What do you need to know about buying headphones?
When it comes to buying headphones, there is so much variation out there that it becomes a chore trying to decide what to buy. You don't want to waste money on a cheap product that's not going to last, but then you also don't want to spend a lot on something that may turn out to be uncomfortable, useless for your needs or have pointless features that don't benefit you.
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Here are the six main questions you need to ask to get the best headphones: for your money
1. What do I need them for?
This is the first question you should ask yourself before buying headphones, as different technologies work better for different purposes. Do you want them for listening to music at home or at your desk at work? Perhaps you need them for when you're working out at the gym? Or maybe you're producing music in a professional studio set-up? It may also be useful to consider what type of music you listen to; ambient chillwave and bass-heavy dubstep can have very different requirements. When you've decided what your primary listening experience is going to be, you can get a better understanding of what you need from a pair of headphones.
2. What size/shape is best for me?
There are so many different shapes and sizes of headphones out there so it can be a nightmare to work out which ones are right for you. It's mostly a case of trial and error, but these are the main types for your consideration:
On-ear vs. over-ear headphones - "On-ear" or "supra-aural" literally means they rest on the ears and "over-ear" or "circumaural" means they encompass your entire ear. On-ear headphones tend to be smaller and more portable; plus, if you're wearing them for a long period of time, they are more breathable and you are less likely to get uncomfortably hot ears like you might get with over-ear headphones.
On the other hand, on-ear headphones can be uncomfortable depending on the cushioning and the tightness. After a while, having something pressed against the delicate cartilage of the ear can get painful. And the problem is, if they're not tight enough, they also have a tendency to move out of place which isn't great during vigorous exercise. They also aren't ideal for public transport and noisy environments as they do let in ambient noise. Over-ear headphones isolate sound much better, fit more securely, and are better for long periods of use, being generally more comfortable. They are on the bulky side though so portability may be an issue.
Standard earbuds vs. in-ear earphones - Your standard earbuds are those that fit into the opening of the ear while in-ear canalphones or earphones go just a little further into the ear canal. In-ear earphones cause a kind of vacuum which definitely helps isolate sound better and provides better bass, and they tend to fall out less easily than standard earbuds, which are less secure and less noise-isolating. Plus, they do tend to press against the cartilage of the ear; again, very painful over time. On the other hand, in-ear earphones are more likely to transmit infection if not cleaned properly and the vacuum-like seal it causes in the ear can have a suction effect on the eardrum which can be uncomfortable. Certainly worth considering if you have a lot of ear-related problems.
Ear-hook headphones - These hook over the ear as well is sitting in the ear for extra security whether you opt for earbuds or in-ear earphones. These are worth testing out before you buy though, particularly if you are a glasses-wearer.
3. Should I go cordless?
Bluetooth technology allows us to dispense with cords and enjoy an altogether freer listening experience, but it's not without its disadvantages. With earbuds and earphones, the wireless options generally come with charging cases enabling you to keep them charged on the move, which means you have longer - in theory - before you need to charge them than if you were to use wireless headphones. Either way, you have to remember to keep them charged or you may find yourself on a long journey or a particularly gruelling work-out session with nothing to entertain or motivate you.
For most people, that's not too much of an issue. And the problems pretty much end there as far as headphones are concerned. Bluetooth in itself isn't infallible, of course, but that's another topic entirely. With earbuds and earphones, there's a second issue that needs to be taken into account. It doesn't matter how snuggly they fit, there's always a chance that they can fall out and when they are not attached to a cable, the danger is you can lose an earbud absolutely anywhere.
On the other hand, life is easier when you don't have a long cable to de-tangle before you start listening, or to avoid tangling yourself in during your listening experience. It's also better for sports; for example, doing circuits around the gym when carrying your device around is just not feasible for most people. Additionally, if you prefer to listen to music through one ear and listen to the environment around you with the other, wireless earphones are also the better option.
4. Do I need noise-cancelling technology?
In busy environments, the noise-cancelling feature is a useful option - particularly if you like to listen to softer music. It will block out the sounds of traffic, engines, crowds, the television, loud voices, wind etc., but it will also generally be at the expense of sound quality. So if you're an audiophile or you're in production, sound engineering or mixing, you're better off putting quality first.
The majority of us, though, will hardly notice a difference in sound quality. It's worth noting that there is also a big different between active noise-cancelling (that is, technology that actively neutralises background noise) and passive noise-reduction or noise-isolating (which is essentially blocking out noise through other means, like the shape of the headphones or earphones). And brands like to trip us up on that one a lot.
5. Open-back or closed-back?
The most common type of headphones you'll see are closed-back headphones which means that the outer part of the earcups are completely closed. They are generally favoured for blocking out ambient noise and can produce much stronger low frequencies than open-back headphones, which have an unclosed section on the back of the earcups and provides a much more natural sound. It's more like listening to music through speakers as you can still hear outside noise; very useful if you still want to be able to hear what's going on around you while still not disturbing anyone with your music, assuming, of course, that you keep your music at a reasonable volume.
6. What transducer should I go for?
The transducer is simply the mechanism that converts electrical energy into sound and there are many different types to choose from, but for simplicity, we're just going to focus on two.
Balanced armature - In short, this technology consists of a coil wrapped around an armature and suspended by two magnets. The electric current passing through the coil causes fluctuations in the magnetic field that causes the armature to vibrate and produce sound. It requires less power, but the frequency range is limited at the upper and lower end of the hearing spectrum. It is, however, better at isolating sound and efficient for targeting specific frequencies and can produce a higher quality, clearer sound, particularly on the higher end of the spectrum. They are slightly more expensive though, and tend to only be used in in-ear headphones and hearing aids. You're certainly going to get a lot more charge out of balanced armature earphones if you opt for cordless.
Dynamic - Dynamic or moving coil drivers are the cheapest and most common. The coil is attached to the diaphragm which vibrates and pushes air out to produce the soundwaves. It uses more power and so is less energy efficient, but the air moving through the driver produces a much broader frequency range. You end up with a more cohesive sound with better bass, but less clarity with the treble.
For most users, dynamic is the way to go.
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