The Definitive Techwalla Headphone Shopping Guide

Finding the right "cans" can be like music to your ears.

By Jacqueline Emigh

Unlike, say, socks or saxophones, headphones aren’t one-size-fits-all. Choices range from lightweight, in-ear models to large cans that envelop your ears in sound, with many variations in between. As a result, it can be hard to choose the perfect set for your ears.

Price can be a major consideration, but narrowing down the possibilities by price categories, such as budget, mid-range, or high-end, will only get you so far. In the sub-$150 bracket alone, you can choose from well-regarded in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear products, along with less costly earbuds. If you're willing to spend more, the selections expand to include cans with amazing acoustics, streetwise fashion flair, luxurious leather or wood accents, and much more.

Meanwhile, entirely new subcategories have been opening up, such as gaming headsets, home theater headphones, and specialized products for sports and fitness. Heck, fellow Techwalla contributor Aoife McEvoy just compared two sets of headphones designed specifically to be used underwater!

To help you find your personal best headphones, we've organized this buying guide into two sections: an overview of the various types of designs, features, and specs you’re likely to come across when shopping for headphones; and details about what you’re likely to find at various prices and in various product categories.

KEY FACTORS TO CONSIDER

Intent

The most important questions to ask yourself before making a buying decision are fairly obvious: How, when, and where do you plan to use your new headphones? Unless you’re exhausting your car budget on headphones, no pair is likely to deliver the same sound quality as a fantastic set of speakers. So why buy headphones at all? For one thing, you can't take speakers everywhere you go. And many (though certainly not all) headphones are tooled to work with smartphones, MP3 players, and other mobile devices.

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But whether you're listening in a mobile or a nonmobile environment, headphones can also help keep the music you're enjoying from disturbing other people—whether those people are passengers in adjoining seats on the bus or cranky neighbors in the house next door.

Another use for headphones is to keep external sounds—like the din of the gym or someone practicing piano elsewhere in the house—from interfering with your personal listening experience.

Consider any special requirements that you might be bringing to the table, too. Do you want a built-in microphone for taking phone calls? Do you need to be able to connect to multiple types of gaming consoles, or to other external audio sources such as TVs and DVD players? Is Bluetooth a must? Do you prefer pounding bass or a more balanced sound?

Size and Design

Headphones are available in a broad range of sizes and designs—characteristics that affect their sound as well as their portability. In decreasing order by size, the four main types of headphone designs are over-ear headphones, on-ear headphones, in-ear headphones, and earbuds.

Over-ear headphones. Also known as "around-ear" headphones, over-ear models come with large, cushioned ear cups that completely surround the user’s ears. On-ear models have cushioned ear cups, too, but the earpieces are smaller and rest on top of the user’s ears. Generally, over-ear headphones are heavier and bulkier to wear and to carry with you, but they also tend to provide better audio quality.

Over-ear headphones can be further classified into closed-back, open-back, and semi-open-back designs. Closed-back over-ear headphones provide a capability called passive noise isolation that helps prevent sounds from leaking in either direction. A closed-back over-ear design is particularly handy if a product manufacturer wants to "color" sound by emphasizing bass over treble and midrange notes, for example.

In open-back designs, meanwhile, an acoustically transparent fabric or mesh covers the rear of the earpieces. Although it permits a lot of leakage, this approach also promotes a "flat" sound resembling the sound of the original recording. Semi-open-back headphones attempt to combine the best qualities of closed- and open-back designs.

On-ear headphones. Most on-ear headphones today are still closed-back models, but open-back and semi-open-back models are emerging in this category, too. And some on-ear headphones provide passive noise isolation via extra cushioning in the ear cups.

With on-ear and over-ear headphones, the left and right earpieces are linked through a headband. For improved portability, the ear cups in many on-ear headphones are designed to be foldable, sometimes collapsing into the headband.

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In-ear headphones. Also known as in-ear monitors (IEMs), in-ear headphones are lighter and more portable than over-ear and on-ear models. IEMs each come with several sets of "phalanges" or tips made of silicone or memory foam that fit inside your ear canal. If you can get a snug seal with one of these tips, you'll automatically obtain good sound isolation.

Earbuds. Because earbuds don’t funnel sound directly into your ears, they don’t provide sound isolation. Many earbuds provide less than great audio quality, but some models—such as those from JLab—do an excellent job.

Beyond sound isolation, some headphone models in various categories come with a capability called active noise cancellation (ANC), achieved through the use of at least one microphone. The mic monitors external or "ambient" sound, and the headphone then sends out an inverse, or opposite, wave of sound to cancel the surrounding hubbub.

Features

Various features related to connectivity, controls, comfort, and audio channels set headphones apart from one another.

Wireless headphones give you greater freedom of movement, while wired models typically provide superior audio quality. And unlike wireless cans, wired models do not require batteries, thereby eliminating the need for recharging.

Most wireless headphones on the market today use Bluetooth, for easy pairing with either a PC or a mobile device. Some headphones, however, use either infrared (IR) or radio frequency (RF) wireless technology instead.

If you’re leaning toward a wireless pair, you need to take into account the length of the cables (if any) that ship with the product and the kinds of device connectivity that the cables provide.

Many wired headphones geared to mobile use ship with a cable containing iOS- or Android-friendly inline remote controls, as well as an in-line microphone.

On wireless headphones, controls for volume, mute, and track advance usually are located on the ear cups instead. Some home-use-oriented headphones, however, come with separate hardware units that house controls while also supplying wireless connectivity. The controls for headphones designed for home use can be elaborate enough to let you manage settings for game modes and speaker equalization (EQ), for instance.

Other features aside, if headphones don’t feel comfortable, they're likely to spend more time in a desk drawer or duffle bag than on, in, or over your ears. If you plan to use yours for hours at a stretch, a closed-back over-ear design might not be the best choice, since headphones of this type tend to get warm on your head fairly quickly.

The main comfort issues with on-ear designs is that they may clamp down on your ears too tightly, or ride too high or too low on your face. Built-in cushioning can be useful not just for isolating sound but also for easing the clamping. Manufacturers also offer various ways of adjusting the ear cups and headband to your ears (and to the rest of your head).

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For example, Shure’s SRH144, a set of inexpensive semi-open-back on-ear headphones, includes a plastic headband with vertical tracks. The leather ear pads that come with Shure’s headphone slide up and down these tracks for an easily adjustable fit.

SRH144

by Shure
List $40

You should also decide on what type of sound you want—monaural ("mono"), stereo, or surround sound. Mono headphones give you a single channel of sound. Stereo headphones give you two channels, one to the left ear and the other to the right. Some headsets geared to movies and gaming rely on surround-sound technology to produce additional audio channels.

"Virtual" surround-sound headphones use two speakers inside the headphones, together with sound-processing software, to simulate the audio effect of multiple home speakers. In contrast, “true” or “real” surround-sound headphones use more than two built-in speakers—typically four or seven speakers—in each ear to reproduce surround sound.

Generally, true surround sound is more accurate than virtual surround sound, but it also more expensive, and the audio might not be as dynamic or powerful.

Some headphone makers use surround-sound technology developed by Dolby; others use their own proprietary approaches to surround sound.

Pricing

Headphones range in price from less than $50 to way (way, way, way) more than $1,000. (It’s not unusual for an audiophile to spend a few grand on headphones; but the most expensive headphones we’ve ever encountered cost $50K.)

In general, over-ear models carry the highest list prices, followed, in order, by on-ear headphones, IEMs, and earbuds. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, however.

Good headphones in all categories are often available at steep discounts. This is particularly true of discontinued models. Often, manufacturers have discontinued these models in favor of updated models that offer only small improvements over their predecessors. So bargains of this type are worth watching for.

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In the vast majority of cases, a wired over-ear or on-ear model costs less than a wireless version of the same product. Bowers & Wilkins’ wired P5 Series 2 on-ear headphones, for example, are priced $100 less than the company’s P5 Wireless on-ear headphones.

P5 Series 2

by Bowers & Wilkins
List $300

Specs

Frequency response, sensitivity, and impedance are statistical terms that often crop up on spec sheets. What do they mean?

Measured in hertz (Hz), frequency response refers to the range of frequencies—from low to high—that a given headphone can produce. Headphones with identical frequency ranges can still sound quite different, however, because other factors, such as coloration (alteration of the original, pure sound by the hardware it passes through) affect a model's "sound signature."

Sensitivity, on the other hand, indicates the sound volume that a headphone can deliver in relation to a specific amount of input power. If you expect to use headphones with a smartphone, for instance, it's a good idea to get a set with a sensitivity of at least 100 decibels per milliwatt (dB/mW), because portable listening devices usually have less powerful amps than home stereo systems do.

Measured in ohms, impedance is a measure of amplification and is closely associated with sensitivity. Consumer headphones generally have impedance levels of less than 64 ohms, whereas ultra-high-end professional studio headphones tend to have impedance specs of 600 ohms or above.

SO WHICH HEADPHONES SHOULD I BUY?

High-End Headphones

With products priced at $450 and up, you're in audiophile territory—headphones designed, at least in principle, for fanatical music lovers. Of course, not every product in this price range is a winner, but the price says that it should be. Typical high-end models are over-ear units with oversize drivers that deliver wide frequency response and rich sound.

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For example, at a list price of $700, Sony offers the MDR-Z7, an over-ear headphone product powered by colossal new 70mm drivers. Sony asserts that these audiophile-level cans deliver a stellar frequency response of 4Hz to 100,000Hz.

MDR-Z7

by Sony
List $700

For about twice the sticker price of the MDR-Z7, Sennheiser sells the HD 800, a set of over-the-ear headphones that directs sound into your ears at an angle.This approach to making audio seem as though it is coming from speakers instead of headphones differs from surround sound. Sennheiser hand-crafts and tests each pair of HD 800s individually.

HD 800

by Sennheiser
List $1400

Midrange Headphones

The $150-to-$450 price range is a huge sweet spot. Here, you'll find a vast array of on-ear and over-ear models with features varied enough to suit just about anyone's taste.

For example, Sol Republic’s Beats-inspired Track Air Wireless product has an ingenious headband design. The headband for these on-ear headphones contains strips of metal that transmit audio between two easily detachable ear pieces, or "sound engines." You can easily change your look by swapping out the headband for one of another color.

Tracks Air Wireless

by Sol Republic
List $200

If you prefer a sound that’s less bass-heavy, give Bose’s SoundTrue Around-Ear Headphone II a listen. These cans aren’t wireless, but an accompanying inline remote control/microphone is available in different versions for iOS and Android.

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Headphones at the lower end of the midrange tend to include plastic components, whereas pricier models lean toward a metal construction. On the whole, plastic weighs less than metal, but is less durable. Some manufacturers—including Meze Headphones and House of Marley—use parts made of real wood.

Budget Models

If you shop carefully, you can find excellent headphones in most categories at suggested retail prices of $150 or less. Most IEMs, including SoundMagic’s E50, are priced below $100. Listed at $50, this IEM delivers well-balanced sound, with no obvious spikes in either treble or bass.

E50

by SoundMagic
List $50

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You can also discover some fine on-ear cans—and even some over-ear models—in this price category. Before buying, though, you should consider both the pros and the cons. For instance, Sennheiser’s HD 280 Pro over-ear headphones, listed at $99, produce very authentic sound. But on the down side, these cans can become quite hot. Also, the cord is not detachable.

HD 280 Pro

by Sennheiser
List $100

Sports/Fitness Products

You might be inclined to wear a pair of lightweight on-ear or over-ear cans while running or otherwise moving about, but many different IEMs and earbuds are specifically designed to stay in place—and deliver fantastic sound—while you're exercising.

To help make that happen, some manufacturers augment in-ear tips with other design elements. Polk claims that its UltraFit 3000 brings such a secure fit that these IEMs won’t fall off even if you wear them while performing advanced gymnastics on a trampoline. These sports/fitness IEMs come with integrated, bendable hooks that wrap around the ears.

List $100

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In contrast, Denon’s AH-W150 Exercise Freak headphones sit at the outer edge of your ear. Among the best-sounding IEMs around, Exercise Freak is sweat- and impact-resistant, but not waterproof.

List $150

Home Theater Systems

Headphones designed for home theater use permit input from various audio sources. Most also include some form of surround sound, either true or virtual.

Pioneer’s SE-DIR800C works with audio from TVs, DVDs, PCs, and gaming systems such as XBox, PlayStation2, and Game Cube. Sold with an accompanying infared wireless base system, Pioneer’s headphones support Dolby Digital and Dolby Pro Logic II decoding formats as well as Dolby Headphone surround-sound technology for simulating the acoustics of a small room, an average-size room, or a small movie theater.

SE-DIR800C

by Pioneer
List $400

Although it doesn’t have as many audio options as Pioneer’s system, the Sennheiser RS 180 uses radio frequency instead of infrared or Bluetooth to achieve wider-range wireless transmission. The headphones ship with an RF transmitter designed to deliver sound to as many as four sets of cans located in any room of the home.

RS 180

by Sennheiser
List $300

Gaming Headsets

Gaming headsets offer many of the same features that you'll come across in home theater systems, with other capabilities rolled in that are more specific to gaming.

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For instance, the F.R.E.Q. 7 gaming headset from Mad Catz is outfitted with a snap-on, noise-canceling microphone for communicating with gaming teammates, plus built-in EQ settings for adjusting sound channels to optimize audio for various kinds of games and music. Support for Dolby Headphone surround sound is a key feature.

F.R.E.Q. 7

by Mad Catz
List $200

Another popular product in this space is the Sound Blaster Recon3D Omega Wireless gaming bundle. This system combines lightweight, comfortable Tactic3D Omega wireless headphones with Recon3D USB, a separate unit containing a quad-core sound processor.

The box includes controls for adjusting between PC, Xbox, or PS3 gaming modes and for managing Dolby surround sound, Sound Blaster’s own THX proprietary surround-sound technology, and the company’s Scout Mode settings for anticipating the moves of gaming "enemies."

Photo credits: Bose Corp.; Bowers & Wilkins; Denon; Mad Catz Interactive, Inc.; Meze Headphones; Shure Corp.; Sony Corp. of America; SoundMagic.

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