If you’re an audiophile or simply someone who appreciates high-quality sound, you know that the right pair of headphones or earbuds can make all the difference. Whether you’re listening to your favorite tunes, watching movies, or immersing yourself in a thrilling game, the audio experience can elevate your enjoyment to new heights. That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive buyer’s guide to help you navigate the world of headphones and earbuds.

From the early days of bulky, wired headphones to the sleek, wireless earbuds of today, audio technology has come a long way. With a myriad of choices available on the market, it can be quite challenging to find the perfect pair that suits your needs and preferences. Our aim with this guide is to equip you with the knowledge you need to make an informed decision when purchasing headphones or earbuds.


Understanding Audio Terms and Concepts

Before diving into the specifics of headphones and earbuds, it’s essential to familiarize yourself with some key audio terms and concepts. This knowledge will not only help you better understand product specifications but also aid in selecting the perfect audio gear for your needs.

Frequency response

Frequency response refers to the range of audio frequencies that a pair of headphones or earbuds can reproduce, usually measured in Hertz (Hz). It typically ranges from 20 Hz (lowest bass) to 20,000 Hz (highest treble), which covers the full spectrum of human hearing. A wider frequency response can result in more accurate sound reproduction. However, it’s worth noting that the quality of the audio source and individual hearing abilities also play a significant role in the overall listening experience.

Impedance

Impedance, measured in ohms (Ω), is the electrical resistance of headphones or earbuds. Generally, lower impedance (below 32 Ω) models are easier to drive and require less power, making them suitable for portable devices like smartphones and laptops. Higher impedance models (over 100 Ω) often deliver better sound quality but require more power, typically necessitating the use of a dedicated headphone amplifier.

Sensitivity

Sensitivity, measured in decibels (dB), indicates how efficiently a pair of headphones or earbuds convert an electrical signal into sound. Higher sensitivity means that the audio gear can produce louder sound with less power input. In general, a sensitivity of around 100 dB is considered adequate for most listening scenarios. However, be cautious of excessively high sensitivity, as it may lead to distortion or even hearing damage at high volumes.

Soundstage and imaging

Soundstage refers to the perceived spatial arrangement of sound in a listening environment, which can create an illusion of a live performance. In the context of headphones and earbuds, a good soundstage provides a sense of depth, width, and separation between instruments and vocals. Imaging, on the other hand, is the ability to accurately place individual sound elements within that soundstage. High-quality audio gear often excels in both soundstage and imaging, delivering a more immersive and realistic listening experience.

Noise isolation and cancellation

Noise isolation refers to the physical barrier created by headphones or earbuds that blocks external noise from reaching your ears. Over-ear and in-ear designs usually offer better noise isolation due to their more substantial contact with the head or ear canal. Noise cancellation, on the other hand, is an active process in which audio gear uses built-in microphones and electronic circuitry to counteract external noise. While noise-cancelling technology can significantly reduce ambient sounds, it may also slightly affect audio quality.

Types of Headphones

When it comes to headphones, there’s a wide variety of designs and styles to choose from. Understanding the differences between them will help you make a more informed decision based on your preferences and listening needs.

Over-ear Headphones

Over-ear

Over-ear headphones, also known as circumaural headphones, are characterized by their large ear cups that fully enclose the ears. They typically offer better sound quality, comfort, and noise isolation compared to other types of headphones. Over-ear headphones can be further categorized into three subtypes:

Open-back

Open-back headphones have a perforated or mesh-like outer shell that allows air to flow freely in and out of the ear cups. This design results in a more natural, spacious soundstage and reduced ear fatigue during extended listening sessions. However, they offer minimal noise isolation and can leak sound, making them less suitable for use in public spaces or noisy environments.

Closed-back

Closed-back headphones feature a solid outer shell that prevents air from passing in or out of the ear cups. This design provides better noise isolation and prevents sound leakage, making them more suitable for use in noisy environments or when privacy is needed. However, the closed-back design can lead to a more confined soundstage and increased ear fatigue over time.

Semi-open

Semi-open headphones strike a balance between open-back and closed-back designs. They offer a more open soundstage than closed-back headphones while still providing some noise isolation. This makes them a good choice for those who want a mix of both worlds, though they may not excel in either aspect.

On-ear Headphones

On-ear

On-ear headphones, also known as supra-aural headphones, have smaller ear cups that rest directly on the ears rather than enclosing them. They are generally more compact and lightweight than over-ear headphones, making them more portable and comfortable for some users. However, they tend to provide less noise isolation and may cause discomfort during extended listening sessions due to the pressure they exert on the ears.

In-ear

In-ear headphones, also known as earphones, are small and lightweight audio devices that are inserted directly into the ear canal. They offer a high degree of portability and can provide excellent noise isolation due to their close fit. In-ear headphones can be further divided into two subcategories:

Earbuds

Earbuds are small headphones that sit just outside the ear canal without fully entering it. They are often supplied with portable devices like smartphones and MP3 players due to their compact size and affordability. They’re a very popular category by themselves so we dive deeper into earbuds in the next section.

Wired Earbuds

In-ear monitors (IEMs)

In-ear monitors (IEMs) are a type of in-ear headphones that are designed to be inserted deeper into the ear canal, creating a better seal and offering superior noise isolation. IEMs often come with multiple ear tip sizes and materials to ensure a comfortable and secure fit. They are favored by musicians and audio professionals for their accurate sound reproduction and excellent noise isolation capabilities.

Types of Earbuds

Earbuds have become increasingly popular due to their compact size, portability, and convenience. As a subset of in-ear headphones, they offer a variety of designs and connectivity options to cater to different preferences and lifestyles.

Wired earbuds

Wired earbuds connect to your audio source via a cable, typically ending in a 3.5mm or USB-C connector, depending on the device. These earbuds offer a reliable connection, lower latency, and often better sound quality compared to their wireless counterparts. However, the presence of a cable can be less convenient and may tangle easily during storage or use.

Wireless earbuds

Wireless earbuds rely on Bluetooth technology to connect to your audio source, eliminating the need for a physical cable. This provides greater freedom of movement and convenience, especially during activities like exercising or commuting. However, wireless earbuds can experience connection issues, latency, and generally have a shorter battery life compared to wired earbuds. Wireless earbuds can be further divided into two subcategories:

Wireless Earbuds

Neckband

Neckband earbuds feature a flexible band that rests around your neck, connecting the two earbuds. This design provides additional support and stability, reducing the risk of losing the earbuds during activities. The neckband can also house a larger battery and additional controls, making it convenient for those who prefer an easily accessible control panel.

True wireless

True wireless earbuds are completely cable-free, with each earbud functioning independently and connecting directly to your audio source. They offer the utmost convenience and portability, making them popular among those seeking a minimalistic design. However, they often come with a higher price tag and shorter battery life compared to other earbud types. They also require a separate charging case to recharge the earbuds when not in use.

Sony True Wireless Earbuds

Factors to Consider When Buying Headphones and Earbuds

When it comes to purchasing headphones or earbuds, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Different people have different preferences, needs, and budgets. To help you make an informed decision, we’ve compiled a list of factors to consider when choosing the perfect pair to suit you…

Sound quality

Arguably the most important factor, sound quality can be influenced by several aspects, including:

Frequency response

As mentioned earlier, a wider frequency response can result in more accurate sound reproduction. However, remember that the quality of the audio source and individual hearing abilities also play a role in the overall listening experience.

Driver type

The driver is the component that converts electrical signals into sound. Common driver types include dynamic, planar magnetic, and electrostatic, each offering unique sound characteristics. Generally, dynamic drivers are more common and affordable, while planar magnetic and electrostatic drivers can offer superior sound quality but at a higher price.

Impedance and sensitivity

Consider the impedance and sensitivity of the headphones or earbuds, especially if you plan to use them with portable devices. Lower impedance and higher sensitivity models are better suited for smartphones and laptops, while higher impedance models may require a dedicated amplifier for optimal performance.

Comfort

Comfort is crucial for enjoyable listening sessions, particularly for extended periods. Consider the following aspects:

Earpad material and shape

Look for headphones with soft, breathable materials like memory foam or velour for added comfort. The shape of the earpads also matters, as it can affect the fit and noise isolation capabilities.

Headband design and adjustability

An adjustable headband ensures a secure fit, while a well-padded headband can help distribute pressure evenly across the head.

Earbud tip material and size

In-ear headphones should come with multiple ear tip sizes and materials to ensure a comfortable and secure fit. Silicone tips are common and provide a good seal, while foam tips can offer better comfort and noise isolation.

Build quality and durability

Investing in headphones or earbuds with solid build quality can ensure they last longer, saving you money in the long run. Look for durable materials like metal or high-quality plastics and reinforced cables to minimize the risk of damage.

Design and aesthetics

While not a deal-breaker for everyone, the design and aesthetics of headphones and earbuds can play a role in your overall satisfaction. Choose a style that reflects your personality and preferences.

Portability and storage

Consider the size and weight of the headphones or earbuds, especially if you plan to use them while traveling or commuting. Some models come with foldable designs or carrying cases for added convenience.

Special features

Depending on your needs, you may want to look for headphones or earbuds with additional features, such as:

Wireless connectivity (Bluetooth, aptX, etc.)

If you prefer a cable-free experience, consider wireless models that support advanced codecs like aptX or aptX HD for improved sound quality.

Noise-cancelling technology

Active noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds can significantly reduce ambient noise, making them ideal for use in noisy environments or while traveling. Passive noise cancelling is simply based on design, where the fit and form of the headphone or earbud blocks noise from your surrounds.

Voice assistant integration

Some models offer integration with voice assistants like Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa for hands-free control and convenience.

Customizable sound profiles

Headphones or earbuds with built-in EQ settings or companion apps can allow you to adjust the sound profile to your preferences, enhancing your listening experience.

Water and sweat resistance

If you plan to use your headphones or earbuds during workouts or outdoor activities, consider models with water and sweat resistance ratings (e.g., IPX4 or higher) for added durability and protection.

How much do Headphones and Earbuds Cost?

When shopping for headphones or earbuds, your budget will play a significant role in determining the features, build quality, and overall performance of the products available to you.

CategoryHeadphonesEarbuds
BudgetUnder $50Under $30
Mid-range$50 to $200$30 to $150
Premium$200 and up$150 and up

Budget:

  • Headphones (under $50): In this price range, you can find decent headphones that offer good sound quality and basic features. While you may not get the most advanced technology or top-notch build quality, many budget options provide a satisfying listening experience for casual users.
  • Earbuds (under $30): Budget earbuds offer a more affordable solution for casual listening. While they may lack some advanced features and have lower build quality than more expensive models, you can still find good sound quality and comfort within this price range.

Mid-range:

  • Headphones ($50 to $200): Mid-range headphones offer a balance between price and performance. You can expect better build quality, enhanced comfort, and improved sound quality compared to budget options. This price range also typically includes more advanced features, such as wireless connectivity, noise-cancellation, and customizable sound profiles.
  • Earbuds ($30 to $150): In this price range, you can find earbuds that offer better sound quality, improved build materials, and additional features compared to budget options. You may also find wireless options and models with basic noise-cancellation features.

Premium:

  • Headphones ($200 and up): Premium headphones offer the best sound quality, build materials, and advanced features. In this price range, you can find products designed for audiophiles, professionals, and serious enthusiasts. You’ll often find top-of-the-line noise-cancellation technology, high-quality drivers, and seamless connectivity options in this category.
  • Earbuds ($150 and up): Premium earbuds provide top-tier sound quality, advanced features, and excellent build quality. This category includes models with superior noise-cancellation, high-quality drivers, and more reliable wireless connectivity.
Samsung Galaxy Earbuds

There’s a wide array of headphones and earbuds available, each catering to different use cases and preferences.

For audiophiles and critical listening

For those seeking the highest audio quality, consider open-back over-ear headphones with planar magnetic or electrostatic drivers. Some popular options include:

For studio monitoring and professional use

For accurate sound reproduction and comfort during long sessions, look for closed-back or semi-open over-ear headphones with a balanced sound signature. Some recommended models are:

For casual listening and everyday use

For versatility and convenience, consider a pair of closed-back over-ear, on-ear, or in-ear headphones with a well-rounded sound profile. Some popular choices include:

For sports and fitness

When working out, prioritize water and sweat resistance, secure fit, and wireless connectivity. Some top options in this category are:

For gaming and multimedia

For an immersive gaming experience, opt for headphones with a wide soundstage, accurate imaging, and a built-in microphone. Some gaming-focused options are:

For travel and commuting

For on-the-go listening, prioritize noise-cancellation, comfort, and portability. Some suitable models for travel and commuting include:

Many brands produce high-quality headphones and earbuds, each offering unique characteristics and features. These are some of the most well known and best selling brands in the market…

Sennheiser

Sennheiser is a German audio company known for its high-quality headphones, microphones, and audio equipment. They offer a wide range of headphone options, from budget-friendly to high-end models, catering to various use cases and preferences.

Sony

Sony is a Japanese multinational conglomerate that produces a diverse range of electronics, including headphones and earbuds. They offer models for casual listening, sports, and travel, with some models featuring advanced noise-cancellation technology.

Audio-Technica

Audio-Technica is a Japanese company specializing in audio equipment, including headphones, microphones, and turntables. They provide headphones for casual listeners, professionals, and audiophiles, with a focus on accurate sound reproduction.

Bose

Bose is an American audio company known for its innovative audio technology and focus on comfort. They produce a variety of headphones and earbuds, with some models featuring industry-leading noise-cancellation capabilities.

Beyerdynamic

Beyerdynamic is a German audio manufacturer that produces a range of professional and consumer headphones. Their headphones are often praised for their build quality, sound accuracy, and comfort.

JBL

JBL is an American audio equipment company that offers a variety of headphones and earbuds, including models with a focus on bass-heavy sound profiles, portability, and durability.

Shure

Shure is an American audio company that specializes in professional audio equipment, including microphones, mixers, and headphones. They offer high-quality in-ear monitors (IEMs) and over-ear headphones, with a focus on sound accuracy and durability.

AKG

AKG is an Austrian audio company, now owned by Samsung, that produces professional and consumer headphones. They offer a range of headphones with a focus on sound quality, comfort, and durability.

Jabra

Jabra is a Danish company that specializes in audio and video equipment, including headphones and earbuds. They offer a variety of wireless earbuds and headphones, with a focus on sports, fitness, and office use.

Apple

Apple, a leading technology company, produces popular headphones and earbuds under its own brand, as well as the Beats brand. Their AirPods and AirPods Pro are known for their seamless integration with Apple devices and user-friendly features.

Apple Airpods

Beats

Beats, now owned by Apple, is an American audio company that produces headphones and earbuds with a focus on stylish design and bass-heavy sound profiles. They offer a range of wireless and wired models for various use cases.

Tips for Maintaining Your Headphones and Earbuds

Proper care and maintenance can significantly extend the life of your headphones and earbuds, ensuring a better return on your investment.

  • Proper cleaning and storage – Regular cleaning helps prevent the buildup of dirt, sweat, and debris, which can affect sound quality and comfort. Gently clean the earpads or ear tips using a soft cloth or cotton swab dampened with a mild cleaning solution. Ensure they are fully dry before using or storing them. When not in use, store your headphones or earbuds in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight or extreme temperatures.
  • Cable management and care – Cable damage is a common cause of headphone and earbud malfunction. To avoid cable damage, avoid wrapping the cable tightly around the device or yanking it from the jack. Instead, use a loose coil or figure-eight pattern to store the cable. When disconnecting, always pull from the plug, not the cable itself. If your headphones or earbuds feature a detachable cable, consider investing in a replacement cable as a backup.
  • Replacement of ear pads and tips – Over time, ear pads and ear tips can wear out or become less comfortable. Replacing them periodically can improve comfort and sound quality. Many manufacturers offer replacement ear pads and tips for their products, so check for compatibility before purchasing.
  • Investing in protective cases – A protective case can help shield your headphones or earbuds from physical damage, dust, and moisture when not in use. Many models come with a carrying case or pouch, but if yours didn’t, consider purchasing one that fits your specific model. A hard case is ideal for larger headphones, while a soft pouch or zippered case can work well for earbuds.

Too Long Didn’t Read

In a nutshell, when purchasing new headphones or earbuds, consider the following key factors:

  • Sound quality: Assess frequency response, driver type, impedance, and sensitivity.
  • Comfort: Examine earpad material and shape, headband design, and adjustability, as well as earbud tip material and size.
  • Build quality and durability: Look for sturdy materials and construction.
  • Design and aesthetics: Choose a style that appeals to you.
  • Portability and storage: Check for foldability or compact size, depending on your needs.
  • Price and budget considerations: Know your budget and explore options within that range.
  • Special features: Consider wireless connectivity, noise-cancellation, voice assistant integration, customizable sound profiles, and water or sweat resistance.

General budget range:

  • Budget headphones: under $50
  • Budget earbuds: under $30
  • Mid-range headphones: $50 to $200
  • Mid-range earbuds: $30 to $150
  • Premium headphones: $200 and up
  • Premium earbuds: $150 and up

Frequently Asked Questions about Headphones and Earbuds

What’s the difference between headphones and earbuds?

Headphones are larger and usually worn over or on the ear, while earbuds are smaller and fit directly into the ear canal or rest just outside it.
How do I choose between wired and wireless option

How do I choose between wired and wireless options?

Wired options offer a more stable connection and don’t require charging. Wireless options provide more freedom of movement and fewer cable management issues. Choose based on your preferences and intended use.

What is noise cancellation and do I need it?

Noise cancellation is a feature that reduces or eliminates external noise, improving your listening experience. It’s helpful for commuting, traveling, or working in noisy environments. However, it’s not essential for everyone and can increase the price of the device.

How important is comfort when selecting headphones or earbuds?

Comfort is crucial, especially for extended listening sessions. Look for adjustable headbands, well-padded ear cups, or ear tips in various sizes to ensure a comfortable fit.

How do I know if a pair of headphones or earbuds will have good sound quality?

Consider factors like frequency response, driver type, impedance, and sensitivity. Additionally, read reviews and, if possible, try them out before purchasing

How much should I spend on headphones or earbuds

This depends on your budget, intended use, and desired features. Quality options exist at various price points, so choose a range that suits your needs and preferences. See our section above on budget ranges.

Are expensive headphones or earbuds always better?

Not necessarily. While pricier options often have better sound quality and additional features, there are many affordable models with excellent performance. Research and compare products within your budget to find the best fit.

Can I use my headphones or earbuds for phone calls?

Yes, many headphones and earbuds come with built-in microphones and controls that allow you to take phone calls, adjust volume, or control music playback.

How do I take care of my headphones or earbuds to ensure they last?

Proper care includes regular cleaning, proper cable management, replacing worn-out ear pads or tips, and investing in protective cases. More on caring for your headphones here.

How can I tell if a pair of headphones or earbuds is compatible with my device?

Check the type of connection (3.5mm jack, USB, Bluetooth, etc.) and ensure it matches your device’s capabilities. For wireless options, verify compatibility with your device’s Bluetooth version and supported codecs.