10 Things to Consider When Shopping for Headphones

There are plenty of reasons to buy a great pair of headphones. They are great for travel, or listen to tunes at work. At home, headphones can be a solution for apartment dwelling audio enthusiasts with noise sensitive neighbors.

Whether you are simply upgrading the earbuds that came with your phone or you are looking for a high-performance rig, the good news is there are countless models of headphones to choose from. Here are a few things to think about before you go shopping.

1. Earbuds, In-Ear, On-Ear, or Over-Ear?

– Earbuds are compact headphones that sit inside your ears but do not seal the ear canal.

– In-ear monitors (IEMs) feature tips that rest inside the ear canal, forming a tight seal.

IEMs act as earplugs and block a lot of external noise, but some people find them uncomfortable.

– Earbuds can be more comfortable than IEMs, but don’t offer as much ambient-noise isolation.

– Earbuds and IEMs are compact and great for travel.

– The earbuds that come with smartphones are cheap and can often benefit from an upgrade.

– High-end IEMs can provide a reference-quality listening experience.

– Custom IEMs are molded to fit your ear canal, requiring a trip to an audiologist, but they are some of the best audio-reproduction devices money can buy.

– On-ear headphones, as the name implies, rest directly on your ears.

– On-ear headphones offer moderate comfort and some portability.

– Over-ear headphones feature large earcups that encompass the entire ear.

Over-ear headphones are typically the most comfortable type, but due to their size, they are the least portable.

 

2. Corded or Wireless?

Wireless headphones are great for listening while performing activities.

– Corded headphones generally sound better than wireless models.

– Typically, modern wireless headphones use Bluetooth to connect to an audio source; look for aptX technology to get CD-quality sound.

– Apple’s new AirPods are wireless earbuds that use AAC audio compression and feature a built-in microphone.

– Some over-ear and on-ear wireless headphones designed for home use rely on a wireless dock and offer lossless quality.

– Wireless headphones need to be charged or powered by a replaceable battery; if you run out of power, you get no sound.

– Some headphone models come in wired and wireless versions; wireless headphones cost more than their corded counterparts.

– Apple’s iPhone 7 only accepts corded models that use its proprietary Lightning connector. Otherwise, you have to use an adapter dongle.

– Most corded headphones use a 3.5mm or 1/4″ plug. Some models have a detachable cable.

– There are pricey aftermarket cables for headphones that have a detachable cord. The benefit of using such cables is questionable.

 

3. Open-Back or Closed-Back?

– On-ear and over-ear models use either an open-back or closed-back design.

Closed-back headphones feature sealed earcups that block outside noise and prevent sound from leaking out.

Open-back headphones can sound more spacious than closed-back headphones, but they allow outside sounds to get in.

– Open-back headphones leak sound; they are not the best choice for commuters or for use anywhere that other people can hear them.

– Typically, closed-back headphones offer deeper bass response than open-back models.

 

4. Frequency Response

– Not all headphone frequency-response specifications are accurate. Take them with a grain of salt; unless the manufacturer has an established reputation for publishing accurate specs, they are probably inflated.

– With headphones, you can only hear bass, you can’t feel it like you would with a subwoofer. Products that advertise bass response down to single-digit Hz are touting a feature you will never be able take advantage of.

– Some models sound neutral by design, others emphasize bass and/or treble at the expense of accuracy. In the end, it’s a matter of taste.

– Headphones that offer a genuine full-range response from 20 to 20,000 Hz are not necessarily expensive and can provide a listening experience that competes with much more expensive sound systems.

– You won’t necessarily pay extra for more bass—there are plenty of cheap models that boost the lows. However, better bass—tighter and with greater extension—usually costs more.

 

5. Driver Type: Dynamic, Electrostatic, Planar Magnetic, and Balanced Armature

– Dynamic headphones rely on moving-coil drivers and typically offer high sensitivity. They are the most common type.

– You’ll find dynamic drivers in every style of headphone, from IEMs to over-ear models.

Electrostatic headphones feature a large, flat diaphragm suspended between two electrically conducting plates called stators. The audio signal is applied to the stators, and the resulting oscillating electromagnetic field causes the diaphragm to vibrate.

– Electrostats are large and hard to drive. Typically, they feature an open-back, over-ear design. But many consider them to be the best-sounding type of headphones with superior transient response.

– Planar-magnetic headphones feature a large, flat diaphragm embedded with an electrical conductor suspended between two permanent magnets. The audio signal is applied to the diaphragm, and the resulting oscillating electromagnetic field causes the diaphragm to vibrate.

– Planar-magnetic drivers fall somewhere between dynamic and electrostatic in terms of performance with excellent transient response.

– Planar-magnetics are said to approach electrostats when it comes to transient response, but they are much easier to drive.

– You’ll find planar-magnetic headphones in both open-back and closed-back designs; typically, they are over-ear.

– In balanced-armature headphones, a small rod wrapped with a coil of conducting wire (the armature) is suspended between the poles of a permanent magnet. The audio signal is applied to the coil, which causes the armature to pivot back and forth, activating a diaphragm to move in the same manner.

– Balanced armatures are typically used in IEMs because of their small size. They come from the world of hearing aids, but they are also found in high-end headphones.

– Because they work best within a limited frequency range, IEMs often use multiple balanced-armature drivers.

– Balanced-armature drivers excel at reproducing highly detailed midrange and treble, but they struggle with deep bass.

– Some hybrid in-ear monitors combine balanced armature drivers for the mids and highs with a dynamic driver for the bass.

 

6. Sensitivity and Impedance

– If you plan to power your headphones with a portable device, look for a pair that offers high sensitivity (>90 dB/W/m) and low impedance (50 ohms or less). If you like your music loud and plan to listen using your phone, look for a sensitivity of 100 dB/W/m or higher.

– High-impedance headphones are somewhat uncommon; they typically require a dedicated amplifier to get the most out of them. Beyerdynamic offers models in high and low impedance variants.

– High-impedance headphones tend to work well with tube amps.

 

7. Active or Passive Noise Reduction?

– In-ear monitors and closed-back headphones offer passive noise reduction by blocking outside noise.

– Open-back headphones are worthless when it comes to noise reduction.

– Active noise reduction uses microphones in the headphones to capture ambient noise and electronics to generate an out-of-phase version of the noise, which cancels out the original noise. This can significantly reduce ambient noise, especially constant sounds such as the engine hum on airplanes.

– The effectiveness of active noise reduction varies widely between different headphone models. Bose is well known for its effective active noise reduction technology; Sony makes some effective models as well.

– Like wireless models, headphones that offer active noise reduction rely on battery power; some models won’t play music at all if they run out of power. Others will play music without the noise-reduction function when the power runs out; that’s a big plus if you are stuck on a long flight.

 

8. Comfort

– People’s heads come in different sizes, and their ears come in different shapes, so headphones that are comfortable for one person might not be comfortable for another. Ideally, you should try headphones on before buying them.

– Just because a review says a pair of headphones are comfortable, it doesn’t mean that you’ll find them comfortable.

– It is crucially important that headphones feel comfortable for an extended period of time. It doesn’t matter how good they sound if you can’t stand wearing them for more than a short time.

– Some on-ear and over-ear headphones offer interchangeable pads or cushions. This can make a big difference when it comes to comfort.

– With in-ear monitors and earbuds, it’s important to find the right size and type of tip. Some people like silicone, others like foam.

Closed-back headphones can get hot after a while due to the lack of ventilation. This can be a plus in the winter.

– The pressure from on-ear headphones typically means that you will eventually experience fatigue while wearing them. Make sure the earpads are nice and soft.

– Open-back, over-ear headphones are usually the most comfortable type—no pressure or heat build-up.

– Consider the weight of headphones, especially when looking at full-size models. Anything over 16 ounces could become fatiguing.

 

9. Smartphone Compatibility

– If you want to use headphones with your phone, you will probably want a pair that comes with a built-in microphone so you can take calls.

– Headphones with interchangeable cords often come with one cable intended for smartphone use that’s shorter and incorporates a microphone, plus a longer cable that does not include a microphone.

– Look for headphones with high sensitivity and low impedance or models that are self-powered.

– If you don’t want to be burdened by a cord, consider wireless headphones.

– The Apple iPhone 7 does not feature a standard headphone jack, but it does come with an adapter dongle.

– Some headphones offer a lightning cable that lets you plug them directly into an iPhone 7.

– Samsung’s Level wireless headphones feature UHQA audio that offers 24-bit resolution when used with compatible Samsung phones.

 

10. Budget and Recommendations

– There are tons of headphones out there to choose from; in fact, there’s no audio-product category I can think of that offers a greater variety of options. For that reason, consider these recommendations to be mere suggestions.

– There are some good-sounding headphones out there for under $50. The Monoprice 8323 ($30 on Amazon) comes up often as a bargain over-ear option that sounds good and has desirable features such as a removable cord and replaceable earpads. At that price, who cares if it’s entirely made of plastic?

– The on-ear Koss PortaPro ($29 on Amazon) is a throwback model; I used to own a pair when I was in high school, back in the 1980s. Sold since 1984, they are easy to drive and offer great sound quality plus a lifetime warranty.

– If you are looking for affordable in-ear headphones, Panasonic’s Ergofit ($10 on Amazon) is a best-seller that garners tons of positive reviews.

Sony’s MDRZX110NC ($32 on Amazon) offers active noise cancellation at a very affordable price.

– At price points between $50 and $100, you’ll find plenty of attractive, competent headphones. The Sennheiser HD 518 ($80 on Amazon) may not be a new model, but its street price is rather attractive for a full size, over-ear headphone.

Grado’s SR60e ($80 on Amazon) is a proven, fantastic-sounding, on-ear, open-back model that won’t put a big dent in your wallet; the main catch is some people find Grados to be uncomfortable while others don’t like the retro look.

– Another top recommendation is the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x ($138 on Amazon), an Amazon best-seller that garners gushing reviews.

1More’s triple-driver in-ear headphones ($99 on Amazon) are an exceptional sounding bargain featuring a hybrid design with dual balanced-armature drivers and a dynamic driver for lively full range sound—plus they come with a wide variety of tips.

– Between $100 and $300 you’ll find some of the most popular headphones out there. From Beats to Bose to B&W to Sony to Sennheiser, this is where you’ll find luxury models that combine comfort and high performance.

– The closed-back, over-ear Bose QuietComfort 25 ($300 on Amazon) gets acclaim for—what else—comfort and very good noise reduction.

B&W’s P5 S2 ($220 wired, $300 wireless) combines slick looks and high fidelity in a comfortable on-ear design.

Sony’s MDR1A ($187 on Amazon) is a passive over-ear design that strikes a great balance between comfort, good looks, and sound quality.

Klipsch’s XR8i ($180 on Amazon) serves up subwoofer-like bass thanks to its 2-way hybrid design featuring a dynamic driver and a balanced-armature driver.

– From $300 to $1000, some interesting options start to show up. This is the price zone where you’ll find quite a few planar-magnetic options that tout superior transient response over their dynamic-driver competition. It’s also the zone where you’ll find IEMs that offer three or more balanced-armature drivers. Furthermore, these are the price points where you see luxury travel headphones that offer wireless operation as well as sophisticated noise reduction circuitry.

Oppo’s PM-3 ($400 on Amazon) is a closed-back, over-ear, planar-magnetic model that is sensitive enough to work with portable devices, plus looks and sounds good.

– The Bowers and Wilkins P9 ($900 on Amazon) is a flagship model from one of the most respected names in audio reproduction. It’s an over-ear, closed-back model that offers luxurious Italian leather earpads and uncompromising performance. Plus, B&W provides a free, optional lightning cable for iPhone 7 users.

Shure’s SE846-CL ($970 on Amazon) is an IEM that promises “true subwoofer” performance from its quad-driver design, while interchangeable nozzle inserts allow you to tailor the character of the sound.

– Headphones that cost over $1000 may come across as an extravagance, but it’s interesting that people will freely spend that sum of money on a vacation or a TV or a year’s worth of Starbucks coffee. Once you drop four figures on headphones, you should absolutely expect world-class performance, comfort, and durability, and these days there are tons of options to choose from.

– If you happen to have the right connections and sufficient funds, you may be able to score a pair of Sennheiser’s electrostatic Orpheus HE1060s ($55,000). These cost-no-object cans—a complete system featuring preamp, amp, and headphones—are rumored to spoil anybody who hears them.

– Sennheiser’s over-ear, open-back HD 800 ($1400 on Amazon) have a reputation as some of the best dynamic headphones money can buy.

– In the world of planar magnetic headphones, HiFiMan’s HE1000 ($2400 on Amazon) are remarkably light, comfortable, and amazing sounding.

– If you have a monster budget for planar-magnetic headphones, the Audeze LCD4 ($4000) claims to be the apex of personal audio.

– As for IEMs, I don’t know enough to make a specific recommendation, but if you’re spending four figures, get a pair that’s custom made to fit your ear canal.

– Finding the right headphones for your needs, regardless of price point, is no easy task. Nothing beats hands-on experience; if you can try before you buy, you should. High-end audio shows often have a section dedicated to headphones where you can try the latest high-end models. Meanwhile, mainstream models from companies like Sony, Bose, Sennheiser, Klipsch, and others (including Beats) are easy enough to demo in a store.

I’m sure that AVS Forum members have many opinions about all of this, so I invite you to share them in the comments. What are your most important considerations when shopping for headphones? What models do you recommend at different price points?

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