Travel Gear: The Vagabond’s Headphone Round-Up

If you’re going to drop your hard-earned money on something other than airplane tickets, bus fare or hostel reservations, it had better be worth it. Headphones are something you need, what with other passengers or cafe-mates not being huge fans of noise pollution, but many have a tendency to break in half at the slightest provocation.

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If you want a headset that will actually survive the torture of the road, there are three things you have to take into consideration.

  1. #1: The cords. Are they cheap, stretchy plastic? Or are they woven from something strong enough to survive some tension?
  2. #2: The ear cups. Are they held solidly in place by metal and sturdy engineering? Or are they rigid plastic primed to snap the first time someone accidentally sits on them?
  3. #3: The arch. Does it have any bend to it? Can you make it flex without straining the material or tempting a crack?

These were the things I kept in mind as I reviewed four new sets of headphones: the Zinken from Urbanears (Green) $140, the Wicked Audio Evacs ($50), the Phiaton MS 400s ($249), and V-MODA’s Crossfade M-80.

Left to right: V-MODA M-80s, Urbanears Zinken, Phiaton MS-400s and Wicked Evacs

The Zinken from Urbanears

The Zinken is, at first glance, a perfect compromise of affordability and convenience. It has a cloth wrapped cord that looks capable of taking a pull and an arch with a lot of flex. The ear cups appear sturdy enough, but there’s a hinge connecting them to the arch itself that I have very little confidence in. Sound quality is excellent. Not quite up to par with V-Moda’s offerings, but more than sufficient to satisfy anyone who isn’t an audiophile.

My favorite feature on these headphones is the auxiliary port hidden under the right cup. It allows you to plug a second set of headphones into your headphones, which makes these perfect for couples traveling by plane or bus. I can heartily recommend these at $140, but I will note that twenty or so miles of running with these has frayed the outer edge of the cloth-wrapped cord more than I would have expected. If you do a lot of running, you might be better served by the …

Wicked Audio Evacs

Yes, it’s a general truth of headphones that you get what you pay for. And, at fifty bucks, you wouldn’t expect a whole lot. But I’d go so far as to say they’re the best blend of durability and sound quality available for less than the price of a pair of V-MODA’s mil-spec Crossfades. The cords aren’t detachable, but they are made of durable Kevlar that thirty miles of running hasn’t been able to fray or stretch. The Evacs are my go-to exercise headset now, because they’re just so darn good at it.

They have a very bendy arch, which is a good sign. But the ear cups connect to the arch in a similar way to the Zinkens, which is the only thing that worries me from a survivability standpoint. Sound quality is solid, not exceptional, but easily the best you can expect for the price.

The only issue I’ve experienced with the Evacs is some peculiar behavior when they are exposed to high winds. Something about the round shape of the ear cups can cause an odd noise when hit by a strong breeze. It isn’t too distracting, but I definitely noticed it.

The Phiaton MS 400s

We’ll start with the good: these bad boys have the best sound quality I’ve found in $200-$300 headphones. I believe they outpace any Beats or V-MODA headset I’ve yet had a chance to play with. For raw sound quality, you can’t go wrong with the Phiatons.

That said, they aren’t the toughest headphones ever made. The arch appears more fragile than either of the previous two sets, the cord is easily snapped plastic, and the ear cups are connected by a brittle plastic. These won’t survive being sat on or tossed in a bag. But if you’re careful they won’t have to. Phiaton saw fit to include an excellent carrying case and, since the ear cups fold down flat, it should be perfectly safe in storage. I don’t know that I’d advise these over V-MODA’s much tougher offerings. That’s a choice you’ll need to make: sound quality or build quality.

V-MODA’s Crossfade M-80

I’ll get the obvious bits out of the way first. V-MODA is the top of the field when it comes to style and feel. I’ve tested a few of their headsets at this point and every single one radiates quality. And it’s a bone deep sort of quality, because you will not find a more durable set of audiophile-grade headphones in this same weight class. The M-80s are smaller than the older Crossfade LPs, which makes them extra useful for the modern vagabond. They look good without being showy, and they’re small without delivering tiny sound.

As I mentioned earlier, the MS 400s have a definite edge in sound quality. The M-80s do their damnedest but they are still quite small, which means a slightly clogged sound that Phiaton’s offerings do not suffer from. But in every other arena, V-MODA gets the crown.

The arch is designed and tested to survive being bent flat 10+ times. The ear cups are held in place by solid, strong metal. No thin wire and no snap-happy plastic here. And, best of all, the M-80s have V-MODA’s traditional removable Kevlar cords. These are the absolute toughest headphone cords I have ever seen, and the fact that they unplug from the body of the headset means you’ll never catch them on a doorknob (or whatever) and cause serious damage.

I found the M-80s by far the most comfortable headphones to run with. Being so small and light means they trap a minimum of heat around my head, which really makes a difference when you’re doing 10+ miles in three digit heat.

The Bottom Line

If you want durable, quality headphones and you are on a tight budget, I recommend the Evacs – no question. If you’re OK with dropping more money to ensure quality and survivability, the M-80 is a clear winner. Phiaton wins on sound-quality and the Zinken is a solid mid-range price compromise between the Evacs and everything else.

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