If you are new to audio peripherals, buying your first pair of headphones can be a daunting task.
There are a lot of technical terms that get discussed in reviews and ‘top ten lists’ that you may be unfamiliar with.
We are here to help you find out everything you need to know before buying the right pair of headphones.
Demystifying Technical Jargon – Things you need to know!
There are a lot of technical terms that you are met by when you purchase audio peripherals. If you want to invest your time and do some deep research to find the perfect pair of headphones, then you should definitely grasp technical terms that audiophiles love talking about.
Many headphones often list frequency or frequency response in the technical specifications sheet. The term defines the range of sound that a pair of headphones is capable of producing. Most headphones offer 20Hz – 20,000Hz with the first number denoting the lowest frequency and the second number denoting the highest. Humans are capable of hearing any sound in the 20Hz – 20,000Hz, which is why most audio output devices offer that particular range.
Some headphones or speakers can offer a larger range of frequencies, and it may seem pointless to many considering humans can’t even hear them. However, it is not always the case as having a larger frequency response means that the sounds from the extreme ends of the frequency bands have a little more breathing room for better audio quality. Most people can’t make out the difference even if they are looking for differences, so it should not be a consideration when making a purchase.
Despite most headphones offering the standardized 20Hz – 20,000Hz frequency range, different headphones offer different frequencies at the same volume which leads to stark differences in quality. These factors cannot be defined by a spec sheet on a product box, and you would need to personally try out headphones to know what suits you best.
Soundstage creates a “3D” environment allowing you to perceive directional audio. Headphones are capable of offering sound cues from different directions and the better a pair of headphones are, the more capable they will be at tricking you into thinking sounds are coming from different directions. Over-ear headphones are usually more capable of pulling it off. In-ear headphones are not as effective at offering a good soundstage ad the audio directly enters your ears with no room to create the illusion of space with them.
Noise Isolation and Active Noise Cancelation
These two are commonly found in the marketing literature of headphones and mean very different things. Noise isolation headphones physically sit between your ears and blocks external sound from entering. While on the other hand, active noise cancelation headphones achieve the same goal, but they include dedicated microphones that pick up ambient noise. The ambient noise is then ‘reversed’ by using opposite sound waves to cancel out any unwanted noise. ANC is usually seen in full-sized headphones, and their effectiveness can vary drastically depending on the manufacturer and product.
You will often find headphone users using the terms “flat” or “neutral” What exactly do these terms mean when it comes to audio? Let’s find out. Headphones that are capable of perfectly reproducing the signal that they receive from an audio source with little or no deviation are known to contain a flat or neutral sound signature.
While it might sound like the ideal way to listen to music, with no form of artificial rendering or modification, many users prefer a more ‘boosted’ experience. Many manufacturers boost the signal at certain frequencies to offer an enhanced audio experience. Many headphones come with marketing terms like “bass boost,” which denotes that the audio feels more powerful and punchy when listening to heavy bass music. Similarly, different headphones can be tuned to offer better audio for specific genres.
Whether you like a flat/neutral sound or boosted acoustics or even bass, you will always be able to find headphones that cater to your needs.
There are multiple types of headphone designs to choose from when it comes to the world of personal audio peripherals. We’ll be taking a look at different types of headphones along with their pros and cons.
#1. On-ear Headphones
On-ear headphones do not go into your ear canal and sit snugly on your outer ears. They come with bands that go behind your head or over it,butthe drivers are always located on your earsto drive music into your ears directly. On-ear headphones are available in a large price spectrum and you’ll easily find one at any budget. They are extremely versatile due to the fairly compact size when compared to over-ear headphones and are almost as capable.
While they are not as discrete as in-ear headphones, they are relatively compact. Unlike in-ear headphones they will not fall off while walking around, making them practical for many situations. Some of the modern on-ear headphones come with noise cancelation toggles that allow you to shut down outside noise and disable the noise cancelation mics with the press of a button.
Originally, on-ear headphones included moving iron drivers with balanced or single-ended armatures with coils and a permanent magnet. However, hardware has improved a lot over the years and they are lighter than ever. Originally designed for radio work, headphones have made it into every home across the world with comfortable padding, lightweight design and portable form factors.
On-ear headphones are also known as supra-aural headphones as they have earpads that stress against the ears instead of around them. They were originally available with personal stereo systems back in the 1980s. The headphones have a smaller soundstage than full sized over-ear headphones, which makes noise cancelation not as effective as its larger counterparts. Since on-ear headphones apply a lot of pressure on the ears, they can get a bit uncomfortable for many users. Earcups and bands needs to be comfortable enough for long hours of usage and you should definitely spend some time trying on-ear headphones on before making a purchase to identify what’s comfortable for you.
- Portability: One of the biggest advantages of on-ear headphones is that they are extremely portable. While they are not small enough to be stuffed into your pocket for carrying around like smaller earphones are, they are far more portable that full-sized monitor headphones.
- Audio quality: If you want an upgrade over pocket in-ears and want a better audio experience, you can definitely expect better quality audio due to their larger drivers.
- Battery life: Many on-ear headphones come with powered drivers that rely on external power instead of draining your smartphone or tablet’s battery. You can opt-in for wireless on-ear headphones with Bluetooth compatibility for a great audio experience on-the-go with stellar battery life. If you run out of battery, you can simply plug in a cable into your device and continue playing your favorite music as well.
- Size: One of the biggest disadvantages of on-ear headphones is the size. While they are portable enough to be carried around, more often than not you need to take a carrying case or a backpack with you when outside. However, many of the modern on-ear headphones come with foldable designs, allowing you to fold them into a much smaller form factor for traveling. Some of them also come with comfortable bands that allow you to carry them around your neck without feeling uncomfortable.
- Sound Isolation: The open design on these headphones means that you do not get great noise isolation from them. There are portable on-ear-headphones that come with noise isolating features, but they do not live up to the standards of over-the-ear competitors.
Beyerdynamic’s T51i might be a pricey product, but it definitely offers powerful audio with deep bass and brilliant treble. With swiveling cups that rotate up to 90 degrees and a nylon carrying case available out of the box, you can carry the headphones around quite easily.
The T51i features a three-button remote capable of controlling media playback which is quite convenient and comes with Tesla technology for efficient audio output. Noise isolation is great on the product, and it can shut out outside noise quite easily.
The Backbeat Sense from Plantronics offers stunning aesthetics and solid audio output on a budget. It can work both wired and wirelessly thanks to the detachable cable and solid Bluetooth connectivity. The OpenMic feature allows you to hear background audio without requiring you to take your headphones off.
With 18 hours of battery backup and rich, detailed audio offered on a budget, Plantronics is offering a great value for money product. It is one of the best budget on-ear headphones you can get and its premium design and build quality definitely scores a few extra points for us.
Bose is one of the most reputed audio peripheral manufacturers in the world,and the brand is known for its top great audio canceling features. The Soundlink is a mid-range on-ear product,and it happens to be one of the best sounding headphones for its price point. It functions both wired and wirelessly,and dedicated microphones are available to shut out environmental noise.
Voice prompts,and a hardware interface built into the headphones make it super easy to control and with 15 hours of battery backup, you will get a couple of days’ worth of usage quite easily. The design is quite lightweight,and we have no qualms about its comfort despite wearing the headphones for long periods of time.
#2. In-ear Headphones
Of all the different types of headphones that are available for audio enthusiasts, in-ear variants are the most common when it comes to portable audio. They are often called earbuds or earphones,and they usually come with portable media players, smartphones and tablets.
In-ear headphones that come free with phonesusually do not offer a good enough audio experience. Thankfully, there are dozens of reputed manufacturers who offer stunning audio quality at affordable prices. They come in different types of earbuds, and you can choose from a range of design options to get the most comfortable music experience.
There are two distinct types of in-ear headphones that are available in the consumer market, earbuds and canalphones. They are not to be confused with each other and include quite distinct technologies. There are also some hybrid variants of these in-ear headphone types as well. The term “earbud” is used to refer to standard in-ear headphones which happen to be the perfect choice for both audiophiles and casual music fans. Putting on a pair of earbuds is not the same as over-the-ear headphones or on-ear headphones. The earbuds are placed just outside the ear. The term earbuds can also be used interchangeably with earphones.
However, these days it’s most likely that you will find canalphones when you visit your nearest audio peripheral store. They come in the same housing as earbuds but offer smaller ‘buds’ that fit right inside your ears. The terms canalphonesis often used interchangeablywith earphones and earbuds these days. Up until recently, Bluetooth in-ear headphones were available in either one-ear or two-ear setups with one-ear headphones being fully wireless in almost all cases.
However, recently new devices like the Apple AirPods Wireless came along and other manufacturers like Jabra have also pushed out similar products that have no wires and offer two separate units for two ears. They come with compact charging cases, making them perfect for carrying around and charging them on the go, all without the use of any wires.
IEMs are the rarest kind of in-ear earphones that you can get in the market. They are usually preferred by audio engineers and audiophiles as they offer a great mix of vocals, instrumentation and are great for recording purposes. In-ear monitors replicate studio monitor headphones but in a much smaller form factor and only the most ardent of music purists and professionals opt in for them.
It does not mean that you should not buy them a consumer, as they offer some of the most natural sounding audio you can experience in a portable form factor and there are countless brands that offercompetitively priced IEMs.
- Portability: They are the most portable types of headphones and are highly recommended if you’re looking for something you can just fit into your pocket. There are wireless Bluetooth headphones available these days as well that contain just earbuds and no wires at all, making them extremely discrete and comfortable.
- Noise Isolation: Since the drivers fit snugly inside your ears, noise isolation is excellent. You do not need dedicated noise canceling hardware to shut out background noise, as the drivers ‘plug’ into your ears. They are perfect travel and workout companions as they lightweight and do not make you uncomfortable.
- Sound: Unless you are spending a decent amount of money on a good pair of in-ear earphones, sound quality will be inferior to on-ear or over-the-ear headphones. Portability comes at a price, and the smaller drivers fail to offer much compared to its bigger brothers.
- Cable Management: Cable management is a nightmare when it comes to in-ear headphones. They can easily get tangled in your pockets if you do not carry a small case around. This issue can be negated, however, by using modern wireless earbuds which can get a little pricey or finding earphones that offer tangle-free cables which are easier to manage.
If you are willing to spend the big bucks and want to escape from the world of cable management, the Jabra Elite 65T is one of the best products any phone or tablet owner can have. It is similar to the Apple AirPods (Wireless) and comes with a portable charging case which can power up your earphones. A single charge can fetch you 5 hours of usage time while the charging case can charge your earbuds three more times, netting you another 15 hours of battery life.
Jabra offers two years of warranty including any damage from water or dust. They come with Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, and Google Assistant support and you can trigger the digital voice assistants directly from your earbuds. Sound quality is great, and it comes with dual microphones with great call quality. They do pose the risk of slipping out of your ears, and we do not recommend using them during workouts or sporting activities.
Bose did a great job with its in-ear SoundSport headphones. The patented StayHear+ tips are designed to fit snugly in your ears without dropping out thanks to the soft silicone material and unique shape. It offers Bluetooth and NFC connectivity, allowing you to seamlessly connect to supported devices.
Audio quality on the SoundSport is great, and it comes with a volume-optimized equalizer, to offer balanced audio performance without requiring additional controls. What’s most impressive about the SoundSport is the construction quality. It comes with an anti-sweat and dust-proof design, making it the perfect gym companion.
German company Sennheiser is known for its quality consumer grade audio peripherals, and the brand did an amazing job with its PMX lineup of headphones. The sporty in-ear headphones offer sweat, water, and dust resistance and unlike our other recommendations, these are wired headphones. If you are on a budget and want something durable for the gym or other outdoor activities, it’s a great pair of headphones to own.
The secure fit and rubberized band hold in place perfectly, and its audio quality is also quite impressive. It also offers an inline microphone for taking calls on the go using the 3-button remote.
The term “earbud” is used to refer to standard in-ear headphones which happen to be the perfect choice for both audiophiles and casual music fans. Putting on a pair of earbuds is not the same as over-the-ear headphones or on-ear headphones. The earbuds are placed just outside the ear. The term earbuds can also be used interchangeably with earphones.
Earbuds come with a back case to hold everything together and allows the internals to be fixed on it. A rubber circle connects the casing together and the technology takes advantage of wires, seals and magnets to produce audio.
Unlike in-ear headphones they do not directly go inside your ear and gently rest outside the earholes. Earbuds are easily portable and extremely compact. They do not create the same kind of sound isolation you’d expect from bigger headphones due to the small speakers but the sizer and portability is what make these the perfect travel companions. They do not grip the ears as well as in-ears, but on the other hand they are far more comfortable for users who complain about ear pain when using in-ears for extended periods of time.
- Portability: Earbuds are extremely portable and you can easily carry them around in your pocket without any trouble. They are often bundled with music players, phones and other small media devices.
- Comfort: Earbuds are far more comfortable than larger headphones or even in-ear headphones. They do not cause any fatigue and can be used for extended periods of time without any issues.
- Price: You can get a decent pair of earbuds for very cheap compared to larger sized headphones. They are easily replaceable and can be used with a large variety of peripherals, making them great for travel. Carrying around expensive earphones can be risky in many parts of the world and earbuds allows you to travel worry free.
- Quality: Due to the smaller driver, the quality on earbuds fail to match up to larger headphones. They also lack the closed soundstage of the in-ear headphones, allowing external noise to creep in which can lead to comparably less pleasant audio experience for many users.
#4. Over-the-ear headphones
Over-the-ear or over-ear headphonesare the largest variants of consumer headphones that you can buy. The large form factor allows manufacturers to deliver the best possible audio experience no holds barred. There are both wired and wireless headphones under this category with a host of features.
There are two major categories under over-the-ear headphones. They are:
- Open Back Headphones
- Closed Back Headphones
Closed Back Headphones
Closed back headphones are the ones that people are most familiar with. The drivers on closed back headphones are enclosed in the ear cups and audio is blocked in all directions except the parts that are facing your ears. Sound bounces around as it leaves the driver and enters nowhere except your ears. If you do not want people around you to know what you are listening to, closed back headphones are perfect for you.
Closed back headphones are ideal for commuters as they do not cause sound leakage and your audio experience is truly personal. They can easily shut out most background noise and make perfect travel and work companions.
Advantages of Closed Back Headphones over Open Back Headphones
- Designed to isolate outside noise.
- Suited for DJs, music production and professional use.
- Heavier bass experience.
- Prevents others from hearing your audio.
Open Back Headphones
Open-back headphones are the exact opposite of their closed-back counterparts. The drivers are not enclosed in the earcup area on these headphones. The driver in each earcup is left exposed to allow outside noise to pass through. While the headphones are far from ideal if you plan on using them outdoors.
The benefit from owning a pair of open-back headphones is if you want a better soundstage in your home or studio. You can use them for public commute if you want to hear what’s going on around you but they take away any privacy you have. Many audiophiles prefer open back headphones for the unique experience that they offer, allowing ambient noise to seep in while also offering a high-quality audio experience.
Advantages of Open Back Headphones Over Closed Back Headphones
- Allows outside noise for a more natural experience.
- More clear than open back headphones.
- More comfortable than closed back headphones.
Over-ear headphones are also known as circum-aural headphones or simply full-sized headphones. They come with ellipsoid shaped earpads that encompass users’ ears. Since these earcups completely surround the ear, they can easily attenuate any external noise. Some of them also come with dedicated noise canceling microphones to release an ‘opposite sound’ to cancel out any noise that you hear while using them while traveling or working.
Needless to say, they are extremely large and take up a solid amount of space. But despite their size they can be quite comfortable as long as the manufacturer implements ergonomic design. If you do not mind rocking a large pair of headphones while commuting, they can definitely be great travel companions. However, they are mostly meant for stationary use and you are better off pairing them with your computer or personal audio setup to get the most out of them.
- Sound: The sky is the limit when it comes to over-ear headphones and their audio quality. You can find headphones at various price points ranging up to over a thousand dollars for quality audio hardware.
- Comfort: Due to the large design on over-ear headphones, you get access to comfortable earcups often made of leatherette, memory foam or velour for a comfortable audio experience.
- Portability: Expect to invest in a carrying case or being forced to take your backpack along if you plan on using a pair of over-ears outdoors. They are far from being portable, and great audio quality comes at the expense of size.
- Price: Given the fact that they offer the very best in terms of audio quality, you can expect your audio investments to be pretty high when it comes to over-ear headphones.
#5. Bluetooth Headphones
Bluetooth headphones can be a highly controversial topic when talking to audiophiles. Bluetooth headphones are meant for enthusiasts who want a wireless experience and are willing to invest money into portability. You can get Bluetooth headphones with different types of earbuds and designs,and all three headphone types we discussed in the above categories offer wireless Bluetooth counterparts.
Most of the modern headphones have Bluetooth compatibility while some may come with proprietary receivers for added features. Unlike the past, audio quality on wireless headphones have gone up quite a few notches,and you do not have too many tradeoffs versus their wired counterparts.
Modern technology has enabled headphones to be completely wireless and almost everyone owns a Bluetooth compatible device, be it smartphones, tablets, TVs and other tech devices. Bluetooth headphones can fall under all three categories we discussed above as they come in in-ear, on-ear and over-ear variants.
So, what can you expect from a pair of Bluetooth headphones? Bluetooth is a wireless standard that comes with audio codec support. Codecs are responsible for processing digital audio signals from any device with media in it and converts it into sound through your headphones or any audio output device. Bluetooth makes all of this possible through wireless signals and removes the need for you to physically connect your headphones to your media playback device.
The technology also has some smart features like automatically going to standby mode so your headphones don’t run out of battery when you are not using them. A pair of Bluetooth headphones may be capable of connecting to multiple audio peripherals at the same time and you simply need to play media on any of the connected device to start streaming the audio.
We also have NFC which is a physical connector that can help you pair NFC-compatible devices by putting both of them in contact with each other where the chips are located. It removes the need to manually go to your settings on your playback device or press a bunch of buttons on your headphones.
- Wireless Design: The de facto reason why people invest in Bluetooth headphones is the wireless technology. Being able to connect to devices without requiring wires and making a tangled mess out of your cables is something many audio enthusiasts would like to have.
- Sound Quality: Compared to older generation headphones with wireless capabilities, sound quality has improved drastically over the years. With updated Bluetooth codecs, you can expect many high-end Bluetooth headphones to compete against many wired headsets as well.
- Battery: Getting wireless headphones means that you have to keep charging the headphones. The larger the headphones, the better the battery life you get due to the larger space available for bigger batteries. If you plan on using your headphones outside for long periods of time, make sure you check the battery ratings to see if the headphones you want offer enough battery life.
- Wireless Technology: Wireless technology does have its downsides as well. Unless your headphones and the connected device are close to each other without any physical interference, you may experience some interference when using wireless headphones.
- Compatibility:Newer Bluetooth headphones may require newer versions of Bluetooth technology which your phone, laptop or other media devices may not have access to. You need to do a bit of extra research to see what codecs your playback device support before making an investment.
Bose is known for its noise cancelation technology, and the brand’s reputation precedes itself with its headphones being used in the aviation and entertainment industries by professionals. It offers best in class noise cancelation and hands-free voice control to make it a truly wireless headset. You have full control over the noise cancelation levels, and it comes with a volume optimized-EQ for the best possible audio experience.
With roughly 20 hours of battery life, you can use it almost all day without worrying about battery life. The sound signature feels very natural, and it is backed up by solid construction and extremely comfortable design.
The WH1000XM2 is regarded by many as one of the top wireless Bluetooth headphones available. When it comes to audio quality and features, Sony is unmatched and only loses out to its closest competitor, the Bose QC35, in active noise cancelation. It has gesture controls for disabling the noise cancelation and touch controls for media playback.
The headphones can be used both wired and wirelessly. Audio quality is absolutely the best in its class, and you should definitely pick this one up if you want a pair of headphones that you want to carry around while commuting regularly.
The Momentum 2.0 Wireless offer nothing but the very best from Sennheiser. The Noise Gard noise canceling technology offers amazing noise isolation to offer clean sounding audio even in noisy environments, and it comes with 22 hours of battery life via Bluetooth, making it perfect for all-day use. With a detachable cable and compact foldable design, it can be carried around quite easily in the provided travel case.
Audio quality is as good as you’d expect for the price and the company did not cut any corners when it comes to offering a premium audio experience. They sound very neutral and offer a balanced sound signature.
Sound: Sound quality is a completely personal preference, and there is no number one contender for the best headphones spot. Identify what kind of sound you are looking for and trying a few pairs of headphones before deciding for yourself is a must. Some people prefer boosted bass or acoustics while other prefer monitor headphones that offer accurate sounds from the source audio.
Portability: It is an important factor when deciding on your next pair of headphones. Some headphones offer foldable earcups and bands while others offer zero portability. Depending on your usage pattern and daily requirements, you need to pick options that suit your needs. In-ear headphones are perfect for users who travel a lot of and engage in outdoor activities while full-sized headphones are great for users who plan on listening to music indoors only.
Noise Cancelation: Noise cancellation can be quite expensive as it requires dedicated hardware microphones and they can be quite expensive. While there are no headphones that can guarantee 100% removal of ambient noise, you will be surprised to know how effective they can be.
Microphone: If you want to use your headphones for communications, then a built-in microphone is a must. If you have a dedicated desktop microphone or simply do not need one, you can opt for headphones that do not have a mic.
Battery life: Wireless headphones come with built-in or removable batteries that offer varying levels of battery life. If you’re on the lookout for Bluetooth headphones, make sure the rated battery life is good enough for your usage pattern.
Comfort: Comfort is one of the deciding factors that many consumers ignore before purchasing headphones. It does not matter if you have the best sounding headphones on the planet if you can’t wear them for too long comfortably. Depending on the conditions you will be using them in, and how long you plan on using your headphones, you should choose something that fits you perfectly. Some headphones can be extremely heavy, and others might heat your ears if you wear them for too long. Try on multiple pairs of headphones to see what suits you best.
Purpose: How you use your headphones is the most important factor when choosing audio hardware. If you are planning on listening to music casually and want more colorful audio output, choosing headphones that pack a punch in terms of audio output is the way to go. If you are a content creator or work with a lot of audio files, a pair of studio or monitor headphones is a must as they will offer an accurate representation of what you are working with.
Durability: If you plan on using your headphones outdoors, make sure they offer water and dust resistance. Water and dust can damage electronic components and headphones are no exception to that. Workout earbuds are easily available, and they can withstand sweat and rough usage.