Selecting headphones can be a confusing process as there are so many different things to think about. In this article we will share the top buying factors that should be considered and the different headphone categories that you can buy from. It is a comprehensive guide and you will notice that every angle has been covered.
Buying headphones is a more pleasant process when you understand the main things to consider. Over the years the technology that goes into headphones has been improved which gives you more choices than ever.
Special headphone features
An increasing number of earbud models come with waterproof certification, which can be a highly useful feature depending on what you’ll be using the product for. For travelers and joggers the waterproof feature allows for outdoor use without having to worry about the elements.
Some earbuds only have sweatproof certification, which means they can handle a minimal level of moisture, but will get damaged when exposed to excessive moisture. For individuals who go to the gym with earbuds this feature is a must as otherwise there is a risk that the product will be damaged after just a few workout sessions.
The noise canceling feature drastically reduces the amount of ambient noise that is heard while you are using the headphones. The ear cups have padding on the outside that block incoming noise, but it does not reduce extremely loud noises. When it comes to earbuds, noise isolation is aided by the in-ear design. Since the audio is coming from very close to the inside of the ear it’s hard for other audio to interfere.
Keep in mind, that not all noise canceling earbuds are able to provide the same level of noise isolation. Some are more effective than others and you’ll need to figure out what you can expect from the product description.
Additionally, keep in mind that with active noise isolation the amount of noise leakage to the surroundings will be at a minimum. This is ideal if you want to avoid distractions or annoying others around you with your personal audio.
Having a microphone is great regardless of what type of headphones or earbuds you buy. They allow for calls to be made in a hands-free manner – a practical feature that you never know when it can come in handy.
Earbud designs tend to have the microphone along the wire at a reasonable distance away from the earbuds so that the mouth is in close proximity to the mic. Do not expect industry leading microphone quality on headphone or earbud products. However, they are serviceable and can be used to communicate with others.
The majority of gaming headsets have a microphone so that the player can communicate with others whilst playing online. These have the best quality out of most headphone based microphones.
Bone conduction headphones are one of the more interesting new entries to the headphone market. You’ll be surprised that no contact with your ear is made, instead the vibration emitting panels are placed on the sides of your head between your ears and the face. Small vibrations are created, which passes audio via the jawbone to the ears.
The technology is still new and just a few brands have recently begun to create products. Therefore, do not expect the audio quality to be comparable to regular headphones. The big advantage of these products is the secure fit and the ability to hear ambient noise extremely well.
Are you worried that the personal audio solution will damage you hearing? This is a smart concern to have, because people can get carried away with loud audio and that in turn damages their hearing. You should consider investing in a unit that has a voice limiting features, which as the name suggests has a maximum that is safe for the human ears.
Typically the volume limiting feature is found in products aimed at children. Therefore, if you are buying for kids, then the volume limiting feature is something that you must look for as a responsible parent.
The ability to communicate with AI based system like Siri and Google Assistant allows you to control your audio experience by simply communicating the order via voice. This allows for a truly hands-off approach that can be great when you are driving. It’s convenient and when you get used to the setup it will be hard to go back without the voice assistant feature.
7.1 surround sound
Surround sound adds another dimension to the audio experience. You can hear the directionality of the audio sources, which means the level of immersion increases. This feature is great when you are watching a movie or playing video games. Nowadays video games have improved audio design and the surround sound feature takes full advantage of that.
Headphones with the closed back design have earcups that do not allow audio to pass through, which means that you can enjoy noise isolation. This headphone feature is great for blocking out the ambient noise, but the disadvantage is that your ears might get sweaty. That’s because heat and moisture build up cannot be dissipated easily as there are no vents. This is not a problem that’s present with all models, because it does depend on how the design has been implemented.
Open back headphones allow ambient noise in while listening. The big advantage of open back headphones is the large soundstage. This audio experience can be described as having the sensation of the audio coming from all around you and at a distance. It’s more of an authentic audio type, but there is no noise isolation. Also, you will leak out a lot of the audio which means others around you might be disturbed if you increase the volume level.
The advantage of wired headphones is that there is no need to charge a battery and the audio quality might be better as there is no wireless signal distortion. The wired design is the traditional form of headphones and a lot of manufacturers use this design to deliver some of the best audio units in the world.
You’ll need to consider the wire length when buying wired headphones. Typically, you can buy at 1.8m and 3m lengths, but longer lengths also exist. If you wish to watch a movie from the other end of a room, then a long cable will be required.
The disadvantage of wired headphones is that freedom of movement is reduced. You are restricted by the length of the wire. When seeking a portable solution the wire is a hassle as you have to carry it around with you – usually hiding it under the clothing.
An increasing number of headphones are making use of Bluetooth technology to provide a wireless experience. Even budget models nowadays have wireless technology that adds value to your purchase. A wireless model means there are no wires to deal with.
However, ensure that you buy headphones with up to date Bluetooth. Check to see that they have Bluetooth 4.0 or higher. Also consider the battery life that you opt for as that will play a role in how you get to enjoy the product. If you hate constantly having to manage the battery life then opt for 8-20 hour battery life. Depending on the headphone type you buy this battery life length is available.
Another handy feature is the quick charge, which gives you a fast burst of battery power for a relatively short amount of charging time. You’ll typically come across lithium ion batteries, which are reliable for many years of use.
The on-ear headphones do not have any earcups, instead it’s a flat surface that is placed alongside the ears. Noise isolation in such a product design is non-existent and the quality of the sound is quite good. However, they suffer in the bass department, which might spoil the experience for you. They are smaller and more lightweight.
This is the typical headphone design with earcups. Ideally the earcups will have a large size so that your entire ear will fit inside. Otherwise pressure is exerted on the ear and that can be frustrating over time. The over-ear design is the best audio experience that you can get when it comes to quality.
This type of fit has a minimalist design and is significantly smaller in size than the other two fits. The in-ear fit is also more secure, which means they will remain in place regardless of how vigorously you move your head.
You need to buy earbuds that come with a number of different eartips. These are typically rubber ends that come in different sizes. You can select the size that best matches the size of your ear so that you can achieve the best fit.
Basic headphone features
This is given in Hz and refers to the range of frequencies that can be reproduced with great accuracy. Human hearing is limited to 20-20KHz and in the majority of headphone product descriptions you will notice that this value is used. However, although two different headphones might claim to deliver the same frequency range their quality of execution can vary greatly.
You also need to consider that some manufacturers have a signature sound, which means that when a similar frequency range is provided the actual audio experience can be completely different. As a rule of thumb, you should invest in headphones that provide a better frequency response.
This relates to the electrical resistance and a higher number is worse for the audio clarity. When the impedance is at above 600 ohms the amplification has to be very good in order to provide clear audio. You’ll see that the majority of consumer grade headphones will have an impedance range of 15 to 56 ohms. Impedance tends to be higher for audiophile and studio grade products. However, they are designed to overcome the impedance and deliver clear audio in the process.
This value is stated as decibels per milliwatt and relates to the amount of decibels that can be created for a given amount of power. Ideally this value should be over 100 as this ensures you get high volume levels. It ensures that when low amplifiers are used the maximum audio level does not suffer.
Stereo vs mono
The stereo headphones and earphones have two different audio channels, which means the audio experience in both ears will be different. This allows for more accurate audio production and leads to a higher quality experience. If you are unable to get surround sound headphones, then the stereo option is the next best thing.
The mono headphones only have one audio channel and that means both ears will experience exactly the same audio. Nowadays this kind of design is reserved for headphones that have only one ear cup, with the mic on the other side.
High resolution audio
Hi-res audio is the way that music is meant to be heard according to sound engineers and those working in the audio industry. The amount of bandwidth and dynamic audio range is excellent when HD audio is provided.
Standard CD’s are not capable of producing such audio, but more technologically advanced equipment can get the job done without much of a problem. When reading product descriptions look for HD certification to ensure the audio will be excellent.
Choose the right headphones for your lifestyle
For home entertainment the best type of headphones will have an over the ear design. You do not need to focus on portability or a low weight design. Instead pay attention to the comfort and the overall sound quality. Comfort is an important factor if you plan on using the headphones for watching movies. If you want to watch a couple of movies in a row, then the comfort has to last several hours.
Furthermore, noise isolation headphones are a great choice for home use. That’s because you can enjoy your personal audio experience in peace without noisy household members annoying you. Furthermore, if you want to enjoy music in close proximity to others, then you can do so without creating noise pollution.
Sports, exercise, and gym
Music is a great way to get rid of distractions when exercising, but what type of headphones should you choose? Ideally, earbuds should be chosen that have an in-ear design. The fit of these is typically very secure, which means when you move around while working out the earbuds will not come loose. It would be highly frustrating during an exercise session to constantly have to adjust the earbuds.
Furthermore, consider a pair of earbuds that are wireless as this type of design allows you to have a greater degree of freedom. It can be annoying when you have to worry about wires while exercising.
A waterproof or sweatproof design are other key features for exercise. You will inevitably sweat when exercising and the moisture generated could damage the earbuds. However, a waterproof design overcomes this problem so that you can exercise without worrying about moisture. Furthermore, you can jog in the rain with a waterproof design, which adds even more versatility to the product.
Personal audio is a great way to pass the time without getting bored when traveling. A wireless design is great because wires won’t get in the way. However, the biggest limitation becomes the battery life. You should select a model that has at least 20 hours of battery life as that ensures you can travel for the entire day without the need to recharge the unit.
Additionally, consider the weight, because heavy headphones are not ideal. If your bags are weighed in the airport having a lighter pair of headphones is good. Earbuds might be a great choice for traveling, but there are some relatively light headphones models too.
Personal audio while working
There are some great earbud and headphone options for individuals that are working. Noise canceling options might be ideal if you need to use the headphones to take a call and not be distracted by a noisy office environment. On the other hand, there are options where the ambient audio is heard very well, which might be ideal if you want to work with headphones and still be able to communicate with colleagues around you.
Do you need headphones, because you work in the audio industry? If so then you’ll need to invest in studio grade headphones that deliver an exceptional audio experience. These will be more expensive, but you’ll be getting industry leading audio that gets the job done.
Gaming headphones can drastically improve the quality of the audio experience if you have poor quality speakers. Furthermore, you can play video games without creating noise pollution for other members of the household.
Surround sound is an excellent feature that’s present in many gaming headphones. This feature allows you to hear the directionality of the audio so that you get a competitive edge in gaming. For instance, when enemies and bullets are coming towards you evasive maneuvers can be taken because you know the direction of the sound.
You’ll notice that the majority of gaming headsets also have a microphone. This is useful for chatting with other players while playing online. The microphone can also come in handy if you want to take part in video calls with friends and family.
Buyers that want to achieve the best possible audio solution should look for audiophile headphones. These products provide the best of what is available when it comes to personal audio technology. The frequency range, clarity of the audio, and bass is excellent.
However, expect that the cost of audiophile headphones will be among the highest in the marketplace. For the best options look in the above $300 category, and if you have the money to spare, then models above $500 are the best bet.
Audiophile headphones can be used for work as a professional or simply enjoy your personal music. However if you’re the type of casual headphone user that cannot truly appreciate excellent audio quality, then perhaps stick with cheaper priced models.
Headphones for kids
Kids need headphones that will stand the test of time. They tend to break things easily, which means durability should be one of the primary concerns when buying them headphones. Also look for models that come with a maximum decibel limitation. This ensures that the maximum volume will not exceed a safe limit and the ear health of your child will not be compromised at a young age. Anything with a volume cap of 85 decibels is a solid choice.
You’ll notice that a lot of the headphones are visually more colorful. Consider purchasing a color that your child think is their favorite. They will be happy with that attention to detail upon receiving the product. Finally, do not spend too much money on headphones for kids. There are plenty of options cheaper than $25, which means you’re spoilt for choice.
This guide of how to buy headphones should give you enough information to make a choice that matches your requirements. As you’ve seen there is a lot to think about as the technology of headphones has come far in the last few years.
When trying to figure out the right product consider the setting you’ll be using them in and the main features that are of use to you. This should narrow down your search to the most relevant category.
As with any purchase the final decision will be based on trying to get the most value for your given budget. We hope that by paying attention to the advice of this buying guide you’ll have a clear idea of what to buy.