One of mankind’s greatest inventions is that of headphones. Well, okay, perhaps not right up there with the wheel and the modern jet airplane, but still something we treasure.
The ability to enjoy highest quality sound – usually of better quality than via regular loudspeakers in a room – adds greatly to our appreciation of music and movies. Steven Spielberg says that sound contributes half the experience in his movies, and if you’ve ever watched out-takes and extras from movies where you just have the raw sound without shaping the voices, adding the background sounds, and overlaying a music track, you’ll know he is right.
Interestingly, headphones can give much greater music quality per dollar you spend than regular full-size loudspeakers.
The unavoidable mechanical moving parts of any speaker are always the weakest link of any music chain. Because headphones have such tiny speakers inside them, the mechanical weaknesses and imperfections are minimized. A speaker cone should be as light as possible, so a tiny speaker cone in a headphone gets much closer to this ideal. A speaker cone should also move as little as possible, and when you’re only needing to send sound an inch or so directly into a person’s ear, compared to needing to fill thousands of cubic feet in a typical living room, this too can be optimized with headphones. There are some other more esoteric benefits in outputting music through headphones rather than regular speakers, too – the clear bottom line being you get brilliant sound quality at affordable prices.
Another important consideration is that headphones mean we can be selfish and self-indulgent. We can listen to whatever we like, at whatever volume we like, without disturbing the people around us. That’s particularly important at present if you find yourself confined at home for an extended period, with your home full of everyone, all the time, and an increased need for courtesy and consideration.
Chances are you already have a pair of headphones, maybe several. Why not treat yourself to a better pair now so as to make your awkward period of coronavirus isolation as pleasant as possible. Here’s what you need to know to make a great choice.
In this article, we talk about the general choices and policy decisions you have when it comes to choosing headphones. Next week we’ll suggest some specific models that offer excellent sound at affordable prices.
Headphone Type – In/On/Around the Ear
There are three main design styles of headphone.
– In the Ear
The smallest are the tiny earplug or ear bud type devices you stick directly into your ears.
In theory, if designed and manufactured well, the tiny size that this design allows can give you the best of all possible sound qualities. Also, they do double duty as a sound-blocking ear-plug as well as a music playing device, so you’ll block out a lot of the surrounding noise without needing to add any active noise cancelling capabilities. That’s a valuable benefit, particularly if you’re flying on a plane. But the downside to the passive noise blocking is that you’ll also miss out on hearing things around you, which can sometimes be an inconvenience, and if you need to pull the earphones out to hear, that can become a bother if you need to keep doing so regularly.
Some high end units have built in microphones, so you can switch the earpieces to actually listen to what is around you rather than to take them out when you want to hear something. But the process of doing so may be complicated and hard to remember, and you’d probably end up just pulling them out, anyway.
There’s a lot to like about this type of headphone; but some people don’t find it comfortable sticking things in their ears. It is possible to get some units that come with a set of small, medium, and large size external flanges to help allow for the best possible comfortable fit, no matter what your ear size is, and it is also possible with high-end units to get custom designed inserts to fit the earpieces to your ear shape.
Alas, we’re one of the people who don’t find it comfortable sticking things in our ears, so we’ve tended to hurry over this category of product.
– On the Ear
Like many compromises, we feel this combines most of the negative features of the other two products while not improving on the good features of either. Because the headphones sit on your ears, they are less comfortable than the larger headphones with “cups” that rest on the bone on the side of your head, leaving your ear free and uncompressed inside the cup.
The physics of how sound is made also mean that these types of headphones tend to provide poorer quality sound.
This design is smaller than around the ear type headphones, but that is about its only benefit. More noise can leak in because of the less physical sound blocking design, and also more sound can leak out, too.
So apart from being slightly smaller and lighter, we see no upsides or reasons to choose this style of headphone.
– Around the Ear
This is the classic style of modern headphone. It gives better passive sound blocking than on the ear type headphones (but usually not quite as good as ear plug styles), and for most people is generally considered the most comfortable type of headphone design.
Their enclosed design also helps keep whatever you are listening to “in” as well as outside sounds “out”. And the seal created around your ear allows for better fidelity and for adding active noise cancelling if that is desired as an option (discussed below).
They are not well suited for active exercise or other strenuous activity, because there’s a potential for the headphones to shake loose with strong movements, plus they may make noise moving against your head in such cases. In that type of usage, ear buds are the best approach. But on an exercise bike at home, or in most other cases, around the ear headphones are not going to fall off.
Some of these types of headphones have an “open” back to them, others are closed. Of course, one side of the speaker is directly facing into your ear. The open/closed thing refers to if the other side of the speaker is either surrounded by a closed container, or it is open to (but protectively screened from) the outside. This can make a slight difference in sound quality, and also means that sound from the headphones leaks out into the room you’re in.
Some people prefer to have open backed headphones, others prefer closed/sealed backs. As for which gives the best sound quality, there’s no hard and fast rule of thumb to consider. Some very high end headphones are designed one way, and others the other way. We even had a pair of headphones many years ago that had a “vent” that could be opened or closed, allowing us to choose which acoustic we preferred, but this is not really a “best practice”. A high quality headphone unit is designed to work best either with or without an open back, and will never work as well in the opposite environment.
Sure, the sound would change if there was a vent, but only one setting would give the most accurate sound. Why allow a user the ability to harm the sound quality?
Apart from hard to quantify features such as sound quality, the obvious feature of price, and the subjective nature of style/design/appearance, you can choose headphones that do or don’t have various other features.
The following is a list of some of the more obvious things to consider.
– Sensitivity and Impedance
How much power do you need for your headphones to be able to play music at a volume level that is comfortable for you? This is usually measured in terms of how much sound the headphones will give per unit of sound power. The typical units are dB/mW, or sometimes stated as dB SPL/mW (the same thing, just with the extra SPL added unnecessarily).
The larger the number, the more sound you’ll get from the headphones for the same amount of amplifier output power. Typical headphone sensitivities seem to be in the range of 90 – 105 dB/mW. The higher the number, the better, but usually any number is satisfactory.
Except that, there’s another factor to consider as well. That is the impedance of the headphones – the “resistance” of the headphones when receiving the audio signal. The higher the impedance (measured in ohms) the harder it is for most amplifiers to send them power.
In general, it is fair to say that higher impedance headphones are more likely to give a better sound quality than lower impedance headphones (for reasons such as less ringing, better/lighter design, and higher magnetic flux density). However, if you have high impedance headphones, and even more so if they are low sensitivity, you might find that most portable electronics won’t give you sufficient volume and you’ll need to add a headphone amplifier between the player device and your headphones.
These devices are small and not necessarily expensive, but they’re an added complication you’d probably prefer to avoid, and, in most cases, another battery powered device to remember to keep charged. If you can avoid needing such a unit, so much the better. But in terms of priorities, get the best headphones you can; if it turns out they’re “too quiet” when used with your favorite sound sources, then you know that for as little as $30, there’s an easy solution to that problem.
Headphone impedance can be as low as 8 ohms, or as high as 600 ohms. Many headphones seem to be around 32 ohms these days, and most modern portable devices are designed to work well with that general level of impedance.
– Connecting Cord and Microphone
Some headphones have cords that are hard wired into the headphone cups. Others have some type of plug and socket – we prefer these because for many of us, we tend to break something in the cord before we break something in the headphones themselves. It is much better to get a replacement cord rather than to have to buy a new set of headphones.
For some headphones, you can also get a choice between a ridiculously long connecting cable and a nice simple short one, and some headphone brands have an interesting range of after-market headphone cables too (particularly Sennheiser).
Some connecting cables include a built in microphone, and perhaps some sort of control button as well, to be used with some models of phone so you can take calls on your headphones and possibly control one or more functions on the audio player, too. Some headphones even give you a choice between an Apple style of connector and an Android style. That is nice – if you switch between the two types of phones, you just switch your connecting cable, not your entire headphones.
The plug at the end of the headphones is usually a small 1/8th inch (3.5 mm) diameter plug that will fit into a similarly sized socket on most portable electronics. Some high end headphones will have a 1/4″ (6.5 mm) diameter connector instead for “professional grade” and non-portable equipment. Sometimes the headphones will also include an adapter so whichever size plug you have with the headphones can be adapted to fit whatever size socket on your music source.
– Replaceable Parts
When we look at older headphones in our box of “old stuff we no longer use but can’t bear to throw out” we notice that many of them have had the leather(ette) foam surroundings on the earcups perish over the years. Even some of our current favorite models have similar challenges. Some headphone manufacturers will sell replacement foam pieces, and sometimes other parts as well (in addition to the cords if they are also replaceable).
In general, anything that is screwed rather than welded or riveted might be replaceable and so is preferable.
– Noise Cancelling
This is one of the best enhancements to a regular pair of headphones imaginable, and particularly so on airplanes.
Noise cancelling headphones inject an “opposite” sound that balances outside unwanted sounds, so you end up hearing nothing. When the outside sound generates a positive pressure wave, the noise cancelling circuit balances it with a matching negative pressure wave, and vice versa.
However, there are two things to keep in mind. First, the noise cancelling doesn’t work equally well at all frequencies. It works best at lower frequencies, and successively less efficiently at higher frequencies.
Second, even the best noise cancelling only cancels out some rather than all of the noise.
What these two considerations mean is there is an enormous range of effectiveness in different noise cancelling functions. Some do a stunningly good job (Bose remains the absolute best, Sony almost as good) and others are abysmally disappointing.
You should also realize that while much of the noises of an airplane in flight are in the frequency range that noise cancelling headphones work well with, making for a great improvement, normal speech is generally too high pitched and so is not nearly as cancelled out. Indeed, having all the other noises selectively filtered out sometimes makes the speech seem more prominent.
The point here is that while noise cancelling headphones do a good job of filtering out the background drones on a plane or elsewhere with “machinery noise”, they won’t help nearly so much in an office or at home, if other people are either talking or perhaps watching a television news program with a lot of dialog.
The big advantage of noise cancelling is that it means you don’t have to turn the volume up to hear the quiet parts over the background noises, and because of that, the loud parts aren’t too loud. You have more dynamic range.
This is a great feature for travelers on planes, but not so necessary at home or in an office.
A few years ago Apple arbitrarily decided to eliminate headphone sockets from their phones, forcing people either to get an adapter to connect headphones via the power connector on their phones, or to use wireless/Bluetooth headphones. Ostensibly this was to allow for smaller sized phones, but we don’t believe that for an instant. The main purpose is a hope that people will now buy a pair of ridiculously overpriced Apple brand earbuds in addition to the already ridiculously overpriced iPhone. Other phone manufacturers eagerly copied – even if they don’t sell headphones.
So there has been renewed focus on Bluetooth type headphones. While we love most technology, we hate Bluetooth. It adds a terrible new layer of complexity to what used to be a blindingly simple process. Instead of just plugging your headphones into a player of any sort, you now have to struggle with pairing your headphones to different devices, remembering pairing passwords, then trying to make sense of as many as a dozen different flashing light codes on the headphones, trying to remember what happens if you push a button for a long or a short time, and whether even the headphones are switched on or off.
The best approach to Bluetooth is not to have it at all. But if you do have it, don’t sweat the small stuff. Just understand how to connect your headphones to your devices, but don’t bother trying to memorize all the codes and special button push sequences. Control your device from your device, the same as always, rather than trying to control it from your headphones.
Bluetooth headphones can also be used in “regular, wired” mode as well. So if you unavoidably end up with a set of BT headphones, you can still use them the old-fashioned way. Hopefully without needing to push too many buttons in special sequences to switch the headphones back to normal wired mode.
– Special Features and Controls
It used to be that headphones came with no controls whatsoever. Then noise-cancelling headphones necessarily came with an on/off switch to turn on the noise cancelling electronics.
But now, there can be a bewildering array of “features” and controls. Without exception, none of the features are necessary or beneficial, and all represent a step back from clean clear pure sound. Ignore all the fancy named features and “digital” whatever. Turn them all off.
If there’s a volume control, turn it to maximum and then adjust the volume on the player device. Otherwise, you’re just wasting battery power by driving the player at a high volume, then burning off a bunch of the power with the volume control in the headphones. That’s like driving the car down the road with your foot on the brake pedal.
If there are different levels of noise cancelling, choose the maximum level. That’s one of the most egregiously unnecessary of controls – we’ve seen companies go through cycles of offering it then removing it, only a few years later to bring it back again.
One thing we’ve not specifically called out is audio quality. It should go without saying to get the best quality you can within your price range, and there’s nothing much more to say on that point, is there.
We’d recommend choosing a name brand set of headphones. There’s a surge of Chinese manufactured equipment, often with western sounding names, on offer on Amazon and other places, but quality headphones tend to come from established western (and Japanese) companies.
In terms of price, the most regrettable issue that has remained stubbornly unresolved for decades is the ridiculous surcharge you pay for noise cancelling. Noise cancelling comprises maybe $5 worth of parts, and certainly much less than $10, but they’ll transform the selling price of a set of headphones by $100 – $200 or more. If you’re going to get noise cancelling headphones, your choices are either to hope you can find an older but still excellent model QC25 of the Bose headphones, usually for $150 – $200 (new); or alternatively be prepared to pay twice that price or more for new Bose or Sony or Sennheiser noise cancelling headphones. We love the QC25 headphones because they aren’t encumbered with Bluetooth.
You can get good normal headphones for under $100, and stunningly great ones for under $400.
Warranties tend to vary a bit, so if you’re buying an expensive set, make sure you understand what the warranty and repair process is. Happily, headphones last a long time, especially if there isn’t a load of unnecessary electronics in them.
We usually replace headphones when one of two things happen – we lose them (in a hotel room, on a plane, etc) or we break them (sit on them, etc).
Ear bud/plug type headphones are great for “active” users – if you’re out jogging, for example, and are the smallest and most compact of all headphone styles. They provide great passive noise blocking, and tend to give good sound at a fair price.
On the ear headphones have little or nothing to recommend themselves.
Around the ear headphones are great for comfort, can give stunning sound, and with active noise cancelling, can make it easier to comfortably enjoy music or movies in noisy environments like airplanes, but not so much when the noise you’re trying to drown out is people talking.
In this article, we considered the general choices and policy decisions you have when it comes to choosing headphones. Next week we’ll suggest some specific models that offer excellent sound at affordable prices.