How to Choose Headphones

Forget those cheaply made headphones or earbuds that came with your MP3 player. With the right pair of headphones, you can experience music on a whole other level. Whether you’re listening at home or on the go, consider investing in a high quality pair of headphones (or buds) for maximum enjoyment.


1. Decide between earbuds or headphones.

  • Earbuds are best for people who are short on space, but still want a way to listen to their music. The higher-quality earbuds, like from Sennheiser or Ultimate Ears, usually come with little cases to put your earbuds in when you’re not using them, so they won’t get ruined or dirty at the bottom of your bag. If you keep a very small purse and want to keep your iPod Nano and earbuds together in it, or you’re a guy with limited pocket space, earbuds are probably a better choice. They’re also great if you are on a limited budget, because there’s a lot more to choose from and they tend to cost less. Cheaper earbuds often run into problems like falling out of ears, hurting ears, or simply making dents in them from the cheap plastic. With higher prices (but still low-end in terms of quality) ranging from $25-50, you’ll get more comfortable ‘buds, and they are well-worth the money you spend. However, if you’re an audiophile, you should consider other options. A pair of buds from Sennheiser (like the CX 500, $130), Shure (SE 115, $120), EtyMotic Research (HF5, $150), or even Ultimate Ears (minimum 4) will be preferable.
  • Headphones are great if you enjoy putting them around your neck while you’re walking from one place to another, or if you just carry your headphones that way. You also tend to get beefier cords and fun options like wireless/bluetooth headphones. The drawback is that good headphones within your budget might be hard to find. They take up more space than earbuds, and the DJ-style headphones take up a ridiculous amount of space if you don’t carry around a larger bag. They also are easy to get dirty because most don’t come with cases for them.
  • DJ-style headphones are just that. Huge, bulky, awesome-looking headphones that are reminiscent of what you’d see someone named Double D mix his jamswith. The structure lends itself to good sound containment but bad size usage. And a lot of music buffs get them because of the better sound quality and less pressure exuded on the eardrum, resulting in longer listening time and less damage to the eardrum.
  • Behind-the-neck headphones are exactly that as well, headphones with a connecting band that goes behind the neck instead of over the top of the head. Recommended for joggers or people who wear hats a lot. Also for sunglasses fanatics. So if you’re a girl (or guy) with long hair and you hate headphones that smush your hair down or dislike headphones that irritate your ear piercings, this type would be a good choice. Besides that, there are very few things that separate them from dj-style or “regular” headphones.
2. Remember that you get what you pay for. Generally, more expensive headphones are made with higher quality materials and better engineering, improving the sound quality. $30 headphones will sound good, but not as good as $60 ones. Up in the $80-90 range, you may hear stuff in your music that you’ve never heard before. $9.99 bargain bin earbuds or headphones may last, at longest, a year, and will not sound great to begin with. So spending at least $20 on them insures you at least get basic music quality. One guideline is to spend $50 on portable headphones and $250 on a pair for a home stereo.  Another thing you get with quality is durability. There are probably people out there with headphones from the 70′s and 80′s that still work because they’re made well, and made to last. When you get a brand name you aren’t just paying for the name sometimes; you’re paying for the trusted quality.
3. Evaluate the headphones’ sound isolation. This refers to how well they keep music in, and outside noise OUT…nothing’s more annoying than having to turn up your volume to drown out the sound of the bus. There’s also the fact that if you’re rather deaf, like to turn your music up loud, or use it to drown out background noise and the headphones are very open, you’ll end up giving everyone around you something to gossip about. Sound isolation will also keep you from having to waste precious battery life or turn up the volume to hear properly. Earbuds and in-ear headphones tend to be better at sound isolation, due to the seal they provide in your ear; and the same with (huge) DJ-style headphones that create a little sealed environment around the ear.
4. Investigate the frequency range. A wider frequency range means you can hear more from the music; large ranges such 10 Hz to 25,000 Hz will often be recommended However the hearing range of most humans is only 20 Hz to 20kHz - anything within that range will be fine.
5. Don’t look for noise-canceling features unless you’re willing to shell out the big bucks. Anything less than around $200-250 isn’t worth the price. Even if you’re the frequent traveler type, noise-canceling, 90% of the time, just isn’t worth the money. Some of your music might get canceled out as well, forcing you to turn up the volume. If you really do need noise reduction, however, look for brands like Etymotic, or Bose which have spongy earplugs that fill the ear canal.  A cheap way to cancel background noise might also be to just put over-ear hearing protectors (from the hardware store) over earbuds to cancel out most ambient noise. On the other hand, if you’re not overly fussy, you may find lower priced noise-cancelling earbuds or headphones have considerable benefit for reducing background noise in airplanes, cars or public transportation. Panasonic (just one brand of many) makes an acceptable noise-cancelling earbud for just $50.
6. Test them out. The best way, really, to know if headphones can go loud enough for you is to test them out. Try on a friend’s pair (if they’re cool like that) or go to a good electronics store that will let you test them out. Having around $200 in cash handy and going to a store with a 30-day return policy will make the electronics store your unwilling friend while you learn what types of headphones you really want. Out of courtesy, however, always clean the wax out of your ears before trying on any headphones or earbuds!
7. Look for the impedance of the headphones. To get the best out of your headphones, you should match the impedance of the headphones to the audio equipment you are using. This is measured in ohms. In reality if you don’t this usually means that you will need to turn up the volume slightly compared to a matched pair of headphones.
8. Finally… Use your ears! You are the person who is going to be using these headphones day in day out. If a $50 pair of headphones sounds the same as a $1000 pair of headphones – go for them, the sound quality is not going to change just because they are more expensive! The only thing to remember is the overall build quality of the headphones – are they going to last as long? Does it matter if they are that much cheaper?


  • If you get good quality headphones, you don’t have to get an extended warranty. Just stick with what’s given to you. Some headphone brands, such as Skullcandy, give out lifetime warranties for their products. Although if you know you’ll be using them all the time, a warranty wouldn’t be a terrible idea.
  • Once you buy quality headphones, you’ll find that you can’t go back to your old $20 headphones. You’ll be disappointed by the sound and feel.
  • If you’re always using your mp3 player in a pocket up near your chest, you won’t need a 10-foot cord. If you like to listen to music from your stereo using headphones you won’t want a 2-foot cord. There is a way to shorten the cord length by a little bit so you don’t have excess getting caught on things and some headphones with really long cords come with cord-winders or you can even make your own cord-winder. Generally, having it a bit too long is better than having to buy an extender.
  • If you listen to mp3s below 192 kbps regularly, high quality headphones will be a waste of money as you’re trying to listen to detail that isn’t there. mp3s compress the music into a smaller file by getting rid of some of the track.
  • Wireless headphones might be temptingly convenient, but you can get background hissing and/or dynamic range compression that flattens the sound to some extent, and you’re likely to run into interference from other devices. If you decide to get wireless headphones, though, look for digital models with maximum hertz and multiple channels so you can switch to another frequency if you encounter interference.
  • Noise-canceling headphones do block out background noise, but they also reduce audio quality. Noise-canceling headphones may not sound as good as other headphones in most listening environments.
  • One of the biggest challenges is to find right headphones for gym use. Gyms are notorious – and very annoying – about rather loud volume and poor music choices. Headphones are just too bulky and awkward, most earbuds do not do much to cancel outside music. Do a lot of research before you buy something, mainly through user reviews. Some stores will let you try headphones on, but only online reseach and real life users will let you know about earbuds. Active noise cancellation earbuds have reputation of creating interferences and noises from electronics operation. Passive(tight fit) earbuds do not, but not everyone likes “plugs” in the ear canals and, also, it can be quite strange experience to listen to ones heartbeat and breathing, amplified with those.
  • Research. Don’t go to sources like Consumer Reports that aren’t specialized in audio. Go to audiophile forums (AVSForum, Head-Fi, etc.) and shops to find what’s good instead of going to general electronics stores.
  • When you first put your headphones on don’t forget to turn the volume down.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 18th, 2012 at 8:05 pm and is filed under Gadgets. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.