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Which should you buy: large, ear-covering headphones, tiny earbuds, or something in between? Choosing the right headset can be a tough call. Style, size, audio quality, and price all weigh heavily in the decision.
At BestReviews, our mission is to provide consumers with unbiased product recommendations they can rely on again and again. We researched numerous headphone products in order to create a shortlist of the very best. We never accept free product samples from manufacturers. Rather, we purchase our test items in stores, just as you do.
Please see our above product matrix for our top headphone picks. And if you’d like to learn more about how to find the perfect pair of headphones, please continue reading this shopping guide.
The smallest headphones are called earbuds. Some earbuds fit just inside the bowl of the ear; others extend slightly into the ear canal. Small wires may connect the earbuds to an audio jack, although you can also find wireless options on today’s market.
Earbuds come in many colors and are much more portable than larger headphones. Lots of people prefer to use them when exercising.
Larger headphones fit atop the ear or even cup the ear. Padding makes these larger headphones comfortable to wear. An adjustable headband containing some wires connects the two over-the-ear parts. Another wire with an audio jack trails away from the headphones. (Again, wireless options are available.)
The popularity of these larger headphones has exploded in recent years. Manufacturers have responded accordingly by providing many different styles and colors to consumers. The size of these headphones makes them better for listening to audio at home, rather than while exercising.
Earbuds are sometimes called IEMs, or in-ear monitors.
Style is important when choosing new headphones, but for most people, audio quality is even more crucial. Below, we examine some of the factors that affect audio quality.
Should you buy corded or cordless headphones? Through the course of our research, we discovered that corded headphones nearly always provide better audio than wireless units that operate over Bluetooth or RF. Furthermore, Bluetooth audio quality tends to outperform RF.
Of course, you might want wireless headphones anyway. Lots of people do. They’re conveniently portable in a way that plug-in models just aren’t. If you’ve got your heart set on a cordless headphone set, look for one that works in the 2.4GHz wireless spectrum. This should have less less interference from other wireless devices than the more commonly used 900MHz spectrum.
Wireless headphones have their drawbacks. They require batteries, which some people find to be a nuisance. What’s more, the units can suffer from occasional skips, hisses, and crackles in the audio stream. But wireless audio quality continues to steadily improve as time marches on. If you want a decent pair of wireless headphones, you can certainly find them in our product matrix, above.
A small set of earbuds can’t physically deliver the same type of fidelity that large, over-the-ear phones can. But not everyone wants to wear a pair of large, cumbersome headphones. They can mess up your hair, and some people find them to be uncomfortable.
Earbuds are light and unobtrusive, and the cord that connects the two ear pieces is small. You’ll get the best sound quality from a pair that’s comfortable yet snug in your ear canal. Some people purchase separate ear pads and ear tips to help their earbuds fit better.
Some headphones and earbuds are marketed as “noise cancelling” items because they block certain types of outside noise. Unless you have a discerning ear, however, you may not notice the difference between noise-cancelling headphones and regular headphones. You’ll have to decide if the extra cost of this option is worth it.
A huge drawback for some consumers is the fact that if the battery in a set of noise-cancelling headphones dies, the product may stop working entirely. In this case, the item could be more of a pain than it’s worth.
Noise-cancelling headphones include batteries which drive a built-in processor and microphone. The processor uses the microphone to measure outside noises and determine their frequency. It then matches the frequency with an out-of-phase signal, attempting to cancel the original noise.
Some pricier units feature audio controls — volume control, treble/bass control, and so on — on the headphones themselves. Others connect to an audio-control collar that fits comfortably around your neck. Still others sport volume controls on the cable that leads to the audio jack.
You may find that audio quality suffers when you use a battery-powered smartphone or tablet with your headphones. These battery-driven devices may not be able to push enough power through the headphones to provide the audio quality you’re seeking. In this case, you’ll need headphones with high levels of sensitivity and a low impedance level.
Although headphones don’t have a lot of technical jargon associated with them, you will want to understand a bit of terminology before you begin considering products.
Mono: Some headphones have a mono signal, meaning they offer just one audio channel. The same audio signal ends up in each earpiece. This works well with spoken audio.
Stereo: Audio presented in stereo has two separate channels, sending a specific (and often different) signal to each earpiece. Stereo signals provide a “3D” feel to the sound. Music listeners generally prefer stereo signals.
Sensitivity: Sensitivity is measured as decibels of sound pressure level per milliwatt, leading to the mouthful of an acronym, “dBSPL/mW.” Headphones with a higher sensitivity rating provide better audio quality. On a battery-powered device, a headphone sensitivity of more than 80 dBSPL/mW should meet the needs of most consumers.
Frequency: The frequency range of a set of headphones is expressed in Hz (hertz). A typical human hearing range is 20Hz to 20kHz (or 20,000 Hz). Most headphones offer a range that covers the average human hearing range at minimum.
Impedance: The impedance range of a set of headphones measures the amount of electrical power required to amplify and pass the audio signal through the cables to the earpieces. If you’re connected to a device that runs off battery power, having low impedance headphones (25 to 50 ohms) is important, because it means the device must provide less power to amplify the audio signal. But if you’re running from a home stereo system that’s plugged into a wall outlet, high impedance headphones with settings of 250 ohms or 500 ohms will work fine.
When not in use, store your headphones in a safe area away from direct sunlight. Ear pads and tips can be maintained with a bit of soap and warm water on a cloth.
Headphones can cost anywhere from $5 to $500. Keep these tips in mind when shopping for a new pair of headphones:
Headphones aren’t particularly durable. You may have learned this the hard way over the years. They fall and break. They get stepped on. Earpieces wear down and crack over time. The stereo signal vanishes from one or both sides.
Cheap earbuds often won’t last a year before they suffer some sort of audio quality loss. Expensive over-the-ear headphones can last up to several years. Whatever you buy, keep in mind that your product will last longer if you care for it properly. Avoid bending and crushing the cords, and store your headphones in a safe location.
Even “wireless” headphones will often have some sort of wire that connects the two earpieces — unless you select a product that has two separate wireless receivers.
Q: How do I find earbuds that fit properly?
A: If you’re planning to buy earbuds, keep these facts in mind:
Q: My ears tend to get hot when I wear headphones. What kind should I buy?
A: Consider a design with openings in the ear cups; these “holes” deliver a bit of fresh, cool air to your ears. Please note, however, that whatever you’re listening to may be more audible to others with this design.
Q: Will noise-cancellation headphones block out important sounds I don’t want to miss, such my phone ringing or a timer alarm?
A: It’s possible. Some headphones fit your ear so snugly that they block extraneous noise too well. For this reason, you may want to keep more than one set of headphones on hand — one for complete noise cancellation and another that will “allow” outside noises in as needed.