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The five

What are the five key points I need to look at?

What’s available?

There are four major types of headphones. Earbuds fit the outside of your ear canal; canalphones that fit snugly in the canal to reduce ambient noise and increase audio quality; earpads or on-ear; and full-sized over the ear headphones favored by audiophiles.

What are you listening to?

If you listen to mostly spoken words, like Podcasts or books on tape, expensive headphones won’t provide an appreciable sound quality difference. If you listen to music or you a gamer, an investment in a good quality headphone will definitely increase your enjoyment with better sound.

Exercise Use

If you listen to music while exercising, be certain to look for models that include features designed to keep the headphone in place. Behind the ear tethers or lightweight sport earpads that utilize an over the head bars are the most common features. Avoid canal phones with silicone speaker covers, because they can get sweat slicked and pop out.

How do they sound?

Though your ear will be the final judge, on paper you’ll be looking for the numbers, like the range of frequencies (20hz-20,000hz), the level of distortion (you’ll want 1% or less) and sensitivity, also known as its efficiency of output. For home theatre and opera lovers, you’ll want high sensitivity in your headphones.

Bang for Buck

After market prices vary greatly. However in the budget range, you will notice a vast difference in sound quality compared to the models that are supplied by MP3 manufacturers. You do not need to spend big bucks to get a major upgrade in quality and functionality.

Shop talk

What are the terms and definitions I need to know about?

Closed-back (closed ear)

Also known as Full-Sized headphones or Circumaural— where the headphone pads go around your ears creating a “sealed” system which optimizes ambient noise reduction.

Open-back (open-air)

Otherwise known as Earpad or Supra-aural style headphone. The speaker pads rest on your ears without covering the entire outer ear.

Frequency Response

The range of frequencies that the headphones can reproduce effectively. The audible bandwidth is 20 Hz - 20,000 Hz (or 20kHz).

Distortion

How accurately the headphones reproduce sounds and given in a percentage of signal distorted. Lower is better - 1% distortion or less (at maximum power).

Sensitivity (loudness)

A measure of headphone efficiency in dBs SPL per milliwatt of input. A low number means that the headphones need more power to sound as loud as those which have a higher sensitivity.

Noise Cancelling

Noise cancelling headphones come in active and passive forms. Passive noise cancelling utilizes special headphone construction to maximize noise reduction whereas active noise cancelling uses signal processing electronics that sample ambient sounds with miniature microphones and then generate an inverse signal inside the headphones to cancel the noise.

What types of Headphones are available?

There are four essential categories of headphones: earbuds, canalphones, on-ear and full-sized. The first and often the cheapest headphones available are called ‘earbuds’. Chances are if you’ve purchased an MP3 player recently you already own a pair. These headphones fit over the outside of the ear canal without going inside the actual ear canal. The sound response is generally considered mediocre due to the small speaker size and inability to isolate ambient noises. To remedy the earbud’s shortcomings audio manufactures have come up with a second type of headphones known as ‘canalphones’.

Canalphones offer good sound quality and solid ambient noise reduction by fitting the speaker directly in the ear canal. Since the size of the ear canal can vary from person to person, these headphones often come with multiple sleeve sizes that help create a custom fit to your ear. Prices for these headphones can run anywhere from $100 to $600 depending on the quality of the speaker and type of noise cancelling technology that is used. The third type of headphone is the more traditional ‘earpad’ or ‘on-ear’ headphone. As the name implies these speakers are padded and fit directly on the ear. The lightweight support frame typically fits over your head or in the case of the newer sport or “street” models the speakers supports go over your outer ear and back of your neck.

Regardless of how these headphones rest on your ears, the speakers are typically very lightweight and can provide a range of sound qualities depending on how much you invest. The final headphone type is the traditional ‘full-sized’ padded headphone that fits comfortably over the entire ear. These typically provide the best sound experience out of the four headphone types available. Audiophiles, sound engineers and gaming / home theater enthusiast laude these headphones as the only ones to use. However due to the size and relative weight, these speakers typically remain at home or in the studio - portability can be quite cumbersome.

What are you listening to?

The first and most important question you will need to ask yourself before purchasing a set of headphones is what type of audio do you listen to most. Do you just listen to music from your MP3 or do you plan to plug your headphones into your Xbox or home audio system? Different headphones can handle different audio ranges and types. Size, shape and fit are just as important as the quality of the sound that is projected from the headphone’s speakers. If you just want to hear some music to and from work or school, and don’t feel you’ll miss out on a high-fidelity experience, then the small-sized, mid-priced ‘earbuds’ and ‘canalphones’ will be perfect. These headphones work just as well for podcast, radio and books-on-tape. If you’re interested in getting a little more from your daily musical experience then you may want to look into a mid-priced ‘Ear-Pad’ headphone like the Sennheiser PX 100 for around $40.

However, if you planning to use your headphones to watch movies, play your latest video game or simply want to enjoy the rich, deep sounds of your favorite opera, jazz concert or heavy metal album, audiophiles unanimously endorse full-size headphone. Full-sized headphones create a closed sytem by covering your entire head and allows you to enjoy every musical nuance and/or sound effect.

Where are you listening?

The next logical question you’ll want to ask yourself is where you’ll be listening to your music, movies or games.

Working Out: If you listen to music while you workout, sweating is often the enemy of headphones staying in place. Avoid headphones that do not have features designed to stay snugly in place, or you could risk having that expensive pair of headphones slip out of your ear while working out. Canalphones that utilize a silicone gel speaker cover are comfortable, but get slick during work outs and can pop out of your ear. Many prefer lightweight sport earpad headphones, which are designed to stay in place while you exercise. These models have evolved to feature bars that go around your neck, and are curved to fit more ergonomically. The other widely available “stay put” feature that works well for fitness activity is the ear tether. Look for earbud models that include flexible tethers that attach to the back of your ear to keep the bud securely in place.

Chilling Out: If you like to listen to tunes throughout the day or enjoy your morning podcast on the train to work then an inexpensive pair of earbuds will do just fine. Listening to music or movies on airplanes can be greatly enhanced by purchasing noise-canceling headphones. If you plan on traveling and enjoying your audio to the fullest, we highly recommend that you consider headphones with noise cancelling features. If you’re listening at work or at home and don’t need portability, full-size headphones deliver world-class sound with noise-cancelling options.

How long will they last?

There’s another factor that’s important to keep in mind when purchasing a set of headphones - durability. This will most likely determine how long your purchase will hold up. Often you can tell by just holding a particular set of headphone (especially if they are inexpensive and very lightweight) how long it would take to accidentally break them in a purse, laptop bag or in a child’s hands. Many earbuds and canalphones come with a protective case that can help extend the life of these headphones. For earpad and full-sized headphones take a look at the general construction (modular construction is best for part replacement) and the size of the cord and the cord’s attachment site. Over the lifetime of these headphones the cord and headband support will most likely take the bulk of the abuse. Make sure these parts look sturdy enough to withstand daily treatment. Most headphone sets connect to their audio counterparts using a standard RCA jack, but wireless sets like SONY MV02HP ($100) are starting to emerge on the market. If the thought of being tethered to a device is worse than less than perfect sound, you should investigate those further.

Need to know more?

Experts say

  • CNET Editors - Earbuds are commonly issued as freebie 'phones with portable players, but higher-performance 'buds can offer sonics that rival full-size models. Their tiny earpieces rest on the outer ear or need to be inserted into the ear canal; some models include ear clips for a more secure fit. Source: CNET
  • PCWorld - “We hate to break it to you, but the headphones that came with your fancy new portable music player probably sound awful. Even companies that spend big money designing players to produce the best possible sound often skimp on the quality of the headphones they toss into the box. You don't have to settle for less. If you replace the bundled headphones with a better set, the improvement can be staggering, restoring crisp beauty to formerly muffled music. And the new set will do an excellent job of reproducing audio from laptop or desktop PCs as well.” Source: PC World
  • MusiciansFriend - “ Two headphones that sound very different often will have similar specs. Probably the easiest and most useful spec is the price. In general, quality and performance relate well to price.” Source: Musicians Friend