Headphone Buying Guide
Buying a New Pair of Headphones
So you need a new pair of headphones, simple right? Not so fast. Finding the right pair of headphones to fit your needs, preferences and budget can often be a more time consuming process than anticipated.
There is more to buying a new pair of headphones than just finding a pair that looks decent, you should be considering what your intended uses are (for example, if you’re a heavy traveler, you probably don’t want a pair of open back headphones), what style headphones you want as well as any other features you may be looking for (Bluetooth, in-line controls, etc.). Buying the perfect pair of headphones can completely transform your entire listening experience.
What Style Do You Want?
There are 3 very distinct styles of headphones available that you can purchase: in-ear headphones (earbuds, IEMs, earphones), on-ear headphones and over-ear headphones. Each style provides a very different fit, serves different needs and has its own advantages and disadvantages.
For in-ear headphones, there are 2 main types of in-ear headphones, earbuds and in-ear monitors. Earbuds rest in your ears and provide little to no acoustic sealing from outside noise. As a result, earbuds are typically the worst sounding headphones and also rarely offer a secure fit.
In-ear monitors feature soft tips that insert into your ears to offer much improved sound isolation. The seal provided allows for outstanding overall sound quality and bass response. Another advantage of in-ear monitors is that they deliver sound directly into your ear drums. In-ear monitors generally include several sets of ear tips in varying sizes to ensure a comfortable fit for most users. In-ears are great for anyone with small ears or who wants something lightweight and comfortable.
On-ear (Supra-Aural) headphones feature earpads that rest directly on your ears (creative name, right?). When comparing on-ear headphones with over-ear headphones, the biggest advantage they provide is that they are much more compact. Earpads on on-ear headphones are not overly bulky because they aren’t designed to enclose your ear entirely. Many on-ear headphones are also designed to be folded up which allows for easy storage and makes them great for travelling.
On-ear headphones typically do not offer the same sound quality as their over-ear counterparts because they simply don’t offer the same level of sound isolation. Because of their design, on-ear headphones often struggle to reach the same bass notes as over-ear headphones. If your desire for convenience outweighs everything else when shopping for headphones, on-ear headphones offer an ideal solution for general headphone use.
Over-ear (Circumaural) headphones are the largest type of headphones you can buy. These headphones completely enclose your ear and typically provide excellent sound isolation. Because of their oversized design and sound isolation, over-ear headphones are traditionally better suited for home use rather than on the go. As a general rule, over-ear headphones offer maximum bass and loudness levels because of their oversized earcups which create a larger sound stage.
Over-ear headphones can be overly bulky for some users. The fully enclosed earcup design can also cause overheating of the ears depending on how much the ear cushions breath.
What Do You Plan to Use Your Headphones For?
Headphones are incredibly versatile. They are ideal for anything from working out to travelling and even playing video games. Once you know what style headphone you want, you need to also know what you intend to use your headphones for. If you’re planning on using them at the gym, you probably aren’t going to want a bulky pair over-ears. You also need to know if you want convenience features like in-line microphone and volume controls. No matter what you intend to use your headphones for, you’ll most likely be able to choose between a pair of Bluetooth or wired headphones.
Active and sport headphones are great for anyone who wants to take their music to the gym or on a run. Most athletic headphones are in-ears, although you can also find on-ear headphones intended for athletic purposes. Many athletic headphones include some type of ear hook integrated into the design to provide a secure fit, ensuring they don’t fall out of your ears or off of your head during use. These headphones also typically feature some type of sweat resistance to provide long lasting use.
If you’re a heavy traveler, investing in a nice pair of noise canceling headphones might be the best thing you can do. Noise canceling headphones, whether they are passive or active, are worth every penny when you’re stuck on a cross country flight filled with screaming kids. The best noise canceling headphones are generally over-ear, but you can also find high quality on-ear and in-ear noise canceling headphones.
For the audiophiles and music professionals, studio headphones are designed with you in mind. These headphones are designed specifically for high quality sound and are available in in-ear, on-ear and over-ear styles, although they are most commonly available in over-ear designs.
No matter what you intend to use your headphones for there is probably an option out there for you. Gaming headsets designed for use with console and PC with integrated microphones are available for serious gamers. These headsets often feature true surround sound technology to ensure you can hear your enemies sneaking up behind you. Home wireless headphone systems are perfect for anyone who doesn’t intend to use their headphones anywhere outside of their home. These systems include a wireless transmitter which is placed at a central location in your home and a compatible pair of headphones. Wireless headphone systems often have ranges well over 100 feet. These wireless headphone systems are great people who want to listen to their music as loud as they want without interrupting their significant others.
Other Features to Know:
Open Back vs. Closed Back:
Closed back headphones acoustically isolate your ears from your surroundings while also limiting sound leakage. They are intended listening when you don’t want to disturb others. Open back headphones don’t seal off your ears from the environment; they allow outside noise in and also allow sound out (making them a poor choice for anything other than private listening where there aren’t many people around). The open design typically provides better sound quality than closed back headphones because there is nothing behind the driver to cause resonances or sound colorations. The open sound stage also makes you feel like you are in a room with speakers rather than wearing a pair of headphones.
Semi-open headphones provide the best of both worlds. Semi-open headphones provide a slightly more open sound stage than closed back headphones while also providing more bass and punch than open back headphones.
The drivers in your headphones are what make the sound you hear. Dynamic drivers are the most common driver type used. A dynamic driver utilizes a permanent magnet attached behind your headphones diaphragm and works with a voice coil to push air at different frequencies, creating your sound. Dynamic drivers provide more coherent sound and better bass response but struggle with overall detail.
A balanced armature driver uses the same general principle and components of a dynamic driver, but a balanced armature driver requires no air to function. Balanced armature drivers can be tuned for specific frequency ranges to provide better sound quality over dynamic drivers, however they can struggle with bass response.
Finding that perfect pair of headphones is an incredibly rewarding experience and is something you will reap the benefits of for years to come.