Headphones are near or at the top of the list of common items that have an impact on quality of life. We wear them when running, in bed, on trains and flights, and some of us even eat, drink, and sleep while wearing them. What’s the point? A decent pair can help you live a better life. And what about a duo that isn’t that great? Not at all. So stay with us for the next 5-10 minutes, and we’ll clear the air, help you narrow your options, and maybe even open your eyes as well as your ears. And if you just want to look at headphone accessories or see a list of our favourites, go ahead – we’ll meet you farther down.
Make a plan for how you’ll use your headphones.
Will you be wearing your headphones on the plane, in your listening room, or at the gym? Or even all three? Different headphones are better in different settings, and the rest of this guide will help you figure out which ones are right for you.
Select the appropriate headphone type. The most important decision of all.
Before we move on to wireless options, noise reduction, and smart capabilities, you must first choose your chosen headphone type, so let’s get started. The three most common types of headphones are over-ear, on-ear, and in-ear.
Headphones for Over-the-Ear
Over-ear headphones are the largest of the three styles, encircling or cupping your ear and staying in place with light pressure on your temple and upper jaw. Over-ear headphones are the original, traditional form of headphones and are available in two versions: closed and open. Closed-back headphones naturally keep your music in, preventing others from hearing what you’re listening to, but open-back headphones include openings that allow outside noises in while keeping interior sounds out.
Headphones for On-Ear Use
On-ear headphones, like ear muffs, are smaller and lighter than over-ear headphones and stay on your head by applying pressure directly to your ears. On-ear headphones are available in both open and closed versions, however on-ear headphones often allow more ambient sound to pass through than over-ear headphones.
The Good On-ear headphones are the best compromise between blocking out the outside world while allowing some sound in, making them great for use in the office or at home. Many types fold up into a small compact package, and some people claim that on-ear headphones don’t become as hot as over-ear headphones do. (Though, no pun intended, we believe the “hot” issue is usually only a concern if you’re working out in them and get overheated.) Nothing becomes really heated.)
Typical on-ear headphone complaints: After a while, too much pressure on the ears hurts. When I shake my head, they fall off. No matter what, some ambient sound gets in. They snag my earlobes. I miss the deeper bass tones that over-ear versions provide.
Some believe that at the same price, a decent set of on-ear headphones (with superb noise cancelling built-in) is comparable to an over-ear counterpart.
Headphones for In-Ear Use
In-ear headphones, often known as earbuds or earphones, are the smallest of the three varieties and fit in the ear canal. They’re also all over these days, thanks to Apple’s decision to include a pair with every iPhone. (Some are even throwaway.) And those should be discarded.) There’s a lot to like about in-ear headphones, and a lot to dislike about them, but the bottom line is that if you pay $5, you probably have a pair in your drawer and already know the following.
Because they’re more portable and often contain water/sweat-resistant materials, in-ear headphones are fantastic (unbeatable) for working out or doing anything active. They’re practical, in the sense that you can shove them in your pocket or wear them around your neck. Noise-canceling earbuds are also surprisingly good. They don’t tangle with your hair or go in the way of your spectacles or earrings. And, given their size, the better ones sound better than you might expect.
In-ear headphones are prone to tangling (unless they come with a tangle-free cord or you go with a pair of truly wireless headphones.) They can get annoying after a while. They’re simple to misplace. And, despite the fact that we just mentioned they “sound better than you may imagine,” don’t assume they’re as good as their over- or on-ear counterparts. Because of the small size, the overall audio quality and bass suffer (again, unless you go for a premium pair of in-ears).
If you’re looking for headphones to use while working out, in-ear headphones are the way to go. (Go ahead and skip to the next section.) Some types include attachments (sometimes known as “fins”) that provide a more comfortable and secure tailored fit. And other versions offer amazing smart and touch functions, allowing you to answer the phone, change playlists, mute the music, and so on without having to fiddle about.
Step 3: Open-Back or Closed-Back Headphones?
Headphones with a Closed Back
There are no openings or vents in the exterior casing, and the entire structure is designed to cup your ear. (Of course, the part that meets your face and seals the gap between your ears and the rest of the world is made of a soft, cushiony material.) And the drivers are positioned in the ear cup in such a way that all sound is directed entirely to your ears. This is the most typical design for headphones of all kinds.
The net effect is that when you close your eyes, you can hear a full symphony playing within your skull. Meanwhile, the individual sitting next to you is completely silent. (Of course, when it comes to audio, nothing is really leakproof, but you get the point.) Bottom line: you’re in your own universe when wearing closed-back headphones. Simply add noise-canceling technology, and your world will appear to be a million miles away from reality.
Headphones with an Open Back
Have you noticed the vents and holes? Sound gets through and air can move in and out of the ear because the drivers are exposed to the outside environment (rather than ensconced in the ear cups). This gives the impression of a conventional stereo and generates a more spacious sound (or soundstage). Some argue that this is a more natural, less artificial method to listen to music. And, if we keep with our analogy of “listening to an orchestra,” this time you’re in the conductor’s chair, on stage with the musicians.
So, hopefully, you’ve decided on your chosen headphone style and whether you want closed or open-backed headphones. So let’s continue… The exciting part is yet to come.
Step 4: Do you want to go wired or wireless?
This one is simple, but we think it comes down to personal preference.
Once upon a time, someone invented Bluetooth, and then someone else put Bluetooth in a pair of headphones (essentially inventing the world’s first pair of wireless headphones), and while this was clearly a brilliant idea, there was one major flaw: music in first-generation Bluetooth headphones sounded terrible. As in tinny, patchy terrible… like AM radio in a bowl of water terrible.
That was back in the day. Now is the time. The sound quality of today’s top Bluetooth wireless headphones is nearly indistinguishable from corded counterparts of the same product. And you can pick between two types: wireless and truly wireless.
Like the Bose SoundSport in ears, wireless headphones have a connection connecting the two earbuds. There are no cords for connecting to a music source, and there are no wires between each earpiece with completely wireless headphones like the Bose SoundSport Free (see below).
We could go on and on about the advantages of wireless headphones – the feeling of independence, not being physically attached to a gadget, and so on – but why? It’s a no-brainer: get wireless headphones if you can afford them. After all, practically every set of wireless headphones sold now includes a cable, so you get the best of both worlds.
However, there are two compelling reasons to use wired headphones. The first is that if you’re a serious musician, sound engineer, or audio tech, you’ll prefer wired headphones since they provide higher-quality audio and consistently superior sound — regardless of the environment. This is also true for audiophiles and/or anyone who lives for music.
The second major benefit of wired vs wireless is the longer battery life. Bluetooth is a constant drain on the battery, and there’s no way of knowing when it’ll die. (However, most wireless headphones will last 10 to 20 hours or more.)
Is it better to listen or not to listen? That is the issue.
In 1978, a young firm called Bose took on the role of NASA, pitting its substantial resources against a complex noise-canceling technology that would take 11 years to perfect in its headphones. Today, that technology is just getting better, and Sony’s version is so out-of-this-world fantastic that you’d swear they’re utilising witchcraft or sorcery.
The real storey is that there are two types of noise cancelling headphone technology, both of which work to block out external noise (such as the bothersome barking dog next door or children watching cartoons) so you can concentrate on your music. “Active noise-canceling” is a new approach of eliminating undesirable sounds by creating and tailoring new sounds to cancel them out. Passive noise-reduction is less expensive, requires no electricity, and uses insulating techniques to keep unwanted noise at bay.