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Headphone Buying Guide - How to Choose the Perfect Pair

Most of us are tethered to our devices for at least part of every day, listening to music on the go or watching videos on a tablet, laptop, or phone. The headphones we wear have become more than merely an accessory–they are practically an extension of ourselves. The right pair will let you enjoy a late-night movie without disturbing your sleeping partner or listen to music at a crowded coffee shop.

If you're still using the free earbuds that came with your phone or other gadget, you may want to consider an upgrade. You have many choices these days: from tiny, in-ear models that will slip into a shirt pocket to big, over-the-ear models that can help immerse you in the music and make you look (and maybe even feel!) like a DJ.



Size: B.I.G. or Lil'

Your choice of headphones is as much about your lifestyle (and even personal brand) as it is about your wallet. Some people buy different types for different uses–one, say, for working out and another for relaxing. The lines, however, are blurring. You’ll now see people on the street or on the train wearing large models that used to be worn primarily at home, while others are attached to their earbuds 24/7, even while watching movies or TV.


Smaller: When Portability is Paramount


All headphones are technically “portable”, but we use the term to describe small, lightweight models, some of which can be folded and tucked away in a pocket or purse when not in use. This category also includes earbuds for use with smartphones–ones that come with a microphone and on-cord controls for volume and to connect / disconnect calls. Note that while smaller, lighter headphones are often more comfortable than their bulkier brethren, you might trade sound quality for comfort.


Larger: Where Sound Reigns Supreme


We use the term “Home/Studio-Style” to describe typically larger headphones that look like earmuffs, the two earpieces connected by an adjustable headband. Most are corded, with wires that run from 3 feet to 8 feet long–so they can be connected to an audio source such as a receiver or TV. Some fold for storage and come with carrying pouches. There are also battery-powered, wireless models–with Bluetooth or other technologies that connect to a smart phone or tablet without the cord.


Tips on Finding the Right Pair For You

Evaluate sound quality
Like speakers, headphones might emphasize different parts of the audio spectrum, and you might prefer one sound over another. If you can, try headphones before buying. If you buy online, check return policies to make sure that purchases can be returned or exchanged for another model.

Choose a design suited to your expected use
Over-the-ear models are great for listening at home but could be too large to be easily stowed when you're traveling. Smaller, more portable models might sacrifice some sound quality, but they are definitely handy. Earbuds and insert models are great for listening to music on the go. If you'll be doing a lot of flying, consider headphones with active noise-reduction technology.

For the best sound, stick with corded models
For serious music listening, we recommend one of the better-rated corded models. For less-critical music listening and for use with a TV, most corded models are fine. We found that many newer wireless headphones work well too, and some are quite good. But are still some have background hissing and/or dynamic range compression that deadens the sound to some extent.


Types: A Model to Fit Every Ear

Your choice of type is highly personal. Many listeners are comfortable wearing insert-style earphones that go into the ear canal, or earbuds that rest in the bowl of the ear, but others find them irritating. Some users prefer on-ear or over-ear headphones. But others balk at their bulk or complain that they interfere with eyeglasses or earrings. Depending on what you’ll use them for most often, you might want to consider wireless and/or noise-canceling models. Use this guide to help you find the type that suits your specific needs.


Over-The-Ear


These come in two types. The “closed” models cup your ears, sealing in sound and muffling ambient noise. But they might also block out some things you want to hear, such as a doorbell or a child's cry. Some people find that their ears get hot if they wear them for a long time. “Open” headphones have openings in the ear cups. You'll be able to hear more external sounds, but sound can also escape, perhaps enough to disturb someone nearby.


On-Ear


These are typically lighter than over-the-ear models and don't press on the sides of your head; rather, they press on the ears. Many wearers find them more comfortable and less likely to make their ears hot during long listening sessions. But they can allow more ambient sound to enter. On-ear headphones, like over-the-ear, also come in "open" and "closed" versions. Some can fold for storage and come with carrying pouches.


In-Ear


Earbuds rest in the bowl of the ear, outside the ear canal, though a portion might extend into the canal itself. Earbuds are fairly common, as they typically come with iPods and other portable audio players. Insert-style models are inserted into the ear canal, forming a seal that can help keep out extraneous sounds. Most come with additional earpieces (canal tips) of varying sizes to ensure a secure fit.


Wireless


Wireless models are common, and most use Bluetooth–with a typical range of up to 30 feet or so–to connect to a smart phone or to a portable media player. But a few models still use RF or infrared (IR) technologies. Some home models have a battery-powered headset and an AC-powered transmitter that connect to your audio or video gear. RF models can transmit signals through walls and floors, so you don't have to be near your sound system. But they are subject to interference from other devices, such as cordless phones and microwave ovens, that operate on the same frequencies (often 900MHz or 2.4GHz). RF technologies include FM (analog) and digital spread spectrum. Wireless headphones that use infrared technology, much like a TV remote does, require a direct line of sight to the transmitter.

We've found that digital wireless models can provide better performance than analog, and 2.4 gigahertz models often beat 900 megahertz headphones.


Noise Reduction


Noise-canceling headphones are good for anyone who wants to listen to music or movie dialog without being disturbed by outside noise. The design of some models offer passive noise reduction; closed design over-the-ear and insert-style earphones tend to block more noise than do open design, on-ear, and earbud-style headphones. Active noise-canceling models go further. These battery-powered headphones use tiny microphones to monitor noise frequencies, and then produce those same frequencies out of phase in an effort to cancel them. In general, we found the most effective noise reduction in models with both a design that physically blocks noise and active noise cancellation.

Some models let you turn off noise reduction, so you can still use them if the batteries die. Others work only with noise canceling activated, so if the batteries die you can't use them. You can also use the noise-canceling feature when you're not listening to music, to reduce outside noise.

Interactive Video Buying Guide

Watch our interactive video below. You can skip to chapters on types, features, and shopping tips.  


Features For Enjoying Your Audio

Many headphones or earphones that seem fine at first could become quite uncomfortable during extended use. Comfort, of course, is subjective, depending in part on the size and shape of your head and ears and how much adjustment a headphone allows. Here are some important features that will help you to keep on loving your headphones over the long haul.


Woman wearing a headphones collar.

Collars

A distinctive feature of some models is a contoured collar, which wraps around the back of the neck. The band, which includes all the controls for functions such as changing audio tracks and adjusting volume, is constructed to resist movement. 

Photo of a pair of in-ear headphones.

Variable Ear Cups, Ear Pads, and Canal Tips

Models that have ear cups that pivot or that come with different-sized adapters, foam pads, or canal tips can help you to achieve a proper, comfortable fit. Some ear cups will fold flat for travel and storage. Some cups, pads and tips can be replaced or washed, making it easier to maintain the headphones. 

Photo of a Bose headphone battery.

Battery Types

A number of wireless models need to be charged in order for that feature to work. And if they run out of charge, sometimes the headphones themselves don't work at all. You can power the headphones with alkaline batteries, but we recommend getting rechargeable instead of tossing them out again and again.

Photo of a man at his desk using the microphone on his in-ear headphones to talk on his cell phone.

On-Cord Volume & Cell Phone Controls


A volume control is useful, especially if you're sitting far from the source, such as a TV. Some controls are on the headphone's earpiece, while others are on the cord. Some cords have a button that lets you answer and disconnect phone calls without even touching the phone. Some headsets offer full capabilities only with specific cell phones, so be sure a given headphone will work with your phone model.


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