Buying a pair of headphones should not be hard, but with the number of brands and hundreds of headphone models, choosing a pair of headphone that matches up to your preferences is not going to be a walk in the park.
With headphones, there are many factors to consider, fit of the headphone, headphone design, type of the headphone driver, wired or wireless, sound quality and much more. Should you choose to lean your options much towards the better sound quality, the price might be higher.
On the other hand, if want to spend the smallest amount possible, be prepared to compromise the sound quality which is the latter with cheap headphones in the market but not always.
So before you visit your local store or an online retailer to buy a headphone, put your priorities in order, list things you truly need in a headphone and what you can do without.
Here at Sound Gear Lab, our primary goal is to help you find a headphone that is right for you. Below we have crafted a headphone buying guide to help you get the absolute best sound and features for your money. If you want specific recommendations, you can go check out our reviews or our best roundup lists.
Here are the topics we will be covering in this article:
- Types of Headphone Fit
- Design of Ear Cups
- Type of Headphone Drivers
- Headphone Connectivity
- Headphone Specifications
- Special Headphone Features
Let’s do this.
in-ear headphones also sometimes referred to as earphones or earbuds are the most common headphone types out there. These are the types of headphones you get mostly included inside the box when you buy a new phone.
This type of headphone is one of the cheapest of the three headphone types in the market on average.
They are highly portable, and some can offer effective sound isolation from noise. Unlike over-the-ear or on-ear headphones that standout when in use, these can be discretely used to avoid much attention.
While the sound of in-ear headphones cannot match with on ear or over ear headphones, they sound just as good.
For sporting, in-ear headphones are one of the most preferred options. Their portable nature, light-weight design makes it much easier to work out. There are also advanced pairs of in-ear headphones that are designed primarily for sporting activities.
For people with sensitive ears, in-ear headphones could cause discomfort issues. These headphones lack better comfort, especially when used for more extended periods. To minimize these negative comfort effects, you can try form eartips as opposed to the standard silicone tips. For maximum comfort, you can custom made ear tips at your local audiologist.
Benefits: portable, better passive noise isolation
Drawbacks: discomfort after long use
Example: RHA CL2 Planar
Also called Supra-aural headphones meaning on-the-ear, these are headphones that are designed to rest on the ear.
On-ear headphones are in the middle of the headphones, i.e. they are useful in most areas but are not masters in any. These headphones are neither as portable as in-ear headphones or as good sounding nor comfortable as over-headphones.
However, the best pairs of on-ear cans have a blend of portability, comfort, style, and better sound.
So, who is an on-ear headphone designed for?
With the versatility that comes with these headphones, they would be good for a person who wants a little bit of everything bundled up. They are portable, foldable and give out better music than in-ears but also less bulky, cheaper than over-ears.
For a person on the move and would like better sound quality, on-ear headphones are ideal as they are less bulky and do not show off that much compared to over-ear headphones.
Benefits: portable, highly fold-able for travel, better sound
Drawbacks: strain on the ear after extended listening sessions
Example: Grado SR60i Headphone
Over-ear headphones are also known as around the ear, circumaural or full-size headphones. These headphones are characterized by large ear cups that fit the entire ear for most listeners.
With earpads that encircle the ear, circumaural cans isolate outside noise from what someone is listening to improving the overall quality of sound. This will be useful if you to keep a user more focused on doing a task because they will not be easily distracted.
Apart from giving the user a distraction-free environment, the circumaural style also keeps in the sound preventing leakage of sound thus helping others near to you from being bothered by your music.
Over-ear headphones are less portable due to their bulky nature and more prominent structure. However, they offer rich sound and superior comfort compared to other headphone designs.
For home or office listening, over the ear headphones are a better choice. I also prefer over-ear cans for long flights.
Benefits: Comfortable, Better sound, expanded soundstage, bigger battery size for a wireless type.
Drawbacks: Big, bulky, pricey, might require an amp to the most out of them.
Example: Focal Clear
For more, a more detailed and informative guide on the three types of headphone fit refer to the following article…Headphone Designs Explained: in-Ear vs. On-Ear vs. Over-Ear
Closed back headphones are completely sealed around the back thus when using them, you will get less noise interference from the outside world.
While closed back type headphones may not be as natural sounding as open back cans, they are sure to block out outside noise giving you better listening experience even when used in noisy, crowded areas.
If you are always on the move be it in with a plane, your vehicle or train, closed back Headphones are a solid choice. Additionally, closed back type headphones can be used in the studio to record music.
The main concern when using closed back headphones for a more extended period would be heat buildup in the earpads as they do not have vents to let out the excess heat generated around your ears. However, this can be easily fixed by removing the headphones for a few minutes when using them for extended hours.
Compared to open back headphones, closed headphones will not give you better soundstage or live music effect, and this is mainly due to the closed nature.
I would also advise getting closed headphones made out of anti-resonant materials to ensure the negative aspects of listening to music in closed cans is reduced.
Benefits: better sound isolation,
Drawbacks: muffled soundstage,
Example: OPPO PM-3
Open back headphones as the name implies have open backs design to allow air in and out of the earcups. With open back headphones, pressure never builds up in the earcups thus making them sound more natural, airy and clear.
However, you get better sound quality only in the case where there is noise nearby. This is because the open back nature cannot block outside noise effectively; thus when they are worn in noisy environments, you will hear everything around you.
Open back headphones also cause interference by disturbing other people around you. If you are in the library, the office or sitting close to a person, sound leakage from the headphones especially when listening in high volume will cause disturbance.
Additionally, due to their open back nature, these headphones tend to be more fragile than their closed back counterparts, e.g., moisture or water can quickly get into sensitive parts causing destruction.
Open back headphones are good home listening, critical listening or when listening to high-quality audio files. However, they are worse when you use them when commuting, in noisy environments, in airplanes or the office.
Read more on Our best open back headphones.
Benefits: best soundstage, richer audio for critical listening
Drawbacks: sound leakage,
Example: Philips X2/27 Fidelio Open-Back Headphone
Semi-open back headphones are headphones that are partially opened to allow passage of some air in and out of the earpads.
While these types of cans feature some advantages of the open back type headphones, they also come with their disadvantages. Semi-open back headphones will let in noise, allow sound leakage though not as much as open backs.
The semi-open design delivers natural sound like the open back, but you also get the isolation of sound similar to the closed type design.
The semi-open-back headphones are good for listening at home but will not work efficiently in noisy areas.
Benefits: enhanced soundstage, good noise isolation
Drawbacks: sound leakage,
Example: AKG K240STUDIO Semi-Open Studio Headphones
Most headphones you come across use a dynamic driver.
Also known as moving coil headphone transducer, dynamic drivers use alternating magnetic fields to create sound by displacement of air. A dynamic driver is like a smaller version of the large drivers you usually see in home speakers.
A dynamic driver consists of three main parts that make up the driver, neodymium, or ferrite magnetic element, a voice coil and a diaphragm attached to the voice coil.
To work, first, the magnet magnetizes the voice coil. When the voice coil receives current, it creates a magnetic field. Depending on the flow of the current, the voice coil is either attracted or repelled towards the magnetic field. This, in turn, causes the diaphragm attached to the voice coil to move to displace air and finally creating sound.
With a simple working operation and low cost of materials used, dynamic drivers do not require much power to function correctly and subsequently come with cheaper price tags.
However, being so popular, dynamic drivers do come with their share of problems. One of the biggest complaints about these drivers is they are very likely to distort audio at high volume. Though this is true, with growing technology and good engineering, distortion in a dynamic driver is slowly being dealt with especially with high-end models
Drawbacks: susceptible to distortion,
Example: Sennheiser HD600
Balanced armature (BA) drivers are smaller than dynamic drivers, and this makes only available in in-ear monitors (IEM). However, balanced armature driver are more expensive than the dynamic drivers.
Balanced armature drivers lack bass response because they do not displace air to produce sound. Because of this BA drivers come in combination with dynamic drivers to overcome this problem.
Balanced armature drivers were first developed for people with hearing aids. However, with improvements, BA drivers are mostly used by music producers for sound reproduction or when working out due to their lightweight and small nature.
Benefits: small and lightweight, requires less power, premium sound.
Drawbacks: Costly, needs additional drivers to get bass response
Example: 1MORE Triple Driver in Ear Headphones
Planar magnetic also referred to as “isodynamic” which means having equal force or “Orthodynamic”, a Yamaha marketing term are as a sort of crossbreed between dynamic and electrostatic drivers.
Like dynamic drivers, orthodynamic headphones use the magnetic field around a conductor that has electrical current flowing through it to drive the diaphragm. Like an electrostatic driver, the diaphragm of a planar magnetic speaker is a thin sheet of flexible transparent film, but unlike an electrostat, the film has very thin, flat electrical conductors in it.
Planar magnetic drivers have always been in the industry, but they have recently seen a revival with more prominent headphone brands such as Audeze, HiFiMan, Oppo coming up with new planar magnetic cans. Generally, planar magnetic headphones are pricey, but most audio hardware manufacturers have introduced budget friendly orthodynamic headphones like the Fostex Trp 150 and Hifiman HE-400s that retail below 500 dollars mark.
Unlike other driver technologies, some planar magnets are better at reproducing bass. Some will also manifest low non-linear distortion numbers.
Furthermore, planar drivers usually behave as resistive loads to the amplifier which may have some advantages.
However, most planar magnetic headphones tend to have low sensitivity values and may require a little current to get the most out of them.
Orthodynamic cans tend to be a bit on the heavy side compared to other driver technologies. Read more about planar magnetic drivers.
Benefits: Low distortion, amplifier friendly, wide frequency response
Example: Audeze LCD2C
Electrostatic headphones or speakers are not only different from the popular dynamic type headphones and speakers but also use advanced principles to operate.
Many factors affect the sound of a headphone, what sets apart electrostatic headphones is that the diaphragm, which produces sound, is evenly placed over its entire surface. The driver is also light, therefore has a fast transient response.
Electrostatic headphones are faster than any headphone type. They also possess clarity unobtainable by other headphone drivers.
The downside of electrostatic headphones is they are costly. They give out great sound, but the price tags that come with them are not affordable to most people, E.g., Stax SR-009 headphones which cost over 3000 Dollars.
Electrostatic headphones require more power to give out their full characteristics. Because of this, owning an amplifier or “energiser” will be a requirement for an electrostatic headphone owner.,
Benefits: Low distortion, fantastic soundstage,
Drawbacks: Costly, requires amp to get the most out of them
Example: Sonoma Model One Electrostatic Headphone
Bone conduction technology has been in use for many years. One of the first users of this technology was the military. Bone conduction headphones would allow communication in the battlefield without the user losing a sense of ambient noise.
People with hearing problems and hearing loss can also benefit from this technology. Instead of sending sound via your eardrum, bone conduction headphones send audio through the bones of the skull.
Other uses of bone conduction headphones include:
- For scuba diving
- For sports
So, what’s the difference between bone conduction headphones and “regular” headphones? Other than using bone conduction, this technology also requires a power source to drive the transducers.
For people who have no hearing problems, bone conduction headphones might not be the best choice, but for deaf and people suffering from hearing aids, bone conduction headphones might be the only way to appreciate music.
Benefits: benefits people with hearing problems, keeps the ear free especially when training in traffic
Drawbacks: lacks good sound quality
Example: AfterShokz Trekz Air
Read more about the six different headphone drivers
Technology has advanced in the audio world, but as this happens most people including me still prefer a wired headphone over the wireless headphones.
Most people shopping for a new pair of headphone are torn between these two options, wired and wireless. Below am going to show you a few reasons why the wired headphones might still be the best choice for you.
For starters, let us look at the sound quality. For a long time, wired headphones have had the upper hand when they are compared to wireless headphones regarding the sound quality. While this might still be true, wireless headphones especially Bluetooth headphones have seen a considerable improvement in the quality of their audio. However, not all Bluetooth headphones have the same high sound quality, and you would have to get high-end wireless headphones to experience better sound. High-end wireless headphones are expensive, but if you are looking to spend less and still get better sound quality, wired headphones remain the best choice.
Wired headphones also have advantages with regards to compatibility and battery life. Armed with a 3.5mm headphone jack, a wired headphone user has less to worry about the headphone compatibility. When it comes to the battery life, apart from a few wired headphone models that come with a battery to power features such as noise-canceling, wired headphones are completely independent of batteries
Benefits: better sound,
Drawbacks: stuck with them on your phone
Example: Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO
Wireless headphones have seen tremendous growth over the last few years. This is because they allow you to enjoy your music or sound with being tethered to your phone by wires.
Well, if are annoyed by dangling wires between your headphone and your phone, a wireless pair of headphones would be a better choice for you.
Most wireless headphones use Bluetooth connectivity which must be paired to the source for you to listen or hear sound wirelessly.
If you are an audiophile who takes his/her music to listen on the go, wireless headphones are a perfect solution.
Before selecting your wireless Bluetooth headphones,
- Check an aptX capability which improves the overall sound quality compared to standard Bluetooth transmission.
- Ensure the battery life is sufficient to last longer while using them.
Benefits: Wireless listening, the sound quality is getting better,
Drawbacks: Rely on a battery to work,
Example: Sony WH1000XM2
Wireless technology has come a long way. In a research study done by Future Market Insights, it is estimated the number of wireless headphone units sold by the year 2025 will account for more than a third of all market share.
For this reason, wireless technology has evolved over the years, and now, True Wireless becomes the newest in the industry.
So, what is true wireless?
Unlike wireless headphones, True wireless earbuds are entirely wire free. To work, a master earbud connects to the playback device and transmits the audio signal. The secondary earbud then connects to the primary earbud and receives the audio signal.
True wireless in many ways compares with wireless technology. The size of the earbuds and sound quality are more on the same level. However, true wireless earbuds come with less power capacity with an average of 4-5 hours. To make up for the low power, most true wireless earbuds manufacturers will include a portable charging case that holds up to 500mAh of power.
Benefits: Wireless listening, very portable
Drawbacks: Rely on a battery to work, low power capacity
Example: ENACFIRE E18
There are different things you need to know when shopping for a headphone, but what should you know about headphone frequency?
Headphone frequency response is the measure of a headphones ability to reproduce all frequencies i.e., bass, mids, and treble from the lowest tone to the highest.
The average human ear can hear frequencies between 20 Hertz up to 20000 Hertz. While most categories fall in this range, here at SoundGearLab, we have tested headphones with a higher frequency response of up to 35000 Hertz.
So, how does frequency response affect the quality of a headphone? Neither lower frequencies <20 nor higher frequencies >20000 can be heard by the human ear. But, they enhance the overall aural headphone experience.
An approach to use when selecting your headphones should depend on the choice of music you listen to. For EDM, reggae, Bollywood, techno and dancehall genres, I would advise you to go with low-frequency headphones. While pop, rock and classical music genres lovers can solidly choose high-frequency headphones.
When it comes to human beings, sensitivity is the measure of how much pressure a person can take in a situation. But, headphones too can become sensitive.
So, what is headphone sensitivity and how does it affect your headphone’s sensitivity?
Sensitivity is how a headphone can effectively convert an electrical signal into an acoustic signal. This simple explanation indicates how loud a headphone will be when in different sources.
Sound sensitivity measured in decibels (dB) of sound pressure levels (SPL) and the safe range for the sensitivity of a headphone is between 70dB to 110dB. The sensitivity of a headphone is designed to keep our ears from damage.
High and low sensitivity
With high sensitivity, you are guaranteed better headphone’s driver performance without using a lot of power. However, there might be chances of distortion at higher volumes which might cause damage to your ears or headphone drivers.
On the opposite side, low sensitivity Headphones will require more power to drive the headphone’s drivers. But, despite the power needed to drive the drivers, low sensitivity headphones are more durable because they don’t cause damage to the drivers. However, to get better sound quality, headphones with low sensitivity should be paired with a high power supplying devices.
Learn more about headphone sensitivity and its effect on headphones.
High-resolution audio or high-res audio has been slowly gaining popularity mainly due to the release of products and streaming services that support high-res standards.
High-resolution audio is a term used for audio files that have the highest quality of sound reproduction or in other words the sampling frequency should be higher than that of CD which is at 16 bit/44.1kHz.
For a start, when recording a file, it is at a range of 16 bits to 44.1 kHz. The popular Mp3 files usually come at a lower rate of 64 to 320 kbps.
Other than Mp3, there are also other file extensions. Lossless audio formats such as FLAC, WAV, ALAC, and AIFF. These are used for the highest quality digital recordings in studios. The file size of these formats is around 10-15 MB/minute making one lossless song to be about 50-80 MB, unlike MP3 which comes with from 3-10 MB.
In late 2014, Japanese Audio Society (JAS) together with the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) developed a standard for high-res audio. In the process, the high-res audio logo was designed to be used by any kit that supported the high-res standards as agreed by the alliance. Apart from identifying high-res audio devices, the logo would also make it easier for consumers to make a better buying decision.
For Headphones to qualify to be categorized as high-res, they need to produce an upper frequency of at least 40 kHz. With that said, Headphones were capable of producing high-res sound long before the High-res audio logo.
But, to experience high-res audio, you should not only have headphones that support this tech but also have lossless audio that is capable of reproducing the full range of sound.
Stereo vs. Mono
In recent times mono Headphones have been going out of the market primarily due to the popularity and versatility that comes with stereo headphones.
What is a mono headphone?
To start with I guess you already know mono means one. So, when it comes to monaural audio sound comes out from a single channel which is often centered in the sound field.
This means when you get a headphone that comes with monaural sound; each ear-cup will transmit identical sound.
What is stereo headphone?
With stereo, two or more channels create the sound. A stereo headphone creates the impression of surround sound because the sound produced seems to come from multiple directions
Which is better?
To decide which is better for you, you have what you will use them for followed by other factors.
For me, I would choose stereo over mono headphones any day.
However, if you have one ear due to an accident, medical conditions or any other reason, mono headphones will be fine because all the multi-channel signals are mixed into one channel.
If you are into gaming, watching movies or listening to music, stereo headphones will come in handy as they provide a richer and more elaborate experience.
In other cases, when you are listening to audio that does not require stereo output, it is better to go the mono way as they are relatively cheaper.
Headphones come in different impedance levels such as 8, 16, 32 and some up to over 600 ohms.
So, what is headphone impedance and how does it affect the sound quality of a headphone?
First, headphone impedance is the power required to operate headphones. Impedance is usually designed to get better volume levels at the voltage level expected on driving the equipment.
Simply put, headphones with lower impedance power require little power to deliver high audio levels. While headphones with higher impedance power need more power to provide high audio levels.
Low impedance headphones will work well with phones, portable music players and other portable devices that have weak amplification. This is because low impedance headphones are likely to blow out when using powerful amplifiers.
High impedance headphones are a little more durable but require higher signal levels to match up the same output as low impedance headphones.
So, before buying a headphone check the equipment, you will be using with it.
Total Harmonic Distortion
While the Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) of a headphone is not that important when selecting your headphones, I would advise going with cans that have the lowest THD.
So, what is Total Harmonic Distortion?
When using your headphones at high levels, the driver’s/speaker’s may be unable to move at the fast pace they are required to. This leads to the sound being distorted which is manifested by popping, attenuation or crackling of musical notes.
How does the Total Harmonic Distortion of a headphone affect it?
Overall, headphones with higher with a higher percentage of THD have more chances of easily becoming distorted. So as I said earlier if possible look for a set of headphones with as low THD as possible.
In the headphone’s marketplace, you will encounter Headphones with different THD levels. Most of the popular headphone manufacturers have the THD below 1% while high-end headphones have their THD levels below 0.1%.
Formally known as USB type C, USB-C is a relatively new connector for delivering audio, video, data and power.
Unlike the traditional 3.5mm audio port found in most electronics, USB-C improves the quality of music but slightly. Noise canceling is another benefit of the USB-C port. While you can get an excellent noise-cancelling headphone with a 3.5mm connector, USB-C offers more reliable power supply and a slimmer form factor for noise canceling headphones.
USB-C comes with it’s advantages but, it also brings its fair share of disadvantages. One bigger downside of USB-C is compatibility. With time more and more manufacturers will include the USB-C interfaces with their headphones,but at the moment there will be a lack of compatibility between audio gears.
So, before selecting a USB-C headphone type make sure your phone or audio gear has a USB-C port to work with.
Benefits: improved music quality, advanced communication between hardware, noise canceling capabilities,
Downsides: Not compatible with most devices at the moment,
Example: Libratone Q Adapt USB-C
Improving the sound quality output of your headphone can be done using an amplifier. Generally, a headphone amp is more like the amps used to power bigger speakers.
A few factors might determine if your headphone needs an amplifier. But, first, if do not have a good-quality headphone, a headphone amplifier will not benefit you that much. However, as the quality of your headphones increases so does the chances of using a headphone amp.
Another factor that determines the use of a headphone amp would be the impedance of the headphone.
Impedance in headphones varies widely. On the low end, the impedance is around 16 ohms and goes to as high as 600 ohms. There are some headphones, like the Sennheiser HD424 that feature insanely huge impedance values of over 2000 ohms.
Usually, the higher the impedance, the more a headphone will benefit from an amp.
Whether it’s chilling at the beach on a hot summer, using them in the shower, swimming, or working out, water-resistant headphones can come in handy if you would like to keep your music on without worrying about water destroying the drivers.
When it comes to water resistant or waterproof headphones, the main aim is to facilitate you to take your music with you even when fully submerged in water.
There are different types of waterproof headphones out there. For a person working out, you can get a headphone that is sweat proof, and this type can differ in style and design from other water resistant headphones. For swimmers, waterproof headphones such as H20 audio headphones are better as they are supported and utilized by Olympic swimmers.
After years of testing, in 2017 Google in partnership with Boise finally unveiled headphones that featured Google’s voice assistant. The functionality was first in use with the Bose QC35 11.
A headphone that features voice assistant built-in can read out notifications, read reminders, appointments and much more.
With this trend, voice assistant integrated into headphones is on the rise and could see an increase in the coming years.
The technology, however, is still yet to be fully developed. Like with the QC 35 11s you will still require to tap a button to activate voice assistant.
However, 66 Audio remains the first wireless headphone that activates voice assistant by using the wake word “Alexa.”
Apple too has been planning to include voice activation access to Siri in their future AirPods upgrade.
Microphone and Controls
I bet most people prefer headphones that come with an inline mic and controls. These features are not only mandatory, but they also make it easier to use our headphones.
Before getting yourself a new headphone, you have the choice to decide the types of inline controls you would like a headphone to have.
Different types of controls come with a headphone, and these controls will let you adjust the volume, mute audio, skip tracks or answer and end calls.
The number of controls also plays an essential role in the ease of using the headphones. A headphone with one control will be limited to only let you play/pause, answer/drop calls or change tracks. Compared to two or three button controls with the latter being better, and you will have more functions which will differ between different headphone brands.
When selecting your headphones, also makes sure to check for compatibility issues of the headphone’s mic and controls to the device you will be using. Some headphone will only support iPhone products thus will not work with Android or Nokia systems and vice versa.
The use of biometric technology has been for most years used for identification or access control. With passing time, the biometric technology has been also been incorporated into the wearable tech gadgets to track information related to health and fitness such as heart rate monitor, calorie output, step counting, etc.
In the recent past, 2014, Headphones also called hearables, are also being designed to include most biometric features as wrist-worn wearables. However, hearables will have an added advantage such as hands-free calls, real-time audio feedback and music playback.
The first biometric headphones that grew into popularity were the Jabra Sports Pulse in 2014.
With most people taking their headphones with them in the gym or when working out, brands have improved sporting headphones to include biometrics like their wrist-worn cousins.
If you are getting a headphone to use when at the gym or working out, then you should consider a headphone that has biometric features to help you get the best out of your exercises.
With this headphone buying guide, I hope you make a better and informed decision when buying your first or next headphone. Feel free to leave a comment below with suggestions or questions relating to this topic and I will answer to the best of my knowledge.