For some people music has become a necessity as much as breathing, eating and sleeping. Back in the old days, music wasn’t portable. Now it is. Walk to work in the morning and you are bound to see several people with various types of headphones. Adjusting the volume, skipping tracks or repeating songs, it’s all …
For some people music has become a necessity as much as breathing, eating and sleeping. Back in the old days, music wasn’t portable. Now it is. Walk to work in the morning and you are bound to see several people with various types of headphones. Adjusting the volume, skipping tracks or repeating songs, it’s all just a fingertip away.
Unfortunately, not all headphones deliver the same audio quality. In-ear, on-ear, circumaural, supraaural, open or closed – shopping for the right pair of headphones can be as tough as finding the perfect bespoke suit. Since headphones are not ‘just headphones’ we have pulled together a buyer’s guide with useful tips and features.
Forms and Styles
Headphones vary widely in style, shape and size. In general, there are four main types of headphones: earbuds, in-ear, on-ear and over-ear.
Earbuds are headphones that sit in the bowls of your ears but don’t actually go inside the ear canal. You are probably familiar with these as they usually come with portable music players. The old iPod earbuds are a good example of this design.
Some earbuds like Apple’s more recent Earpods or Bose’s IE2 have a slightly convex surface that sits just outside the canal, pointing inwards and forming a seal. They have a slight advantage over their flat-faced counterparts as they offer greater in-ear stability and some passive noise isolation.
Upside: Earbuds are light and cheap. Most models also come with in-built microphones and track navigation controls – a necessity in today’s world of oft-shuffled music.
Downside: Since earbuds don’t go inside the ear canal, they are usually found at the end of the musical spectrum both in terms of audio output and sound leakage. If you are looking for a truly immerse sound experience you’ll want to invest into a decent pair of in-ear headphones.
2. In-Ear Headphones
Also known as earphones or canalphones bullet-shaped in-ear headphones use silicone or foam tips to sit inside your ear canal and form a seal, so sound leakage is less likely. Due to the higher level of isolation they usually produce a warm, lively and full sound quality. The Klipsch X7i or Sennheiser’s MM70i are a popular example of this style.
In ear-monitors are a special type of earphones specifically designed for live performances or the serious audiophile. Universal models such as the Wetstone’s 4’s provide an even better comfort, clarity and isolation.
Upside: Since in-ear headphones are inserted into the ear canal, they provide much better sound quality and noise cancellation than even the most expensive pair of earbuds. They are also lightweight and compact, so won’t mess up with your glasses, earrings or hairstyle.
Downside: Some people find canalphones to be uncomfortable, especially over extended use. Choosing the right tips is also crucial to sound quality and comfort of the headphones. Even though sound leakage is less likely with in-ear models, they fail to produce the same high-end sound as full size models.
3. On-Ear Headphones
These portable and lightweight headphones use larger earpieces that rest on top of your ears instead of sitting inside. On-ear headphones provide a fuller, richer sound with more resonance and clarity than most in-ear options. Beats Solo HD on-ear headphones, Bowers & Wilkins P3 range and Sennheiser’s Momentum On-Ear are immensely popular among audio and sound enthusiasts.
Some models also come with a small clip on each earpiece that goes behind your ears like a pair of glasses. These type of on-ear headphones are good for exercise and fitness activities as they provide a more comfortable fit.
Upside: On-ear headphones are lightweight and portable. Most models can be folded and easily fit into your pockets. Some also come with a bespoke hard-shell carry case and an in-line remote and mic. On-ear headphones are also cheaper than their full-sized counterparts. Models such as AKG’s K452 offer a nice blend of sound quality, comfort and portability for a reasonable prize.
Downside: Due to the pressure applied to your ears, on-ear headphones can be quite uncomfortable to wear for more than a few hours. Since they don’t fully cover your ears, on-ear headphones do leak a bit of sound and usually can’t match the powerful bass stereo sound of closed-back over-ear models.
4. Over-Ear Headphones
Compared to on-ear models, these large headphones fully cover or surround your ears. This makes them ideal for those seeking a full range sound with deep bass and loudness levels. Sony’s MDR-HW700 and Bang & Olufsen’s H6 range are a good example of this design. Some models such as the Harman/Kardon NC come equipped with technological advances including complete noise cancellation.
Upside: Over-ear headphones deliver a fuller sound and a deeper bass than in-ear or on-ear models. They tend to block out more sound and are more comfortable to wear thanks to cushioned pads and an ergonomic design. However, not all designs will fit your head, so try before you buy!
Downside: Full-size headphones are usually too bulky and too heavy to carry around, so are best used at home. Another drawback is the higher price tag for a top-end pair of over-ear headphones.
Usage: How, where and when you plan to use your new pair of headphones will help determine your decision making. Are you looking for a pair that is foldable and easy to carry around with? Will you be using your headphones for travelling purposes or for your workout at the gym? Or will you be plugging them into your high-end sound system for extended listening? Another important factor to consider is the type of music you will be listening to. For instance, rock differs considerably from classical music and requires different standards in terms of depth, frequency and range. And if you are an electronic junkie, you’ll probably want to make sure that your headphones can deliver crisp trebles and deep bass notes.
Open vs closed: Probably the most fundamental question in the entire headphone universe. Again, whether you go for an open or closed-back design is pretty much determined by personal usage and preferences.
Closed or sealed headphones (noise isolation vs noise cancellation) eliminate ambient sound and are ideal for commuting or other private listening settings. They tend to keep the sound between the listener and the headphones without annoying others around you or damaging your hearing. However, the degree of isolation varies from one model to the next.
Acoustically-transparent open-back models, on the other hand, let more noise in and out. Since they don’t block out everything from the outside world they tend to produce a more open, natural sound than their sealed counterparts. However, they are not designed to be used in quiet or loud public places due to sound and noise leakage.
Comfort: Try headphones on before you buy and leave them on for at least 15 minutes. It’s a bit like shopping for clothes – you want to make sure they fit perfectly before you spend a fortune on them. Make sure that earpads don’t apply to much pressure on your ears or get uncomfortably hot.
Wireless: Another option worth considering is whether to opt for wireless headphones such as the Philips Fidelio M1BT. Not being tethered to your media player can be appealing, but bear in mind that wireless headphones tend to compress the sound in favour of portability. The result often doesn’t sound as good as on wired headphones, so if you are a quality-driven audiophile, this may not be the right design for you.
Accessories: Built-in remotes, carrying cases or custom-made eartips – the range of headphone accessories can vary as much as the designs themselves. Many full-size models, for instance, require a dedicated headphone amplifier to improve their sound. Like headphones, they differ a lot in terms of quality and are available both as home and portable designs.