Headphones Buyer’s Guide
I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about headphones but I’ve learned quite a bit recently. Over my life time I have probably owned around 15 different pairs of headphones from budget earbuds to quite a few mid range headphones that needed replacing every few years to high quality premium headphones, in fact one par I bought in the late 1990s and still use to this day.
Whilst reviewing quite a few pairs of headphones recently I have read a lot about headphones in general. Some of my friends have been intrigued about my headphones reviews and as a result have asked me “So what makes for a good pair of headphones?”. Well it’s a difficult question to answer quickly. But I thought I would put together this buying guide. It has been written over the course of several weeks and I’ve gone back to rewrite things and hopefully give you, the reader, some useful advice if you are in the market for buying a new pair of headphones.
I am going to discuss things such as design, technical information, audio quality, comfort, practicality and any extra features which may sway you to consider a particular pair of headphones.
Different Types of Headphones
Earbuds and in-ear style headphones
Earbuds are often shipped with audio devices as standard and offer basic audio listening. They rest on the outside of the ear canal and stay in place because of the shape of the outer ear. The audio quality of earbuds is usually basic and often it is the bass that suffers. The big advantage of earbuds is that they are cheap and very light so are also very portable. You can usually pick up a spare pair for less than $10 or you probably have a few spare pairs already through previous device purchases. For example most smartphones these days come with a free pair of earbuds. And even if you don’t have them most likely a friend would have spare pair for you.
The in ear style headphones have been on the market for around 15 years. They are very similar to normal earbuds to the point that is sometimes hard to see a difference. Usually in-ear style means the “bud” actually goes deeper into your ear canal. Usually this is a gel sleeve with still the tiny speaker resting towards the outside of your ear. They were made to offer a more comfortable and secure fit in the ear canal but also vastly improve on the audio quality. It is also possible for the in ear style to offer noise cancellation, though this may not work as well as the same technology found in over-ear style headphones. The big advantage with in-ear style is that they can stay in place better and offer improved audio quality and listening experience.
The on ear style literally has headphone speakers that sit on top of your outer ear. A lot of companies produced these types of headphones in the 1980s and 1990s with the introduction of walkmans and personal audio players. Because of the size of speaker the sound quality can usually be a lot better than cheaper earbud models. This should often help the bass sounds especially. They also have an advantage of not over heating your ears which over-ear headphones can sometimes cause. Of course the only draw back here is the lack of sound isolation.
Leakage from background noise is usually more problematic as is the actual leakage of the sound of the headphones. Meaning that using such headphones could possibly be a less “private” affair. Because of the design of on-ear headphones they are usually less portable than earbuds and in-ear style ones. It is most likely the case on-ear headphones need to have the larger speakers held together by a band that normally goes over your head. In the late 1990s and early 2000s we saw the introduction of the neckband style which can be a bit more comfortable as the band is not “squeezing” your head so much but of course has the drawback of not being able to be used when you are resting your head and neck against a bed / sofa or even large seat or chair.
Over-ear headphones usually provide the best audio quality available. They can be packed with the latest technologies much easier such as noise cancellation and wireless capability. As the speakers are the largest in the bunch of headphones styles you should expect a good bass performance, clarity and a very private audio listening experience.
The drawbacks of over-ear headphones are that they are much less portable and can cost a considerable amount of money meaning you might not want to take them with you on trips. So they might only be used for a good audio experience at home and certainly if you want to listen to music at home a lot I’d recommend exactly these types of headphones as you should be able to get the best audio quality available from headphones with this type.
Pro and DJ Style Headphones
In a sense Pro and DJ Style Headphones are traditionally the same as over-ear headphones. There is a big difference here however. Pro and DJ Headphones usually allow you to fold one of the ear cups completely over. This will either be through a horizontal or vertical mechanism. This feature has the advantage of allowing you to hear audio through one of your ears very precisely (without environmental interference) and use your other ear to listen to what’s happening outside. This can be useful and important to DJs mixing tracks and for singers ensuring they can hear their own voice better.
Other aspects of these types of headphones is that they are usually quite good quality, thus will have a good frequency response range and quite often we will see them with a decent cord length that can perhaps extend into several meters. Useful in studio situations.
These types of headphones are normally not wireless or will the manufacturer go to any length to consider design and colours. Pro and DJ Style Headphones usually come in black but there are exceptions.