Headphones have become an essential part of modern life. Audio media, in general, has seen a resurgence over the past few years with audiobooks, podcasts, and an ever-increasing variety of music becoming mainstream.
Cinephiles, gamers, vinyl enthusiasts, athletes, commuters, your typical office worker; a quality pair of headphones with a comfortable fit, aren’t something that just improves your everyday life, in many ways they’re now a necessity among many devices.
In which case, what should you look for when buying a new set of headphones? And now that wireless technology is streamlined, do you ditch the cord and rely on battery life?
#1 Make Sure You Know Your Priorities
There are several factors to ponder before getting a new pair of headphones:
- Sound Quality
But first, let’s cover some basics.
#2 Research The Different Types of Headphones
There are three main types of headphones, each with their advantages and disadvantages:
- Over-ear headphones – These are what you think of when you picture a DJ over their turntables. Over-ear headphones, also known as circumaural headphones, cover your entire ear with a padded cup. These ear pads ensure the best possible sound quality, noise-canceling technology, and comfort, with size and portability being the most significant drawbacks.
- On-ear headphones – Smaller and more portable than over-ear headphones, on-ear, or supra-aural headphones provide a happy middle ground. Still a great pair, these headphones sit on your ears and are often foldable or collapsible to increase portability.
- In-ear headphones – Intra-aural headphones, also known as earbuds or earphones, fit inside your ear and create a seal in your ear canal for the noise canceling effects. Their portability has made them ubiquitous, and although they suffer when it comes to sound leakage and comfort, quality hardware can provide an excellent listening experience.
Closed-back vs Open-back
Closed-back headphones have no perforations on the ear cup and therefore excel at keeping external sounds, well, external.
Open-back headphones have holes and vents in their ear cups, which allow air and some ambient noise to circulate. As a result, the sound is natural and allows you to enjoy your music while experiencing the world around you.
Wired vs Wireless
Wired headphones have been around for over a century, and they still can't be beaten when it comes to listening to hi-res audio files. They tend to be cheaper than wireless headphones, and there are a host of options to choose from.
Wireless headphone technology has advanced in leaps and bounds over the past few years. This probably isn’t news to you.
If you listen to digital music from iTunes, MP3 files, or if you stream music, wireless headphones now provide the same audio quality as wired headphones. Their incredible portability—without the hassle of tangled wires—and the shift towards smartphones sans audio jacks have made them a convenient choice for many.
True wireless headphones have only recently hit the market and are an innovation borne by wireless technology (looking at you, Bluetooth).
#3 Consider Sound Isolation and Noise Cancelling
Sound isolation works by creating a tight seal (around the ear canal) which blocks out external noise and helps deliver clear audio. When it comes to which type of headphones yields the highest sound isolation efficacy, the hierarchy goes as follows:
Active noise cancellation, on the other hand, works by creating frequencies opposite to ambient sound. When comparing in ear vs over ear headphones, over-ear headphones are usually best suited for active noise-canceling because of their large size, but some high-end in-ear headphones use active noise-canceling technology as well.
#4 Always Look At The Specifications
Try your best not to get overwhelmed by the industry jargon. These specifications interact in numerous ways, and the best test is to try on headphones yourself and see what you like best.
However, some ubiquitous specs to consider are:
- Drivers – Magnets, voice coils, and a diaphragm work together to convert electronic signals into sounds—together, they are a driver. Generally speaking, larger drivers mean more quality, but smaller drivers can produce great sound as well. Over-ear and in-ear headphones use dynamic type drivers, whereas in-ear headphones generally use balanced armature type drivers.
- Frequency Response – This is the range of frequencies a headphone can reproduce. Lower frequencies are associated with bass and higher frequencies with treble. Some headphones are designed to perform better at high or low frequencies (bass boosted, for example), but the minimum range to look for is 20Hz – 20000Hz.
- Impedance – This is a measure of how much power is needed to increase volume. Low impedance headphones (below 50 Ohms) are suited for consumer devices, and high impedance headphones are better for home use with robust audio systems.
- Sensitivity – The efficiency with which an electrical signal is converted to sound and roughly translates to volume. The specifics are fairly complex, but make sure that any headphones you consider buying fall between 85-120 dB SPL/mW.
- Total Harmonic Distortion – This is the level of distortion that occurs at high volumes. This value should be less than 1% and even less for more expensive headphones.
#5 Consider Your Needs Before Making A Decision
Equipped with this information, let's look at the variables! Keep in mind that there are always tradeoffs and what one user prefers might be what another dislikes. It’s always going to be subjective.
If you listen to vinyl, hi-res music, or other top-quality audio media and want to appreciate every fiber of the sound design, wired headphones may prove better than wireless. Simply put (at scale), the hardware is better. Of course, this is likely to change in the future, but for the devout audiophile, quality wired headphones are usually the go-to.
Being that most of us spend every day with our headphones in, comfort is king. Thus, what type of headphone is thought to be the most comfortable?
- Generally speaking, over-ear headphones are the most comfortable. The large padded cups and bands which fit snugly around your head and ears can be wonderful.
- On-ear headphones clamp tightly on your head to create a seal over your ear and are less padded than over-ear headphones to increase portability. Over long durations, they can cause aches, so invest in a pair with quality padding.
- In-ear headphones typically come down to the user. For some, the standard Apple earbuds fit snugly and comfortably. For others, they’re a nuisance. Manufacturers are constantly trying to remedy this and create the most optimal one-size-fits-all option.
This is where in-ear headphones reign supreme. Nothing beats a pair of wireless (or true wireless) in-ear headphones. They’re portable, tiny, and cordless.
Ultimately, what to look for in headphones comes down to what you intend to use them for.
Ask yourself these questions to help narrow your search:
- Do you commute? – Portability might be your biggest concern. Thus, consider wireless or true wireless earbuds.
- How much do you care about audio quality, and do you listen to high-resolution music? – Audiophiles swear by wired headphones—usually on-ear with closed-backs.
- Do you want headphones for the gym or other active hobbies? – Exercising and other physical activities are contributing factors to the growth of wireless popularity. Wireless headphones stay in, and you don't have to worry about cables bouncing up and down.
- Do you want headphones for gaming or watching movies? – Wireless headphones are gaining ground with gamers and film enthusiasts. Issues with latency and battery life are quickly disappearing.
- Do you have a favorite genre of music you listen to? – Some headphone companies adjust their sound curves to provide benefits like bass boosting. Check if there are particular headphones suited to your musical tastes!
$5 bargain earphones may seem like a steal, but the theft occurs with your music quality. More expensive headphones are (typically) made with quality hardware and better technology. Again, you get what you pay for is definitely a phenomenon in the headphone market.
Headphones do, however, follow the law of diminishing returns. Above $300, the difference can be indistinguishable. Be that as it may, there is a stark difference between a pair of $20 earphones, $100 headphones, and a $300 headphones. Thus, it’s imperative that you do your due diligence before making a purchase. Read the reviews. Learn what’s the best bang for your buck.
And, ensure that it’s not a brand driving that expensive price tag, but the quality of the hardware.
What to Look for When Buying Wireless Headphones | Bluetooth
Just a few years ago, people were right to wonder, “Are wireless headphones good?”—Bluetooth had obvious limitations. However, on January 21, 2019, Bluetooth 5.1 was released. This led to the development of new codecs (software that encodes data in one location and decodes it at another) like APTx, which allows bitrates of up to 576kbps—a rate better than most mp3 files that generally operate at 256kbps.
This innovation completely flipped the script, creating the foundation for the wireless movement—one that is quickly dominating the marketplace.
A Final Thought
When it comes to what to look for in headphones, it almost always boils down to preference. Yet, as technology continues to improve, we’re going to see a lot of competition in the marketplace. If you’re not well-versed in audio design and hardware, your best friend will always be reviews.
As it stands—you can now achieve incredible audio through wireless headphones. This quality spike in tandem with the convenience, portability, and functionality they offer has skyrocketed their popularity.
But, if you’re an audiophile with Daredevil ears, you’ll probably find better hardware in wired technology.
It’s all up to your preferences, needs, and budget.
NCBI. Ear Recognition from One Sample Per Person. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17299227
Forbes. Open-Back Vs. Closed-Back Headphones. https://www.forbes.com/sites/geoffreymorrison/2013/11/02/open-back-vs-closed-back-headphones/#ae094c916a53
CNET. Here's what you need to know about headphone specifications. https://www.cnet.com/news/a-headphone-buyers-guide-to-specifications/
The New York Times. The Pros and Cons of Noise-Canceling Headphones. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/07/travel/the-pros-and-cons-of-noise-canceling-headphones.html
The Wall Street Journal. From Wi-Fi to Bluetooth to 5G, All Your Wireless Is About to Change. https://www.wsj.com/articles/from-wi-fi-to-bluetooth-to-5g-all-your-wireless-is-about-to-change-11548597600