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Why do my headphones sound bad?

It could be something easy to fix
March 17, 2022
A photo of an oscilloscope readout with a sine wave.

So you’ve spent a bunch of money on a set of high-quality cans, and when you go to use them the first time: they suck. How is this possible? All the reviews said they were great—they should be amazing, right?

Let’s go over a few common problems with headphones and their solutions to see if we can’t get you back on track.

Editor’s note: this article was updated on March 17, 2022 to add supplemental information about in-ears.

My headphones are too quiet

If you bought headphones for your smartphone and they sound too quiet, the culprit is likely the power. You see, some older or more enthusiast models just need more juice than your poor smartphone can provide. When that happens, they can sometimes sound kinda crappy, or really quiet.

Setting aside the nerdiest details for the moment, the most common reason why this happens is because of mismatched impedance. You see, every electrical circuit has some capacity to resist current, and headphones are no different. It used to be that headphones with a really high resistance to current could generally output sound with far lower distortion—making that a common feature in high end headphones. So it took a lot more juice to make them run as intended: you needed an amp.

A photo of an amplifier.
Using an amplifier like this one can properly run power-hungry headphones.

Most headphones nowadays are a lot more power efficient, so this is a very rare problem. But it’s something you should know how to rule out if something’s amiss.

Solution: Get new headphones (or an amp)

If you’re absolutely sure your headphones aren’t broken, you may need an amp for your headphones. Though most new headphones will never have this issue because they’re designed to work more efficiently with smartphones, planar magnetic and other high-current cans will still need an amp of some sort.

So how can you tell if you need an amp? Click on over to the specifications pages of the products you’re looking at. Search for the “impedance” spec and take note of the number followed by the Ω symbol. The higher that number is, the more it resists current, and the quieter it can get with the same output. Most headphones designed for mobile use will hover around 16Ω or 32Ω, which is very easy for your smartphone to handle.

Related: Best headphone amps of 2019

If you love your current headphones and want to amplify their signal, you can pick up any one of a number of portable amps like the FiiO A1 to help you out. Just be sure to look up the specs on whatever amp you’re buying first, and make sure the “output impedance” number in the specs is less than 1/8th the impedance of the headphones you’re using for best results.

My headphones are very noisy

Sometimes, the things you connect your wired headphones to just can’t keep noise at bay. For whatever reason—maybe there’s a ground loop somewhere, or maybe there’s an internal component that for whatever reason isn’t properly shielded—there’s extra noise making life difficult. While it’s super rare for this to be the case nowadays, older computers and laptops can sometimes have this issue.

In this case, you may want to use a DAC+amp unit to take the job of your computer’s sound card away from it. Sure, it’s spending more money when you probably don’t want to, but this is the most direct way to address the issue of an inadequate source if you’re listening to digital music.

My in-ears don’t sound good

While in-ears don’t always give you stellar results, but nine times out of ten if they sound really bad it’s because your in-ears don’t fit. This might sound like a cop-out, but it’s true: how your in-ears fit has a massive impact on the sound you get out of them.

Solution: Find foam or moulding tips

Thankfully, this is a pretty easy fix. If none of the silicone bits that come with your in-ears fit your ear canal: get tips that fit to your ear like memory foam options. Instead of using a standard size and hoping it fits, memory foam will expand to meet your ear canal instead, ensuring a decent seal.

My headphones sound great at home, terrible on the subway

This is a sticky one, but mostly because we’re dealing with your ears and not the headphones. So if you’ve listened to music on the subway, bus, or other noisy-as-hell environment, you’ve probably noted just how bad it sounds. It’s tough to hear instruments, and sometimes notes just disappear to noise.

This is because your ears aren’t perfect like microphones. Instead, they will ignore sounds that are close in frequency to each other if one sound is much louder than the rest. This is called auditory masking.

A manufacturer photo of the Bose QuietComfort 25 active noise cancelling headphones.
Noise cancelling headphones can cure a lot of commuters’ headaches.

Because outside noise is generally close to musical notes in frequency, it’ll mask our music because it’s almost always far louder than the relatively quiet sound our headphones blast our ears with. There’s really only three solutions to this issue.

Solution 1: Avoid noise

This seems like a cop-out solution, but if you can avoid the noise: you won’t have this problem! But that’s not always possible, so onto more solutions.

Solution 2: Block out more noise

If you can’t avoid noise, you can either get a set of closed-back headphones, in-ears and foam tips, or active noise cancelling headphones. Either way, you’re blocking out or destroying more noise, so you’ll have less to worry about once the junk sounds reach your ear.

Solution 3: Turn the volume up

Don’t do this. It’s technically a solution, but by increasing your music’s volume, it stands a better chance of masking out the noise rather than the other way around. You will damage your hearing this way.

My Bluetooth headphones sound bad

While Bluetooth is at a natural disadvantage over wired headphones despite what my colleague says, sometimes it just don’t sound as good as it’s supposed to. So what gives?

A photo of the Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless and its Bluetooth toggle switch.
Lots can go wrong with Bluetooth, so make sure you set it up for success.

Well, the way Bluetooth works is that your phone and your headphones have to share common profiles—or you could think of it as “languages.” When your headphones and audio device pair, they both figure out what the best common codec they share is, and then use that. However, not all modern phones have the best codecs available, despite it being 2022 and having a large breadth of options to choose from.

When your headphones support a really good profile but your phone does not, then your phone and headphones will “agree” to use a different codec that they both share—likely SBC—which can deliver lower quality audio than you might expect.

Solution: Research BT profiles before buying a new phone

While that is a huge pain in the butt, reading review sites like Android Authority and SoundGuys can take the guesswork out of finding these issues (we’re paid to do it, after all). You can also check out the specifications pages of your smartphones online before buying to figure out if your headphones match what your new phone can do.

Solution: Charge your battery again

As Bluetooth headphones are battery-operated devices, sometimes they just won’t work as well as you want them to simply because they’re running out of juice. Try charging your headphones fully and making sure that your phone is well-charged too.

Solution: Update your phone

It seems like an obvious thing to say, but it’s possible your drivers aren’t up to date. Try updating your phone if your Bluetooth audio should be working, but doesn’t. Sometimes it’s really that simple.

Solution: Ensure you’re using the best Bluetooth codec available to you

If you’re using an Apple phone, that’s AAC. You’re already using it.

If you’re using an Android phone, however, you need to enable developer options to take a peek at which codec you’re actually using. Open up your phone’s “about phone” option in the settings, and find where it says “kernel version” (should be under “software information”). Tap it 10 times to enable developer mode, then back out of “about phone” and scroll all the way to the bottom of your settings. Open the developer options, then scroll down to where it starts listing Bluetooth settings. Once there, you can change the codec, sample rate, bit rate, and other settings.

Where’s the bass?

If you’re new to buying ultra-expensive headphones, you may have accidentally picked up a pair that was designed for more studio work or critical listening than you wanted. Despite what you might read, there’s really not many “bad” headphones out there anymore, just ones that are right or wrong for your needs. Anyways, the most common complaint I hear about ultra-expensive headphones is that they don’t sound how they “should.”

A graph showing equal loudness contours.
Not a very flat line, is it? This is how human ears hear notes at “equal loudness.”

Why is this the case? Because what your “normal” headphones are tuned to sound like is very different than what many audiophile headphones are tuned to sound like. Specifically, the frequency response—or how much each frequency is emphasized over others—is far different.

Typically, audiophile and studio headphones will attempt to make every frequency play back at similar volume, sometimes referred to as a “flat” response. However, our ears don’t work like microphones, and our own biology is very different than sensitive electronics: we hear notes of varying frequencies as being very different than they actually are.

As you might have guessed, headphones made for casual listening like Beats don’t try to be perfect: they target a note emphasis that’s influenced by something called the ISO 226:2003 (“equal loudness”) standard, or what humans perceive to be equally loud across all notes. Obviously, this means bass is boosted, with some changes in the mids and highs to preserve sounds that normally get lost in the shuffle. If you’re used to listening to these headphones, pro or studio headphones are going to sound like they have no bass.

Solution: Read more headphone reviews

This suggestion is self-serving, I know, but we’re here to prevent you from making a potential misstep when it comes to buying audio products. We can tell you what kind of headphones you’re about to get so you don’t have to go through the endlessly painful buy/return/buy cycle.

Solution: Equalize your music

Did you know that you can change how your music sounds from your phone? If you’re using an app that supports it, you can “equalize” your tunes to your liking. We’ll post a guide about it in the future if there’s interest. But essentially, you can drop the emphasis of certain ranges of notes so that your headphones will sound more to your liking. If you increase the volume on certain ranges, though, you will add noise: so be careful.

Frequently asked questions

Equalize! If you have the ability, you can use an equalizer app or program on your computer (like voicemeeter, Equalizer APO, True-Fi, or Dirac’s app) to reduce the emphasis in bass notes. It may take a lot of trial and error, but you’ll like the results.