Headphone Buying Guide
How To Choose The Best Headphones?
Imagine a pair of headphones that can be used for your home theater system, your computer, iPhone, in the gym and on an airplane and under $150?
Yes but only in your dream.
There are no headphones in this world that meet all your needs, preferences and budget.
Check out these best wireless headphones in 2017.
When you decide to shop for the right headphones, you have to put your lifestyle, needs and affordability as the main criteria. Then you look at the type and features that offer the best-of-the-breed.
Is portability important in your selection? What about size, weight and durability? And most importantly the quality of sound, comfort and the technology.
This headphone buying guide helps you to choose the headphones that best meet your expected functionalities, reliability, ease of operation, budget and all round experience. The headphones featured here are in our opinion top-class, and we would buy them for our own use and also recommend to our friends and family members.
Contents at a Glance
- Types Of Headphones
- Types Of Headphones Gallery
- How To Pick Your Headphones?
- How Noise-cancelling Headphones Work?
- Headphones Features And Accessories
- How To Interpret The Specifications?
Types Of Headphones – Understanding The Basics, Designs And Differences
When I was shopping for a pair of headphones some years back I was dumbfounded by the array of types and designs in the marketplace, not to mention the big disparity in price. Going to malls or specialty electronic shops are certainly not a walk in the park. The sale staff are more often than not unfamiliar with the products. Trying to test them is almost impossible as they are tightly and nicely wrapped-up. So I thought the next best thing is checking the online stores and review sites. What I found out was not very helpful, in fact I was more confused. Most reviewers have differing views; some were biased and others
obviously promoting certain brands.
Choosing the right headphones depends very much on your particular needs. Since there are such a wide range of different types, brands and models of headphones in the market, it can be a daunting task. This guide will help you to understand the nitty-gritty of headphones, providing the essential details, pros and cons of the popular models and shopping tips.
Circum-aural headphones, commonly known as over-the-ear or around-the-ear headphones, have large earcups and headbands made of soft cushioned materials. They
encompass your ears completely; are comfortable to wear and provide a good seal against external noise. Since they are bigger and heavier than others, mobility is restricted. Suitable for home listening, in-flight entertainment on a plane, on a train or bus. But I wouldn’t connect it to my iPhone or Android phone while walking in the street.
Supra-aural headphones, or on-ear headphones, are designed with pads resting against your ears, and do not cover them completely. They are smaller and lighter than circum-aural headphones, but not as effective in blocking outside noise and can be uncomfortable after some time. I am sensitive to unwanted noise and need complete silence to appreciate good music. But if you are just listening to an audio book or news on the radio, and prefer something light, then this will serve the purpose.
Circum-aural and supra-aural headphones can be designed with either open-back or closed-back earcups.
Open-back headphones are constructed in such a way that they have openings and sound can flow in and out of the ear-cups. The up side is that it provides a more natural, transparent and spacious sound experience. The downside is more sound is leaked and there is also higher intrusion of ambient noise. Studio engineers like to use such headphones for critical listening. For most people, listening to music is just a pastime, and closed-back headphones are the norm.
Closed-back headphones have the back of the ear-cups closed and the sound is reflected back to the ears so it appears to come from within your head. Since they are tightly sealed others nearby are not able to hear the sound emanating from the ear-cups. Most modern headphones belong to this category and they can be either circum-aural or supra-aural type.
Earphones are small headphones that rest on the outer ears and usually without headband. I dread to use them as they produce poor acoustics and sound attenuation from outside. The natural thing to do is to increase the volume to compensate for this and you can get ear fatigue pretty fast. They are also uncomfortable to wear and easily fall off. Similar type of headphones are normally handed out on budget or economy class airplane passengers. The only good thing is they are cheap.
In-ear headphones, like the earphones, are small and do not have headband, but are inserted into the ear canals. They are normally of better design and good quality; are great at blocking external noise and less prone to falling out. Most come with silicone rubber, or foam sleeves to fit different sizes of ear canals. One small irritant is the dual-cables that are easily entangled, though some premium brands offer tangle-free cables. Prices vary from cheap to very high and popular for iPhone and Android smartphone users.
Headsets are headphones that include a microphone and are used as a communication tool such as a telephone system or television studio intercom system.
The different types of headphones describe above can be designed for different features and needs, such as Noise Cancelling, Wireless, Gaming, Sports and for Audiophiles.
Active Noise Cancelling Headphones
I am really impressed with this technology as it significantly reduce ambient noise and I often use them for travel on the plane, commuting on a bus or train. They are available in all forms, from in-ear to around-the-ear. You can listen to every bit and note without cranking up the volume and thus reduce ear fatique.
This is great for late night listening to your home audio system or TV. These are normally around-the-ear type headphones and receive signals from the music source through Bluetooth or other transmitters. Since no cables are required, you can move freely around, though there is a limitation of distance. The downside is the sonic quality will be degraded.
Sport and Workout Headphones
I love to put them on when I go out for a jog in the park. It is so much more relaxing and you forget about the distance and time covered. They are essentially designed to be in-ear, light and durable to withstand the rigours of sport. Most come with flexible ear clips or hooks to firmly keep them in place. Some models are water-resistant so that are not easily damaged by rain and sweat. Certain premium brands even allow you to wash them!
Beside using them for sports, they are great for other activities including travel, shopping, or on-the-the-go listening pleasure.
Usually over-the-ear headsets with built-in microphones designed for video games. They reproduce dynamic and explosive sounds, and allow you to chat online or mute it for conversation with teammates. A must-have if you kids at home who are obsessed with computer games.
As the name implies these headphones are designed for music enthusiasts who want to listen to brilliant full-range sound with amazing clarity and superb bass.
Both over-the-ear and in-ear designs are available and are commonly used for home listening. Open back headphones are preferred as they offer wide and spacious feeling. They are made with luxuriously soft ear-cups and superior padded headbands for maximum comfort and performance.
How Noise-cancelling Headphones Work?
Headphones Features And Accessories
Don’t Ignore The Little Things
In addition to your needs and the price, the design, size, type and technology, are important factors in deciding which pair of headphones to buy. But do not neglect the features and accessories which many people overlook, and that can play a big part in your overall user experience. Do consider the following features and accessories.
Lighter headphones put less pressure on your head and ears and generally more comfortable to wear. They are also easier to carry around when travelling.
However this may also be a trade-off for sound quality.
There are no one-size-fits-all type headphones. We are all different including the size and shape of our head. Always look for adjustable headbands to provide just the right fit for your head. For easy portability, choose models that have foldable and collapsible headbands.
Earcups, earpads, and canal tips
As the foam covers, ear-pads and canal tips are subject to wear and tear, check whether they are replaceable. This is important if your pair of headphones are shared by many users and you want to keep them hygienic and free from germs and bacteria.
Cords and length
Cords are an essential part of the headphones. Nothing is more annoying when your cords are entangled or intermittently disconnected from your source. They are either a Y-cable that connects to both ears and are easier to get entangle or the single-sided cable that connect to only one side. If the cords are not the tangle-free type, wind them up properly after use and do not over-stretched them. Typical length of the cord is between 4 to 5 feet. It should not be too short to limit movement, and not too long to affect performance and sound quality. The preferred length depends really on where you wear them and for what
Volume and Cell-phone controls
These function control buttons are useful and should be located at a place in your headphones that is easy to manoeuvre. It can be annoying to fiddle with control buttons while trying to answer an incoming call or to adjust the volume.
For noise cancelling headphones the batteries are normally AAA type. Always make sure you have spare batteries when you travel long distance. Some models have short battery life so if you are a frequent traveller choose one with a long battery life.
Carrying Case and Additional plugs and adapters
The quality of the carrying case will give you a good indication of quality of the headphones. Some models provide beautifully designed and well-built cases, which do not occupy a lot of space but still have room for spare adapters and cables. If you travel often on a plane, an in-flight entertainment adapter is a necessity.
How To Interpret The Specifications?
Most Frequently Disregarded By Buyers
Most buyers of headphones will skim the manual’s specifications assuming the information is only for the techies. Though the data does not explain in layman’s terms how it correlate to sound performance, comfort or durability, it can help you to pick the headphones that meet your needs. The following terms are commonly mentioned and is useful to understand what they mean and how it can affect your listening pleasure.
This is the range of frequencies, from the lowest bass frequency to the highest treble frequency that the headphones can reproduce. Measured in hertz, this is the audible range of frequencies that human can hear which is typically 20 to 20,000 Hz.
Though this is a good indication of the sound quality reproduction, very often the numbers are exaggerated. However branded and established manufacturers do provide quite accurate numbers. It is better to trust your ears by putting on the headphones and hear it yourself.
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD)
The speakers inside the headphones are made of diaphragms, and when reproducing sound at high volumes, may not vibrate fast enough. This will create distortion in the musical notes.
THD is measured in percentage (%), and the higher the percentage, the higher the distortion. For example if the THD is 0.1%, it means the level of harmonic distortion is 0.1% of the output signal. Therefore when you choose a pair of headphones, look out for lower percentage of THD. Good headphones normally have total harmonic distortion of lower than one per cent.
Measured in ohms, it indicates the level of headphone electrical resistance. So the lower it is, the easier to achieve higher volume. However there are other factors that can affect the performance, including the power output of the music source. So if your source is a MP3 player with low power output, then it may not be able to drive the headphones to full potential. Generally most MP3 players have no problem powering headphones with an impedance rating of around 100 ohms.
Many premium quality headphones have high impedance rating and may require a standalone amplifier to drive them to a volume for good listening experience.
The good thing is they normally come with an adapter (with integrated impedance switch) for airline in flight entertainment.
Measured in decibels (dB), sensitivity is the efficiency in converting electrical signal to acoustical signal. It is an indication of the loudness of the headphones at a certain power level from the source. It is usually measured in decibels in relation to SPL (Sound Pressure Level) per milliwatt, or dB SPL/mW or dB/mW in short. So if the sensitivity is say 115 dB/mW, it means 1mW of power will generate 115 dB SPL.
Sound Pressure Level measures how loud the device is at a particular frequency and at a particular power level. The typical range for sensitivity in headphones is 92dB to 120Db. If the sensitivity is high, they will respond well to a wider range of power output, but at the expense of distortion. Low sensitivity requires more power to reach peak performance but the upside is the drivers can withstand damage.
Factors to consider when choosing the right headphones
The Difference Between Good And Great Can Be Substantial
If you are looking for noise cancelling headphones, make sure they are good at isolating external sound as well as reproducing great quality sound. Take a hard look at the frequency response, sensitivity level and the total harmonic distortion. If they come with batteries, test whether they still work when the batteries are flat. I would prefer to continue listening to the music when the batteries die.
This is probably just as important as performance because if comfort level is high, there is less fatique and you can enjoy the music longer. Check the material used for the ear pads if you are buying over the ear headphones and canal tips for in ear headphones. Examine the shape and size and see if they fit your head and ears. The headband should also be made of comfortable material and must be adjustable.
The design can also be a deciding factor for people who are fashion conscious and have high expectation for details and features. You definitely do not want to put on a pair of huge and heavy headphones that will turn heads for the wrong reason. A light and cool looking headphones will bright matching color is more attractive. Headband and ear pads that are adjustable and control buttons that are easily accessible are important features that buyers often neglect.
Most people prefer long and flexible cords that are compatible with different audio sources.
Even branded headphones may malfunction and nothing is more annoying than not getting help when you needed it most. Make sure the store you bought from, whether online or physical, have all the convenient options for customer service and support. These include contacts through phones, email, Facebook and Twitter. Phone support should not be limited to just automated system but a “real” person who listen, understand and resolve your problems. Check for refund and warranty policies and the nearest service centres near your home.
Did you like this headphone buying guide and we were able to help you to buy your best headphones for your different needs like workout, running etc.? Please let us know by leaving a comment below. Thank you.