Headphones Buyer's Guide

Our phones aren’t just phones anymore, they’re media consumption devices too. That makes the selection of headphones an important decision to maintain the best possible experience when streaming a show on Netflix or Youtube or streaming a podcast or an album on Google Play Music or Spotify.

There are endless choices out there for headphones, so which one is right for you? If you break things down into categories you can find out which features are really the most important for you. Here is a list of some of those features that should help you choose your next pair of headphones.

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On-ear vs. Over the ear

Headphones come in two major categories: those who sit on top of the ear and those who surround the ear. On-ear headphones are routinely more compact when folded up and take up less space in a bag or purse. Some customers also prefer the aesthetics of on-ear headphones due to over the ear headphones being bigger and bulkier. On-ear tend to isolate less sound (meaning more leakage) and most people find them less comfortable, but this can vary due to the materials they’re constructed with.

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Over the ear headphones have a big advantage in the sound they put out. This is due in large part to over the ear headphones routinely having larger drivers which can put out better and louder sound. As we mentioned, over the ear headphones isolate sound much better (unless they’re opened back headphones). While over the ears headphones are bigger and bulkier, they’re often more comfortable due to the fact that they sit around the ear, instead of compressing the ear like on-ear headphones.

Special Features

While it may not feel much like a “special” feature, be sure to look out for the inclusion of a microphone on your headphones. A microphone takes your headphones from just a media consumption accessory to a communication device as well. If you’re comfortable taking off and unplugging your phones you may want to stick with something like the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, but if you want the convenience of using your headphones for calls, you may want to look at the Sentey Thorx.

Another feature to look at must be closed back vs. open back. Open back headphones like the Audio-Technica AUD ATHAD500X provide a bigger sound stage (The area between two speakers or in headphones that appears to the listener to be occupied by sonic images) but also leak sound out of the headphones. Closed back headphones leak much less audio but tend to have a more narrow sound stage.

 

The XS has all of V-MODA's custom shield plate options: from personalized laser-etched engravings to 3D printing on precious metals.
The XS has all of V-MODA’s custom shield plate options: from personalized laser-etched engravings to 3D printing on precious metals.

Also, be sure to check out what accessories come with your headphones when ordering. Does it come with a hard carrying case?  A protective bag to put the headphones in during transport? Does it come with any additional cables? All of these things can be important to you getting the total package. Not all circumstances call for a 6-foot long cable so maybe it comes with a 3-foot coiled cable too. These little details can be the difference between a satisfactory or unsatisfactory experience.

Many headphones, especially the wireless kind, will include inline controls for actions like answering calls, raising and lowering volume, as well as play and pause. Some headphones will house these controls in the cable while others prefer buttons on the sides of the earcups. Some go above and beyond like the BackBeat PRO and will automatically play and pause music when it senses you taking the headphones on or off.

Bluetooth vs. Wired

Connectivity is another aspect where headphones vary. Most wired headphones still use the 3.5mm jack that has been around since the late 1800s. We have also seen the introduction of USB type-C wired headphones that leverage the newest USB standard. Headphones that use the 3.5mm jack require the device to convert the digital signal to an analog signal in order for the headphones to process it. USB type-C headphones can process a digital signal, which allows headphone manufacturers to place an amplifier into the headset instead of using the onboard amplifier in the phone, which may be subpar.

If your phone doesn’t have a USB type-C port, it will almost definitely have a 3.5mm jack on it somewhere. 3.5mm jack headphones have the advantage of being almost universally supported except in some of 2016’s smartphones like the Moto Z Droid and Moto Z Force Droid and the Apple iPhone 7. While it’s possible to get better sound out of USB type-C headphones, it isn’t always the case. Headphone manufacturers have had over a hundred years of R&D to figure out how to squeeze ever ounce out of sound quality out of that jack.

plantronics-backbeat-proBluetooth headphones, on the other hand, are almost always about convenience. Doing away with wires means your phone can rest in your pocket or on the table without wires pulling or getting caught. Bluetooth headphones do, however, sacrifice audio quality for that convenience. You also need to take into consideration that most headsets that rely on Bluetooth will need to have an internal battery charged up to function, although there are headsets that are versatile enough to work in both Bluetooth and wired modes, like the Bluetooth headphones like the Plantronics BackBeat PRO.

Bluetooth headphones like the Bose QuietComfort 35 have active noise cancellation which leverages microphones in the headset to cancel out the noise around you for an excellent listening experience. You can find this feature on cheaper headphones like the BÖHM Bluetooth Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones and Sony MDR-ZX770DC with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Build Quality

Build quality is an essential factor in your headphone buying journey. While you can find cheaper, well-made headphones, you will generally have to pay for well put together headphones. Here are a few factors to consider when you’re checking out how headphones are constructed.

First off, take a look at the headband. Look at if it’s constructed with any kind of metals or if it’s an entirely plastic design. Also be sure to take a look at if the padding that will rest on your head. You want to make sure that the material appears soft and comfortable in case of any long listening sessions.

Another area that you’ll need to make sure appears soft and comfortable are the earcups that will be resting on your head, whether that be on your ears or around them. Generally the bigger the better in this case, but be sure to pay attention to the materials that cover the earcups. Higher quality materials like leather or velour are can be very comfortable but have drawbacks like breathability and how much dirt they pick up.

Price

As you no doubt already know, the price of headphones ranges from the minuscule to the absurd. While value can be found in all price segments, you need to decide what your budget is and then decide which factors are important to you. Here are some of our picks for headphones with excellent reviews in multiple price ranges.

As you can see, there are great headphones available at all price ranges. As you move up the spectrum in price, you will get more features like audiophile-grade sound quality, planar magnetic drivers, higher quality construction materials, and more accessories. As advancements in this technology continue, the price of excellent headphones continues to drop.

Where to Buy

You can find headphones just about anywhere, including local cellular stores. Some like T-Mobile and AT&T will even finance these headphones at 0% just like smartphones. If you head to any brick and mortar store that sells electronics, you’re bound to find some smattering of headphones on the shelves. It will be up to you to decide if the selection meets your level of expectations or if you need to move to an online outlet for a larger selection. Here are a few recommended sites to pick up headphones: