Tips for Buying Headphones

If you’re in the market for a new pair, here are a few tips to take the mystery out of the purchase. Consider these seven points and you’ll be able to find the right headphones for you.

1. Think about when you’ll use them.

The first thing to ask yourself is what you’ll be using the headphones for. Are you looking for a pair that can stay balled up in your messenger bag? Will you be taking them to the gym for your workout? Will they accompany you on international plane trips? Or will you be hooking them up to a hi-fi stereo for intense listening?

Knowing what you want headphones for will probably influence the other factors in your decision-making process, so assess how, where and when you plan to use them.

2. Set a budget (and stick to it).

Black earbuds

If you’re a gadget geek, the headphone search can easily make a big dent in your wallet. Do some research and get a sense for the price ranges on models that most appeal to you. Spending a fortune on an expensive set of cans that will get sweaty during your workout doesn’t make sense.

Tech often runs on the principle that you get what you pay for. When you just need a basic pair for listening on the go, your price point can be much lower. If you want a product that focuses more on audio fidelity and quality, expect to shell out accordingly. For people who really want to break the bank, some companies let you order earphones custom-fitted to your ears.

The good news is that for almost any combination of headphone traits you want, you can find a budget option. Just make sure you know your upper limit before hitting the stores, and stick to it.

3. Over-ear vs. on-ear vs. in-ear.

For starters, this can be a question of comfort. Some people hate having buds settled in their ears, while others feel that over-ear cans are too heavy over long periods of time. If you haven’t had a chance to use both styles, ask around among your friends. They might have a set they could loan you as a trial run.

On a more technical side, the key distinction among these styles is sound quality. Cheap earbuds may be portable, but because of their fit and placement in the ear, you’ll miss out on a lot of bass notes. Some in-ear models are designed to have a better fit and improved audio experience, but few will be able to match the sound of the bigger styles.

On-ear and over-ear look similar, but the on-ear style will have a smaller earpad than the over-ear, which is designed to actually touch your head. The benefits of on-ear headphones are a slight edge in portability and weight, while the over-ear style is better at blocking outside noise and is usually tops in sound quality.

4. Do you need noise-cancellation?

Headphones and piano

Noise-cancellation can be a must if you want the headphones for long flights or subway commutes. Perhaps you want to save your ears some pain by blocking outside noises, rather than cranking up the volume. It’s a feature that you can now find in just about any model, although it’s usually most successful in the over-ear designs.

Passive noise-cancelling headphones add extra bulk to the earpad to keep unwanted sounds from reaching your ear drums. While this is an effective approach for small noises, it won’t block out a jet engine’s rumble. Active noise-cancelling headphones can silence some of the lower-frequency sound waves, thanks to a physics phenomenon called “destructive interference.”

This approach can take on just about any background noise, but there is a small chance the active approach will muffle parts of the song you’re listening to. Again, your trade-off comes down to a question of audio fidelity.

5. What’s with wireless?

Another option worth considering is wireless. Especially for people who want flexibility and do a lot of listening on the go, the chance to untether from wires has a large appeal. New advances with Bluetooth have made it possible to achieve solid sound quality with this model, but that usually comes at a cost. Also, wireless still requires the sound to be compressed, although the best models will try to counteract those effects.

In general, if top-notch, uncompressed sound quality is your goal, this may not be the headphone style for you.

6. Brand isn’t everything (for most people).

Yellow headphones

A handful of brands lead the market for headphones. For example, Bose has legitimate scientific credentials, and Beats by Dre boasts serious celebrity backing. Both of them also have the price tags to match. Brand is really only going to be a major factor for shoppers who want to get as close to a surround-sound stereo experience as possible. These audiophiles probably have a few brands in mind already: Sennheiser and Grado usually top the lists for both quality and price.

The majority of buyers shouldn’t put too much stock in the particular company that’s making your headphones. Especially if you’re seeking out the best quality for the best deal, be willing to explore the less obvious choices. Big tech companies from Sony to Panasonic to Yamaha have great headphones on the market, and many other audio specialist brands have reasonable price tags.

7. Sound with style.

If you’ve decided on the most important factors and you have multiple options within your budget, give the edge to the ones that look best. When headphones will be a major part of your day-to-day life, appearances matter a tiny bit. Find a color or a design that speaks to you, once you’ve met all your other criteria.

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