.

The overall design is sleek. The model comes in three color schemes: purple with purple wires, white with white, and black with red wires. Owing a debt to Beatz, the Onkyos are meant to look fashionable and succeed. I was initially offput by the way the wires decend from the back of the ear pieces rather than dropping naturally from the bottom. It’s an insignificant qualm that I got over quickly, but if you have had many years of headphones in your life, you’ll likely be second-guessing if you’re wearing them right.

The sound is beefy and certainly a step up from the average unit. I hear a distinct difference between this and my older Sony set where highs occasionally got “tweezy” and grating. It seemed that the unit had structural issues where there were internal vibrations that shouldn’t have been there, causing that distortion. The Sony was also not equipped for the modern depth of bass that, while unnatural and probably ought to be avoided, is epidemic in modern recordings. The Onkyo unit could handle them much better, but given my inclinations, I’d turn down the bass on the receiver nonetheless. With a device like a digital player or smartphone, that level of control is often out of the user’s hands.

If I had any real, lingering issues with the unit, they are: the cord is quite short and is a ribbon versus the common vinyl tube-shaped wire. For the latter issue, it is probably a perception issue, and the wires could be as strong as any other, but it feels like it could be flimsy and prone to snapping. To alleviate these feelings (as I assume the manufacturer must have been cognizant of them), the wires plug into the unit, so if the cord does snap, you can easily unplug and buy replacements, rather than ditching the entire unit. That may also mean you can buy longer wires, because those that come packed with the headphones are short. If your only goal is to jog or ride your bike with them on, the length should be sufficient (unless you’re freakishly tall). If you’re plugging into your home receiver and listening from any considerable distances, it’s just not going to work for you.

That is a problem most people won’t face. The bigger drawback might be the price which, while at $149.00 on Amazon and possibly less elsewhere, is an investment. While not as cost-prohibitive as a topline set of Koss or Sennheisers, these are still a decent chunk of change. If you just want something to hear your music from and are not all that worried about “experience,” meaning that you really are looking for noise for your workout versus what that noise entails, these aren’t for you. But if you want an elegant-looking and gutsy-sounding headphone unit for a relatively modest cash outlay, you couldn’t do better than the Onkyo ES-FC300.