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Headphone Buying Guide

BY: Editorial Staff | Jun 24, 2016

Headphone Buying Guide

Stereo headphones have come a long way since their invention nearly 60 years ago. They now sport many features specifically designed to enhance the listening experience during different activities—whether you use them to fuel workouts, pass time during flights, or engage in conference calls while on-the-go. But, with all of the different types of headphones out there, choosing the right pair can be difficult. As you shop, consider the factors below to help determine which ones are right for you.

Headphone Styles and Shapes

In-Ear and Earbuds: Small headphones that nestle inside your ear.

in ear combo

Benefits:

  • They’re lightweight by design, so they’re easy to pack into gym bags, briefcases, and backpacks.
  • Many also come with features like ear clips and water-resistant housing, making them great choices to use during workouts or outdoor runs.
  • Frequently, multiple pairs of various-sized silicone or rubber tips are included with the headphones to ensure a comfortable, snug fit.
  • Some ear tips can help block outside sound, helping you focus on your music in loud environments.

On-Ear: These headphones rest atop your ears rather than totally enclosing them.

On-Ear & Over-Ear Headphones

Benefits:

  • Their generally larger size means they’re able to house beefier hardware, like larger, more powerful drivers.
  • The fact that they don’t physically surround your ears means you’ll be able to better pick up ambient sound.
  • This design makes them a good pick when you need to stay alert and aware of your surroundings.
  • On-ear headphones are a good compromise between sound quality and portability; you’ll get more nuanced audio than you would with earbuds, but you’ll be able to more easily stash them in a bag than you would with full-sized headphones.

Over-Ear: Sometimes also referred to as “full-sized,” over-ear headphones sport the traditional look of a headband between two cups that totally surround your ears.

over ear

Benefits:

  • This type of headphone usually comes with the best overall sound quality. It can fit larger drivers capable of more rumbling bass, and its physical design helps reduce outside noise.
  • Since they cover the whole ear, the sound they produce is sent through the curves of your ear’s exterior, which helps you pinpoint where a sound is coming from and better hear human speech. 
  • Many models come with padded ear cups and headbands, making them comfortable to wear during hours-long video-game sessions or when you have to DJ your family’s annual dance marathon.

On-Ear & Over-Ear HeadphonesOn-Ear & Over-Ear Headphones

Headphone Features to Look For

Bluetooth: Headphones with Bluetooth capability can connect to other Bluetooth-enabled devices and play their audio without needing to be wired to them with a cable. This means you’ll be able to listen to playlists on your iPhone without taking it out of your backpack or listen to an audiobook on the tablet that’s in your bedroom while you’re doing dishes in the kitchen.

On-Ear & Over-Ear Headphones

Folding Design: Many over- and on-ear headphones feature frames that collapse in on themselves, making it easy to pack them away without worrying about the headband getting bent or tied into a knot.

 

Surround Sound: There are two types of surround-sound headphones—virtual and true. With virtual surround sound, the usual two-speaker headphone setup (one in each ear) is used, but the device reads and transmits the source audio so that it sounds like it's coming from multiple directions. True surround-sound headphones, on the other hand, will feature robust, multispeaker setups. Think of a home-theater speaker system, but shrunk down inside each ear cup. The source audio is then transmitted through each mini speaker, sending sound from multiple angles.

On-Ear & Over-Ear Headphones

 

Flat Cable: Pulling your MP3 player out of your bag and spending time untangling a mess of wire isn’t fun. Lots of headphones today are made with cables that are flat and, unlike their tube-shaped counterparts, aren’t as susceptible to knotting up when stored.

 

Detachable Cables: If your headphone cable catches an edge or snag while you’re moving, the subsequent tug can be damaging to the cable’s functionality. When too much pressure is applied to a detachable cable, the cable pulls safely away. So you won’t have to worry about the cord’s inner workings breaking if it’s pulled too tightly.

 

On-Ear & Over-Ear Headphones

Inline Mics and Remotes: Many headphones—in all form factors—come with small remote controls built into their cables or on their housing. These let you adjust volume and skip tracks, and if they also include a built-in microphone, they’ll let you answer and conduct phone calls.

 

Water Resistant: As their names suggest, water-resistant headphones are able to shrug off some water from penetrating their housing. Typically, headphones labeled as water resistant will stand up to small splashes, sweat, or rain droplets.

 

On-Ear & Over-Ear Headphones

Waterproof: Headphones labeled as waterproof can usually withstand total immersion in water. Be careful when shopping around and seeing this term used, though; just because a product is described as waterproof doesn't mean it'll remain functional in any aquatic condition or at any depth. 

 

On-Ear & Over-Ear Headphones

Noise Isolation vs. Noise Cancellation

Though they sound similar, noise isolation and noise cancellation are actually a bit different. Noise isolation headphones use physical barriers, like ear cups that surround the entire ear or earbud tips that create a seal in the ear, to block outside sound.

You can think of noise cancellation as noise isolation's more technically savvy cousin. Noise cancellation uses built-in microphones to create inverse sound waves of ambient noise that are then sent through the speakers. The effect is that the outside noise is virtually canceled out.

Headphone Technical Specs Explained

If you can’t decide between similar models, knowing a little more about the tech inside each one can help you make your choice a bit easier.

Feature Description

Drivers

Essentially, the pieces that generate the sound in each speaker. They're measured in millimeters (mm), and generally—though not exclusively—the bigger the number, the higher the sound quality.
Frequency Represents the headphones' ability to reproduce sound at the low end of the sound range (bass, represented by the first number) and the high end (treble, which is the second number). The audible frequency range is roughly 20Hz–20,000Hz, so numbers outside that frame are likely a manufacturer inflating a product's specs or marketing toward dogs.
Impedance Tells you how much electrical resistance the headphones give. Most low-impedance headphones should be used with low-impedance sources, like smartphones and MP3 players, since they don't require a heavy dose of power from their source to achieve clear sound. Headphones with an impedance of 50–60 ohms or higher are better off paired with heavy-duty sources, such as DJ and sound-room equipment.
Sensitivity Measures in decibels (dB) how efficiently your headphones transfer your audio source's electrical signals into audible, acoustic signals. This can help tell you how loud the headphones will be at a given voltage from the source.

 



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