There are many headphones and many things you should know before choosing one. Our headphone buying guide should help you with that.
Headphones are not just a way to listen to music, they have evolved into a wearable device, a way to complement the experience of using a smartphone. It can be hard to decipher all the specs and even harder to understand the importance of some software features over others, especially if you’re new to headphone shopping. We’re here to reduce the feeling of analysis paralysis with our headphone buying guide. Now you will spend less time researching and more time enjoying music.
What headphones do you need?
Headphones cover a wide range of audio peripherals, they come in different shapes and sizes, with different connection types, and so on. The most basic headphone division includes on-ear headphones, on-ear headphones, in-ear headphones, and true wireless headphones. We’ll take a look at the pros and cons of each type of headphone, as well as their ideal use cases, to help you narrow down your search.
Please note that there are exceptions to almost every rule. Use this article as a guide, not as a law book.
From a physical point of view, on-ear headphones are the largest of the main types of headphones. Over-ear headphones are probably what most of us imagine when someone says the word “headphones”.
Why should you buy over-ear headphones?
Generally speaking, over-ear headphones make it easier to reproduce accurate sound across the entire frequency spectrum, from low to high frequencies. These large speakers, which are usually of the dynamic type, can move more air at the same time. This is a key factor in reproducing loud bass notes, and is something that more compact ear cups can hardly do without the use of multi-driver systems.
On-ear headphones also do a better job of recreating an accurate sense of the auditory space, colloquially referred to as the “soundscape”. Due to the fact that the ear pads are adjacent to the auricle, sound waves enter the ears and, using their anatomical features, are directed into the ear canal. This is similar to how we regularly send sound to our brain for processing.
Another benefit of the larger footprint is greater comfort and longer battery life than more compact options. Oversized ear cushions distribute weight more comfortably around the ear and across the headband. Since the cases are spacious, there is enough space for large lithium-ion batteries.
Why Over-Ear Headphones Don’t Work for You
Like the pros, the cons of on-ear headphones are largely related to their size. Headphones take up much more room in your bag than wired or wireless headphones, and they can’t be as compact as on-ear headphones. Another inconvenience, although rare, is that a pair of premium wired headphones may require an external amplifier. It usually refers to enthusiasts and headphones that are extremely specialized.
Another popular type of headphone is the on-ear headphone. Unlike over-ear headphones, they are worn directly over the ears.
Why should you buy over-ear headphones?
On-ear headphones are great for listeners who want many of the benefits of on-ear headphones without the extra heaviness. Sure, they’re not as pocket-friendly as these tiny in-ear headphones, but they’re often equipped with swivel or foldable hinges for storage.
Like their on-ear counterparts, on-ear headphones feature large drivers for accurate sound reproduction and bass reproduction. Again, since there is space left in the on-ear headphone compartments, manufacturers can fit larger batteries into over-ear headphones. In fact, some over-ear headphones beat over-ears when it comes to game time.
Why In-Ear Headphones Might Not Fit You
Proper isolation, the ability of a headset to block out background noise, is difficult to achieve with over-ear headphones. Innocent ear wiggling can cause the entire structure to skew and ambient noise to enter. This is a bad position, as good isolation ensures optimum sound quality.
Alternatively, on-ear headphones can provide very effective isolation at the expense of comfort. This is true of the Beats Solo Pro noise canceling headphones, which feel like a vise. Another downside: While they are easier to carry than over-ear headphones, they are still bulky compared to over-ear headphones.
Headphones, in-ear monitors or IEMs
Headphones go by many names, but whatever you want to call them, they are the heart of your audio system. Every MP3 player and first smartphone came with a pair of wired headphones to get you started, and the debate about the value of a headphone jack still rages on.
Why should you buy headphones?
Whether you purchase wired or wireless headphones, they are very easy to transport. You can put them in your pocket without hesitation or put them in your purse and go about your business. The passive isolation of headphones, unlike on-ears, is usually very good, since they fit snugly to the ear (most of them, anyway). Silicone or memory foam eartips create a convincing seal that blocks out background noise, and when properly fitted, they can be nearly as effective as some noise canceling options.
A good pair of headphones is easy to find for just about any budget.
Wireless headphones, in particular, are ideal for exercise enthusiasts. There are many workout headphones that come with a certain IP rating, which is a must for any athlete. Another big benefit of buying headphones is that they are affordable, or can be anyway. Headphones used to be the consumer standard, and whether your budget is $20, $50, or $100, there’s a great pair of headphones for you.
Why You Don’t Need Headphones
Accurate sound reproduction is more difficult for engineers to achieve when they work within the limitations of the physical size of headphones. There are plenty of audiophile headphones out there, but they cost far more than the average listener is willing to pay. Again, to the credit of in-ear headphones, the sound quality-to-price ratio has improved a lot, but the headphones still outperform headphones for the realistic budgets of most listeners.
Wires get tangled or broken, which is no longer something that many of us want to deal with. Few headphones come with replaceable MMCX cables, shortening the lifespan of your favorite headphones. You can always fix those frayed cables with a few basic tools and a little time.
True wireless headphones
Like the in-ear headphones mentioned above, true wireless headphones sit in your ear and are very portable. This is the latest personal audio tool, and usually the smallest.
Why should you buy true wireless headphones?
True wireless earphones may be the smallest, but they are also the most portable option. Whether you pay $50 or more for your fully wireless earbuds, all models include a case that also serves to charge the earbuds. Since such a headset has no wires, it is ideal for athletes.
True wireless earphones are the merit or fault of our understanding of earphones today as an extension of our smartphones. Apple, in particular, popularized this technology with its AirPods, and other companies have since created great AirPods competitors that provide rich software options. True wireless headphones give the user a lot of control as you can frequently reconfigure touch or button controls, switch features like ambient airflow, and more.
Why You Don’t Need True Wireless Headphones
It’s no secret that true cordless batteries simply don’t last long. These tiny headphones house proportionately tiny batteries, and combined with the headset’s constant charge-discharge cycle, you’re in for a recipe for disaster. Headset durability aside, true wireless headphones simply can’t offer great battery life. Of course, in rare cases you can find Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus or Beats Powerbeats Pro, but most headphones last 4 to 6 hours on a single charge.
Another common issue that worries true wireless earbuds is connection stability. Most companies have fixed this issue with Bluetooth 5.0 or later firmware, and some have even gone so far as to create their own version of Qualcomm’s TrueWireless Stereo Plus. But there are still headphones that can’t keep up a connection outdoors, and others that hiccup when there’s a wall between the headphones and the signal source.
Gamers have their own category of headphones to look out for, and gaming headsets are more than enough, making it much more difficult to separate the good from the odd. Whichever console you choose – PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, or Nintendo Switch – a gaming headset can enhance your experience and that of your teammates.
Why should you buy a dedicated gaming headset?
Gaming headsets are of value to casual and professional gamers alike. They may look silly at times, but underneath the glowing LEDs are many useful hardware and software features. Surround sound is a popular feature among gaming headsets, sometimes it’s built into the headset, and sometimes you’ll have to download proprietary software. Regardless of how it’s turned on, surround sound often gives you an advantage over non-headset gamers by making it easier to detect auditory cues. This could be the difference between virtual life and death in games like Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.
Gaming headsets make it easier to determine where the audio in the game is coming from.
Most gaming headsets are over-ear headphones with an external microphone, which may not make you completely abandon the idea of forking out for such a headset. But a good gaming headset is worth it because it comes as a bundle and is often much cheaper than buying a pair of headphones and an external USB microphone.
Why You Might Not Need a Gaming Headset
Not all gaming headsets are well made, and there are plenty of low-quality gaming headsets out there that aren’t worth anyone’s desktop. If you make a purchase without doing enough research, you could end up wasting hundreds of dollars. Although it’s less common these days, gaming headsets often have a crisp design with RGB lighting and geometric shapes. It may or may not be to your liking, but the stock look makes it hard to go out in public with a Bluetooth-enabled gaming headset.
Which is better – wired or wireless?
As with other types of connectivity, there is no “better” or “worse” when it comes to wired or Bluetooth headphones. However, Bluetooth adds another layer of pros and cons to your buying decisions, and it might not be a great option if your phone lacks a headphone jack entirely. You might decide that the lifespan of headphones isn’t worth the hassle, and you’d rather leave wired listening for the home.
What you need to know about audio before buying headphones?
There is a lot of technical jargon used in headphones, but if you want to buy good headphones, you should understand them. Here are some of the most common terms that are used when talking about headphone audio.
Bluetooth codecs affect wireless sound quality
We’re living in the golden age of wireless headphones and ear pads, which means there’s one more specification we need to understand: Bluetooth codecs define how Bluetooth media is transferred from a smartphone to a headset. The best Bluetooth codec for your device is the one that provides optimal sound quality and connection stability.
iPhone owners are best off using AAC-enabled wireless headphones, which is the only high-quality Bluetooth codec that iOS supports. It optimizes audio quality and reduces latency on Apple devices. Android encodes AAC with varying degrees of efficiency, depending on the hardware, so it’s best to use an aptX headset or even a pair of LDAC headphones. Some manufacturers of Android smartphones have their own codecs. The Samsung Galaxy Buds series supports the Samsung Scalable Codec, which continuously scales the bitrate based on signal strength.