Here at Sound Guys our main goal is to help you, the reader, find the product that’s right for you. There’s a lot that gets discussed in our reviews and best lists, and if you’re new to audio it can seem a little daunting at first. In this guide we’ll be going over some of the things you should know before you buy a pair of headphones and what you should look for when it comes to picking the pair that’s right for you.
Editor’s note: this article was updated April, 7, 2020 to address true wireless earphones.
Types of headphones
First, let’s start with the basics and take a look at the major types of headphones. You’re probably already aware of these and if you’re not, keep reading. We’ll go through some of the pros and cons of each kind of headphone so you can understand which one would best suit you. It’s worth mentioning that there are always exceptions to the rules so these pros and cons apply to most, but not all of the products in any particular category.
The first kind of headphones are also the smallest, save for their wireless counterparts. These are referred to as in-ears/earbuds, and the headphones that came with your phone or MP3 player most likely fall into this category. There are plenty of reasons to buy in-ears over other types of headphones, but their biggest advantage is the fact that they are so easily portable.
Portable. Due to their size and weight, in-ears are the most portable of the three kinds of headphones. You can easily stash them in your pockets when not in use and if that’s too much, even dangling them around your neck isn’t too intrusive.
Noise isolation. Earbuds tend to have excellent noise isolation since they get placed directly in your ear. If you’re not sure exactly what noise isolation is, we go more into detail in this guide.
Great for exercise. This kind of ties back into portability but goes a step further. Earbuds are pretty much the headphones of choice when it comes to working out. Sure people still use other kinds of headphones, but these are by far the most popular because of how lightweight they are.
Sound Quality. For the most part, sound isn’t the strong point of earbuds particularly in the low end. Larger headphones are able to reproduce a more pleasing sound simply because they’re able to . Bigger drivers generally means better sound, and earbuds use tiny drivers to maintain their portable form factor.
Wires get easily tangled. Again, this doesn’t apply to all in-ears, but for the most part the wires get tangled all the time. Like, all the time and it can be really annoying.
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True wireless earphones
Much like the in-ears mentioned above, true wireless earphones rest in your ear, and are extremely portable. Unlike other in-ears, true wireless earphones are stored in a case, and the case itself will recharge each earbud. These are the newest vehicle for personal audio, and they’re a little rough around the edges. Small batteries power each earbud, and will run out far sooner than any other set of headphones or wireless in-ears.
Portable. Just like in-ears, true wireless earphones are extremely portable, provided you can fit its case in your pocket or bag.
Great for exercise. Often sweat resistant, true wireless earphones don’t have a cord to tangle or whack against you when you’re running or lifting.
Stylish. Starting with the AirPods, true wireless earphones have always been the in way to consume music in public.
Battery life. Because these earphones have to use more power with smaller batteries than wireless in-ears, battery life is typically very short.
Easy to lose. Because the earphones aren’t connected by a wire, they can easily fall out of your ears and get lost or stepped on.
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Moving up in size, next are on-ear headphones. Unlike earbuds, these don’t go in your actual ear canal—rather they sit on top of your outer ears. The band can go behind your head or over it, but the drivers are always placed right on your ear.
Also portable. Though they’re not as easy to stuff in your pocket as in-ears are, these are also fairly portable. They’re usually for people who want a step up in sound quality, but don’t want anything too big or bulky. Many of them also have hinges that help them fold to half of their original footprint.
Bigger batteries. Along with a bigger size comes more room to fit a larger capacity battery. The more listening time, the better.
Better sound. These aren’t intended to fit in your pocket, so many on-ears use larger drivers which provide better overall sound.
Harder to carry. Yes, on-ears are still portable but they’re not as portable as earbuds. Throwing them in a backpack is easy, but good luck trying to stash them in your jacket pocket.
Not the best noise isolation. Because they sit on your ear and not in or around them, they usually allow some outside noise to enter.
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Over-ears are the largest of the three types of headphones and some of the products that you’re probably most familiar with fall under this category.
Best sound. Again, this isn’t always the case, but in general large over-ears tend to sound the best because they have the largest drivers in the ear cups. Some manufacturers lean into the bulkiness, and create headphones that are built for sound quality above all other concerns.
Biggest batteries. Noticing a trend here? It all comes back to size. Having more real estate to work with gives manufacturers the freedom to stuff large batteries in these to make them last a long time.
Comfort. Larger ear cups mean more even weight distribution. Additionally, many manufacturers take advantage of the size to add materials such as memory foam, leatherette, and velour.
Hardest to carry. Since they’re larger, over-ears tend to be more difficult to carry. Some come with carrying cases to protect them during travel, but they’re still not nearly as easy to carry around as the other two types of headphones.
Price. This varies depending on how good any given pair of headphones actually are but since over-ears tend to have the best sound quality, they also tend to be the most expensive.
Power. While this is an extremely rare issue, sometimes the high-end headphones you buy require the use of an amp. This is generally reserved for enthusiasts and headphones that are extremely specialized.
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Easily the most controversial headphones here at SoundGuys, Bluetooth has taken the market by storm in 2017. Along with Apple’s unceremonious abandonment of the headphone jack, Android phones have also followed suit; driving up demand for this type of connection.
Like other connection types, there’s no “better” or “worse” when it comes to Bluetooth, just tradeoffs. However, Bluetooth adds another layer of Pros and Cons to your buying decisions, so it’s worth going over.
Wireless listening. Get your headphone cable caught on things all the time? Bluetooth headphones don’t have that issue.
Sound quality is better than it was 5 years ago. If you have an up-to-date phone, Bluetooth codecs have come a long way in the last few years. Even so much as to be able to compete in quality to some wired headsets. Of course, both your phone and your headphones have to support the same standards, so be sure to research this before you buy.
Battery. Where you once could listen without having yet another thing to charge, now your headphones rely on a battery. It’s a pain with the smaller form-factor items like truly wireless earbuds, but the larger the headphones, the better battery life you typically get.
Wireless signals have inherent weaknesses. Wireless listening is all cool and good, but you may notice that sometimes you suffer from interference. It’s becoming more and more rare, but it can still happen.
Compatibility. While the whole sound quality issue is in a far better place than it used to be, issues can still remain when you don’t have equipment that can talk to each other. Newer headphones will have trouble with older phones, and older headphones generally don’t support decent codecs like aptX and LDAC.
Things to know
There’s a lot of technical jargon when it comes to headphones, but they’re worth knowing if you’re looking to invest in a pair for yourself. These are some of the most common terms that get thrown around when talking about audio in headphones.
This is the spec that tells you the range of sound that the product is capable of producing measured in Hertz (Hz). If you look on the box of any audio product this number is usually around 20Hz – 20,000Hz, with the first number representing the lowest frequency and the second representing the highest. This number varies depending on the product, but for reference, humans can only hear between 20Hz – 20,000Hz which is why that’s the range most products aim for.
Some people say that products that produce sound above or below those frequencies are pointless, but that’s not necessarily the case. Sure, you won’t be able to hear those extreme frequencies unless you’re a bat, but when products have a slightly wider frequency response, l5Hz – 25,000Hz for example, it gives the sounds at the two extreme ends a little more room to breathe. In other words, what you can hear will sound a little better. That said, most people can’t even hear the difference if they’re looking for it, so it’s not the most important aspect of headphones to the average consumer.
There’s also the problem that no headphones on the market output each frequency at the same volume as all the others. Every set of headphones out there will emphasize certain notes over others, and that will have consequences for your music. Sometimes it will make things sound less clear, or it will all but mute some of the instruments in a song. These are things you can’t divine from a number on a spec sheet.
Noise Isolation vs. Active Noise Cancellation
This is one of those things that sound similar, but mean very different things. Noise isolation just means that the product physically sits between your ear and outside sound, thus blocking outside noise from entering your ear.
Active noise cancellation (ANC) works differently, though the end goal is the same. Products with ANC have tiny microphones in them that pick up outside sounds. The headphones then produce the opposite sound wave in order to actively cancel out the unwanted noise. It’s all based on physics and wave properties so as you can imagine, it’s not an easy thing to accomplish. When headphones claim noise cancelling we usually give their effectiveness a mention in our full reviews because it varies from product to product.
If someone whispers in your left ear, you’ll know to look over your left shoulder. In a sense, that’s what sound stage is. It’s the ability of a pair of headphones to reproduce spatial cues in a room. In other words, how good a pair of headphones are at tricking your brain into thinking that there are sounds coming from a certain direction.
This varies with headphones, but in general the larger over-ears are better at achieving this than smaller in-ears because the sound has a chance to bounce around your ear before reaching your eardrum. Earbuds pump sound directly into your ear, so there isn’t much room for sound to move around and create the illusion of space. This kind of leads into the next topic.
Open vs closed back
Closed-back headphones are probably the ones that are most familiar. The drivers in closed back headphones are enclosed in the ear cup save for the part facing your ear. This way sound bounces around but has nowhere to go but into your ear. These types of headphones are good if you don’t want outside noise entering the ear cup, and also if you don’t want the person next to you hearing your music (which is called sound leakage). This makes it a great option for commuters or anyone using headphones in a public setting, like an office.
As you may have guessed, open-back headphones are the opposite. They do not have their drivers enclosed in the ear cups. Instead they leave the driver exposed, so outside noise can pass freely into the earcup. Naturally this isn’t the ideal scenario if you commute or in typically noisy areas. The benefit of open-back headphones come when you use them at home or in a studio setting. Because they allow sound to enter the ear cups from the surroundings, the music has a much better soundstage. Of course, this also means that if you wear them out in public you’ll hear what’s going on around you fairly easily.
What is flat/neutral sound?
Many times you’ll hear someone refer to a pair of headphones as having a “flat” or a “neutral” sound. Basically this means that the headphones are reproducing the signal they are receiving from the source device with as little deviation from it as possible. It may seem like this is something that you’d want all headphones to do, but there are reasons why most do not.
In general, a flat sound isn’t a very exciting one. So many headphone manufacturers give a slight boost to certain notes in order to make them sound more appealing to the listener. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, since some people like more bass in their music while others prefer vocals and instruments to take precedence. A flat sounding pair of headphones is used while audio is being produced or mixed so that the audio will sound its best regardless of what kind of device it’s played on later. If you’re not producing or mixing audio, you don’t necessarily need a pair of neutral headphones unless you prefer that kind of sound.
Important Features to look for
Noise Cancellation. If noise cancellation sounds like it’s for you, there are some great options out there. Don’t expect every little sound to magically disappear, but you’d be surprised how much sound actually does get removed when using a good pair of headphones.
Battery Life. If the headphones you choose are Bluetooth or have active noise cancelling, always take a look at the battery life. You don’t want to be caught in the middle of a commute or workout and have your headphones die on you.
Collapsible ear cups. If you opt for on-ear or over-ear headphones, it’s always good to pay attention to whether or not they fold. If you’re going to use them while out and about, you want ones that are easier to store.
Water resistance. This mainly applies to workout earbuds, but make sure that your sweat won’t damage them. Most headphones designed for fitness can withstand sweat, but it’s always good to double check just to be safe.
Built-in microphone/control module. If you’re not fond of pulling your phone out of your pocket, some headphones have control modules and mics on the wire or built into the headphones that let you do a number of things. You can answer phone calls, access Siri or Google Now, and control your music. Always check what the controls are and see if they match your preferences.
The most important thing to consider is how you’re going to be using the headphones. If you commute, you probably don’t want open back headphones. If you’re going to be mixing movie soundtracks in a studio, you might not want a pair $10 in-ears. The audio market is exploding and there are literally thousands upon thousands of products out there. Chances are, there’s more than a few that are going to suit your needs perfectly and now that you know what everything means, finding it shouldn’t be too difficult. Happy hunting!