Choosing new headphones, like selecting any other piece of new gear or tech, can be a daunting task. In addition to all the technical characteristics to think about, you also have many of the same considerations as when purchasing a piece of clothing (ie: do they look good? Are they comfortable?). After all, headphones are an item that you wear.
With so many aspects to take into account, where do you even begin? Well, we’re here to help. In this article, we take a look at the various traits of headphones that you can use to help better define what you’re looking for in a new pair that best suits your needs.
Size: On-Ear vs. Over-Ear vs. In-Ear
Headphones come in three main sizes: on-ear, over-ear, and in-ear. The names give you a fairly clear description of what they each look like, too.
Over-ear headphones typically have padded ear coverings that fully enclose your ears. Over-ears will generally provide the best sound quality and also block the most outside sound.
On-ear headphones are similar to over-ears, but the padded area is smaller and will simply rest on the outer part of the ear instead of fully covering your ears. On-ears offer good sound quality, but usually with less consistent bass response than over-ear models. On-ears also allow more outside sound to bleed through, which may be a distraction to you, or of benefit to you, depending on the needs of your situation.
Finally, in-ear headphones are, as stated, headphones that you insert into the outer opening of your ear canal. Their size make them a handy choice, and they can fully block your ear opening much like ear plugs giving them the potential for excellent outside noise control. However, their small size limits the choices for speaker and electronic design, thereby reducing the overall consistency and quality you can expect from these models.
Sound: Treble and Bass Response
The frequency response of a headphone is its ability to accurately reproduce sound within a given tonal range. Frequencies are expressed in Hertz (Hz), which is a unit that represents how quickly the air molecules vibrate. Faster vibrations produce higher pitch sounds and slower vibrations produce lower pitch sounds.
The shape, materials, electronics, and physical arrangement of a headphone’s speakers all contribute to the sound response of the headphones; or how even and consistent it recreates the various tones of sound it’s supposed to play back for you. Most headphones do a fairly good job at playing midrange sounds — the sounds generally associated with the middle notes on a piano, or the tones of the human voice.
Even “cheap” headphones can play these back well. Where the design adjustments come into play mainly in headphone design is in regards to their treble (high frequency) and bass (low frequency) response. If you’re planning on using headphones for critical listening, such as for music mixing or detailed editing work, you will definitely want to pay attention to the bass and treble response of potential headphones you are considering.
Expect to spend more money on headphones that are designed to produce a more accurate sound representation in the lower and higher frequencies, and you’ll probably end up getting over-ear, or possibly high end on-ear models to accomplish this.
There are other technical factors you may need to consider as well, depending on your situation. These include sensitivity, which is a measure of how readily the speakers in the headphones react to the power being provided to them, and impedance, which is a measure of resistance to electrical flow that is typically matched to a particular type of power providing system (i.e. amplifier).
Most standard use headphones will have roughly similar sensitivity and impedance ranges, so these details aren’t as critical for the everyday listener as frequency response, but it’s good to be aware of them in case you’re using your headphones in an unusual or special configuration.
Noise Control vs. Sound Quality: Open Back, Closed Back, or Noise Canceling
Most common headphones are built with at least a partial opening behind the speaker enclosed within the ear covering. This opening may be mesh or fabric covered section of the ear covering, or a plastic or metal enclosure with ventilation holes. This is known as open back design. The purpose of the opening is to ensure greater freedom of movement of the speaker surface by allowing air flow, and thus avoid pressure buildup against the back side of the surface.
This is particularly important for producing sufficient bass from the speakers in the headphones, as bass tones require a much larger amount of air movement to develop a strong enough vibration for our ears to hear them well. However, as a side effect of this opening up of the air flow to the back of the speaker, there is also a greater amount of external noise that can come through and be heard by the listener. So, the improved low frequency response is at the expense of some degree of sound isolation.
The alternative are closed back design headphones, in which the speakers are fully contained and no air flow is allowed. Doing so can block a good portion of external noise. However, because of the restriction of the motion of the speaker face due to pressure buildup, there is almost always some impact on the bass response with this type of design. If it’s more important to you to block outside sounds, though, this trade-off may be worth it.
For the greatest reduction of external sources of sound, active noise cancelling headphones are your best option. But it should be kept in mind that, due to the nature of this type of design, noise canceling headphones are almost always closed back. This means that your sound quality will be somewhat impacted in favor of greater noise control.
Comfort, Adjustability, Durability
One more important consideration is structural quality of the headphones. While it’s true that the main purpose of headphones is to produce sound, since they are something that you will need to wear (and often for long periods of time), you’ll certainly want them to be comfortable and fit your head and ears properly.
On or over-ear headphones with well-constructed ear coverings that include sufficient padding and adjustable placement to fit different head sizes will go a long way toward making a great listening experience. In addition, if it’s well-constructed, chances are it can handle being accidentally dropped or other impacts and will last you a long time.
If you’re purchasing in-ear headphones, a well-built pair will fit snugly, but not uncomfortably within your outer ear canal, and should be rugged enough as to not chip or crack which could result in an ear injury.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Why Mixing on Headphones Is Better Than You Think.”
In addition to all the primary sound and construction traits in headphones, you may also want to consider whether to get a corded or cordless version. Many headphone models now offer both options.
While cordless may seem initially the better way to go, remember that a wireless system will necessarily require additional electronics and batteries for power. If you opt for a corded model, be sure to check on cord length and type and see that it matches the needs of your typical intended use. A very long cord doesn’t make sense if it will always be used with a mobile device, while a short cord could very well be insufficient if you expect to use them with a home stereo system. Some headphones offer extendable coiled cords.
There are a few headphone models available that also contain special features, such as enhanced 3D image widening and simulated spatial modeling. While not one of the main characteristics of headphones, if these advanced features are of interest to you it may be worth the additional cost to purchase a model offering this kind of specialty digital electronics to them.
In conclusion, it’s certainly true that there are a wide range of options and traits you need to consider when purchasing headphones. But, with careful analysis of your needs in each of the major categories of headphone features — size, sound response, noise control, and comfort — you should be able to narrow your choices down to a reasonable number.
At that point, reading professional and customer reviews of those particular models, or even giving them a try if they’re available for purchase locally, can likely help you make your final decision.
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