A few months ago, I came to the conclusion that I’d never get any work done when constantly dealing with all of the little distractions that come from working in a shared office space. I miss my private office. Oh, well. Anyway, I bit the bullet and bought a set of Grado SR-60 headphones. They sounded nice when I was trying them out, but I wasn’t all that impressed with them when I plugged them into my PowerBook.

First, most headphones claim need a few hours or even days of use to “break in.” After a day or so, the Grados did sound a bit better, but there’s no real way to quantify or repeat that, so it might just be Audio Lore. Second, I discovered that the Grados sound better if I shift them up and back a bit on my ears from the Position of Maximum Comfort. They sound better then, but they’re less comfortable. They still didn’t sound all that hot with the laptop, though, and I was starting to regret buying them. Interestingly enough, they sounded better with my wife’s iPod. So, apparently my PowerBook has a cheap headphone amp. Apparently that’s normal; most consumer electronics equipment comes with cheap headphone amps.

Fortunately, the electronics industry is just great at building new things to sell to work around problems like this, and $99 later I was the proud owner of an Echo Indigo PCMCIA (CardBus actually) soundcard for my laptop. The Indigo is sort of an interesting beast; it’s a soundcard designed for headphones. It has a pair of 18” headphone jacks on it and an analog volume dial. It has drivers for most recent versions of Windows as well as OS X; unfortunately the Mac drivers would crash your box if you ejected the card until a month or two ago. Grrrr. It works perfectly now, though.

Sound quality-wise, though, the Indigo has been perfect from day one. It’s clearly better then the built-in headphone jack. Everything sounds way clearer. Music is more enjoyable. The Grado/Indigo combo sounds way better then any home stereo I’ve owned.

The only real problem is comfort–the Grados get uncomfortable after a couple hours of listening. They’re a bit scratchy, and they start to feel oppressive after a while. Plus, they don’t block any of the ambient noise in your environment, so the only way to block noise is to turn the volume up louder. I like loud, but then everyone else in the office gets to share, and I get a headache after an hour or two.

I should probably mention that my office is especially loud right now–I have a pile of Cisco gear 5-10 feet from my desk, including a 7505, two 7204s, a Cat 6505, and a couple PCs with industrial-grade cooling fans. It’s loud. It’s hard to conduct conversations at normal volumes.

So, I just bought a set of Shure (yeah, the microphone people) E2c earphones. They go in the ear, not on it. Think “earplugs with speakers in them” and you’re won’t be far from the truth. The jury’s still out on the Shures; they’re reasonably comfortable, and they block lots of noise, but they don’t sound nearly as sweet as the Grados.