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by on January 1, 2017



By Leigh David, CET

Which headphones make sense for transcription? In the ongoing quest for the best headphones for transcription, I have learned that articles and reviews of the multitude of choices are almost entirely geared toward listening to music and that the “experts” in these articles are not addressing the use of headphones to hear the audio/digital recordings for the purpose of verbatim transcription. I wish that I had the expertise to design evaluation procedures expressly to evaluate headphones for that purpose. In my reality, I quickly become lost in the quagmire of variables sound, intensity, frequency, clarity, to be controlled in the sound source and in the listener and am at a loss how to design such a study. However, I can share with you some of the variables and how you might approach the purchase of headphones for use in transcription.

For an actual study, we would need to have subjects as listeners who would actually transcribe predefined samples from the various headphones. Additionally, we would need to define the standards to be used in the evaluation of the headphones themselves.

The ability of the human ear to hear all of the frequencies varies widely. The frequencies that can be detected in young people is generally defined as a range of 20 to 20,000 kHz. As we age, this range decreases particularly in the higher frequencies.  Generally, men are more affected by this decrease than women. The frequency range attributed to speech is 500-8000 kHz. We evaluate hearing to find the intensity level for hearing in this frequency range from 500 to 8000. Our threshold (loudness level, decibel level) for hearing various frequencies varies and that is normal. The range from 2000 to 5000 kHz is the most sensitive; these would be the frequencies that we perceive at the lowest intensity.

This brings us to look at the intensity or loudness of speech. In combination with frequency, we discover that different frequencies can be discerned at varying thresholds or loudness levels measured in decibels (a logarithmic measure). This threshold must be exceeded before we “hear” any given frequency. The range of intensity heard by the human ear (transcriptionists included) is from zero to 120 decibels. It is not that we can’t hear over 120 decibels but that is the threshold for pain. It hurts, and if sustained at those high levels can permanently damage our hearing, in other words, noise induced hearing loss. Again, the range from 2000 to 5000 kHz is the most sensitive; these would be the frequencies that we perceive at the lowest intensity.

It is true that some sound that we may not perceive through our ears could be perceived through vibration. If you have ever turned your stereo up all the way (or for that matter, your upstairs neighbor has played their stereo at full volume), you know all about sound vibration. However, that is not of any import in this particular discussion.

I went back to review the voice qualities that comprise spoken speech, timber, resonance, pitch, tonal range — if all you want to do is purchase a solid pair of headphones these considerations quickly become a bit overwhelming.

There is a value referred to as clarity that applies to the headphones sound transmission as well as to the sound source. It is often explained in terms of clarity of sound in music but also would or should be defined in terms of the clarity of a given speaker.

Here is a list to consider when purchasing headphones for transcription. It is not comprehensive, but it is a good start.

  1. Frequency range: Range should be at least 500 to 8,000 MHz, the speech frequencies. However, I think the more range the better because we do not know what those higher or lower frequencies add to the overall comprehension and color of the speech.
  1. Intensity: Can you make the sound loud enough for your ears? Further, is that intensity balanced among the frequencies? Do you need an amplifier in order to get the sound loud enough to suit you? This is related to the impedance rating of your headphones. Sennheiser makes a pair of headphones that has rave reviews, the HD600, open circumaural headphones. The open design is described as making the sound seem more like you are there in the studio, but the sound leaks from the headphones. That is the nature of open headphones. You will be unable to use them with other people working around you (and keep friends anyway). The other caveat is that to get the ideal intensity or loudness output from some high-end headphones would require an investment in an audio amplifier that can easily cost, again, what the headphones cost.
  1. Connections: Do the connections and wires from the headphones to the computer or stereo or iPod add static or extraneous sounds to the transmission of the audio? In standard PCs, there can be unwanted transmission of static from stuff inside the computer. A way to circumvent that is the addition of a USB Sound Pod so that the audio does not go through your computer. These can be relatively inexpensive, $50 or so.
  1. Character of Transmission: Consider the character of the transmission of the sound by a given headphone. It may be very heavy in the bass as many are for ideal transmission of music. Or it may be relatively flat desirable for musicians editing a recording. Mushy or tinny are very subjective words. You must listen to know what they mean to you.

It appears that I really have not suggested what you should buy or consider buying.  You will find that you have your own preferences and that you, by necessity, must stay within a given price range.

My preferences are for either over-the-ear headphones or alternatively the ear-plug, in-the-ear-type headphones. I do not care for the on-the-ear type headphones, because I have found them to be uncomfortable and do not create as tight a seal as the over-the-ear headphones which are my preference. My latest personal fascination is with the open-style headphones that I mentioned above. It just seems as though they might be superior for speech. However, the jury is still out on that. I just do not know.

My price range for over-the-ear headphones is from $150 to about $400. I have spent considerably less for ear-plug-type headphones and been very happy with the resulting sound quality in transcription. Both over-the-ear and the earbuds, due to their construction, provide some natural cushioning that masks outside noise. I have owned noise-cancelling headphones, and they are nice. In my opinion, they are not necessary for most of us.

There are many excellent brands of headphones including, Sony, Audio-Technica, Bose, Beyerdynamic, Plantronics, Grado, Sennheiser, HiFiMan to name a few.

I recommend starting your quest by checking the articles online for the best headphones, reading and comparing the features in the reviews of the headphones they recommend. If at all possible, try the headphones before you buy. No review can substitute for your own sense of what works for you.

If you are at all like me, you will be somewhat confused but up to the challenge of trying to find that perfect headphone for you.

Good luck.


Leigh David is an AAERT-certified transcriber and holds a Master’s degree in Speech Pathology.


Has some information on sound pods that could be helpful in your research.

For the range of frequencies of the human ear

Cnet’s list of 2016 best,2817,2399261,00.asp

PC Magazine’s list of best headphones for 2016

Best earbuds for 2016

Sennheiser HD 600 Headphones


From → AAERT News

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