Buying Guide for Headphones
Are you in the market for new headphones? If you’re thinking about investing in a new pair, but not sure about what you should buy, this guide is for you. We’ll run through the considerations that should come into play when you’re looking for a new pair of headphones. We’ll also discuss the different types of headphones and what you can expect from them. Remember, your sound preferences are unique to you, and if you’re using headphones to listen to music, some headphones are better suited to certain genres. We’ll discuss all of this below.
What should you consider when you want a new pair of headphones?
Every user of headphones is unique, and has different priorities when looking to buy a new pair. Perhaps you love a heavy bass sound, or you are desperate for something noise cancelling. There are plenty of features to headphones on the market today, and it can be overwhelming to know which pair is right for you. Each of us has our preferences when it comes to sound, and our usage habits will make some pairs totally unsuitable for what we want.
Your first consideration is budget, as it will dictate how much you can spend on a pair of headphones, and will either open up or rule out many options. You may also be tied in to buying accessories to go with your headphones, such as a headphone amp, depending on what you want to use them for and what you’re using them with. Think carefully about what technology you are going to use your headphones with, and set a budget that will include all your costs.
If you intend to use your headphones to listen to music, you’re going to need to think about what genre you mostly listen to. Some headphones won’t pick up the full sound behind different music types, so it’s a good idea to think about what you listen to most and buy accordingly. Some headphones are good all-rounders, but others are designed specifically for certain sound types and you’ll find a better experience and music quality with them.
What are you going to be using your headphones with? Is it for listening to music on your phone during the daily commute? Is it for wireless running? Will you be using your headphones with an amp? Do you need Bluetooth connectivity? Knowing the answers to these questions, and having a sure budget, will help to narrow your headphone buying options to a more manageable level.
Where you intend to use your headphones will have a big impact on what kind of product you should go for. If you’re mostly going to use your headphones in a private or quiet place, such as your home, you won’t need the noise-cancelling features of some headphones and can opt for an open style. If you’re going to wear your headphones for commuting or while working in an office, you would be better off with an in-ear or closed type of headphone that doesn’t let sound leak out or outside noise creep in.
Open or closed?
You have a choice between open or closed headphones. Are you not sure what that means? Not to worry, it’s quite straight forward. Open headphones are not designed to be noise cancelling, so outside sounds can interfere with your listening experience, and they leak out sound too. However, the sound stage with a pair of open headphones is wider and so the sounds you listen to will sound more real, as if you’re at an outdoor gig. They’re good for outdoor activities where you need to be aware of the outside world. Closed headphones offer a narrower, direct sound, and usually have design features that prevent sound from leaking out or getting in. They’re great for when you want to listen to audio without disturbing others. Both types of headphone can offer great sound, and it is mostly personal preference and your listening location that’ll dictate which kind you should invest in.
Types of headphones
The four main types of headphones will all produce sound of varying quality, and will also differ widely in price. You should think about what you want your headphones to do for you, and choose the best fit. If you have particularly large or small ear canals, you may be better off with a full-sized headphone, which could offer you more comfort. If you need portability and decent sound, an in-ear option is practical and can be put away neatly.
In-ear headphones (IEMs/in-ear monitors)
These headphones sit in your ear like ear plugs. They have a deep fit, and a well-designed pair will nestle comfortably in your ear canal. Due to the design of in-ear headphones, their seal will prevent much noise from leaking out or getting in. Many pairs will come with a range of replaceable earbud fittings for the headphones, so you can choose the right one that fits the size of your ear canal. They’re very light and portable, but can struggle with producing good bass sound.
This kind of headphone is usually shipped as standard with phones and music players. They don’t go into the ear canal, instead they sit in the ear. They are unable to provide much sound isolation because they’re more of a one-size-fits-all design, and therefore don’t offer a snug seal. They leak a lot of sound and can feel very loose and insecure. Headphone aficionados generally wouldn’t recommend earbuds, however they’re very affordable.
Full-sized headphones: over-ear and on-ear
You have two choices with a pair of full-sized headphones: you can go for circumaural (over-ear) or supra-aural (on-ear). The ear pads are usually connected to each other via a headband.
These are large pads which sit around the outside of your ears, offering complete coverage. The large size of the ear pads creates a seal, which doesn’t touch your ear. To accommodate their design, they’re usually pretty big. The best pairs have a lot of cushioning which makes them comfortable to wear for long periods of time. However, their design means that unless you choose a model that folds into a smaller size, you sacrifice portability.
These have smaller pads that sit on your ear instead, and they have cushioning to increase comfort. They can be more portable than the circumaural models, especially the foldable types. They can offer good sound quality and produce a well-rounded bass sound. However, as they sit on your ears, they can put pressure on them if worn for a long time and feel sore and uncomfortable.
What things should I avoid when buying headphones?
Some of the recommendations about what to avoid won’t apply to you, as this will vary depending on your needs.
Active noise cancelling
Although many headphones advertise their noise cancelling properties, it’s best to choose a headphone style that offers that functionality rather than opting for active noise-cancelling technology. The technology comes at a premium price and doesn’t necessarily offer superior sound isolation over a well-designed pair. It can create bulk in your headphones as they take a lot of power to operate, and they don’t work particularly well on sporadic noise.
There are some popular headphone brands that advertise heavily with celebrity endorsement, but despite their high price tag, they don’t offer superior sound technology. Although these headphones are a bit of a status symbol, if you’re serious about sound quality. you’d be better off avoiding them and going for a trusted brand that focuses more on sound than appearance.
What features are worth paying for?
Headphones have a wide range of features and some of these can add a hefty premium to the price tag. If you want good quality, you may have to pay more for reliability and comfort. The most important features for headphones to have are simple: great sound, and great comfort. If a pair of headphones sound amazing but hurt your ears after 10 minutes, they’re no good. We recommend trying out a pair of headphones with your favorite music before you buy them, so you can see what is best for you. The features that are worth paying more for depend on what kind of headphones you go for.
Wired headphones offer less freedom of movement than a wireless pair, but there is no audio quality loss through the compression of sound that happens with wireless transmission. You also don’t have syncing issues with a plugged-in pair; however, you’ll need to carefully research the quality of the cable to check that they aren’t prone to failure or tangling. Wired headphones don’t require battery power like wireless headphones, unless they include noise cancelling technology.
Wireless headphones are great if you need to be able to move while wearing your headphones and don’t want to be tied to carrying or wearing your audio source. They’re especially useful for wearing when exercising, as they don’t limit your range of movement like a cabled pair can. You can find wireless headphones specifically designed for exercise that will stay in place while you move. However, to fuel the connection, they must be battery powered, and so you’ll need to choose a pair that can play audio for a good chunk of time.
Most wireless headphones use Bluetooth technology to connect to your audio source, and the signal does not need line of sight. The digital radio signal range between your Bluetooth headphones and audio connected device will normally be less than 10m. Other wireless headphones use infrared beams, which transmit from a base unit. The range is less than Bluetooth at under 7m, and you need to maintain line of sight between the headphones and base unit. This means that Bluetooth headphones are significantly better for use in the gym or while exercising, while infrared beam headphones are only of use if your headphones and audio source sit in the same room as you.
Sound quality; bass
Wearing headphones is a different experience to listening to audio on a speaker and subwoofer system. You’re unlikely to feel the bass in the same way as listening to music through speakers, however many headphone brands have features to compensate for that. It is important to keep in mind, however, that any emphasis on bass will come at a cost. If your headphones focus on delivering bass tones at the expense of other frequencies, you may notice that it’s harder to differentiate between instruments and that the music has an unnatural sound. You may be happy with that balance, depending on what genre of music you favor. If you’re keen to hear a hefty bass sound, it’s a better idea to look at full-size, wired headphones which can provide that range.
Yes, we’ve already said that you don’t really need to pay for this feature. However, if you often use headphones in situations with heavy background noise, such as traffic or engine sounds, a noise-cancelling pair can be helpful. They work by listening to the sounds around you and then transmitting a tone to your ear that cancels out the hum of constant noise. They need batteries to power the technology which can make them bulkier. If you really feel that you need noise cancelling headphones, do your research to choose a pair that actually work.
Many headphones now offer in-line remote controls, which help you control what you’re listening to. These remote controls work very well with phones and portable music players, and can change the song, stop the music, and control your volume. There is usually a small control on the headphone cable, with buttons that allow you to manage your sound. If you tend to use your headphones with your phone, this is a great feature to have, as many options also have microphones so you can answer phone calls without needing to get your phone out and remove your headphones.
Weight isn’t an issue if you don’t need portability and aren’t too worried about comfort. However, wearing headphones for any long period of time is likely to become uncomfortable if you have a particularly hefty pair. Heavy headphones will put pressure on your head and ears; lighter headphones are usually much more comfortable. In-ear headphones weigh less because of their stripped-back design; however, you can find full-sized headphones which are lightweight.
Many casual headphone users end up buying a new pair every year, as they have chosen a pair that aren’t reliable and durable. It is a good idea to choose a pair of headphones that are strong and well made. Headphone technology isn’t subject to becoming obsolete and so a good pair can last years. If possible, you should expect to replace your ear pads or earbuds, as after time they’ll need a change for hygiene and wear purposes. You should carefully look at the cable and whether or not it’s susceptible to detachment; in-ear types with angled L-plugs fall victim to this with alarming regularity and leave you with audio in only one ear, if any at all. If you’re looking at a portable foldable pair, check the hinge strength and feel whether or not they seem flimsy.
If you share your headphones, especially with any children, it is a good idea to have a pair with a volume limiter. This will prevent the volume being turned up to a level that can harm and damage the ears.
Our final tips and advice
Headphone manufacturers will use technical jargon that can make their product seem much better than it actually is. You don’t really need to pay attention to frequency response specifications, as they’re not a reliable indicator of sound quality and won’t give you a good idea of what kind of sound you’ll get. Another technical term is total harmonic distortion, which is supposed to give you an idea of sound quality; the lower the number the better. However, again it doesn’t really tell you what to expect. You may also read the term impedance, which is another way of referring to the headphones’ electrical resistance. If it is a low number, the idea is that you’ll get higher volume. The problem with that number though, is that it doesn’t consider your audio player’s output, which may not be particularly loud.
If you’re new to audio, it’s all too easy to get lost in the world of headphones, but hopefully this buying guide will have given you an idea of what you should be looking for. You don’t need to spend a huge amount of money to find great quality sound. We highly recommend visiting an audio shop and trying out headphones with your preferred genre of music, so that you can hear how the headphones play your sound. There is huge variance between models, and your favorite song can sound completely different depending on the pair you choose.