The Knowhow guide to buying a set of headphones
The best headphone headsets are resilient, comfortable and offer great audio quality. Different makes and styles of headphones are suited to different listening environments, so consider the following points when purchasing a new set:
- Will you be using the headphones at home or on the move? This will affect how 'portable' your headphones need to be, and also whether you should prioritise weight and size over audio output capacity.
- What will you be listening to? If you like listening to Radio 4 on the way to work, audio clarity will take priority; the spoken word can be tricky to hear in a noisy, busy environment such as the bus or tube, and so you'll need a pair of headphones which produce a sharp, clear sound.
- What is your priority - a lightweight/compact headset, or a banging sound? If you like listening to death metal on the road between gigs, there are two important things to consider: sound volume and noise cancellation. Just as you want to be able to turn the volume up to a thumping sound, the pensioner on the bus seat next to you probably doesn't want to hear Sophicide's technical guitar work.
- Will the 'look' of the headphones matter? There are some really great looking headphones available on the market; several headsets are sponsored by musical artists and if you're a big fan of a particular musician, it's worthwhile looking out to see if they have their own line of headphones for sale.
- Do you live or work in an environment where the headphones might make you a target for theft? Headphones can be a very expensive addition to your electrical gadgetry, but even if you invest in a relatively low-priced pair they can draw attention to the fact that you're carrying an MP3 Player. Stick with a subtle, rather than an attention-grabbing pair if personal security is an issue.
- Do you feel comfortable wearing things inside your ears? The style of headphones you wear is largely a matter of comfort; some people feel uncomfortable using inner-ear headphones (which can be seen as slightly invasive because of the way they fit into the ear canal). Try different styles of headsets out at your local electrical retailer to see which feels more natural to you.
The ideal headphones would be a finely-tuned balance of aesthetic appeal, pitch-perfect audio excellence, featherweight ultra-portable design, and an effective filter for noise pollution. While it might not be possible to find a set which boasts all of the features listed above, by prioritising one or two 'must-haves' above the rest and sacrificing the others, you might reach a buying decision more quickly.
The big question - what's the difference between different headset designs?
There are several different headphone designs for you to try out before you commit to buying a pair:
- Over-ear headphones can either be 'clipped' over the ear, or attached to a head or neck-band to keep them in place.
- Open-backed headphones usually give a more 'natural' sound, especially the larger and more expensive models. On the flipside, open-backed earpieces tend to leak plenty of sound.
- Closed-backed headphones block out some external noise (i.e. traffic and voices), and don't leak as much sound as their open-backed colleagues. Closed-backed sets are also reputed to provide better bass reproduction than open-backed headphones, perhaps because the sound is concentrated into the ear canal passage and does not filter out.
- Specialist sports headphones come in a variety of types and styles. They are designed to stay in place on the head while the user is playing sport, or during periods where the user is particularly active (such as on the commute to work). Sports headphones are similar to over-ear headsets, with two key differences; they're often waterproof and glide-proof (non-slip, to counteract the effects of perspiration), and they also grip the head more firmly than a standard set of over-ear headphones. Waterproof headphones can be used while swimming, although obviously you would need a waterproof MP3 player too!
- Wireless headphones are becoming increasingly popular; these use Bluetooth technology to transmit audio from an MP3 or Hi-Fi device to the headphones. Wireless headphones can pick up a signal up to ten metres away, and so can be used at home or on the move, depending on your preference. They're a great option for those of you who dislike fussy cables, and you don't need to invest in a special MP3 Player or Hi-Fi to receive the Bluetooth signal - just look out for a pair of wireless headphones with Bluetooth detection capabilities.
The verdict: Over-ear headphones are good for active, sporty people. They tend to be used by athletes during training sessions, or for commuters making their way to work. The clip-on attachment makes them less likely to fall out while the user is dashing about, and because over ear headphones stay firmly in place, they also tend to reduce any noise interference such as traffic or street noise. If cutting out background noise is high on your priority list, look for a set of over-ear headphones which also feature a closed-back - this way you retain the maximum audio output without disturbing your neighbours. Over-ear headphones are also great for music-lovers who don't feel comfortable putting earpieces into their ears.
- In-ear headphones are often much better-equipped to block out external noise than their over-ear counterparts. You may also want to consider 'noise cancelling' headphones which electronically reduce or remove sound from the vicinity.
- Earbuds fit loosely in the ear and are often included as an accessory with MP3 players and iPods; they use a foam or latex covering to secure the earpiece in place and eliminate conflicting sounds from outside. Although they're a very common type of headphone, they don't offer the range of sound that other in-ear models can, and the earpiece covering frequently dislodges, leaking sound into the world around you.
- Canalphones, also known as sound isolating headphones, fit deeply and snugly into the ear. The headphones create a tight seal in the ear canal that prevents too much sound getting in and out. Many users find the sound quality is very good and they don't need to turn the volume up as much as for other types of headphone.
The verdict: In-ear headphones are a good option for blocking out street sounds; they may be a good choice for children watching portable DVD Players in the car during a long trip. In-ear headphones focus the sound directly into the ear canal, amplifying the audio and making the music file much easier to hear and understand, even in a relatively noisy environment. At the lower end of the market, the inexpensive headsets offer great value for money and are perfect for a one-off road trip; for longevity and audio quality, it is worth spending more on a quality model.
Sound quality - what to look out for
What sounds top-notch quality to one person may seem just above average to another. Which headphones offer the best audio is partly down to how they sound to you, which sound elements you like to hear the most (i.e. base notes of melodies, clarity of speech, background static or a finely-tuned balance of all of the above). Generally speaking, the higher priced headphones can offer better sound quality, but many affordable sets are excellent for short-term use and offer great value for money.
The smaller sized headphones generally offer poor bass reproduction; by investing in a light, compact headset you are sacrificing quality of sound - the bass will often sound slightly "tinny" on these smaller designs, because the acoustics have only a very shallow depth in which to echo the soundwaves. Headsets with larger, earmuff-style earpieces give a better, fuller and more natural sound because the soundwaves have more space to echo, creating a more lucid, amplified sound.
Not sure what to get? Check online user reviews to get a general idea of what people think, but test as many as you can. Your ears will be the best judge.