What do you look for in headphones and earphones? While there are many models to choose from, your planned use should help greatly to narrow your choices.
Sound quality, of course, is important to everybody; but for some, big bass is a must where others prefer open, full-range reproduction that emphasizes overall accuracy. Other factors include isolation, comfort, weight, portability, and fit, which we’ll discuss below.
Do you need headphones or earphones to plug into a portable player of some kind for casual listening? Or are you looking for a set of studio-worthy reference headphones for monitoring recordings? The following discussion of the different types of headphones and earphones and their applications will give you the basic knowledge you need to choose the right model for your purpose.
Headphone and earphone specifications, what do they mean?
The best way to evaluate headphones is by listening to them. Listen to some acoustic guitar or piano music—you’ll easily hear the difference between good and not so good. But two headphones that sound very different often will have similar specs.
Probably the easiest and most useful spec is the price. In general, quality and performance are strongly related to the price tag. Driver size is an important spec, especially if you want big bass. Typically, the larger the driver, the greater its ability to reproduce bass frequencies. Specs such as frequency range, sensitivity, etc., may be helpful to knowledgeable buyers deciding between high-end studio headphones, but not especially helpful for a less knowledgeable buyer choosing among lower-end headphones. A more helpful way of choosing among types, models, and brands is to read both online professional reviews as well as the customer reviews on our website.
Headphones vs. earphones/earbuds—what’s right for you?
Generally speaking, higher-end headphones are necessary for critical pro-audio work such as recording and mixing. That said, there are many mid-priced headphones that offer performance to meet the needs of musicians with home studios and modest budgets.
Earphones, also often called earbuds or in-ear headphones, are typically included with portable mp3 players. They’re often replaced by consumers with better quality models that provide improved sound and comfort.
Consumer-grade earbuds shouldn’t be confused with pro-quality in-ear headphones and earbuds designed for applications like monitoring live performances and other critical listening uses.
To help you sort through the many possibilities, we conveniently categorize headphones and earphones/earbuds by these two basic applications.
Sweetened vs. flat frequency response
When you listen to the same material through different headphones, you’ll hear differences that are due in part to “sweetening.” Sweetening refers to the EQing of the headphones to make the music sound better. In open-backed headphones and many earbuds, for instance, the bass frequencies may be emphasized to counter the natural leakage of bass through the open back or ear canal.
Most general-listening, consumer headphones are sweetened in some way. There are two common sweetening modes: Free Field (FF) and Defined Field (DF). The first simulates an open listening environment without reflection, and the latter simulates an enclosed listening environment such as a room. For critical listening such as monitoring a mix, you don’t want any sweetening at all, but rather a flat frequency response that lets you compare and set levels precisely.
Types of Headphones
Circumaural: This type of headphone can be closed or open-backed. The term circumaural refers to how it cups your ear. Circumaural models are sometimes referred to as “over the ear headphones” Their padding encircles the ear and forms a seal. These headphones are usually comfortable, and closed-back models provide isolation from external sounds and keep the headphone sounds from leaking out. A circumaural design is a good choice for recording applications and for DJs who need to monitor music in loud environments.
Supra-aural: Headphones of this design are similar to circumaural headphones, except that instead of encircling the ear, they rest on it. Usually these headphones are lighter and therefore more comfortable. But since they do not seal as well as circumaural headphones, they don’t isolate sounds as well.
Open air: Also referred to as open-back headphones, they can be either circumaural or supra-aural, but the back of each earpiece is open, allowing sound to escape freely in both directions. Because they are non-isolating, they are not a good choice for recording studio applications. If used by a singer, for example, the headphone sound can leak and be picked up by the microphone influencing the final recording. Their positive quality is an open, airy sound that isn’t fatiguing to the ears, which makes them a good choice for general listening.
Semi-open: This type of headphone, as the name suggests, falls between a fully open design and a closed-back design. While some sound leakage can occur, there is less than with an open-back design. Semi-open headphones usually offer a realistic stereo field, low distortion, and extended low-frequency response. They are often used for recording where there are no open microphones to pick up sound leaking from them.
Closed or sealed: This type offers the greatest sound isolation. The backs of the earpieces are completely closed, which, along with an effective seal around the ear, prevents sound from passing in either direction. This design is especially good for monitoring in loud environments, and for use in recording because they keep sound from leaking out and being picked up by microphones. They also tend to have strong bass response, so DJs mixing dance music prefer them. On the downside, they can cause ear fatigue when used for extended periods.
Studio headphone packages: Equipping a home or project studio with enough headphones to record a full band can involve a considerable investment. In most cases a headphone amplifier will also be needed to amplify and distribute the mix signal to each musician. Working with pro audio headphone manufacturers, Musician’s Friend has assembled a collection of headphone packages that bundle multiple headphones with a headphone amplifier. These packages offer significant savings compared to the cost of the individual components.
Portable headphones: These are the open-air, lightweight, headphones usually equipped with foam earpads and used with portable players. Often the ones that come with players are cheap and you may want to replace them with better quality headphones of a similar kind. They are light which makes them ideal for active use, and the better ones can sound fantastic. Because they allow you to hear external sounds such as that runaway garbage truck bearing down on you, they are suited for use when hearing what’s going on around you is important.
Earbuds: Earbud headphones offer the ultimate in portability and light weight. They fit into the ear and form a seal that isolates the sound so that only you hear it. Better-quality earbud-type headphones offer excellent sound quality, which is remarkable considering their small drivers. However, bass response can be weak in some designs, especially those that fit your ear canal poorly. A few models have interchangeable tips to provide a better fit in the ear canal.
Noise-canceling headphones and earbuds: As many commuters know, listening to music while traveling by car, train, or airplane is made difficult by the general level of background noise. For critical listeners, this can be frustrating because it blurs the nuances of the music. Noise-canceling headphones are designed to remove the background noise. They do this by means of phase-canceling technology. Some models incorporate Bluetooth technology for cable-free convenience plus connectivity with computers and smartphones.
Wireless headphones: The advantage of having no cable is obvious: you’re free to roam as you listen. They operate on three basic types of technology: infrared, RF, and various digital technologies including Bluetooth. Infrared models have a shorter reception distance and require line-of-sight orientation to the base unit transmitter. They also typically offer the lowest signal quality. RF models transmit further and will work through walls, but noise and sound quality can be issues. Digital wireless converts signal to a digitally encoded signal, then the headphones convert it back to analog. This type is more noise-free than infrared and RF, but more expensive. They also require power for the transmitter and battery power for the headphones.
DJ headphones: There are quite a number of headphones intended for DJ use. These are usually circumaural closed-back headphones designed for isolation. Many are standard two-cup headphones, but DJs also use single-sided headphones with just one cup. This allows them to hear their mix and the room simultaneously. Typically, DJ headphones are louder so they can be heard over high ambient sound levels. Many have rotating earcups for comfort and detachable, replaceable cords. Generally, DJ headphones are built ruggedly to handle the wear and tear of heavy use and travel.
What to Look For
Fit and comfort
Comfort is important. Any headphone will feel fine worn briefly, but when worn for long periods, many become uncomfortable. Wear the headphones for at least 20 minutes before deciding about comfort. The larger the ear cups the better when selecting closed-back, circumaural headphones. For headphones that rest on your ear, smaller is better, and fabric padding or leather can soften the pressure.
Weight is a factor in long-term comfort—in most cases lighter headphones are more comfortable. For long listening periods, the super-light portable headphones with foam pads are ideal.
The headband also influences comfort. Most headphones have an over-the-head style headband, but behind-the-neck styles are also available. Earbuds dispense with the band entirely, so are more comfortable in that regard. Whatever the type of headband, you want it to be adjustable. Another feature for enhancing comfort is the rotating cup, especially on over-the-ear phones. You can adjust them to your head to reduce leakage and increase comfort.
Usually portability isn’t an issue—for listening during physical activity, get the lightweight portables designed for that purpose. For traditional stationary studio work, heavier closed-back circumaurals are usually used. These days, however, laptop computers and compact interfaces have made on-location recording more popular. This application requires closed-back, sealed-cup headphones that are bulkier. Fold-up designs are more portable and protect the headphones in transit. It’s wise to have some sort of case for your recording headphones if they are to travel.
You want your headphones to last. Unfortunately, durability often equates with heavier weight. Light headphones can be sat on or snapped in half more easily. You just have to be careful with them and put them in a protective case when they’re not on your head. If they are fold-ups, check out the hinges for sturdiness. Are the cables substantial or thin and delicate? If you are buying higher-priced headphones, find out if replacement parts are available. It’s a lot cheaper to replace a cable or the ear pads than to replace an entire set.
Be sure the cable is long enough for your situation. But avoid an exceptionally long cable if possible because it can negatively affect sound quality by lowering volume and introducing noise, as well as becoming more easily tangled. A better-quality pair of headphones will likely have a shielded cable which minimizes noise. If you buy headphones with too short a cable, you can always add an extension, but be careful to get an extension cable of equal quality to the cable from the headphone. You should also add the length you want with a single cable rather than two shorter ones; as multiple connections can degrade the signal.
Another consideration is single-sided versus double-sided cables. Single-sided designs have internal circuitry to carry the signals to the appropriate ear pieces. Most consider one-sided designs preferable, as the double-sided type can become easily tangled.
Like most things in life, when it comes to choosing the right headphones, earphones, or earbuds, you get what you pay for. Although some specs can be helpful, things like frequency response numbers can be deceptive. There is no substitute for listening critically and carefully. Considering how you plan to use your new headphones is also critical in pinpointing the right model.