When it comes to buying headphones, there are many different types, specifications and models to choose from, but the question is which headphone is the right one for you? With the ongoing change in technology, one is overwhelmed by the many different headphones in the market. Go search online just for ‘headphones’ and your head will probably spin.
What to look for when choosing headphones
The popular features in headphones
Where to start? There are in-ears and over-the-ear headphones; wired and wireless headphones; headphones with smart technology like voice assistance such as Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri. There are headphones with smart features like touch controls; noise cancelling headphones, waterproof and water-resistant headphones; closed back, open back and semi-closed back headphones. With these features in mind, how do you want your headphones to fit inside (or outside) of your ear? Do you want voice control to adjust volume, hold calls, pause music, or skip tracks? How about special feature such as ‘noise cancellation’, defense against water or sweat?
There are headphones to use in public like the gym, airport, train, bus, while traveling, and headphones to use at home for gaming, personal entertainment and leisure or for recording and studio purposes. Where exactly you’ll use them is a good question to ask, although we know this may be more than a few answers for you. If you’re in a noisy environment, something like ‘noise-cancellation technology‘ may be beneficial since it will be designed to further block out noise from the outside world (in let’s say a noisy train or airplane).
We would stop reading for a moment and really think about what features we’ve listed above are important for you. The more features of course, the more expensive your headphones may be. But if there are some absolute needs out there that you have, you can start to prioritize better.
Next, and no matter what your choice is, there are quite a few other important factors to consider in our opinion, such as comfort, sound quality, accuracy, weight, isolation, portability and style.
How to choose which headphones to buy
Aside from all of the different features we spoke about above, our first and foremost recommendation: ask yourself how will you be using them. There’s a huge difference between somebody looking into buying a pair of studio headphones to record with and those who want to use them for exercise. Or perhaps you just need a pair of headphones to leisure listen when you’re in the mood to jam? We could go through all of the uses but that would take quite a while, so we want to just mention that you keep this in mind. There are “best headphones for” articles out there for pretty much literally any use you can think of.
To some people, price is an important factor as well when planning to buy headphones because they have a budget. Sometimes headphones may go on sale and other times they have a big discount. Either way, this doesn’t mean that they are of low quality, but since the technology is changing so fast, stores want to push models that are a year or two old to make room for the new ones. Keep this in mind and no, we’re not talking refurbished. If you see a “new model” below a website, don’t necessarily rule out the previous version.
At the end of the day however, your budget aside from use is really going to steer you in a particular direction. We know many who are ‘audiophiles‘ and spend thousands on headphones and headphone amplifiers while others (like us, although it depends on our use) prefer $50 in-ear headphones for the gym. It all depends on the person.
Let’s not forget about where you’re buying your headphones. There are advantages in getting your headphones from an authorized dealer because they will come with full manufacturer’s warranty. With an authorized dealer, not only you will get the manufacturer’s support, but also the authorized dealer’s phone and e-mail support. If you do have to buy from somewhere such as Amazon, make sure it isn’t refurbished, sold from a 3rd party (there are a lot of scams and fakes out there, make sure it’s either from the brand or if it’s Prime, who exactly the seller is).
Aside from all of these factors we’ve spoken about above, we need to get a little technical and become educated on some popular headphones terms. Below, we’re going to explain and go over five of the most important headphone specifications one should research before buying headphones. Those specifications affect your overall sound quality, which is measured by frequency response, sensitivity, impedance, total harmonic distortion and comfort.
The most important headphone specifications
Frequency response: This is the range of bass, mids and treble at which the headphone drivers are capable of reproducing sound from the lowest tones to the highest. Frequency range is defined as the overall range that the headphone will operate from where it starts producing sounds till it ends producing sound and it’s measured in hertz (Hz). There are different sound profiles; some have treble, others have bass sound. So, the best way is to check the frequency range. But it all depends on your preference and the style and kind of music you’re going to listen to.
Surprisingly, each individual has a unique hearing: it varies from one person to the other. Some hear the same headphone differently than others, based on the inner structure of the ears. So, what sounds good for someone might not sound good for you. The range of hearing in human beings is generally estimated at 20Hz – 20kHz. But often, claimed frequency response exceed that range. In addition, because each headphone has its unique “personality” or “character” influenced by many other factors, two sets of headphones with identical frequency response specs will not sound the same.
Sensitivity: A good guide of how loud a product might get given a certain input setting and is measured in decibels per milliwatt (db/mW). A headphone’s sensitivity measures the relative amount of volume it can produce from a given amount of input power. Portable players put out the lowest amount of sound/volume whereas, a plug-in device will put out much powerful sound/volume.
For portable or studio type headphones, a typical input power would be 1 Watt, whereas, specifically a DJ’s headphone amplifiers can put out up to 3 watts. The maximum input power is also a guide that tells you if you go above these numbers, you may cause damage to your product or even ears. Most headphones are at about 110 db/mW. Anything lower than 85 db/mW should be avoided.
Impedance: Although it’s hard to explain what impedance is, but by definition, it describes how much resistance the headphone gives to the signal from the audio source and is measured by ohms (Ω). Headphones with low impedance (approximately less than 25 ohms) will work well with equipment with weak amplification like portable music players. On the other hand, headphones with higher impedance (approximately 25 ohms or higher) will work well with wide range of audio equipment.
As an example, Studio or DJ headphones have an impedance of as much as 600 ohms, whereas most consumer level headphones have between 16 and 64 ohms of impedance. In addition, to have the best result, your player or source device should have an output impedance that is factor of 8 times lower than the impedance of your headphones. For example, if your player’s impedance output is 8, then your headphone’s impedance output should be 64 (8 x 8).
Total Harmonic Distortion: By saying distortion, please don’t get confused with the kind of distortion you get out of a guitar. This has a totally different meaning. By definition, THD is the ratio of the sum of the powers of all harmonic components to the power of the fundamental frequency. In other words, Total Harmonic Distortion is the measure of how much the audio signal changes from the time it enters the headphone and enters the ears. Simply explained, when driving headphones at high volumes, it is possible for the speaker inside the headphones to be unable to move fast enough.
As a result of this, distortion is created manifesting itself as crackling, popping or the alteration of musical notes. Headphones with high percentage of Total Harmonic Distortion, will more easily distort. So, the lower Total Harmonic Distortion you have, the better. Most reputable manufacturer’s headphones have Total Harmonic Distortion levels below 1 per cent. Whereas, high-end headphones have distortion levels below 0.1 per cent.
Comfort: What about comfort? This is definitely a lot different than these technical terms explained above, but it’s still important for us to recommend. When choosing the best headphone you plan to buy, you might by-pass comfort, but in fact, this factors also matters and you should look into it. Wearing headphones for a prolonged period of time can be painful if they’re not the right pair.
On the other hand, a good pair improves your quality of life. You can test it by wearing them and seeing how it feels. Check if the headphone ears are adequately padded. If you have chosen a closed-back headphone, check for the ear cups. The larger the ear cups, the better. But for headphones that rest on ears, the smaller the better and fabric or leather padding can soften the pressure.
Although we know the idea of looking into headphone specifications is overwhelming, but of course, the best way to choose a headphone when buying one is to listen to different types of music through different types of headphones for at least ten to twenty minutes. We know you’re on this website for a reason and most likely are shopping online, but nothing beats the actual listening test because in our opinion the biggest judge of sound is obviously our ears.
Finding the best headphones for you
So, which headphone should you choose when you want to buy them? The first thing you need to do is to ask yourself where you want to use your headphones and for what purpose. After you make your decision, look for the five most important headphone specifications discussed in this article. Then, read consumer reports and review of products you think you might be interested in.
After doing your thorough research, head to the store or even better, to an authorized dealer. But really, the best way to choose one is to basically go to a store, try as many different pairs of headphones as you can that have specs that will satisfy your needs and listening to different types of music for a long time. If you’re unable to do so and are strictly on the net, here’s our recommendation — read, read, read! Online reviews, YouTube videos (from reviewers, not the brand themselves), and scour message boards.
One guideline in buying a pair of headphones might be spending more or less than $50 on portable headphones and approximately $250 headphones for home studio pairs. We personally have probably 6 different pairs lying around depending on our use, ranging from our $300 mixing headphones to our $50 cheap wireless in-ear headphones that we use at the gym that we know will be breaking every year or so (we’ve just accepted the fact).
Although some specifications like the price and weight might not be as important as the five specifications discussed above, they are definitely to be considered when planning on buying a pair of headphones. After all, they will improve your quality of life. Don’t be surprised if you end up buying more than one pair. You might need each one for different reasons and different places. It’s all about what you need it for and where you want to use it.