/ Life at SC5, Technology

Best Headphones for Open-Plan Office

This article reveals which headphones SC5ers like the best and why!

The professional life of a geek consists of two main modes of operation: meetings and hacking. Meetings we try to deal with as quickly as possible to get more quality time with our beloved computer and get the stuff that really matters done. But a quick look at the backs and foreheads in the SC5 Helsinki open office reveals that people do a lot more than just type away at their keyboards – at least every other person has got a set headphones on! At best this figure might be as high as 80%!

Life and work at SC5 is essentially about absolutely liking what you do. The opportunity to choose your equipment is an important part of that.

I’d say that the choice of your laptop and its customization is nearly second to your choice of headphones as they become the second most used piece of equipment that most of us ferry around at the client and home offices on a daily basis. While SC5ers mostly utilize headphones for their personal entertainment, helping to block external noise and focus on the task at hand, they do have professional functions as headphones equipped with a microphone, known as headsets enabling folks to attend remote meetings we also hold on a regular basis.

AKG K550 closed headphones.

I’ve spotted a number of different types of headphones and headsets in the office in the past years. In this article, I introduce couple that are most popular and what our people have to say about them. I also give my own honest opinion of what they sound like.

The headphone models chosen were Bose QuietComfort 25 and 35, Plantronics Backbeat Pro (1st generation), and Sennheiser HD4.50 BTNC / HD 4.40BT. The price range for these headphones is between 150-400 euros and thus represent a medium level investment in audio reproduction. The low end also represents the level at which we subsidise employee personal audio equipment.

What’s best for open office work?

Looking around at our office, I can quickly tell which headphones features are in and which out. Most important closed headphones rule! While we have a bunch of open headphones, such as the classic Koss Porta Pros and Sennheiser HD models still around the office, they mostly decorate desk space rather than anybody’s head.

Classic choice: Koss PortaPro is extremely affordable, durable and unique looking open headphones.

Closed is a technical term which means that the structure of the headphone “cup” does not let sound (that is movement air) freely travel through it. You can think of closed headphones as earmuffs whereas open headphones would be like earmuffs with holes through which sound goes in and out.

For open office use, closed headphones are a win-win choice: they block external sounds from your ears AND greatly reduce the amount of “noise” emitted from your own music listening to the environment.

Headphones, the hard hat for software constructors

Most people rely on noise-cancelling (NC) headphones that can nicely reduce environmental background noise such as air-conditioning hum. Truthfully speaking, they really pay off only in places such as trains and airplanes which have a high level of background noise than an office usually does. Especially air travel is so much better. In open office use noise cancellation is neither required nor effective against the most common source of interruption: speech sounds. Noise cancellation is so called active technology which means that NC headphones need a battery and several other electric components such as microphones, which make the headsets heavier than “passive” solutions.

Wearing headphones with a cap is a challenging use case which all models don’t support. Selected three here do it with grace.

Wireless headphones are also hot. Wireless, Bluetooth-based technology usually comes with a few added functionalities such as volume, track skip or phone controls integrated into the headsets (btw., I haven’t seen anyone in this extremely Apple-friendly environment using Airpods!). Wireless gives you a certain freedom and reduces chances of, for instance, incidentally dragging your laptop down from the desk as you leave for a coffee without realizing that your super comfortable headphones are still on. I personally don’t appreciate the fact they need to be charged at least on a weekly basis to keep them running.

Which headphones are the best?

By popularity, most of our folks have currently converged on three lines of products for which I here present the collective opinion. The opinions are from mixed use with laptops and smartphones, I personally tested all the models with Macbook Pro (early 2016) primarily in the wired setup using Spotify Premium (High-quality streaming).

If you go looking for these models, you’ll find them in categories such as wireless, over the head, Bluetooth or noise canceling headsets.

Bose QuietComfort

Bose QuietComfort 35 Bluetooth headset. Note small buttons on the bottom left.

Description

Bose has a classic wired model QC25 and a similar wireless model QC35. They reside in the 300-400 price range, representing the premium class in our lineup. Bose comes with an elegant leather looking, hard traveling box. The box houses the airplane adapter, an extra battery in QC25’s case or a USB cable for QC35.

By design, both models look almost the same. The plastic finish does not look cheap, if somewhat dull. The available colors are black, silver and white, although the white model has beige earpads. The feel is convincing, the joints feel sturdy and every bit feels like it is just properly fit.

Both headsets have a removable cable (in QC25, this includes volume controls and microphone) and can be folded, allowing them to be carried around in a very compact bag. The headband is also identical between models. QC25 is powered by a single AAA battery, which lasts surprisingly long. QC35 includes an internal battery charged via USB Micro, type B connector. QC35 weighs 235 grams, QC25 198 grams according to CNET.

Bose QuietComfort 25 wired headset. The microphone is located on the wire. Design otherwise much the same with QC35.

Pros

Bose QC35 has a good battery life exceeding some 20 hours. Our people agree on the comfort slogan as several people, including myself, vouch that these are one of the best fitting headphones they’ve ever used. Ergonomy is very important for equipment which is not necessarily only used for entertainment but also for protection and privacy.

“You can easily keep Bose in your head all through the day, even if you don’t listen to music!”

The headsets have a good audio quality for music and speech. They are not the ultimate hi-fi headphones, but do a decent job on many kinds of material. In the passive mode (that is without noise cancellation) both 25 and 35 sound much the same. However, QC35 sounds quite different in the active mode – which is always when if you use it wirelessly.

In my opinion, QC35 NC does less damage to the sound quality than QC25. This is good news, as with NC QC35 Bluetooth also always enables noise cancellation. I personally run my QC25 usually without NC just for this reason.

Cons

We’ve had few reports of misbehaving QC35’s. There’s an argument of for a bug at high volumes and a fellow SC5er has discovered several problems while using QC35s with the cord. For QC25, the performance is really consistent and after a year, I’ve got no particular complaints.

Being unable to turn off noise cancellation is another worry. Indeed, you wouldn’t always need it and could save the battery for something else, but that feature is not supported.

The provided cable of QC35 is not up to standards of QC25. Several SC5ers have in fact ordered a QC25 replacement cable to replace QC35 original cable with the longer and sturdier QC25 cable.

The price tag is pretty high. Unless you’re scavenging dubious Chinese markets, you won’t come up with these devices for much under 300€ (or $300).

Opinions outside SC5: read here: https://www.innerfidelity.com/content/outstanding-bose-quiet-comfort-35-wireless-noise-canceling-headphone 

Plantronics Backbeat PRO (gen. 1)

Plantronics Backbeat Pro (Gen. 1). The outer part of the band ends in a big scroll wheel controlling volume or playback on both sides of the device.

Description

Plantronics has made a great entry into a lucrative price range of under 250€. This includes a comprehensive feature set with all wireless things you can wish for. In addition to basic controls, the headset includes automatic playback controls that detect when you take off the headphones and also give spoken feedback of what the device is doing.

The design is quite technical looking, resembling a bit the Beats look, but evidently much created based on the needs of the controls. The control buttons and wheels dominate the device, making it look like an old feature phone, but luckily affording good usability. However, the finishing is bit plastic. The unit weighs 340 grams, a third more than competing products.

On a side note, these headphones were recently updated to Backbeat PRO 2, which affected their looks to a great deal.

Pros

Plantronics is very comfortable to wear, although they do feel a tad heavier than Bose for instance. Good adjustment range making them accessible to people of different head and hair style. Control buttons are big and responsive, using them is easy after you learn to tell left from right. More controls, more confusion. The labeling of the buttons is unclear.

Sound quality is fair. The balance is distinctively different from Bose, particularly for the high zone. Easy to get used to. Battery life exceeds 20 hours, which we currently deem acceptable behavior.

Cons

Pairing requires consultation of a manual.

NC (called ANC) introduces noticeable background hum, the insulation of external noise is good even without it due to the structure.

In a long run, Bluetooth connection seems to be giving problems to a lot of people. This gets worse if you use several devices to share the headphones wirelessly. As a result, you have connection problems, missing sound, and random noise. Wired connection apparently does not suffer the same problem.

Although the headphones are pretty comfortable, I get a feeling of heat around my ears after an hour or so. Feels as if the phones are less spacious than Bose and leave less space for heat transfer. It is not anywhere near painful, but feel distinctively different than the reference headset.

Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC / HD 4.40 BT

 

Description

Sennheiser has recently introduced two new, nearly identical headphone models, HD 4.50 BTNC and 4.40 BT. The acronyms imply that the latter model lacks NC, noise cancellation. Otherwise, the design and specifications are identical. Noise cancellation feature adds some 30€ to the price, now only 129€ for 4.40 and 159€ for 4.50.

The headphones pack all the standard features you could ask for. Playback, volume control, and phone controls. The unit can be folded and carried in a compact pouch. Only available in black. Earpads can be replaced. Weighs 225 grams.

Pros

The design of the headphones is pretty elegant and streamlined. Look and feel is as if this was more expensive. Despite their lightweight structure, headphones provide a firm feeling and good fit, at least initially.

Bluetooth connectivity works well and the battery lasts over 20 hours. The sound is not unlikely with other Sennheiser headphones, good the for the price and quite competitive with others in the comparison.

One of our employees, Sami, a former bass player, was really impressed by the bass reproduction, whereas I find it to be a bit too much. Bass is extremely deep and loud. Feels quite controlled, but quickly becomes overwhelming losing some resolution. Sounds overall a bit cold, deactivating NC adds some warmth.

Cons

Usability is challenging. Physical buttons are quite small and the feedback is mediocre at best. It is not easy to press them correctly. More importantly, the first user experience is bound to be bad as the buttons have no labeling and you must resort to the bit confusing quick start guide to even power on the headset!

This might be okay if the quick start guide was any better! Unfortunately, it is quite complicated.

Activating noise cancellation is also tricky. This can’t be done, at least initially, without taking the headphones off and ensuring visually that you’re using the volume control in a different way

I personally didn’t have a well compatible head. After some 1.5 hours of use, I get minor discomfort at auricle (the visible part of the ear) as well as a feeling of pressure from the thin headband. I didn’t experience these symptoms with either Bose or Plantronics.

The stereo image is decent, but not particularly spatial. For me, it sounds better without NC. Noise cancellation didn’t in anyway feel to be up to the level of competition, although the closed structure does block some noise.

The cord is very similar to Bose, but micrometer thinner, so they are not interchangeable.

Guess what those three violet asterisks *** mean? Sennheiser multilingual getting started instruction manual uses pretty cryptic visual language that takes some time to comprehend.

Simply the best – which one?

The ongoing experiment with headphones can’t objectively tell which ones are the best. However, most users of Bose found little serious concerns and many positive sides so I think they can be wholeheartedly recommended.

Plantronics received a warm welcome but has not stood the test of time very well. They have (or more so had in Gen. 1) few lucrative design features such as big controls. They have an effective anti-noise function so you can claim your own audio space all right.

Sennheiser models were the most affordable and left some mixed opinions. Their NC function is not as good as in other models, they have a less neutral sound and ergonomic challenges. Then again, features for the money is impressive. So, the product is good, but not really the best out there.

How about open headphones?

I have given few attempts to use Sennheiser HD 518 headphones from the similar price range (100-150€) in our office. They do sound very clear. Feels very sharp and accurate, the stereo image is very spacious, feeling as expanding outside your head! You don’t get this with closed headphones.

Sennheiser HD 518 is a very comfortable open structure headphones with good sound in the price range.

But the headset doesn’t feel like really setting in over my head, it leaves a plastic and hard feel. On the other hand, it is evidently lighter than the tested headphones so it doesn’t inflict much pressure on the head. It also provides minimal noise blocking due to the open and light structure. This is somewhat disturbing as it interferes with the listening experience, even your keyboard noises come through loud and clear. They would do well in quiet settings – or if you really want to catch every breath of your neighbor.

Wear earmuffs over in-ear headphones?

I’ll conclude with a free tip: if you don’t want to invest in noise blocking headphones, wear earmuffs over in-ear headphones! This trick can work for short time salvation in a noisy open plan office environment. Earmuffs don’t work ideally in this application over longer time, but they are definitely the cheapest, most effective noise guard you can find!

Earmuffs over in ear headphones guarantee your personal audio space. In fact, you won’t even hear a fire alarm with these ones.

Huge thanks to all SC5ers who contributed to this review one way or the other!

Special thanks to Janne, Jutta, Sami, Jonne, Arto, Antti, Leo-Matti, Mursu, Alex 1+2, Perttu and Mikko.

Want to enjoy SC5 working life? Check out open positions from our careers page. We care about our employees’ auditory wellbeing enough to subsidize the headphones you want!
Text and photos: Lassi A. Liikkanen, Data-Driven Design Specialist at SC5, @lassial
Visuals: Laura Rantonen, SC5

Listener Profile: Lassi

I have given some importance to impressive audio reproduction over 20 years. While I’m quick to dismiss and avoid bad technical solutions, such as economy class airplane earpieces, I’ve never fallen a victim of a high-end audiophilia. Musically I’ve developed a broad taste of different musical genres, mostly experienced in progressive rock, varieties of metal, contemporary classical music and ambient electro.

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