Headphones Buying Guide

So you want to buy some headphones, but you're lost with all the talk of "drivers" "neodymium" and "impedance". Well, we don't blame you, but we're here to clear some of the confusion and make buying a set of headphones an easier experience with a basic guide on what to look for when purchasing you're first set of cans. We'll be explaining most of the features modern headphones come with, as well as giving you some questions to ask yourself to be sure you get the right set. So, without further ado...

Earbuds or Headphones?

While often bandied about as equals, this is quite possibly the most important question to ask yourself when buying a set. There're advantages to both, as well as negatives. To be sure we're on the same page here, I'll quickly explain the differences; Earphones, also known as earphones, are smaller, lighter, and usually fit straight into your ear. Headphones(often referred to as cans), to put it simply, are earmuffs with a cable to plug into your music player. That's definitely a basic explanation, but it should give you an idea of the differences. Now why would you choose earbuds over headphones?

Well, 'buds definitely have the portability factor in their favour, as they're designed to fit directly into your ear, as opposed to over the top. Because of the in-ear fit, many offer fantastic "Noise isolation" (more on that below), as well as being more comfortable for use with helmets and beanies. The downside to these earbuds is usually a decrease in sound quality, since it's harder to fit grunty hardware into such a small package. Earbuds with noise isolation can also be very invasive, since they fit into your ear quite a long way.

Headphones, on the other hand, sit on the outside of your head, and usually have much better definition and range for music. They're easier to wear for long times, since you don't get that itch that earbuds can often give, but certain sets, especially the cheaper ones, can often make your ears quite hot, and if the cups are too small they might squash your ears a bit. In saying that, I've almost always found headphones more comfortable than earbuds.

The main negative with headphones are the size - some of them can be huge. You'll also look like a very high-tech construction worker when your wearing most sets, unless you go for a behind the head option, which I'd never recommend - they're usually quite low quality, and you'd be better off going for a similarly priced set of 'buds. So it really comes down to where you'd be using it.

I'd recommend earbuds to most people, from adrenaline junkies to street- strolling wanderers. They're ideal for most situations, and usually cost less than they're larger siblings, but the lower price does often give lower quality sound. On the other side of the coin, if you're a heavy commuter or are planning on flying internationally anytime soon, I'd be more inclined to opt for a set of headphones. I've worn certain sets for 8 hours at a time, without any discomfort.

To noise isolate or not to noise isolate...

That is the question. Noise isolation (NI), to put it simply, is a feature which involves the earbuds being such a tight fit that they won't allow any noise to get through. This doesn't make them uncomfortably tight, but it does make them quite invasive. If you're after a set of earbuds that will completely close you off from the world and leave you in a bubble of your own music, then NI is perfect for you. Try and get a set with foam sleeves, as opposed to rubber ones - it'll make all the difference. Sleeves are the removable bit at the end of all NI earbuds, and they usually come in three different sizes, and quite often with three or four options for each size. Foam sleeved buds are often a little harder to put in, but it's worth it. They'll completely separate you from everything that's going on in your locale. The downside to noise isolation is obvious - you can't hear whats going on around you. This is not only dangerous, but also hugely impractical in some cases. Earbuds which don't have NI are usually less invasive, and also a lot more practical for daily, round the house (or office) use. There's also a problem with a lot of sets of NI buds that makes your footfalls sound really loud to the listener, so they're no good for walking.

Noise cancellation

Basically, NI for headphones, noise cancellation (which will be called NC from now on) uses a very different technique for blocking sound. In most cases, there's a microphone on the outside of the headphones that picks up external noise. Once it's done that, the headphones play an opposite frequency into you ears, thus canceling out anything from the telephone to the TV. There's obviously a lot more tech involved than just that, but it should give you the general idea. Noise cancellation always requires the headphones to have power, which they can't get from your headphone jack. This either means built-in rechargeables, or good ol' alkalines. The average lifespan of built-in batteries seems to be around 10 hours of solid playback, but I'd be more inclined to budget on them lasting around 6-8 hours. While that should be enough for your average day, it could pose a problem if you were somewhere without access to a powerpoint to recharge your cans. Noise cancellation is almost never as good as noise isolation, and can often distort the music ever so slightly.

Hz, KHz, and tech specs

Don't get confused when you read the tech specs on a set of 'phones. It's really not as difficult as it looks; basically, the lower the lowest number, and the higher the highest number, the better the headphones. While definitely not a definitive guide to frequencies, that's a basic rule that should help you out in most cases. For example, if a set of headphones boasts that it's frequencies are "20-22,000 KHz", then it's got a pretty good aural range. In saying that, you'll find that almost all headphones/earbuds, no matter whether they're $2 or $2000, will have a range around that, er, range. So it's not a particularly accurate measure of the quality of headphones. Chances are you'll notice two other numbers there "Impedance" and "Sensitivity". These do make a bit of a difference to the headphones, but again, it's really not that noticeable. When it boils down to it, You could get two sets of headphones with completely identical tech specs, and they could sound completely different. For me, the big thing to look for is driver size.

The driver is what drives the bass, and adds colour and richness to the music. Most headphones ship with a 40 mm driver, which is a very good all-around size. Earbuds have much smaller drivers, because of their size, often measuring around 9 mm. As a rule of thumb, the bigger the driver, the better the bass. 40 mm is big enough to provide good bass, and it keeps your music together. Smaller drivers may not be as brain thumping, but they will keep your music tighter, more defined. Inversely, larger drivers give your music more room to move, and it can often get a little messy. And that's a good thing, in some songs, particularly party style anthems and beat-heavy rap songs.

How much should you spend?

Before you go shopping, work out how much you're going to spend. How long are you going to be using them for? Are they likely to be banged about a bit? A top-of-the-line set can cost upwards of $1000, but you can get an alright set for around $120. For myself, I wouldn't really recommend skimping on a decent set, particularly if you're going to be listening to them for long periods of time. Headphones are definitely a "get what you pay for" kind of product. If you spend $20, you'll find yourself with a very average set, and chances are they won't last. Raise the bar to $50, and you'll notice a vast improvement in quality. Double that, and you're onto something good. Quadruple that, and you'll be set for life. And remember, it's always better to spend a bit more now to get something brilliant, rather than going for the cheaper option and having to upgrade or replace them in a few months. By spending more in the first place you'll actually be saving yourself money in the long run.

And what brand?

Headphones and earbuds are a lot like shoes when it comes to brands. You'll pay more for a decent brand, but you'll get better quality. When it comes to super high-quality sound, Shure and Sennheiser are your best bet. You'll pay quite a lot, but the quality of both brands is phenomenal. For the more budget conscious of you, iFrogz is a brand that still provides great sound for a much lower price. While we can't get their entire range over here, you will find a fair few, and you'd be satisfied with almost anything from their range. Some of you may recognise the name Dr Dre. Well, he's got his own range of headphones and well, and even though you'll have to fork out around $600 for a set, Beats by Dre are definitely some high-quality cans. SkullCandy make fantastic headphones as well, and often quite affordable when compared to other brands.

Final tips

If at all possible, try before you buy. No amount of spec-checking will ever really tell you quite how good they sound. And if you can't try them, at least read a review. Hopefully, this guide has helped answer a few of the questions that may have popped into your head when shopping. To sum up, we've got a quick recap:

  • Decide whether you're after headphones or earbuds.

  • Check the specs - remember, the bigger the driver, the better the bass.

  • Don't expect amazing sound from $20 headphones. You get what you pay for.

  • If at all possible, try before you buy, and read as many reviews as you can.

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