Whether you’re at home or on the go, many of us spend a lot of time listening to music on our headphones. If you’re looking to get beyond the iPod earbuds and invest in a nice pair of headphones for yourself, here’s how to pick out the perfect set for you.Note: This guide is targeted at people who aren’t necessarily experts on headphones. As such, some of you experts may find it a little basic, but if you’re already a headphone expert, you probably don’t need a buying guide anyway. Feel free to share your additions and favourite headphones in the comments, though!
Headphones come in a number of different styles, that are going to fit your ears and sound differently when you wear them. The first thing you should narrow down, when deciding on a pair of headphones is which form factor you want. You’ll want to make this decision based not only on where you’ll be using them, but what type of music you’re listening to.
Photo by Erica Joy.
Earbuds and in-ear headphones are tiny earpieces that go inside your ears. You’re probably familiar with these, as cheaper earbuds often come with music players (like the iPod). Earbuds generally sit in the bowls of your ears, while “in-ear” variants actually go in the ear canal, some fairly deeply.
Pros: Earbuds are super portable, which is nice if you’re using them on-the-go. In-ear varieties also offer some isolation from outside noise, which is great on aeroplanes or loud buses. They’re also more comfortable than over-the-ear headphones if you wear glasses or have ears that stick out like mine do.
Cons: While you can get some pretty decent in-ear headphones, you probably won’t get the same sound quality that you would from an over-the-ear pair of headphones. Some people also find them less comfortable, because they’re uncomfortable with putting things inside their ears. Comfort is mostly personal preference when it comes to earbuds. Lots of them are prone to falling out of your ears, too, so not every model is good for exercising.
Photo by Audio-TechnicaUK.
Ear pad headphones were much more popular before the advent of the iPod, but they still have some good qualities that make them worthy of consideration. These headphones are usually small pads that go over your ears, but don’t cover the entire ear. They’re more often than not “open” models of headphones, which means you get some sound leaks both ways — you can hear outside noise and the outside can hear a little of your music.
Pros: These are generally some of the most comfortable headphones around, since they just sit on the outside of your ears. They won’t make your ears get hot or pin them back, which is nice. Their open-backed construction provides good sound, and is especially nice for exercising, since it keeps you aware of the crazy old lady going 80km/h behind you. They’re also usually very portable, which is great for on-the-go use.
Cons: Since many ear pads are open, you wouldn’t want to use them in a situation that’s exceptionally loud, like on an aeroplane, since they won’t block outside noise. You also wouldn’t want to use them in a super quiet area, like a library, since other people will be able to hear your music. And, while a lot of people prefer open headphones for their sound quality, you probably won’t get as much bass response as with closed models. Ear pad headphones do come in closed models, but since they don’t cover your ears, many aren’t quite as effective as a full size, closed headphone would be.
Full size headphones come with ear cups that surround your ears completely. They tend to be fairly large, and come in both open and closed varieties. Their large size makes them ideal for home use.
Pros: Full size headphones provide great bass response, sound clarity and isolation from outside noise. They also usually come with a large amount of padding, which makes them comfortable on most heads.
Cons: Since full size headphones are usually pretty big, they don’t make for good portable headphones. They also may be uncomfortable for some people, like those with large heads. They can also make your ears hot, which is never fun.
Apart from the general form factor, there are a few other features that you’ll want to consider when buying your headphones. Usually these decisions are based on the situations in which you’ll be using them.
Often confused with noise cancelling headphones, noise isolation headphones block outside noise by creating a physical seal in or around your ears to keep music in and ambient noise out. They aren’t necessarily as effective as noise cancelling headphones, but they don’t require batteries and you can find decent models for much cheaper.
How to Test Headphones
While these are all good things to know on paper, you don’t want to buy your headphones without testing them out first. You’ll never know how well they fit, how well they actually isolate and cancel sound, or how comfortable they are just by looking them up online. Here are some tips for getting down into the nitty-gritty of each model.
Read Online Reviews
While you don’t want to buy headphones solely based on what you see online, reviews are a great way to narrow it down to a few models, and to know what issues you want to keep an eye out for on any given pair. I usually search sites like Newegg and Amazon for reviews from real people, as well as reviews on CNET, Macworld and Head-Fi for professional reviews.
Where to Buy
Your best bet for buying headphones is to find a local store that specialises in audio and will let you try out different pairs of headphones. Sadly, this is becoming less and less common. A good way to find stores near you is to head to a manufacturer’s web site for a pair you’re looking at — they’ll usually have a retail locator that will show you all stores in an area that sell their stuff.
If you can’t find anything, you can buy online, but make sure you buy from a store that has a good return policy, since you’ll want to try them out before you buy. Look for an online shop like HeadRoom that doesn’t have any restocking fees. That way, you can try out a pair, and if you don’t like them, send them back without paying any extra.
Durability and Warranty
The reason we buy new headphones so often is because the old ones often break or get somehow destroyed. When you get to the store, see how durable each pair of headphones feel — if it feels cheap, it probably is, and might not last you as long as you’d like.
More than that, though, check and see what the warranty is like. A lot of headphones will come with warranties for a year or two, which is really nice if you find that your headphones break. It might not influence your decision, but it’s something you’ll definitely want to be aware of — I once threw away a $US100 pair of headphones less than a year after I got them because the cord frayed into oblivion, not realising Bose had a great warranty service on them. Don’t make that mistake!
When you try the headphones on, leave them on for awhile — 15 minutes if you can, even longer if you’re able — because how they feel within the first five minutes and how they feel later will be quite different. A lot of headphones can feel fine when you put them on, but will make your ears hurt after a while. Sadly you can’t sit in the store for two hours with them on your head, but you should be able to get a pretty good idea of how well they fit by wearing them for a little while.
Lastly, you’ll want to test the most important feature: how they sound. We’ve shared a few tips for this before, but they’re worth noting again. Throw some of the Eminent speaker sound tests on your MP3 player before you head out. They’ll play certain frequencies that you can match with a description of what they should sound like (e.g. “Pink noise” should sound like rain on a rooftop). If they don’t match their descriptions, you probably want to pass on that pair of headphones.
Next, listen to old music. Even if you don’t usually listen to music from the ’70s, listen to it in the store, as it’s usually a better indicator of the headphone’s range of sound. Modern music is usually compressed to heck, and older music will help you better test the frequency response. Classical music is even better, since it has so many different instruments that will really show you the range of the headphones.
Lastly, you’ll of course want to listen to the music you’ll usually listen to on the headphones. If you’re a techno junkie, you’ll want to make sure the bass is up to your standards, and if you’re into more acoustic music, you’ll want to see how accurately a pair of headphones can depict what a guitar “should” sound like. Also, since the first 50-100 hours of listening time supposedly “wear in” a set of headphones and bring out the natural sound, you might want to ask the store how long they’ve been on display. With these bases covered, you can usually gauge which headphones are ones you’ll want to use on a regular basis, and which ones don’t really do it for you.
Jude’s Expert Picks
There are a lot of different headphones out there, so we contacted Jude Mansilla, founder of Head-Fi.org, to give us some of his favourite picks to point you straight at some solid choices. Here are his picks for each of the above categories in budget (sub-$US100) and more midrange options.
If you like to wear headphones when you exercise, I’d also recommend the Sennheiser PMX 680 Sport ($60.00), which is the the best fitness headphone I’ve ever used. It’s essentially a pair of earbuds held together with a behind-the-neck headband. The PMX 680 Sport sounds exceptional for headphones that can resist rain and sweat, and that can be rinsed under running water. Run hard, run fast, the PMX 680’s earpieces stay comfortably locked in place.
Midrange Pick: Etymotic Research HF5, street price around $US149. The HF5 is more neutral than Shure’s SE215, without the SE215’s less bass emphasis, and more overall resolution. Where one might describe the SE215 budget Shure as being more fun (for its bass emphasis), the HF5 has is, to my ears, has a sonic signature that is I would describe as more reference-quality. Like the SE215, the HF5 isolates very well (maybe even a little more than the SE215), and the build quality is very good. The straight-body design makes for particularly easy ear insertion. Some might argue the HF5 could use a touch more bass, but I’m not one of them — I like it just fine, for what it is, and especially given its very reasonable price.
Wallet-Busting Picks: Like a bespoke suit, custom in-ear monitors (IEMs) are made just for you, are moulded to the exact shape of your ears (usually by an audiologist) — and like a custom suit, custom IEMs are exceptionally comfortable, and usually trés expensive. To my ears, the best custom IEMs are some of the best sounding headphones of any type currently available. Only two years old but already a legend, JH Audio’s JH13 Pro (priced at $US1099), is coming up against several new competitors in the cost-no-object custom in-ear monitor realm, but it’s still the first custom IEM I recommend for those who aren’t quite sure what their preferred sound signature is. If you know you want more neutrality, consider the Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitor ($US999) or Westone’s ES5 ($US950). If you want more emphasised bass, go for the JH Audio JH16 Pro. But if you’re simply not sure (or if you’re on the fence), the JH13 Pro is the safest cost-no-object in-ear recommendation, as it provides mildly emphasised bass (and I find most people prefer mildly emphasised bass), with neutral mids and treble, and outstanding treble extension. Whichever custom you choose, expect to pay about an additional $US50 to get moulds of your ears made at a local audiologist (that you will then send in to the IEM maker).
Lifehacker’s Note: If you like the idea of custom IEMs, but don’t want to break the bank, you can always mould some of your other earbuds for under a dollar.
Ear Pad Headphones
Budget Picks: Grado Labs SR60i, around $US79. This entry-level, open-back Grado headphone has probably created more headphone audiophiles than any other single headphone model. I’ve yet to find a headphone at or below its price that can so consistently bring smiles and wows from those new to the good stuff. The SR60i’s bass is full but balanced, mids are dynamic, treble is sparkly and detailed. Resolving and lively, the SR60i has bona fide audiophile street cred — and yet it’s also fun! Plus, the retro styling of the SR60i turns heads.
Midrange and Expensive Picks: Two of my favourite ear pad headphones over $US100 are currently the venerable HD 25-1 II by Sennheiser (street price $US200), and Beyerdynamic’s new DT 1350 ($US299). Both of these headphones target both the pro audio and audiophile markets. Both are closed, and both isolate as well as any other ear pad headphones I’ve used. Most importantly, these headphones are capable of delivering outstanding, reference-quality sound. I reviewed the HD 25-1 II and DT 1350 in a recent videocast at Head-Fi.
Full Size Headphones
Budget Pick: Shure SRH440 (around $US100). A closed-back pro-audio-oriented headphone, the SRH440 has found popularity for studio use. Many audiophiles also appreciate its more neutral tonal balance, the SRH440 having none of the bass bloat that many of its closed competitors have. Though a full-size headphone, the SRH440 does fold into a pretty compact, portable bundle.
Midrange Picks: Audio-Technica ATH-M50 (around $US160). Of all the headphones I’ve mentioned in this piece, the ATH-M50 is the headphone I’ve spent the least time with. I’m including the closed-back ATH-M50 because it is a very strong favourite in this price range with our community at Head-Fi.org, known for solid overall performance at the price, with a tendency toward bass emphasis and sparkly treble. I see few headphones recommended as often by Head-Fi’s members.
Wallet-Busting Picks: All of my favourite cost-no-object full size headphones are open-back, and all benefit tremendously from dedicated headphone amplifiers. Sennheiser’s HD 800 (street price around $US1500) is probably one of the most revealing headphones ever made. To wring the best performance out of it, the HD 800 absolutely needs to be matched well with a good headphone amplifier. It is a ruthlessly revealing headphone. Match it up poorly, and it can be overly bright. Drive it well, and the HD 800 will reward you with what will probably be the best sound quality you’ve ever heard. Yes, the HD 800 is picky, but, in my opinion, it’s worth the effort. Also, hands down, the HD 800 is the most comfortable headphone I’ve ever worn.
Immensely popular in the Head-Fi community the last couple of years has been the reemergence of planar magnetic driver technology. Two companies have pushed the envelope in planar magnetic driver design, HiFiMAN and Audeze. The new HiFiMAN HE-500 ($899.00) and the Audeze LCD-2 ($US945) are designed to be efficient enough to be driven by portable devices like iPods and smart phones with good results, but both can scale to HD 800-class performance with top-notch headphone amplifiers. These top-tier planar magnetic driver assemblies are very heavy, though, and both the HE-500 and LCD-2 can feel heavy on the head, and aren’t nearly as comfortable as the HD 800. Less picky about amplification than the HD 800, it can be easier to build a world-class headphone rig around these top-tier planar magnetic headphones than around Sennheiser’s flagship HD 800.
Noise Cancelling Headphones
I haven’t yet tried an active noise cancelling headphone in the sub-$US100 price range (or even close to it) that I felt was worth listening to my music through, so I have no budget recommendations here.
Sennheiser’s PXC 450 (around $US350) has a good noise cancellation circuit, though it’s not quite as effective as the QC15’s. Where the PXC 450 does have an advantage, though, is in its sound quality, being more detailed and musical than any of Bose’s headphones. Another big advantage for the Sennheiser is its ability to be used as a passive headphone. With most active noise cancellers, the music stops when the battery dies. However, the PXC 450 has a bypass mode that you can use when the battery dies, or when you simply don’t need the active noise cancellation circuit.
Noise Isolation Headphones
Any of the in-ear headphones I recommended above (except the Sennheiser PMX 680, which does not isolate) will provide noise attenuation greater than any consumer active noise cancellation headphone I know of.
Another good over-ear passive isolator is the über-stylish Bowers & Wilkins’ P5 Mobile ($US299; pictured right). It doesn’t quite have the sound quality of the above choices (though it does still sound quite good), but does provide extremely effective noise isolation, inline controls and microphone, and is a fantastic travel headphone (I reviewed the Bowers & Wilkins P5 on Head-Fi.org).
Walk into any electronics store, and you’re likely to come across several wireless headphones and stereo headsets. However, the chance that any of them are worthwhile for music listening is probably slim to none. As with the active noise cancellers, I have no sub-$US100 recommendations here.
For home use, the best sounding wireless headphone I’ve used so far is Sennheiser’s RS 170 (around $US280; pictured). To maximise wireless sound quality, Sennheiser opted to license Kleer wireless technology (which allows for uncompressed CD-quality wireless transmission). The RS 170’s headphone is closed-back, and has very good sound quality for both music and movies.
If the idea of a hi-fi quality wireless in-ear monitor interests you, Sleek Audio makes its in-ear monitors available with a wireless option that, like Sennheiser’s RS 170, uses Kleer wireless technology. Sleek Audio’s SA1 W-1 wireless earphone system is priced at $US170, and their top-of-the-line custom-moulded CT7 W-1 comes in at around $US800. They have a couple of systems that come in between these two, in terms of both price and performance.
This should be enough to get you started on your journey for the perfect pair of headphones. There’s a lot of different stuff out there, so don’t be afraid to take your time, test things out, and sleep on your decisions. Once you get them, there’s no reason a good pair can’t last you the better half of a decade.
For even more product suggestions, I highly recommend checking out Head-Fi’s 80-headphone shootout, as well as CNET’s “best of” list and Macworld’s 2010 buying guide. Got any of your own headphone buying, testing or proper care tips? Share them with us in the comments.