Welcome to How To, where we break down the absolute basics of a particular A/V topic. Here, we’re going to take you through the ins and outs of headphones.
So because we’re nice, we’ve done a little bit of maths for you. We went onto Amazon, and we added up all the headphones in each category (earbud, on-ear, etcetera). The final number is a little scary. As of right now, there are 65,935 different models of headphones on Amazon. To be fair, that number probably includes spare parts and variations and cheap knockoffs, but that is still an absolutely staggering number of headphone models.
Honestly, it can get a bit bewildering sometimes, even for us. Separating the good from the bad headphones is what we do, but trying to keep track of the number of headphones flooding into the marketplace is like trying to juggle pigeons. Fortunately, what we can do is dish out some good advice about what to look for when you’re buying a new pair. The best place to start from is right at the beginning, assuming absolutely no knowledge. Feel free to skip the parts you know already, but we guarantee you that there’ll be something helpful below. Herewith: how to buy a pair of headphones, from scratch.
Types of Headphones
Broadly speaking, headphones are separated into three distinct types: Earbuds, on-ear, and over-ear. For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to refer to all three models as headphones throughout (despite the fact that earbuds don’t actually go on your head).
Let’s deal with earbuds first. These are the smallest and most lightweight headphone model around, designed to slot right into your ears. There is often a distinction made between earbuds and in-ear headphones, which says that earbuds rest at the opening of the ear and in-ear headphones slot more deeply into the canal. We don’t think that’s a distinction worth making. We’ve certainly never seen an objective, cross-manufacturer standard applied here. For all intents and purposes, you can consider earbuds and in-ear headphones to be the same thing.
Earbuds have the advantage of, as we said, being light and portable. They offer pretty decent isolation, which refers to their ability to block out the world around you, and they’re also really good for anybody who wears glasses or who travels a lot, as they’re really easy and comfortable to use on planes. There are, however, some downsides. Because of their small size, they usually (but not always) fail to offer the sound quality that larger headphone models do. The bass, in particular, tends to suffer, as the innards of an earbud don’t have the power necessary to produce it. Aside from that, it’s also quite easy to lose earbuds, and for whatever reason, their thin cables tend to get tangled up a little more easily than other types.
Our roundup of the best earbuds available is right here.
Then there are on-ear. These are full headphones, in the sense that they consist of two cups joined by a flexible head band. The idea is that the cups sit on top of your ears, without fully enclosing them. As a result, the cups themselves are usually quite small and unobtrusive, and the entire package is quite lightweight
These headphones offer a much better bass response than earbuds, and also offer the advantage of actually letting in the world around them. This might seem like a negative, but if you’re in a situation where you need to be able to listen to what’s happening around you, like for example, if you’re out for a run or crossing a busy street, then these might be what you’re looking for. Besides, the construction and the way they sit on top of your ears means that your lugs remain well ventilated. The downside? There’s a term we going to come back to again and again: bleed. This means the amount of sound that leaks out of the headphones when the music is playing, and which is potentially audible to anyone around you. On-ear headphones are notorious for bleed. If you use them at work, for example, your colleagues may not be too happy with you. Especially if you like, say, Norwegian death metal. We'll be doing a full roundup of these soon.
Finally, let’s talk about over-ear headphones. These are the next step up from on-ear, in that they fully cover your ears from front to back. They are bigger, heavier and less portable than other types of headphones, making them best suited to static use – in other words, situations where you’re going to be in one place for a while. They come into variations: closed-back, which seal off the ear completely, and open-back, where the outside of the ear cups is partially open to the world, usually through a grille of some kind. Open-back headphones sound better, but bleed more.
The advantages are obvious. The sound quality of over-ear headphones is generally considered to be the best of all three types. The bass is deeper, the details sharper, and the overall sound more warm than other models. These headphones can really envelop you in the music, and if you’re interested in doing deep listening, already spending time with your favourite songs, then we strongly recommend getting them. However, there are downsides (aren’t there always?). Because of their design, you do tend to sweat a little when you’re using them, which may be a turnoff for long-term use. They can be uncomfortable if you have big ears, and they are very much not portable; or at least, they are portable with great difficulty. Still, all three types, we like these the most, but it’s completely down to personal preference and what you’re going to be using them for. If you want to see which over-ear headphones we recommend the most, our roundup has some good picks in it.
Are There Any Variations?
Yep! Think of these as the little guitar rifts that liven up a classic album. On-ear, over-ear and earbud headphones might make up the triple threat, but there are a couple of different flavours to pick from. These aren’t essential, by any means, but they can certainly improve the package if they’re what you’re looking for.
The first one is noise-canceling. A pair of noise-canceling headphones (technically active noise-canceling headphones, as they use a powered system rather than a passive seal) actively work to block out the sound around you, using inbuilt microphones to capture the sound and then annihilate it. These are almost exclusively over-ear headphones, as the design lends itself to the increased amount of electronics necessary, as well as providing a decent seal that assists with the effect.
Sometimes they use batteries, and sometimes they can be recharged by USB or something similar. Either way, we love noise-canceling headphones – when they work well, that is – and think that if you’re looking for a new pair, these ones are worth considering. That being said, they do make things a little and sometimes a lot more expensive, so make sure you actually need them before you shell out. If you do, we’ve got a good list here.
You might also see the term noise-isolation headphones. This is just noise-cancelation the relies on a passive seal round the ear, rather than any active electronics. It’s increasingly rare these days, so you shouldn’t have to worry about it too much.
The other guitar riff involves wireless headphones. These usually connect to the music playing device via Bluetooth (less so over Wi-Fi). Wireless headphones span all three types, and depending on how much you’re willing to spend, then either be really good or really bad. A really bad pair will be difficult to connect, and the signal may drop in and out. Even when it’s playing, the quality of the audio may suffer. But if it’s really good, then you may have just found the jackpot: a wireless pair of headphones that plays fantastic sound. You’ll see these a lot in active headphones, such as those used for running. Like these ones.
So What Else Do I Need To Know?
If you’re going to buy a pair of headphones, there are a few things you need to consider. Much as we’d love to say that headphones are a total throwaway purchase that need absolutely zero thought at all, they’re not (with the exception of the $55,000 Sennheiser Orpheus, to which we say, shut up and take our future inheritance).
The first thing to consider is comfort. What time periods are you going to be wearing the headphones for? Are you just sticking them on for a quick bus to work? Do you use them for hours at a time while sat at a desk? Are you taking them out for a run with you? All of this comes down to how long you’re going to be using them for, and in what circumstances. Lengthy listening sessions may need a well chosen pair of over-ear headphones, as they are often best for comfort; then again, if you’re prone to sweating, you might need an on-ear pair. Earbuds can be great for when you’re on the go, and a noise cancelling set of headphones is absolutely ideal if you do a lot of travelling. Believe us when we say that they make plane rides better. They just do.
Then there’s sound quality. Surprisingly, this isn’t actually the be all and end all. Yes, we know we’re dealing with devices specifically designed to produce sound, but work with us here. Price isn’t necessarily a guarantee of great sound quality, as there are plenty of entry-level headphones offer very passible quality, and plenty of high-end models which aren’t up to snuff. Ultimately, it’s all a trade-off. Good sound relies on a combination of factors ranging from the size of the speaker drivers to the housing to the overall caring construction, and manufacturers are constantly balancing it against the practical needs of actually using the headphones. We all want good sound quality, of course, but there may be other features you want more.
And on that note: what type of sound you like? Do you like audio with heavy bass for dubstep and hip-hop? Fine details for acoustic folk? It’s about finding a pair of headphones that not only offer great sound quality, but which offer the sound quality that is best for you. On The Master Switch, that something we’re always trying to highlight: not just whether something sounds good, but why it sounds good.
Finally: durability. You’ll be relieved to hear that this one is pretty simple. If you’re going to be using the headphones in an active environment, like on a run or at the gym, then you obviously need a pair of headphones that are noted for their durability. No point getting a decent pair of cans if they’re just going to break on you. On the other hand, if all you’re doing is working, and moving the headphones between your desk and your head, then you probably don’t have to worry too much about sudden impacts or snapped headbands. In any case, so many parts of headphones these days are fully replaceable that it hardly matters if you break any of them. And to be honest, durability and flexibility has gotten so good but this is probably the least important consideration of all. Regardless, it’s worth keeping in mind.
Buy a Better Pair of Headphones…With Science!
No, wait, come back. We promise this isn’t going to be super complex.
Take a look at this graph. Don’t worry if you don’t understand any of it, just have a good look.
That’s a frequency spectrum. Essentially, it’s a way of measuring the sounds of different frequencies, ranging from low frequencies (basslines, kick drums) all the way up to high frequencies (snare drums, Justin Bieber).
The horizontal axis is measured in Hertz (Hz). The lower the number, the lower the sound, and the higher the number, the more Bieber-like it becomes. Note that there is a centre line across the middle of the graph. Anything above that line is a boost at that particular frequency, and anything below it is a cut.
Now imagine that the graph above represents the sound of a pair of headphones. Obviously, these headphones have a slight boost in both the bass (low frequencies) and the treble (high frequencies). But they’ve also got a very slight cut in the middle of the range, where you’d expect to find instruments like acoustic guitars and keyboards. In other words, you can look at the graph like this and get a reasonable idea of which sounds a pair of headphones likes to push. Beats By Dre headphones, for example, often have huge boosts in the bass frequencies. You might also come across some headphones that are completely ‘transparent’, in that they don’t boost or cut any frequencies, and endeavour to affect the sound as little as possible.
We’re not saying you have to squint at graphs before you buy a pair of headphones. But it’s a very useful tool to know how to use, and could really help guide your choice. What you’re looking for, by the way, is called a frequency range graph.
What About Headphone Amps? Do I Need One?
A headphone amp is a separate box that you place between your device and your headphones. It not only increases the overall volume of the music, but also improves the quality. A good headphone amp will be as much about the details of the music as it will be about making it as loud as possible.
It used to be that headphone amps were strictly not portable. They were huge boxes that sat somewhere and locked due to their location. No longer. You can now get a very decent headphone amp about the size of a cellphone, which you can easily carry around with you and which will do amazing, magical things to your sound.
So should you get one? Um. We think they’re great, but we also know that the majority of listeners probably don’t need them. Ultimately, they’re nice toys for those who are super passionate about their music, and who want to experience it in the absolute best way possible. They really can be a huge advantage if you’re looking to do this, but conversely, they can also show up bad recordings audio that’s been compressed, like MP3s.
If you have the money to do so, then we strongly recommend taking a look at our roundup of the best headphone amps available. (That is, money to buy them, not money to look at our roundup. That’s free.) This is really what it comes down to. Headphones are extremely personal thing, and only you can decide whether or not you need an amp to go with them. In any case, it’s never been easier to snag yourself a truly fantastic pair of headphones that you will love forever. We promise.