Headphones Buying Guide
There are so many different types of headphones that deciding which to buy can be a headache. Are you after pure audio-perfection with perfectly balanced levels of bass, treble and mids? Or maybe just a hard-wearing pair of no-frills headphones to catch up with the latest podcasts on your commute? Use our buying guide to help decide which set of headphones is best suited to you.
Getting Started - Types of Headphones
The first thing to figure out is which style of headphones you want. There are 4 main styles, and each offer a different listening experience. Typically, circumaural (over-ear) headphones - the classic ear-muff style design - provide clearer and richer sound quality. The soft-cushioned pads that cover the ears are often leather-coated, and create immense comfort. This type of headphone is perfect for those after an immersive audio-experience - but they can be a bit bulky, so are best for home-use. If you like the style and feel of over-ear headphones, but want something more portable, then on-ear headphones might be the way to go. Instead of covering the whole ear, this style simply sits on your ear, with a foam or leather cushioning for comfort. Generally, however, sound quality can be lower. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have in-ear headphones. These super-light earplug-style headphones fit snuggly inside the ear canal, where silicon buffers block out exterior noise, offering immersive listening that almost rivals that of over-ear headphones. Inner-ear headphones are perfect for portable music players like iPods or MP3s, as their compact design and low weight make for easy on-the-go listening. The build quality of inner-ear headphones, however, can be poor, and you might find yourself needing to buy replacements after heavy use. The final style of headphones are earbuds, which sit inside your ear, but not right into the ear canal like in-ear headphones. As such, they don't offer a great amount of noise cancellation, and sound quality tends to be basic. But if you don't like the sense of being cut-off from the environment when listening to music or podcasts in busy public places, then earbuds are a great compromise.
If sound isolation is a must then be sure to look for closed headphones, which are not to be confused with circumaural over-ear: indeed, even circumaural headphones can be of open type and let all the sound through - both in and out. Open headphones are often high-end and can sound better, less "boxy" that closed models, such as the Sennheiser HD series, for example. They can be very handy if you want to be able to hear the phone ring while you enjoy Beethoven's 5th.
Some higher-end brands boast WiFi capability. These headphones allow you to listen to music without having to deal with long tangled wires and dodgy inputs. But WiFi headphones are generally restricted to at-home use, as they require a wireless sound system, too. If you're after wireless portable headphone use, it's worth looking into Bluetooth wireless headphones. These short-range wireless headphones are used in conjunction with Bluetooth-capable mobile phones, allowing you to listen to music on-the-go without the hassle of tangled wires. But be aware that Bluetooth connection can sometimes be unreliable. Some products, especially the in-ear types, use their physical design to block out noise. However, if you want to go even further you can opt for active noise cancellation headphones, which use clever technology to block ambient sounds like the drone of cars and the low roar of plane engines. Ideal for regular travellers and commuters. If you plan on using your headphones with your mobile phone, why not get a pair that can take phone calls? These come with an inline mic - a tiny microphone that sits on the headphone's wire at chest height. This way, you can conduct hands-free phone calls. If this sounds right for you, check out Sennheiser's mixed ranged of snazzy inline mic headphones.
Once you've decided which headphones are right for you, it's time to start thinking about budget. Headphones have a huge price range - you can pick up a pair of cheap earbuds from under £10, or splash-out on the flashiest leather-cushioned over-ears at around £500. The average buyer looking for a solid pair of noise-cancelling in-ear headphones for day-to-day use should spend anywhere from £20 - £50. Check out Skullycandy for a trendy and affordable starting brand, or Sony for something sleek and upper-end. As a rule of thumb, the higher the price-tag, the higher the sound-quality. Anything under £20 - particularly in-ear and earbud headphones - aren't likely to last long.
Audio-geeks who enjoy long at-home listening sessions with top-tier sound quality should certainly look to spend over £100 on a set of over-ear headphones. Bose, with their long history of producing high-tech audio equipment, are a great brand to go with. Decent on-ear headphones, meanwhile, begin at around £70. One of the best pairs around are the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, used by professionals and likely to become a reference for years to come: great bass, perfect everything else and almost completely noise-proof. Oh, and it comes with 3 different detachable cables.
The Final Test
Have you settled on style, features, and price? Before you make your final purchase, there's one more thing we strongly recommend you do - head to your local audio store and ask to test the headphones. There's no better way to get a real sense of their look, weight, and levels of noise-cancellation. This way, you can commit and buy with confidence. If possible, use a source you usually use, such as your phone or mp3 player if you intend to listen on the move. Beware, however, that the quality of your source will be all-important with great headphones: they will give the best only if your source is high-end too.