How to Buy Headphones

7 things to consider, including cost, design, and audio quality

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A great pair of headphones can transform anyone's listening experience. The only problem is that there are many different headphones out there, and they all have something slightly different to offer. This buying guide will help you decide which headphones to buy based on your specific needs, budget, and lifestyle.

7 Factors to Consider When Buying Headphones

There are some key factors to keep in mind when shopping for headphones. You'll likely encounter a wide variety of headphones with different features and specifications.

The seven areas you need to investigate before buying headphones include:

  • Cost
  • Form Factor
  • Design
  • Wired vs. Wireless
  • Audio Quality
  • Noise Cancellation
  • Brand

How Much Should Headphones Cost?

The cost of headphones varies widely depending on the technology that goes into them. Here's a general overview of what you can expect.

Price Range  What You Can Expect
Less than $50 For less than $50, you can find serviceable Bluetooth in-ear and over-the-ear headphones. You can also find lower end gaming headsets and lower end wired over-ear headphones
 $50 - $100 You can find higher end heavy-duty gaming headphones at this price point along with midrange wired over-ear and in-ear headphones.
$100 - $250 At this price point, you'll find wireless over-ear and in-ear headphones and earbuds with features like noise cancellation
$250 + Here's where more advanced noise cancellation kicks in, and you'll see big names like Apple, Beats, and Bose. In-ear, over-ear, and on-ear options.

What Headphone Form Factor Should You Choose?

The main form factors are in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear headphones. All offer different portability levels. Your form factor choice is personal, and your comfort and preferences will guide you.

In-Ear Headphones

In-ear headphones are the most portable headphones on the market, so if you're looking for something to take on the go (you can easily bunch them up and store them in your pocket), these might be your best bet.

As the name suggests, in-ear headphones rest in your ear. Some rest on your outer ear, specifically on a section of the outer ear called the “Antitragus.” Others are pushed slightly deeper into the ear canal, which helps them stay in place (ideal for sports or other vigorous activity).

In-ear headphones are considered the least comfortable. Some pairs can even damage your ear cartilage—though those instances are infrequent and usually only happen if you're wearing your in-ear headphones far too much. Generally speaking, most people get used to the feel of in-ear headphones, but if you buy a new pair of earbuds, it may take a few days for that to happen.

In-ear headphones
Lifewire

On-Ear Headphones

On-ear headphones offer a happy medium between in-ear and over-ear headphones. While they keep the same general shape as over-ear headphones, they're usually a little smaller and often can fold up—making them an excellent choice for those that don't like in-ear headphones but still want something they can fit in a bag without adding too much weight.

Most people find on-ear headphones to be a little more comfortable than in-ear, and they often offer a better sound quality, too, thanks to the fact that they have more room to incorporate larger drivers. We'll get more into drivers and sound quality a little later on.

When it comes to comfort, on-ear headphones offer a compromise between comfortable over-ear headphones and less comfortable in-ear headphones. On-ear headphones, as the name suggests, have padding on the outer ear. Comfort here is more defined by how hard the clamp is. Too hard, and you can't wear the headphones for long without discomfort. Too soft, and the headphones will fall off.

On-ear headphones are suitable for those who want a pair of great-sounding headphones to take on the go and who don't mind the larger size and the fact that they won't fit in the pocket. Some on-ear headphones can be good for working out, but make sure they offer a relatively hard clamp to stay on your head.

Lifewire on-ear headphones

Over-Ear Headphones

Over-ear headphones are the ultimate for comfort and sound quality, but they're by far the least portable of the three form factors. That may not be a big deal for those looking for a great pair of headphones to use at home, but if you're looking for headphones to take on the go, you're better off with on-ear or in-ear headphones.

As the name suggests, over-ear headphones often don't touch your ears. Instead, they have padding that clamps around your ears. That's how they can stay comfortable for so long. After all, your ears are much more fragile to discomfort than your skull. Part of the reason over-ear headphones can sound so much better is that they have more room for larger drivers or different types of drivers that require a little more room to work properly. (We'll get into driver types below.)

Beats Studio3 Wireless Noise Cancelling Over-Ear Headphones - Apple W1 Headphone Chip, Class 1 Bluetooth, 22 Hours of Listening Time, Built-in Microphone - Matte Black (Latest Model)

What Headphone Design Should You Get?

While the look of the headphones may be important to you, the design of a pair of headphones often refers to whether they’re closed back or open back. The vast majority of consumer headphones are closed back, but some audiophile-focused headphones are open back, and the difference in sound quality can be enormous.

Closed-Back Headphones

Most headphones you see in a store will be closed back, which means they keep your music in and the outside noise out.

There are some advantages and some disadvantages to this. Closed-back headphones are better for being on the go or for those who listen to music near others. The main drawback is the sound quality. Most audiophiles looking for the best sound argue that open-back headphones sound more natural. We'll get into why in the next section.

Of course, that doesn't mean that closed-back headphones don't sound good. Some of the best headphones in the world are closed-back headphones. They sound slightly less natural, but many won't even be able to tell the difference.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones, Black
Amazon

Open-Back Headphones

While closed-back headphones keep your music at least somewhat isolated, open-back headphones do the opposite. They create a much more natural sound. With the ability for sound to escape your headphones, there aren't the tiny echoes that resonate inside closed-back headphones. While largely imperceivable, those echoes create a tighter soundstage, so open-back headphones sound a little broader and more open.

Open-back headphones have some significant disadvantages, making them only suitable for home listening. For starters, just as sound inside the headphones can get out, outside sound can also get in. So if you plan on listening in a moderately noisy environment, you'll be able to hear everything around you. Another disadvantage is that the lack of a physical barrier between the outside world and the electronics inside your headphones means that things like moisture could damage them more easily.

If you plan on listening at home in a quiet environment and want the best listening experience, open-back headphones could be the way to go.

Semi-Open-Back Headphones

There is a third design type, and that's the semi-open back design, though most people will probably want to steer clear of these. Semi-open-back headphones cover most of the outside of the headphones with a bit of space for airflow. The trade-off is that the headphones have some advantages of open-back headphones, like a slightly (but not totally) more natural sound. The flip side is that the headphones have all the disadvantages of open-back headphones. Outside noise can get in, and it's much easier for moisture to damage the electronics inside the headphones.

We only recommend semi-open-back headphones to users who plan on listening at home and are willing to compromise on some of that openness found in open-back headphones for a slightly more isolated listening experience.

Should You Get Wired or Wireless Headphones?

Wireless headphones may be more convenient than wired ones, but wired headphones almost always offer a better sound quality. You'll also have to consider battery life when it comes to wireless headphones.

Wired Headphones

Wired headphones aren't dead just yet, though their dominance has shrunk to a small percentage of users, and it's likely they'll completely fade in coming years barring a few high-fidelity listening situations.

While wireless headphones are often more convenient than wired ones, wired headphones still have a few significant advantages. For starters, they’re still a little cheaper than their wireless counterparts, though there are plenty of low-cost wireless headphones.

Perhaps more importantly, however, wired headphones usually sound much better. That’s because they often use the headphone amplifier on your phone or computer rather than the lower-quality amplifier built into modern wireless headphones. Additionally, wired headphones also allow you to use an external headphone amplifier, which usually creates an even better listening experience.

Lifewire in-ear headphones
Lifewire

Wireless Headphones

Sound quality is vital to consider, but sometimes convenience is more important. For example, if you're going to use your headphones at the gym, the comfort of a wireless design is probably worth the trade-off of slightly lower audio quality.

If you're not an audiophile with a love of high-fidelity music and a keen ear for audio differences, wireless headphones will likely be fine. We don't think it's worth suffering through the inconvenience of wired headphones if you don't specifically need those advantages.

Within the wireless headphones category, a few different types exist. Most wireless headphones are over or on-ear, or they have a small wire that wraps around the back of your head.

Powerbeats Wireless

However, “truly wireless” headphones, like Apple's AirPods, have become more popular. These earbuds connect wirelessly to your listening device and each other, meaning that you have two independent earbuds, often carried in a charging case when not in use.

Smiling and looking out window while holding an iPhone and wearing AirPods

The Good Brigade / Getty Images

Good battery life for true wireless headphones is more than four hours of continuous playback, though the charging case will extend that if you don't listen for four hours straight. Non-true wireless earbuds should have at least 8-10 hours of playback on a charge. On-ear headphones should be able to offer 15 hours or more, and over-ear headphones should provide at least 16 or 17 hours, though they can range up to 25 hours or more.

What Audio Quality Do You Need?

While we've touched on a few things that will affect the audio quality of a pair of headphones, like whether they're open back or closed back, there are several other audio-related factors to consider.

Many of these factors (frequency range, impedance, driver type, etc.) are only worth considering if you're an audiophile looking for the best possible sound quality. But even if you're not, it can be helpful to know a little more about how your headphones work.

Frequency Range

Frequency response refers to the different frequencies that headphones can reproduce, resulting in a full sound.

Instruments like bass guitars, bass synths, and kick drums primarily live in the lower frequencies, while the sizzle of cymbals and sibilance on a vocal lives in the higher frequencies. Guitars, other drums, the body of a vocal, and so on, all live in between these frequencies.

The frequency range of human hearing is 20Hz to 20kHz, though most adults can't hear much past 17kHz. Most headphones have an advertised frequency range of 20Hz to 20kHz too, which, of course, doesn't tell you much about how they sound, considering that's what humans can hear anyway.

In other words, while you shouldn't consider headphones with a frequency response of less than 20Hz-20kHz, don't take that to mean that they'll sound good.

Driver Type

Headphones are just miniaturized speakers; like speakers, they have drivers—at least one on each side. The driver is what vibrates the air, creating sound. There are a few main kinds of drivers.

  • Dynamic drivers. Dynamic drivers are the cheapest to produce, but that doesn't necessarily mean they sound bad. They're generally excellent at creating a solid bass response without much power. The trade-off is that they can distort at higher volumes.
  • Balanced armature drivers. Balanced armature drivers are only used in in-ear headphones and work slightly differently than dynamic drivers. Manufacturers can tune them to specific frequencies. Many in-ear headphones feature two sets of balanced armature drivers, tuned to different frequencies or coupled with dynamic drivers for a more even frequency response.
  • Planar magnetic drivers. Planar magnetic drivers are usually only found on higher-end over-ear headphones because of their larger size. Still, they're able to produce what many consider to be a much better sound. They don't distort as easily as dynamic drivers and deliver an excellent bass response, but they require a headphone amp to run correctly, as they need a little more power than dynamic headphones.
  • Electrostatic drivers. Electrostatic drivers work very differently from the other drivers on this list and can produce a largely undistorted sound and a wide, natural soundstage. They also have a very natural frequency response. There are downsides, including that they're much more expensive to make, require a headphone amplifier, and are typically only really found in over-ear headphones thanks to their large size.

Impedance

Impedance refers to the opposition your headphones give to the flow of current from your headphone amplifier. Impedance generally varies from 8Ω (ohms) to the hundreds of ohms on high-end models.

Most consumer headphones are low impedance and can get sufficient power from a smartphone or computer. High-impedance headphones, on the other hand, require a dedicated headphone amplifier to output enough sound.

If you plan on using your headphones with a phone or computer, any headphones with an impedance of under 25Ω should be fine. However, if you have a headphone amplifier, you could get higher-impedance headphones, though just how high depends on the amplifier.

Sensitivity

Sensitivity refers to how loud headphones can get relative to their power. It's measured in decibels, which, in basic terms, is a volume measurement. Generally, sensitivity is measured per 1mW (milliwatt). So, if a pair of headphones has a sensitivity of 115dB / mW, they can produce 115dB of volume using 1 milliwatt of power.

Of course, 115dB is pretty loud, and we never recommend listening to music at that level. 115dB is around the loudness of a rock concert, and that level permanently damages your ears after around 15 minutes of listening.

Usually, a sensitivity between 90dB and 120dB / 1mW will be acceptable for use.

Do You Need Noise-Cancellation in Your Headphones?

Active noise-cancellation uses a microphone to detect what noise is happening around you, then plays back an opposite version of that sound, effectively canceling it out to your ears. Unfortunately, there's no standard measurement for noise cancellation, so it's hard to say what's "good" noise cancellation. Generally, Bose and Audio Technica generally offer excellent noise-cancellation, while other companies are improving.

There is a downside to noise cancellation, which usually affects the audio quality in small ways. For example, noise-canceling headphones can sometimes produce a faint hiss and slightly change the frequency response depending on the frequencies it's filtering out.

There is another way to cut outside sound with "noise isolating" headphones, also known as passive noise-canceling headphones. These headphones physically eliminate outside noise by creating a good seal around your ears and using sound-proof materials. It's a bit lower-tech and usually won't cut out as much noise as noise-canceling headphones, but noise-isolating headphones can still help prevent unwanted sound from distracting you while you listen.

Is the Brand Name Important for Headphones?

The brand name can also be important. While the likes of Apple, Sennheiser, Shure, JBL, Bose, and Audio Technica are often considered some of the household names in the audio industry, lesser-known brands such as Jaybird, Libratone, and Soul can have a lot to offer.

Still, while some brands have a lower price, you'll want to be extra careful when buying headphones from a company with no actual track record in the space. After all, there's often a reason why big-name brands are more trusted.

Who Should Buy Which Headphone Type?

Buying headphones comes down to your personal preferences, comfort, and budget.

There are hundreds of variations of headphones. No two pairs of headphones are the same, but many are similar. The most important things to consider for the average consumer are the headphones' form factor, wired vs. wireless, and their general sound quality.

However, audiophiles or those looking into the magical (and expensive) world of high-fidelity listening will want to consider everything else. If that's you, you'll probably want over-ear wired headphones, and you may even want to consider buying a headphone amplifier.

What Should You Do After Buying Headphones?

No matter what type of headphones you buy, it's essential to learn how to keep them clean and running optimally. Consult your manufacturer's instructions for storage, cleaning, and upkeep.

What Other Considerations Are There?

Headphones are getting increasingly high-tech and offering more cool features. Some of these features might be important to you, while others might not be.

  • Built-in controls. Many headphones have controls built right onto the ear cup or into a remote on the cable. It allows you to control your music and volume without taking your phone out of your pocket, which can be a convenient feature.
  • Digital assistant support. Many headphones also offer support for digital assistants like Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa. Some have digital assistants built right into them, while others offer a button you can use to interact with your assistant through your phone.
  • Additional features. Some headphones have sensors that can track your heart rate, and an accompanying app can show you that heart rate through a workout. Others have features to limit the volume, preventing you from damaging your ears (which are great for kids).
  • How they look. Headphones are something you wear, so you'll want to find a pair that looks good. Everyone has different tastes when it comes to design, but with so many models out there, it's unlikely you won't find a pair that you like.
FAQ
  • What are the best headphones for listening to music?

    Some of the best headphones for music lovers include Sony's WH1000XM3 headphones. They support a wide range of Bluetooth Codecs, including both AptX HD and LDAC for supreme sound quality. Also, Sennheiser's HD 650 headphones create an immersive music-listening experience.

  • What are the best noise-canceling headphones?

    The best noise-canceling headphones include Sony's WH-1000XM4 headphones, featuring Sony’s latest QN1 noise-canceling processor. Also, the Bose QuietComfort 35 (Series II) has impressive audio quality and clear sound regardless of the volume level and background noise.

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