Whether you’re looking for a pair of headphones for gaming, traveling or just office work — it’s not an easy task to do successfully. You have a plethora of factors to consider, ranging from price, to connectivity, to comfort, type of headphones and a lot of technical lingo as well. There’s so much variety out there and it’s ever growing. That’s precisely why I’ve assembled this headphone guide. It presents you with pretty much everything you need to know. So, you can learn what to look for in headphones to buy the ones that suit your needs perfectly.
Table of Contents
- Type of headphones
- In-Ear Headphones
- On-Ear Headphones
- Over-Ear Headphones
- Open-Ear Headphones
- Wired vs. Wireless headphones
- Wireless Headphones
- Wired Headphones
- Features to look for in Headphones
- Noise Cancellation
- Volume & Playback controls
- Battery life & Charging
Type of headphones
One of the first things that you need to decide when you’re looking to buy headphones is what type of headphones you want. How you intend to use your headphones is a factor that will definitely play a role in helping you decide which type of headphones suit your needs. For example, if you want headphones to listen to music while you’re running, over-ear headphones would be the last thing that you’d consider. You’d be much more likely to opt in for some in-ear headphones
In-ear headphones, also known as earbuds or earphones, are the smallest of the headphones. They’re light, ultra-portable and on average the least expensive out of all the types. You can easily carry them anywhere or just stuff them in your pocket when not in use. There’s a few different types of earbuds out there. Some types of earphones actually fit just inside the ear canal, while others fit on the outer ear. There are also sports earphones which have small wings attached to them which allow greater grip so they don’t fall out even during vigorous workouts. Some earphones are even connected with a band that goes around the back of your neck.
In-ear headphones offer good isolation since they’re plugged into your ear canal directly. Cheap ones offer cheap sound with little distinction between highs and lows, but pricier ones can deliver sound that doesn’t disappoint, however, the bass response is still lack luster. They’re great for exercising and traveling or in scenarios where you have to use headphones in short intervals. However, sometimes the wires can get tangled and they’re not the most durable. Wireless earphones can be easily lost because of their small size.
The next in line are on-ear headphones. They’re larger in size but they’re not as large as full-size headphones, since the cushions only rest on top of your outer ear. Even though the ears are covered by the cushions, the sound isolation is just decent. Sound does leak and anyone nearby can hear whatever you’re listening to given that it’s audible enough. Most on-ear headphones can be folded into a smaller, compact shapes. Given that they can fold and the size isn’t too bulky or as large as full size headphones, the portability factor is quite decent. Some headphones even come with travel cases so you can simply fold them, put them in their case and travel with them with ease.
On-ear headphones may not have as good a sound as over-ear headphones do, but they’re a big step up from the sound quality offered by in-ear headphones. They offer better bass than earphones and a wider dynamic range too. They’re light but sometimes can get uncomfortable to wear. They apply pressure on your ear directly since they’re always pressed up against it. So, using on-ear headphones for longer periods of time isn’t the best option. Exercising with them wouldn’t be a preference either, since they can overheat with extended usage. Also, if you’re into gaming, opting for on-ear headphones wouldn’t be the smartest choice since they don’t usually have good microphones and do not offer as good as sound as over-ear headphones do.
Over-ear headphones offer the best sound quality out of all of these types of headphones. They fully enclose your whole ear so the sound isolation is second to none. They’re not very portable at all though. It’s definitely not a good choice for traveling purposes since they’re quite bulky and they’re rarely ever foldable. So an average consumer would never really keep them along when traveling, but an audiophile might, since they offer the best sound quality. They’re also super comfortable. They have large cushions that do not apply any pressure directly on your ear, unlike on-ear headphones, which makes them much more comfortable.
Over-ear headphones are, however, the most expensive on average out of the lot. Most would agree that they’re worth it though. Some over-ear headphones also have dedicated microphones that can be pulled out or retracted when needed. These are great for gaming purposes since they offer great noise cancellation, good bass and a wide dynamic range that helps you hear more clearly and be able to distinguish important sounds. Studio or professional headphones are also almost always over-ear headphones. They are definitely quite pricey but for audiophiles and professionals who work in any industry where it’s required to have the best headphones, over-ear headphones are the choice that they make.
Some over-ear headphones are open-back while more commonly others are closed-back. Open-back over-ear headphones offer a more natural, flatter sound which some audiophiles prefer. But it does diminish noise cancellation and people around you will be able to hear whatever you’re listening to due to sound leakage. They’re usually used by professionals when mixing and producing music. On the other hand, closed-back headphones offer more bass and thump and keep up the noise cancellation because they don’t allow the sound to escape.
Open-ear headphones, or more commonly known as bone conduction headphones operate in a different method compared to other types of headphones. They leave the ear open the sound drivers actually rest on the user’s cheekbones. The vibration travels through the cheekbone, into the inner ear (cochlea) where it is interpreted and further translated into actual sound by the brain. The vibration, a.k.a., the sound bypasses the ear canal so anyone who has hearing disabilities and uses hearing aids can use bone conduction headphones to hear music and attend calls.
Also, it can be used by cyclists so they can safely listen to their audio while cycling, and also be aware of the sounds from their surroundings which makes open-ear headphones safer for them than other types of headphones. Scuba divers can also use it to communicate under water, since open-ear headphones don’t need air as a medium and just use the users’ cheekbones as a medium for the vibrations to travel to the inner ear. They aren’t, however, as good as any other type of headphones when it comes to sound. Bass is pretty much non-existent and they’re something of an acquired taste, to say the least.
Wired vs. Wireless headphones
A controversial topic among audiophiles and headphone users is which one is better: wired or wireless. In my opinion, there’s no clear cut better or worse out of the two. Both are different. They have their own pros and cons, just like every other type of headphones out there. The method of connecting is no different in this regard.
Wireless headphones, as the name aptly implies, are headphones in which no wires are used to connect the headphones to the media playback device. Almost all wireless headphones work through Bluetooth connections. There are wireless variations in all types of headphones: in-ear, over-ear, on-ear and also open-ear. Wireless headphones uses digitally encoded sound which is transmitted wirelessly from the playback device and capture it through Bluetooth technology.
File compression is involved in doing so which compromises on the quality of the sound that is delivered. However, it isn’t as bad as it used to be say 5 years ago. Bluetooth technology has improved leaps and bounds and now top of the line wireless headphones of any type can provide you quality sound that doesn’t feel too different from that provided by wired headphones. Buying wireless headphones of that quality, however, will leave your wallet a little light. Wireless headphones are generally more expensive than their wired counterparts. Also, you have to consider battery life and charging when buying wireless headphones as well. Decent wireless headphones have an excess of a few hours of backup time and some models may even have a dozen hours of battery life expendable before you need to charge them.
There’s also another sub-type of wireless headphones, commonly called truly wireless.
Most of the headphones (regardless of the type they are) that we encounter are wired headphones. The name gives it all away. Headphones that use wires to connect to the media playback device, whether it’s a phone, an iPod or an mp3 player, are called wired headphones. They offer better sound out of the two candidates. The sound quality is excellent since the files don’t have to undergo any compression. They data is simply transmitted through the wires to the headphone speaker drivers where the sound is created. Also, microphone quality is better as well. Furthermore, you don’t even have to worry about batteries running out or charging your headphones. It’s literally just plug and play — as simple as that. There’s no need for extra equipment or carrying extra chargers. They’re also usually cheaper than their wireless counterparts.
Features to look for in Headphones
When you’re looking to buy a pair of headphones, you have to figure out what type of headphones you want. Once you’re done with that, the next bit starts with figuring out which features are important to you and which you can compromise on. This next part will help you decide and make an educated choice when buying the perfect headphones for you.
There’s two types of noise cancelling headphones. There’s noise isolation headphones and then there’s active noise cancellation headphones. Both provide similar results but they’re obtained through different methods. Noise isolation headphones work in a more traditional way. They block sound from the outside world and don’t let it enter your inner ear. This is done by physically placing something between the inner ear and the outside world. Usually this is just an earbud which is placed into the ear canal or a seal formed by over-ear headphones or a semi-seal formed by on-ear headphones. This diminishes the sound getting in from the surroundings and provides a noise-less experience for the user, eliminating distractions and outside interference. A handy tip to keep in mind is that closed-back headphones provide much more noise isolation than open-back headphones.
On the other hand, active noise cancellation headphones (or ANC headphones) work by using a microphone to capture audio from your surroundings and then produce a sound wave of the opposite nature. The two sound waves cancel each other out due to the laws of physics and this provides the user with a noise-free listening experience that they can cherish no matter how loud it is outside. However, some headphones do this better than others and the experience may vary from model to model, since this isn’t exactly an easy feature to nail and successfully achieve.
Volume & Playback controls
Many headphones nowadays come equipped with volume and playback controls. Whether they’re built-in to the line, on the side of headphones, directly on the body of the ear cups, or as a touchpad on the side of the ear cup of fancier headphones; volume and playback controls are a good feature. You can easily control your volume, pause and play your music, attend and disconnect calls, change your soundtrack, so on and so forth. The point is, volume & playback controls are useful and you should be looking for them when you’re choosing your headphones.
Waterproof headphones may not be the most important feature on this list, but it is a requirement for some users. Especially those that wear headphones during exercising. With waterproof headphones, there’s no concern regarding sweat, rain or accidentally dropping headphones into water. You can wear your headphones out when you’re running without being worried about them malfunctioning because of your sweat or the possibility of it raining while you’re completing your workout outdoors. This is a premium feature though and waterproof headphones do cost more than normal ones, so it’s something specific to the needs of the individual.
Microphones have become a requirement in any and all types of headphones these days. Most commonly, in-ear headphones almost always have microphones built-in to the wire or on the body of the earbuds, if they’re wireless. The microphone is used to attend to calls, access the voice assistant of the mobile phone you’re using and even complete some tasks and control your music. You can dictate text messages and emails without ever touching your phone too.
On the other side of the spectrum, professional gamers need good microphones to communicate with their teammates and each other effectively and without disruptions. So, gaming headphones usually come equipped with a boom-like microphone which can be bent and shaped as required by the user. This microphone allows the communication to be clear, easy and comfortable.
Headphones should be comfortable. That’s just a statement that stands true on its own. You’d be misguided if you bought an uncomfortable pair of headphones. Of course, the comfort will vary depending on how you use the headphones and for how long. Some types of headphones are more suited for specific tasks while others are better for different tasks. For example, over-ear headphones are super comfortable when you’re just using them with your desktop in the comfort of your home. The large leathery cushions won’t even overheat much since you probably have air conditioning installed. The weight wouldn’t be a bother since you’re not walking around or traveling, and there’s definitely no vigorous exercises happening. My point is: different scenarios call for different types of headphones for optimal comfort. Just like over-ear headphones would be most comfortable wearing for long periods at home, in-ear headphones with wings that improve grip would be the most comfortable for exercises and workout routines.
Portability is a feature that is sought after by many users of headphones. Some, who only use headphones at home or at their offices don’t really care about portability since their needs do not require them to do so. But, others, who have to travel often or have a daily commute to work, or just like to keep things lightweight prefer their headphones to be portable. This means that over-ear headphones are likely to be out of consideration since they’re the bulkiest and least portable ones. Most of them don’t even fold into smaller shapes. However, on-ear headphones do fold into compact shapes due to collapsible ear cups which makes them more portable. They’re also smaller in size and usually come with small travel bags or cases which you can pack them into and carry along whenever they’re needed. In-ear headphones are the most portable though. They don’t provide as good sound as on-ear headphones do, but they’re more portable and extremely easy to carry. You can simply stuff them into your pocket or put them in your bag and it’s no fuss at all.
Weight is a factor that is tied with both comfort and portability. The rule of thumb is, if any headphones feels heavy on your ears or head after 30 minutes of usage, it’s too heavy for you. You should opt for headphones with lighter materials or possibly smaller drivers. On-ear headphones are a good compromise between comfort and being lightweight. In-ear headphones and open-ear headphones are even lighter and if they fulfil your requirements aptly then they’re good options to consider too.
No one wants headphones that break down after a month of use. Durability is one of the most important features to consider. Especially if you spend more than 50 bucks on a pair of headphones, you’d be expecting them to last a while. Unless you’re prone to dropping them on the floor or something similar, there’s no reason they shouldn’t last a few years. So, it’s important to look for durable materials and trustworthy companies which don’t skimp out on durability of their products. Generally, over-ear headphones are the most durable since they don’t have any folding parts and hinges like on-ear headphones do and they’re not as delicate as in-ear headphones usually are.
Bass is the lower frequency vibration from sound that you feel from large speakers. Headphones can never really match the raw bass that comes from large speakers, but good headphones can do a decent job at providing bass that’s enjoyable and doesn’t mute out the dynamic range either. Most over-ear and on-ear headphones have significantly better, truer base than in-ear headphones. Bass is pretty much non-existent in open-ear headphones so that’s a headphone type you’d definitely be avoiding if you like to hear any sort of bass in your audio.
If you’re looking for a wired headphones, considering the quality of the wire is important as well. The cable should be flexible but not flimsy and too delicate. Some headphones even come with braided wires which are more durable. Cable length is important as well. If you intend to use your headphones with a desktop computer, it’s likely that you’ll need a long wire to reach the audio port of the computer on the desk.
Battery life & Charging
When considering buying wireless headphones, an important factor to consider is the battery life and charging time it provides. The battery life should be upwards of a few hours and charging shouldn’t take too long either. The tech improves as the price of the product increases.
When you’ve learnt about everything mentioned above, you’re definitely ready to make the right choice for yourself and get the perfect pair of headphones. All you need to do is choose where to buy headphones from. You can find a wide variety online or simply visit your local tech shop.