Headphones : The Ultimate buying guide
Headphones are one of the technological objects the most widespread in our homes, in the same way as the television. A situation that is not likely to change. Music has never been so present in our lives and the sources on which headphones can connect have multiplied: computers, flat screens, smartphones, mp3 players, amplifiers, hi-fi systems...
In addition to their audio qualities, headphones have become a fashion accessory. Providing a good sound is certainly the first factor people are considering but having headphones with a good looking design or a sign of belonging to a musical genre also carries weigh in the buying decision. Rock fans show up with pleasure Marshall Headphones when followers of urban music will prefer Beats.
People no longer hesitate to spend a few hundred dollars to get beautiful headphones! And investing such a sum for a pair of headphones with high-end acoustic features is not really surprising when you look at the technologies used by constructors.
The public is becoming more and more demanding about the sound quality. After years spent listening to over-compressed MP3s crushing the signal quality, many are turning to lossless formats like FLAC or carefully encoded MP3s. People no longer want to spoil their music with low end headphones.
Other factors motivate the choice of good headphones: comfort, form-factor, connectivity… As many factors as you can imagine and with a price ranging from tens to thousands of dollars.
Choosing the best headphones, the ones that will fit you the best, is a complicated matter. This article will enlighten you on the different technologies (wired, Bluetooth, noise reduction, etc.), the different uses (sport, outside or at home, etc.) and all the information that is useful when you want to buy new headphones. This guide is not only for uncompromising music-lovers, we cover all the aspects everyone should care about and answer the questions anyone could ask before choosing headphones.
What headphones for what use?
Comfort, weight, shape and many other headphones characteristics greatly affect their use. On this basis, we sorted out a few categories that will guide you straight into the right direction, according to your needs.
Hi fidelity headphones
Hi-fi headphones are made for a sedentary use. Historically people use them in their living room with a long wire linking them to their sound system. They usually are the bulkiest headphones, the most expensive (up to thousands of dollars) and also have the best performances.
With such characteristics, they mainly target music-lovers who are looking for the highest sound fidelity possible. Cinema enthusiasts and gamers looking to emulate the heavy multi-speakers systems found in home-theaters often find what there are looking for in this category.
As they are not designed to be compact and transportable, these headphones have room for bigger membranes (50mm or more) and most of them cover the full ear. They are robust with high quality materials.
They also tend to be more comfortable than others with soft ear pads and padded headband you can adjust as you need so you can handle with ease extended periods of use.
Connectivity is often wired with a comfortable cable length but wireless headphones are becoming more and more common with the help of technology.
In-ear sport headphones
Sport headphones are more or less the opposite of hi-fi headphones with a focus on portability and ease of use. As they are made to be used during sport, like jogging or working out, they are made to be light and have a strong and stable fit. Another important factor is the durability. These headphones are often sweat-resistant and build to withstand rough conditions.
These headphones are called in-ear headphones (earbuds) because of their shape: they are designed to fit into your audio canal. For a better stability, most of them have hooks that fit around the ear and ensure a maximum security when practicing a sport.
In recent years, Bluetooth earbuds logically invaded this market as they remove the problems linked to the wires constraining your movements. Yet, even the best Bluetooth earbuds will not be your best option depending on the sport you practice: endurance athletes will look for a better autonomy while swimmers will focus on waterproof earbuds. Choose according to what you need.
Headphones for nomads
These are the most widespread headphones and earbuds. They followed the rise of music players and smartphones. There is so much diversity in this category that the prices range from a few bucks for entry-level earbuds to a few hundred dollars for the best headphones.
There are thousands of models to choose from. Headphones brands are fighting to bring you a multitude of designs, colors and performances options so that you can find what you want. Whether being compact earbuds or huge around-the-ear headphones, they are now fashion items with even some artists and brands using them as an advertising support.
Some of them are made to be used with your smartphone, offering the basic controls on the wire (volume down/up, play/pause, etc.) and allowing you to answer and make calls with a build in microphone.
Bluetooth technology invaded this market the same way it did for sport headphones. With the ease of use brought by wireless headphones, more and more people are opting for them. Nowadays, the best Bluetooth headphones rival the best wired headphones in terms of sound quality.
Headsets (with microphone) for computers
All over the world, gamers consider having a good headset for gaming as an essential part of their gaming experience. It allows them to communicate during their games (for strategic purposes or just chatting). Gaming sessions usually go on for hours and comfort becomes essential to any serious gamer.
These headsets usually have good sound performances to reproduce at their best the games ambiances. The best headsets for gaming can even give you a position feeling just with the sound! Knowing where the enemy is by hearing his footsteps is a reality!
In most headsets, the microphone is blocking external noises to keep your voice clear from any interference and it raises the signal quality. Generally the microphone will be unidirectional in order to get only your voice.
Gamers, as cinema enthusiasts, share this desire to be in total immersion when it comes to their passion. As said earlier, many headphones intended for these two universes come with an audio system able to reproduce a multi-canal sound system you could find in your living room, such as a 5.1 audio installation (5 speakers around you plus a subwoofer). These headphones can trick your hearing so that you feel like you are surrounded by speakers and for the best headsets, the result is really amazing.
In this category you will also find headsets for VOIP. These headsets are generally cheaper than the ones for gaming as they provide you with the strict minimum for voice or video calls.
Before going any further into technical details, let’s have a couple of words about headphones and earbuds forms and designs. These elements don’t serve an aesthetic aspect only, they have a real impact on the comfort and other parameters, such as noise attenuation.
There are three different kind of headphones and earbuds. You can differentiate them through their fitting with the ears : in-ear, on-ear and over-ear headphones.
In-ear headphones (earbuds/earphones)
In-ear headphones are miniaturized to the point they can fit into your ear. Half in-ear headphones have a design that is less intrusive than fully in-ear headphones.
In-ear headphones, thanks to their design, procure an excellent noise attenuation. Ear tips made of rubber, silicone or memory foam fit perfectly inside your hearing canal and block most of outside sounds and noises. It is also true for the sound coming from your earbuds: nobody will hear what you are listening to.
This kind of headphones gives you an isolation feeling that is more than welcome when ambient noises, like in a train or in the street, may cover your music. Some people don’t tolerate in-ear headphones because of sensible ears. If you feel uncomfortable when wearing in-ear headphones, you should look for on-ear or over-ear headphones.
As their name implies, on-ear headphones are designed to fit on your ear. An adjustable headband will allow you make them fit your head.
The pressure on your ear affect greatly the comfort and the stability of these headphones. A strong pressure means a better stability but a too strong pressure will reduce the comfort. Soft-cushioned headband and earphones will help you find the perfect balance between comfort and stability.
Noise attenuation is not as good as what in-ear headphones are capable of. Some may see this as a weakness but others will prefer not being isolated from outside noises when they are listening to their music.
With over-ear headphones, your ears will fit inside the ear-cups and the foam is directly in contact with your head. Thanks to this, they are generally the most comfortable. If you wear glasses, you should make sure your headphones won’t feel uncomfortable when you wear them.
With their size and their weight, over-ear headphones have for long been designed to be used at home. This is no-longer the case. With the comfort and sound quality over-ear headphones carry, more and more models are designed for a nomad use. Of course these headphones are not the most discreet but they provide you with the best audio qualities and the best comfort.
Thanks to the foam-cushioned ear-cups, the noise attenuation is good and will passively block outside noises. This capacity to block noise is also greatly affected by the ear-cups structure : opened-back or closed-back headphones.
Opened back vs closed-back headphones
In closed-back headphones, the air from outside cannot filter through the earphones and only the air between your ear and the ear-cup is used by the speaker. As a result, closed-back headphones offer a better noise attenuation than opened-back headphones and deeper bass.
Opened-back headphones will let air pass through the ear cups. With opened-back headphones, as the air can filter from outside, the sound is less pressured and put less strain on your ear. This is less tiring than closed-back headphones but sound attenuation is reduced and bass are weakened.
You can also find semi-opened headphones, with the air being able to slightly go through the ear cups. This is the best compromise and the best headphones often adopt this technology.
Noise-canceling vs noise-isolating headphones
Thanks to their design, headphones can produce a passive noise attenuation. These are called noise-isolating headphones. Outside sounds are just attenuated thanks to the foam around the ears or, for earbuds, thanks to the ear tips.
With the help of technology, constructors now offer active noise attenuation: an outside microphone captures the outside sounds and the headphones produce an opposite sound at the same frequency to counter the noise. As a result, ambient sounds are cancelled. This is very efficient with low frequency sounds like the ones you can experience in transports like planes or trains. Batteries are needed (often one or two located in one of the ear cup) with active noise-cancelling headphones and this technology is mostly used on over-ear headphones.
The main headphones technical characteristics refer to their integrated speakers and share the same specifications as any speaker. We focus here on the essential characteristics, the ones you may find in the constructors documentation.
It refers to the frequency range the headphones are able to produce. This is what we refer to when we talk about lows, mids and highs. A human ear can perceive sounds from 20 Hz to 20.000 Hz. Some headphones can produce a frequency higher than what the human can hear.
It is definitely a characteristic to consider but it only matters if you have a good source. A poorly encoded mp3 at 128kbps will cut all frequencies above 14 kHz and a frequency response of 10 Hz – 40 kHz will not change anything to your sound quality.
It is measured in ohms and it reflects the resistance of the headphones to the electrical power going through. The higher the impedance is, the more electrical power it will need to produce the same loudness.
In the facts, headphones with an impedance over 60-70 ohms will need to be wired to an amp, a hi-fi system or any audio output that can deliver enough power in order to be used at their full potential.
For smartphones and MP3 players, 16 or 32 ohms headphones are preferred. The power available through the audio output is generally too low for high impedance headphones and you could end up with a low loudness, even at the maximum volume and a reduced battery autonomy.
High impedance headphones used to have the reputation to be better than low impedance ones. It is no longer the case : in the past ten years, the technology used drastically improved the sound quality of lower impedance headphones and we are now able to use the best headphones on our smartphones.
Sound pressure level (SPL)
The SPL is expressed in decibels (dB). It reflects the efficiency and gives the maximum loudness a speaker is able to deliver for a given power (generally 100mW). For example, headphones with a 100 dB SPL will need less power than headphones with 90 dB SPL to reach the same loudness.
Total harmonic distortion (THD)
It reflects the difference between the entry signal and the output signal. Expressed as a percentage, the lower it is, the less distortions will occur and the more accurate the headphones are. Usually, headphones have a THD of less than 1% and the best headphones can go down to less than 0.01%. Only music professionals and trained ears can tell the difference at these levels. Again, the source quality is really important and having a very low THD will not make your badly encoded songs any better.
Connectivity : wireless or wired headphones ?
These two ways to connect your headphones both have advantages and drawbacks. Beside their obvious differences, we will see the characteristics that have a real importance and all the subtleties they carry.
Purists tend to go wired because it is less sensible to electromagnetic perturbations. Technically, this is a double cable made of copper and jacketed with PVC. Length usually goes from 3 to 10 feet (1 to 3 meters), longer cables being available for hi-fidelity headphones.
The quality of the copper used has a direct impact on the wire quality and on the performances. Constructors are well aware of this and OFC (Oxygen Free Copper), really pure and deoxygenated, is becoming the standard for mid-price headphones. For an even better performance, cables with PC-OCC copper (Pure Copper Ohno Continuous Crystal), with a 99.999% purity and oxygen-free copper, have a better conductivity and give a better signal restitution.
Y cables stand for cables separated in two, with each part joining each earphone, avoiding the wire to go into the headband to join the other earphone. Perfectionists appreciate them because the wire in the headband is longer, meaning the resistivity is higher for one of the two earphones. This could lead to a tiny difference of signal between the two earphones, hardly perceptible for normal people.
These cables come with two connectors: 3.5mm and 6.5mm jack. The 6.5mm standard jack connector is mainly found on hi-fidelity headphones while the 3.5mm mini-jack connector is found on every earbud and most of the nomad headphones. These connectors can be gold plated for a better conductivity and avoid oxidation. You can convert the connectors from one to another with an adapter, an operation you should in order to preserve the signal quality. You can find straight and L connectors, which can be useful if the audio output of your smartphone or your mp3 player is on the side.
Cables can have different aspects. The most widespread kind of cord is straight. Entry-price headphones are all using this kind of cable and they are often too thin and fragile. High-end headphones will come with thicker straight cables to raise the durability and avoid tangles. Some headphones use flat cables instead. Flat cables are heavier than classical cables but the main interest is to avoid tangles and have a more rigid cable. The last kind of cables are spiral cords, essentially used on hi-fidelity headphones, you can find them on a few Marshall headphones for nomads. Their advantage is their ability to adapt the size of the cable thanks to the spiral design but they are heavier and apply more tension than the others.
Bluetooth Headphones and wireless connectivity
Going wireless means freedom of movement: you can listen to your music without any wires as long as you stay in the range of your source signal. That removes all the drawbacks that come with wires, such as tangles, but as a counterpart you have to deal with battery life and the added weight of batteries. Different technologies are used in wireless headphones : Bluetooth, UHF and infrared.
Bluetooth headphones are intended to be used mainly with nomad devices such as smartphones, MP3 players or laptops. Bluetooth is now a widespread technology for music transmission thanks to the AD2P standard (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile) coupled with the apt-X codec and all constructors have Bluetooth versions of their wired models. On-ear, over-ear and in-ear headphones can all be Bluetooth. They are generally bulkier and heavier than traditional wired headphones with their integrated battery and electronics but thanks to technology, the best Bluetooth headphones deal pretty well with these drawbacks. Bluetooth earbuds appeared a few years ago and are now widely used by athletes of all kind. The range of Bluetooth headphones is generally 10-15 meters. Perfect to have your source in a pocket while wearing headphones and enough to enjoy your music in the same room as your source.
UHF and infrared headphones are using their own transmitter to deliver the signal over the air. This technology is mainly used in hi-fidelity headphones people use in front of their TV or in some gaming headphones. UHF models use two frequency ranges to broadcast the signal : 863-865 MHz or 2.4 GHz. In the first case, the signal is analogue and may be subject to interferences. In the second case, the signal is digital and less subject to interferences and some headphones integrate the lossless technology Kleer in order to deliver the best signal possible. The range is generally higher than Bluetooth headphones but the technology is bulkier and heavier. UHF technology allows constructors to deliver a rich surround sound, some models emulating a 7.1 environment. They are perfect to be used in your Home-Theater.
Battery life is an important factor when buying wireless headphones. Usually headphones batteries are located in one of the ear-cups in the form of a reloadable battery or standard AAA alkaline batteries. You can expect an autonomy of up to 20 hours. Hi-fidelity headphones often can with a stand base where you have to put them in order to fill the battery. Some are charging on a classic USB or micro-USB connector, allowing you to wear them.
They are exclusively intended for a computer use. Office headphones for VOIP mostly use USB to connect to the computer, which allows them to have only one connector for sound and microphone. Some gaming headsets use USB to connect to a computer, allowing them to emulate 5.1 or even 7.1 environments and to be compatible with video game consoles like PS4 and Xbox One.
Headphones are usually shipped with a few accessories designed to enhance your music listening experience or provide more comfort.
Some headphones are delivered with a case where they can fit. It can be soft or rigid. Soft cases are usually in the form of a little bag where you put your headphones. Rigid cases will bring more protection to your headphones but will also be bulkier. Generally the headphones delivered with cases are foldable in order to reduce their size when you carry them. This accessory is more than welcome when you travel or even just to have a place to put your headphones when you don’t use them. Even if your headphones are not delivered with a carry case, you can buy one separately.
Some headphones are designed with a removable cable, meaning you can use the cable you want with your headphones. The cable being the most fragile part of your headphones, it is great to know that even if it’s damaged you can easily swap it with a brand new one. This option is generally seen on mid to high range headphones.
Not much to say about it as the name is pretty explicit, it consists of a male-female jack extension cable with a size ranging from half a meter to a few meters. An extension cable can be useful in some cases but their use is not advised as it will harm the signal.
Subject to sweat and manipulation, ear tips can rapidly become worn and soiled. Constructors are well aware of it and most earbuds are delivered with a couple of removable ear tips. You will often be able to choose from different sizes so that it will fit your ear anatomy perfectly. Ear tips are made of plastic, silicon or memory foam. In some cases you can choose their color accordingly to your taste.