How to Choose Headphones: Headphone Types, Features & Accessories
How to Choose Headphones
Choosing the right headphones can be a challenge. The market is saturated with options that vary widely in terms of price point, features, and sound quality. Even the most hardcore audiophile can struggle to narrow down their choices. Are you a mobile listener who needs the convenience of in-ear headphones? Or do you want an over-ear option for your home audio setup? Is your preferred headphone type suitable for your lifestyle and favorite music?
The home audio experts at Paragon Sight & Sound understand the challenge of choosing the perfect headphones. In this blog, we’ve broken down the different types of headphones, considerations for headphone features, and the headphone accessories you may need to complete your headphone system.
Still have questions? Contact our experts.
Headphones vs Earbuds
For most people, the decision between headphones and earbuds will come down to convenience and sound quality. Earbuds are more portable and don’t take up as much space, making them well-suited for travel and exercise. However, earbuds are often perceived as having poorer sound quality than headphones, which are larger and more difficult to transport.
For audiophiles who want the best of both worlds, high-end home audio brands like Etymotic, Grado Labs, and Sennheiser make excellent in-ear headphones for people who prefer the feel or convenience of earbuds, but still want high-quality sound.
Understanding Headphone Features
Where you listen to your music, your music source, and even the type of music you listen to can all influence the headphone features that will work best for you. Here are some questions to ask yourself when choosing headphone features:
Do you listen at home, or on the go?
Some headphones are more portable than others, so whether or not you’ll be listening on the go is an important consideration when choosing headphones. For many mobile listeners, wireless headphones will be a more convenient choice than wired. You may also want to consider a closed-back headphone so people nearby can’t hear what you’re listening to.
Many travelers prefer noise canceling headphones, which can be active or passive. Any active or wireless headphone will also need to be charged, so battery life could be an important consideration.
Portability is less of a concern for people who plan to listen at home, but there are still some factors to consider. Depending on your home listening situation, you may still want a closed-back headphone for privacy. Some wireless headphones can also be wired if that’s a provided accessory, giving at-home listeners more flexibility.
Do you need your headphones for making phone calls or video conferencing?
People who work at home or take calls on the go should make sure their headphones are equipped to do so. Features like a built-in microphone and buttons to answer calls will provide a better user experience.
What is your music source?
Your music source can influence which headphones are most appropriate. For example, someone using an iPhone won't have a headphone jack and may prefer a wireless headphone. If you're listening at home, you should consider how far from the source you'll be because you might require a longer cable or an adapter.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Some headphones, like open-back, have a broad, expansive sound, but might not have as much bass extension. This means that if you listen to rock or rap with a lot of bass, you might prefer a closed-back. Although these are generalizations, the type of music is worth considering if you tend to stick to one particular genre.
What headphones will be most comfortable for you?
Comfort is key to a positive listening experience with headphones, so you want to make sure the materials are high-quality and fit your ear appropriately. For example, in-ear headphones (earbuds) at a higher quality level often come with several sizes/shapes of tips for a more custom fit, while the ear cups of headphones are made of a material similar to memory foam. Audiophiles with a larger head will want to make sure the headband is also designed to accommodate that; although this is a common feature these days, it’s good to double-check before purchasing.
Types of Headphones
In addition to headphone features, you also want to consider the different types of headphones available. Headphones typically fall into different categories, such as in-ear headphones, over-ear headphones (open-back or closed-back) and wireless headphones; the one that works best for you will depend on how and when you’ll be listening.
In-ear headphones (earbuds) have tips that fit into your ear for greater stability and privacy. Because of their small size, in-ear headphones are well-suited for mobile listening, including exercise. They are also multi-use and can be used with phone calls or when video conferencing.
Over-ear headphones are generally subdivided into two categories: open-back and closed-back.
Open-back headphones like the ones from Grado benefit from a larger soundstage that can be quite expansive. This creates an airy sound with high-end detail. The drawback is that some people may perceive less bass / low frequency sound, and the sound from open-back headphones leaks, so people around you will hear it pretty clearly.
Closed-back headphones, on the other hand, may still leak a bit of sound, but it will be far less. Closed-back often don’t feel quite as expansive as open-back models, but this is lessened in high-quality headphones. They often have a richer (though more contained) sound, more low-frequency and bass response, and a more intimate listening experience.
When choosing between the two, it can be useful to ask yourself what kind of music you listen to and where you plan to use the headphones the most. An audio expert can help you narrow your selection, if you need help.
Wireless headphones use Bluetooth and need to be charged to work. Bluetooth requires you to be close enough to the source to keep your signal. Though earlier Bluetooth technology suffered from problems such as signal drops, connection reliability and sound quality have improved in newer generations and in higher-end products. Many wireless headphones come with an option to wire them and will include a cable to do so.
These headphones are a good choice for someone who is often mobile but does not want to use in-ear headphones. They are also useful for people who use their phones as a listening source. Many wireless headphones have microphones and can be used during phone calls or video conferencing.
Setting up your headphone system can sometimes involve unexpected complications. The wrong size headphone jack or headphone cables that are too short or low-quality can all impact your listening experience. Headphone accessories like headphone adapters, extension cables, and amps are easy solutions.
A headphone amplifier is designed to deliver improved balance and sound quality. High-end headphone amplifiers can come with a number of features, including built-in DACs, pre-set impedance ranges, and USB inputs. Some can even output enough power to drive small bookshelf speakers.
Headphone Adapter Cable
There are a number of possible terminations on the headphone cables that come with the headphones, and different sources may require different jack sizes. A headphone adapter simply fits over the size that came with your headphones and has another size at the opposite side. Although there are a variety of potential options, the most common examples would be a 3.5mm and a 1/4", with some nicer headphone amps supporting a balanced cable. The Transparent Ultra Headphone cable, for example, has multiple termination options and can even be custom terminated however you need.
Headphone Extension Cable
Headphone extension cables are typically used by people who listen at home. If your source is located on a desk or in a stereo system far from your sitting area, a headphone extension cable can be used to bridge that gap. A good cable is important — you don’t want a subpar cable ruining the sound of your high-quality headphones.
The Transparent Ultra Headphone cable comes in a variety of lengths, as well as a number of readily available connector options. This cable has a network to reduce noise, control the effects of resonance on a music signal, and optimize audio performance for the specific length of cable.