In our modern, on the go world, we take our entertainment everywhere. This makes headphones more important than ever before and why we wrote our headphones buying guide.
Watching TV and movies used to be something we did at home. Now we watch our favorite shows during commutes, on lunch breaks, or on the treadmill at the gym.
Music is no longer only listened to at home or in the car. We take our music everywhere. And while in years past we listened primarily on speakers, today much of our listening is done on headphones. With headphones being such a part of daily life, it’s important to find the right pair for your particular needs. This article will show you how.
There are more headphones on the market today than ever before. With so many types, technologies, and specific applications, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. This article will help you make sense of the different models and features, and help you choose the right headphones for you. After all, there is no “best” headphone. Every type and model has pros and cons. The right pair depends on your particular needs.
We will begin by going over the most common headphones types including in-ear, on-ear, over-ear, wireless, noise cancelling, and sport models. While you are reading our headphones buying guide, you may want to consider the following questions:
Questions to Consider When Buying Headphones
What is the primary purpose for my headphones? Will I listen at home, on my laptop, at the office, at the gym, during a noisy commute, etc.?
Is small size and portability of utmost importance, or is fidelity more important?
Will you be wearing your headphones for long periods of time?
Do you want a wired or wireless set?
Are outside noises a factor? Do you want phones that reduce external noise?
Will you be using your headphones while jogging, running, or exercising at the gym?
Will you be using your headphones for specialized tasks such as music production, DJing, or audiophile listening?
Finally, consider your budget. After all, everyone has one. The goal then is to find the best set for your unique needs that fits within your particular budget. So let’s explore some of the most common types of headphones.
Overview of the Main Types of Headphones
Also known as earbuds, in-ear headphones are the headphones that come with your smart phone or portable music player.
They are small, easy to carry, and range from inexpensive to high end models. They are worn by either inserting them into the ear canal or the outer ear area, depending on design. Portability, weight, and price are the most often cited reasons for using these headphones. They don’t take up much space, are lightweight, and with the exception of high end models, are generally more affordable than their on-ear counterparts.
Their small size means they, except in the cases of high end models, will seldom have as much low end response as larger on-ear and over-ear models. That being said, there are many models that do sound really good and come close to the quality of a nice pair of on-ear headphones. You will see people using this type of headphone almost everywhere; while walking, jogging, at the gym, on their lunchbreak, and in the office.
One of the most common downsides of in-ears is wearability. Fortunately, many models come with different earbud adapters so you can choose the right size and fit for your ears. Other models, however, do not share this feature, so check before buying.
A pair that doesn’t fit will move, fall out of your ear, or feel too tight. I have had in-ear headphones with a perfect fit, as well as models which would not stay in my ears. This can get annoying fast so make sure the headphone has either multiple earbud adapters so you will have a precise fit or is a size you already know fits your ears.
Some users report that in-ears cause fatigue after extended wearing, while others can wear them for hours on end with no issues. This really depends on the person.
Most in-ear models do a good job of blocking outside noise, although not as well as noise cancelling or over-ear models. There are higher end in-ear monitor headphones which do an excellent job of blocking noise. You will see these types used by musicians and singers on stage. The extent of the noise blocking abilities of in-ear headphones depend on how well the earbuds fit.
Many in-ear models come with over the ear wings or guides which allow for a better fit and keep the earbuds in place. These are recommended if you will be doing activities requiring a lot of movement, such as jogging or working out at the gym.
On-ear headphones sit on top of your outer ears, as opposed to the larger full sized headphones which go around your entire ear. On-ears can be open backed, semi-open, or closed back.
Closed back headphones have a hard back enclosure that blocks sound from exiting and entering. The advantage of this is that the sound stays in and outside noise is attenuated.
The disadvantage is that the sound is completely in your head and is often less open sounding than open backed designs. That is not to say that there aren’t some great sounding closed back headphones. One isn’t better than the other; they are just different. For outside noise reduction, as well as making sure others can’t hear what you are listening to, closed back headphones are the superior choice.
Open backed designs have their own pros and cons. They do not have hard backs and therefore, have the advantage of a more open sound. Quality open backed designs have a sound that makes you feel more like you are in the room with the band, as opposed to having the band directly in your head.
Open backed headphones do not have the outside noise reduction ability of closed back designs. Since the back is more open, the sound escapes and does not stay contained in the headphone. If people are working nearby, they may find your open backed headphones distracting.
Semi-open headphones are a mix of the two. They are more open sounding than closed back, but generally are not as open sounding as fully open designs. Semi-open designs have better rejection of outside noise than open backed models but less than closed back. They are sort of a compromise between the two extremes.
A main advantage of on-ear headphones is that they allow for smaller size and less weight than their over-ear counterparts, allowing for a size large enough to have a full sound with rich low end, while being small enough to take with you and wear comfortably at work, at the gym, or on your commute.
These headphones are also known as ear cup, full sized, around ear, and circumaural. This type fully encloses your ears resulting in a larger area which can often mean increased bass and higher volume.
The fact that they surround your entire ear makes them comfortable to wear, while at the same time blocking outside noise. Like on-ear models, over-ears are available in open, closed, and semi-open designs.
Like other types of phones, over-ears range in price from bargain to pro—from under $20 to over $1,000. Just because it’s a large over-ear design doesn’t mean it’s a quality headphone. That being said, there are great models in every price range.
Over-ears have several advantages, one of which is wearing comfort. The large around the ear cups are often well padded and most come with a thick, padded headband. This makes them ideal for work applications such as recording in a studio and TV/broadcast applications.
Closed back over ear headphones are the model of choice for recording. When you’re recording, you need to be able to hear yourself without the headphone audio leaking into the microphones. Studio mics are sensitive and pick up everything, and a quality closed back over-ear design prevents the headphone audio from getting into the mics, allowing you to record a clear track.
Closed back over-ears are also a favorite of DJs who require lots of sound isolation to do their work. While cuing the next track or element in their mix, DJs have to be able to hear what they are listening to. This is difficult in a club with a powerful sound system and closed back over ear design headphones are perfect for DJs in this situation.
Open backed over-ear headphones are often chosen by audiophiles and recording engineers who need to hear the most accurate reproduction of sound possible. Closed back designs, although wonderful for certain applications, tend to have a buildup of certain frequencies due to the sound being blocked from exiting the headphone. The very thing that makes them perfect for some applications makes them less than ideal for others.
Open backed models have a flatter frequency response, meaning all of the frequencies are closer to equal volume, resulting in the engineer being able to hear the sound as it actually is—this is very important in studio monitoring and mastering.
The main downside of over-ear headphones is their size. The size and weight make them more difficult to carry around and more cumbersome to wear in tighter quarters or where lots of movement is required.
For example, a great pair of over-ear headphones might not be the best choice for working out at the gym. They’re just too big and bulky. Also, the fact that they surround your entire ear means they can get hot and sweaty.
While they are perfect for home use, studio use, and many professional uses, they may not be the best choice for on the go, as their bulky design makes them harder to carry and transport.
The primary advantage of wireless headphones is that they are no wires to get in your way. This makes them great for use at the gym, walking, running, exercising, or playing sports.
Most models use Bluetooth technology and many are waterproof and sweat proof, a plus if you are exercising. Some even have advanced active noise cancelling technology for outside noise reduction.
Wireless headphones come in in-ear, on-ear models, and over-ear models. So even if you are set on going wireless, make sure to read the previous sections on in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear headphones, as the topics discussed apply to wireless versions as well.
The downside of wireless is that the compression required in Bluetooth technology results in less dynamic audio. The good news is that our ears tend to adjust quickly.
While you will notice the difference in sound immediately after listening to a quality set of wired headphones, many people tend to get used to the Bluetooth sound quickly and fail to notice the compression. People who are attuned to the highest quality audio, on the other hand, may not enjoy Bluetooth models as well. Look for products with the aptX, aptX HD, or LDAC (Sony only) Bluetooth codecs that offer somewhat improved fidelity. This will only work if the player supports this feature as well. Most Android phones do; as of now, iPhones do not.
Another downside to wireless headphones is a battery life which ranges from 20 plus hours on the high end, to just over three on the low end. This means you will be doing a lot of charging. If you’re like me and often forget to charge your devices, this may present a problem.
Bluetooth allows for a transmit distance of about 30 feet, which is plenty for most applications. Bluetooth 5, which has come out recently, allows for longer distances with more bandwidth. At this point, however, most models run on the standard Bluetooth technology. Expect Bluetooth 5, however, to increase in popularity in the near future.
While wired headphones are still superior when the absolute highest quality sound is essential, many Bluetooth wireless sets sound pretty good and offer a level of convenience and portability not available in wired units.
While I personally want the highest quality sound possible, I have to also admit that wireless headphones make my trip to the gym much more fun. I can even shoot baskets while listening to music, something I could never do with wired models.
Completely wireless headphones like Apple’s AirPods and Alpha Audio Skybuds feature zero wires, meaning there is nothing that connects the left and right phones together. In these models, the earbuds are independent and connect to each other wirelessly, as well as wirelessly to your phone or player.
While their small size makes them portable and convenient, a plus for many on the go people, their small size also makes them easy to lose. This, plus a relatively short battery life is the main drawback of this type of headphone.
Noise Canceling Headphones
Noise cancelling headphones work by using microphones and other technologies to create an inverse soundwave which is then sent through your headphone driver in order to eliminate or reduce outside noise.
So how do they work?
I won’t get into the physics, but suffice it to say that noise cancellation, while effective, won’t make you deaf to the outside world. Believe me, if the technology could quiet my neighbors, I would be first in line to buy the most expensive pair available. That is not to say that they don’t work, only that you shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations about their abilities.
What they do, they do well. They are especially effective in reducing low frequency ambient noise, making them useful in planes and during your commute. You can buy noise cancelling headphones in in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear models. Some are wireless, others are wired.
The primary advantage is the noise cancelling technology, which while not perfect, is helpful in many situations. With the reduced ambient noise, you can listen at a lower volume level, saving your hearing and reducing ear fatigue.
Disadvantages include increased cost and a reduced sound quality resulting from the noise cancelling technology.
Higher end noise cancelling headphones are considerably better than budget sets, with better overall sound and more effective noise cancellation.
Noise reduction technology does affect the sound. That doesn’t mean they sound bad, in fact, many sets sound really good. They just sound a bit different and may not be the best choice for audiophiles wanting the purest possible overall sound.
Sports Specific Headphones
Sports headphones come mostly in in-ear and on-ear designs. Some are wireless and others have smart features such as built in heart rate monitoring. Most are sweat proof and some are even waterproof.
On-ear sports headphones come in open and closed back designs. Open back designs are best suited to running, jogging, biking, and other outside exercise activities, as they let in some external noise and allow you to hear traffic.
In such situations, you want to hear your audio, but you also need to stay safe and aware of your surroundings. Therefore, an open back design is preferred.
In-ear, closed back, and semi-open designs work best at the gym or inside places where there is external noise or external music.
Sport headphones will be labeled as such and will be easy to find.
Make sure to find a pair with a great fit. If you are looking for sports in-ear headphones, make sure they have multiple ear tips so you can get a perfect fit, or find a pair with ear wings or guides. Nothing is more annoying than your headphones continually falling out while you’re trying to work out.
People often ask if sports headphones are ideal for everyday use. The answer for most applications is yes. Sports headphones are generally good everyday headphones which are smaller, more compact, easy to carry, and rugged enough for daily, on the go use.
A Few Final Notes – Technical Considerations
Without going into too much techy detail, I wanted to point out a few things that you might find helpful.
There are a lot of marketing terms used to sell headphones, many of which are meaningless or give you little to no useful information. One of the most common is frequency response.
Many manufactures tout the headphone’s frequency response as 15Hz-20Kz or 20Hz-20Hz. The lowest sound the human ear can hear is 20 hertz. The highest is 20 kilohertz.
Marketers use this to make the headphone appear as though it covers the full range of human hearing. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that this information doesn’t tell you the level of the particular frequency. For example, if the headphone reproduces a low frequency of, say 50Hz, at 20dB lower than it reproduces a higher frequency such as 1k, then yes, technically the frequency is there, but it’s so quiet that you may not be able to hear it at all.
Unless the frequency response comes with a frequency chart showing you the specific reproduced volumes of each frequency, this information is meaningless. Quality headphones will have a more even frequency response, with the lowest lows and the highest highs having a somewhat uniform volume level.
Another marketing term is “digital” headphones.
This is misleading as it is physically impossible for a headphone to be digital. Even if the headphone had a digital path, and there are those out there that do, the signal still has be converted back to analog before reaching our ears.
Because the human ear only hears in analog. There has to be physical movement to create waves that our ears can translate into sound. Marketers also claim that “digital” means the headphones are ideal for digital playback. While this may be true, it is true of every headphone on earth, provided it has a plug that is compatible with your playback device.
This is another meaningless term that should be ignored.
We hope this article gave you some valuable information on the various types of headphones available and has helped you make an informed decision about which design is best for you.
Once you’ve chosen the right style of headphone for your needs, go back to its section in this article where you will find links to some of the best models in that style, with a wide variety of features and price ranges. Regardless of your budget, these links will help you find the perfect headphones to meet your specific needs.