How to choose a Headphone? Buying guide for beginners
March 6, 2023
Whether we admit it or not, some of us are always buying new earphones. Others just get frustrated with a pair of earphones that are simply wrong for them. However, earphones really can be one-time investments, especially with the price tags some come in.
Choosing headphones is not to be rushed into. Knowing the lingo and understanding the specifications are the most crucial things if you want to find what you really need.
Earphones come in all kinds, sizes, shapes, and varieties. There’s in-ear, on-ear, over-ear, wired, wireless, noise-cancelling, voice control. And, of course, the wider the choice the wider the price range.
Choosing the right earphone for you depends on what you like, dislike, and prefer. Some people prefer to have smaller more portable devices, while others prefer better sound quality.
No matter what you want, it is important to do a little research and decide which type of earphone fits your personality best.
This post is here to help you buy earphones, with their specifications regarded – a much ignored pre-buy chore.
3 Types of Headphones or Earphones
In-the-ear (IEM) headphones – also known as earbuds or earphones are, of course, inserted into your ear and come with different tips which can be made of rubber, silicone, or something spongy.
Earbuds basically sit in the opening of your ear-canal, which creates a seal that helps keep unwanted noise out. It’s literally like having a mini speaker placed at the opening of the ear canal.
Getting a good seal into the ear canal is important for proper sound reproduction, especially in the bass.
These are the most common and most portable style of headphone available. Most phones, both iPhones and Androids, come with a pair of in-ear headphones, and you’ve likely seen completely wireless models such as the Apple AirPods, Samsung Galaxy Buds2 or the JBL Vibe True Wireless.
Portability and ease of use play an important role in why in-ear headphones are so popular. Regardless of whether you choose wired or wireless in-ear headphones, you can easily store, transport and access them.
But In-ear headphones lack the drivers to deliver deep, rumbling bass. Anyone who plans to use their earbuds during a workout may want to take this into consideration, especially if they rely on intense music, such as hip-hop or rock, for motivation.
In ear headphones are very close to your eardrums therefore directing sound straight to your eardrums without much obstruction.
Over-ear headphones typically have thick headbands and large ear cups that fully encompass the ears.
Over-ear headphones go over your ears. You’ll hear less ambient noise thanks to this, which is pleasant in noisy environments like public transport and at the office.
This also means you don’t have to increase the volume by a lot, which is better for your hearing.
Because the ear cups are a lot larger than with on-ear headphones, it’s less easy to take with you in your jacket or bag.
Over-ear headphones don’t press on your ears, so they’re more comfortable to wear during a longer listening session.
If you do productive work involving audio, and you don’t mind carrying them around or wearing them, then headphones are the way to go. Because they have larger drivers, they can produce richer and fuller sound.
You’re also more likely to find wireless headphones than earphones, which means you will have more options to choose from.
There are a lot of brands that make good headphones, both wireless and wired, such as Bose, Sennheiser, Sony, Yamaha, Audio-Technica, and AKG.
On-ear headphones rest on your ears. They’re smaller and lighter than over-ear headphones, which makes them easy to take with you.
Ambient noise is still audible to a limited extent. That’s why on-ear headphones are safer in traffic.
on-ear headphones tend to have larger drivers than earbuds, which gives their sound quality a robust backing.
Striking the perfect balance between the portability of in-ear headphones and the comfortability of over-ear headphones, on-ear headphones are ideal for anyone who wears headphones for extended periods of time and who needs to retain the ability to travel.
The extra cushioning allows on-ear headphones to be worn for hours without discomfort. But because the ear cushions press on your ears, on-ear headphones may hurt sooner than over-ear headphones.
Like in-ear headphones, you can choose from wireless or wired on-ear headphones, although the most popular models, such as the Beats Solo Pro, tend to be wireless.
Open back vs Closed back headphones
Over-ear headphones are come in two types: open-back and closed-back.
Open-back headphones allow air to pass through their ear cups from the rear of the speaker driver. This means that resonances and low-frequency build-up caused by the rear enclosure aren’t a concern.
Many expensive high-end headphones have open-backs because it allows them to sound more natural and clear, giving the best possible presentation of your source material.
But that’s really only the case when there’s no ambient noise. so they’re best suited for listening in quiet, private environment (e.g., a home office).
Open back headphones will leak sound so it is not ideal if there are other people who might be bothered by it.
Closed-back headphones are headphones that are completely sealed around the back of the ear cups, only allowing sound out only where it can reach your ear.
This means that while your music might not be quite as natural-sounding as it would on an open-back set of headphones, closed-back headphones will block out a lot more outside noise, yielding much better isolation.
If you’re in an office, library or other shared setting, closed-back headphones are the best way to go. Not only do they keep noise out, they don’t broadcast to your neighbors what you’re listening to.
All over-ear headphones will be the same here, accumulating heat. because your head and ears dissipate body heat. Cover them and temperature builds up. Even the most comfortable open-back headphones will heat your ears, as they’re “open” to sound, not air circulation unfortunately.
Headphone Buying Guide
In this headphone buying guide is a quick summary of some of the major factors when purchasing a pair of new headphones.
These are the most important criteria to look for when choosing headphones.
1. Sound Quality
This is the most important factor since this is the reason you’d want to buy headphones.
If you have the chance, do test the headphones to see if you like it, before buying.
Make sure you check the specs of the headphone. It needs to have sufficient motorist, frequency response, sensitivity, and other features that are related to sound quality.
The above picture shows the driver units of different sizes.
A driver unit is simply an apparatus or a system that converts the electrical pulses coming through headphone wire into sound.
It comprises of magnets, diaphragms, voice coils, tubes and other components.. The sound quality depends on the quality of fibre and wires used and how well these things are assembled.
In-ear Headphone drivers are usually 8mm – 15mm in diameter while Over-ear and On-ear headphone drivers are typically 20mm – 50mm.
Over-ear and On-ear Headphones, owing to their larger size, will sound better than In-ear earphones – which is what you can notice in practice.
The bigger drivers of headphones are able to reproduce a wider range of frequencies than the smaller ones present in earphones. The more frequencies you can reproduce, the more accurate the sound can be, thus the better quality.
An earphone or headphone can have multiple drivers – each aimed at generating different range of frequencies.
The higher end models tend to have more number of drivers, so they can handle the different ranges of frequencies better than the cheaper ones.
Impedance is one of the basic specifications included with almost every quality pair of headphones and most audio sources (DAP, phone or amplifier).
Headphones & Earphones have a certain resistance to the electric current transmitted by the amplifier & this process of transmission and resistance is known as impedance.
It’s measured in ohms (Ω) and what it tells you is how much power your headphones will need to get to a reasonable listening volume. which often range between 8 & 600 ohms, depending on the model of the headphone/earphone.
Impedance directly affects the maximum volume and therefore the sound quality. The lower the impedance, the less voltage is required for loud sound and less power consumption. But the higher the impedance, the less distortion and the better the sound and, accordingly, the more power is consumed.
High impedance is good, but it requires more power to drive. So low impedance is good for more sound volume to use with normal smartphones.
The impedance ranging between 20-40ohms is said to be a decent choice for casual music listeners and 64 or above for an audiophilia.
Some studio headphones are 80 or 250 ohms. You need a headphone amp or else they sound weak.
An audio signal (that is not a pure tone) is typically made up of many different frequencies with varying amplitudes and transient characteristics. This electrical information is a representation of sound in an alternating current with the same frequency information.
Headphones are designed to reproduce these audio signals as actual sound for the listener to hear. The frequency response is perhaps the most important when it comes to the actual reproduction of sound.
Headphone frequency response is the range of bass, mids, and treble measured in Hertz (Hz).
The range associated with your headphone describes the range in which the drivers are able to provide clear, distortion-free audio to your ears.
The range most commonly found on your headphone specs sheet is 20Hz to 20,000Hz. The first number indicates the bass while the second number indicates the treble. This range is essentially the standard because it represents the normal audible musical frequency range heard by humans.
There are some headphones that extend further, reaching 10Hz to 35,000Hz, for example, but humans don’t necessarily hear frequencies past 20Hz. An extended frequency response range is not indicative of the headphone’s sound quality.
Headphone sensitivity relates to how loud your headphones will play audio at a given power level.
If your headphones have greater sensitivity, they will be louder than headphones with a lower sensitivity, if both headphones play audio from the same device.
Sensitivity is quite hard to measure because different manufacturers not only have different measures, but also don’t always report it in the same way.
Two key ways to report it are listed below:
If sensitivity is reported like this, it is explaining how loud the headphones are with a given output voltage. You will see the dB/V as a whole number, and it is becoming the new standard. This makes it quite easy to directly compare headphones sensitivity.
Again, this is easy to compare—but only as long as the impedance is the same in the measurements you are comparing. If the impedance is different, you might have to do some extra math! You can convert it to dB/V then you will have an easier way to directly compare.
This measurement tells you how much voltage is needed to achieve 1mW of power. If you have a higher dB/mW at 100 ohms, then it will play louder than headphones with a lower dB/mW.
2. Noise Cancelling
Most people listen to headphones at a high volume to “drown out” other sounds. One good way to lower the volume on your devices and protect your ears is to use noise-canceling headphones.
Noise Cancelling Headphones come with passive or active noise cancellation features that can be handy especially in noisy environments.
Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) uses a combination of microphones, to detect ambient sounds and speakers, to generate an inverted sound wave of the same amplitude. This is the most known type and has mostly been used in over-ear headphones.
They are most effective at low frequencies, which are the ones that are least attenuated by travel through the air and by closing doors and windows.
Active noise is considerably simpler to implement in earbuds and headphones than passive noise canceling. If you fly often you might want to have active noise-cancelling Cancellation headphones that will cancel out background noise.
Passive Noise Cancellation uses well designed ear cups to seal out unwanted noise. This is used for both over-ear headphones and in-ear earphones where the earbud itself will keep surrounding noise out.
So if you’re in a noisy coffee shop or taking a stroll amongst a loud construction site, barking dogs, or other irritating disturbances, passive noise canceling may be the right fit for you.
These headphones block out external sound, letting you enjoy your music or videos at a lower volume without distraction.
They really are a lot, lot, better than cranking up the volume. If you listen at really high levels, you will damage your hearing, which is not a good thing to do if you like music.
Most noise cancellation earphone also come with a “Hear through” feature which by a single touch, lets you hear what people around you are saying, without removing the earbuds.
Having noise cancellation on your wireless earbuds improves the audio experience, however it can drain the battery quickly too.
3. Connection type
Wired or wireless type – everyone decides according to personal preferences. Wireless headphones are usually Bluetooth currently.
With the evolution of technology, more and more smartphones and audio devices are ditching the 3.5 mm jack. With the 3.5 mm jack out of the way, Bluetooth is becoming the new standard in audio transmission.
Wireless bluetooth earphones allow the you to stay disconnected from the electronic device like smartphones and laptops, meaning you can be as far away as 30 feet from the device and still listen to the audio.
Since wireless headphones don’t have extra wires and components, they’re more portable and lighter.
Wireless headphones offer a wide range of movement. With them, you are free to move without having to worry about accidentally yanking the cord.
There might be a loss in sound quality when the device is at a distance as compared to wired headphones.
Wireless earphones are more expensive than wired earphones, and they have the battery that require constant charging.
This can be cumbersome especially when traveling for long periods of time. Moreover, wireless headphones work on a battery that can be discharged after continuous use.
Wired headphones need no charging, plug-and-play setup, It is perfect for those who don’t like the hassle of the extra steps that wireless pairings bring.
Wired headphones transmit lossless audio, something that Bluetooth can’t yet do. While Bluetooth has come a long way since its inception, using it for audio data transfers thanks to Bluetooth codecs, it still isn’t up to snuff with a good old-fashioned pair of wired headphones.
Bluetooth data transfer is capped off, and while that cap is sure to increase in the future as the tech gets better. Of course, this is all technically speaking because chances are you wouldn’t be able to hear the difference in sound quality anyway unless you have perfectly trained youthful ears.
In short, wireless headphones are good for use while you are engaged in outdoor activities like running and gymming and belong to the Sports and Fitness user category or while traveling in a bus or other public transport where you prefer private listening.
Wired headphones are better for an immersive music experience for professional users who want exceptional sound quality. They are also good for immersive gaming when you want to hear background sounds, dialogues, and sound effects.
Codecs determine how data is transmitted from your audio output to your headphones and not all of them are created equally.
SBC is pretty much universal and works well enough but if you want an optimal wireless experience you should look out for codecs capable of transmitting high-resolution audio such as Qualcomm’s aptX HD, aptX, and LDAC 900.
iPhone owners are best off with wireless headphones that support AAC, which is the only high-quality Bluetooth codec that iOS supports.
Bear in mind that not every device supports every codec so check for compatibility before buying. It’s also worth noting that both your headphones and the audio source must support a codec for you to be able to use it.
Be sure the cable is long enough for your situation. But avoid an exceptionally long cable if possible because it can negatively affect sound quality by lowering volume and introducing noise, as well as becoming more easily tangled. A better-quality pair of headphones will likely have a shielded cable which minimizes noise.
If you decide to go for wireless headphones, compare battery life and charging time of your shortlisted headphones.
It varies according to the various types of headphones. Generally, Bluetooth on-ear and Over-ear headphones offer more battery life as compared to wireless earbuds.
Practically all the over-ear and on-ear Bluetooth headphones can deliver at least 10 hours of playtime per one charge (50% vol).
The volume has a great influence on battery life and you have to be aware of that.
Look for headphones that can be used for long durations of time without having to be charged frequently and also have quick charge feature.
The charging case that stores and recharges wireless earbuds is a very important part of a pair of wireless earbuds.
Some premium cases come with in-built batteries which let you charge your wireless earbuds on the go. Many models also support wireless charging, reducing the hassle of plugging wires to the charging case.
4. Design and Aesthetics
High up the list for many people is the looks and aesthetics of the headphones. After all you will have to be wearing the headphones you choose on your head for all to see! Unless you plan to use your new headphones alone at home then it’s likely you will be interested in how they look.
Some of the best headphones are very bulky and may not be preferable from aesthetic view point. Wearing large, bulky headphones outdoors might not be preferable to some.
Comfortable headphones make the sound more beautiful. It will have to fit your body. Choose a style that makes you feel comfortable so that you’ll enjoy wearing them for the long term.
Consider how well it fits on your head, quality of the headband and the ear cups. If you’re someone who wears headphones for long hours everyday, consider the weight of the headphones too.
For Passive Noise Cancellation earphones, the fit is critically important to seal the ear canal. That’s why manufacturers package multiple sizes and styles of sleeves with their earphones. These sets of sleeves – generally foam or silicone – can effectively block most ambient sound.
Also a matter of personal taste is where the cable is located. Do the earphones tend to fall out during exercise? Does the cable interfere with your sunglasses?
The most common type of Straight down , these are worn with cable hanging straight down. The cable can be positioned in back or front.
The Over the ear Type Provides stability for active use. The secure fit is one reason why this type of cable architecture is found on most professional-grade earphones. The cable can be worn in back or front.
We all have different head sizes, so the headphones need to be flexible. Therefore, the headband of over-ear headphone should be easily adaptable and padded.
The total weight of a headset determines how heavy it is. Travelers will love the lightweight and wireless one which is easy to carry when traveling.
Don’t ignore the build quality of your headphones: the better they are made, the longer they will last.
Many of the problems associated with earphones are the result of damaged cables. That makes features like detachable, multi-length and reinforced cables important to the longevity of your earphones.
Waterproof earphones can be used in the water or any other location that they may get wet. Waterproof earphones are ideal for pool, beach, and all-weather use.
To qualify Waterproof, a product ostensibly has to go through standard testing to determine its level of protection against liquids. The resulting score is called an ingress protection (IP) rating. It would be best to choose an earphone with a higher IPX rating.
Products with an IPX4 status can at least withstand water sprays from any direction.
An IPX5 rating means a product can handle water jetting from a 6.3mm nozzle, whereas an IPX6 rating means water jets from a 12.5mm nozzle should be fine. Both of these levels are likely good enough for a sweaty workout or exercise in light rain.
8. Built-in microphone
If you want to make calls hands-free while wearing your headphones, a built-in microphone is a must.
A microphone gives you the option to make and answer calls and issue voice commands without having to get your phone out of your pocket.
It will either be built into the headphones themselves, or integrated into the cable. Clarity and voice pick-up can vary greatly.
How easy it is to accept calls can differ from pair to pair, too – sometimes all it takes is a double tap on one of the cans, while others may require you to push a fiddly button.
Consider whether the headphones that you’re buying are compatible with the device that you intend to use them with. (i.e. Desktop, laptop or mobile device)
For example Apple headphones and AirPods connect seamlessly across multiple Apple devices.
10. Custom Fit
Most good quality IEM’s will come with a selection of multiple sizes of foam and silicone tips.
Some companies make canalphones that can be custom fit to a specific user’s ear canal. These are some of the most expensive earphones on the market, and each pair of earphones is unique to the person who buys them. These types of earphones are generally used by audiophiles and music professionals.
Go with Sennheiser, Audio Technica, AKG, Shure, Beyerdynamic, etc. These are companies that actually care about sound quality and are used by actual musicians and producers.
Also keep the brand reputation in mind. Try to buy headphones from brands that offer great warranty and after sale customer service.
It’s easy to lose the ear canal fittings in ear buds and the pads around on-ear/over-ear headphones can get damaged over time. Good headphones should allow these to be replaced and parts should be readily available at retailers or via the manufacturer’s website.
12. Budget and Price
The headphones you buy might out of your budget – and if this is the case, you will have to compromise on some features.
If you want premium features such as ANC, or you want your headphones to be made from high-quality materials, you’ll probably need to spend a little more.
The higher priced headphones might offer great sound quality and tons of other features but you also have many budget headphones with decent sound quality and rather great comfort.
Brands such as Sony, Jabra, Cambridge Audio, and Lypertek all offer budget-friendly headphones that don’t skimp on the specs.
Build quality is the first thing you’re going to sacrifice with cheap headphones. That doesn’t mean that all or any of these products are particularly prone to breakage, but it does mean that they’re going to lack premium materials.
If there really is no limit to how much you can spend on a pair of headphones. There exists incredibly pricey models, but the sound they produce is mind blowing. great for the people who looking for the ultimate audio quality.
On the face of it, headphones are simple objects. Plug in, put on, play music. But if you want to get the very best out of your headphones, you’ll need to know a little bit about how they work.
When it comes to purchasing headphones there are so many options and possibilities, but at the end of the day your choice will be down to a few key factors.
In a nutshell, the above headphone buying guide discussed specifications and factors that matter a lot as all of them have a different impact on the audio quality.
Therefore, keep these things in mind if you are planning to buy earbuds, on-earearphones, or over-ear headphones, apart from the design types. Consider your requirement correctly and buy according to them.
About the author : Clinton Kane
A technical content writer, passionate about sharing high-quality knowledge of pc technology, software, and creative workflows.