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Holiday 2012: How to Buy Headphones and Earphones


Do I want headphones or earphones?

There are four basic kinds of headphones and earphones. Headphones include models that go over your ears, aka circumaural, and models that rest on your ears, supra-aural. Earphones are divided into ear buds, like the ones that came with the first 4 generations of iPod, and in-ears, which actually isolate the ear canal. There are endless choices among these basic groups, covering everything from color and fashion to comfort and audio quality. Collectively, let’s refer to the entire product category as phones.

Why use phones at all?

Private listening is the most intimate way to experience music or follow an audio book. Though virtually every stereo receiver has a headphone jack, the explosion in portable media players—most without internal speakers—has made phones an essential accessory, a way of creating privacy within public space.

Where or when will I need the phones?

Like real estate, location is everything: circumaural headphones for home, in-ears for the health club; supra-aural headphones for the airline cabin, earbuds for a walk in the park. Full-body headphones don’t feel encumbering if you’re sitting at a desk, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to jog with them. Clearly, you may need more than one pair, each designed for a place or particular use.

Open-Back or Closed-Back Headphones?

Among headphones, especially circumaural headphones, “Open-Back” and “Closed-Back” is a common design variable. Open-Back designs do not isolate, but offer a spacious sound. The more common Closed-Back design isolates your listening experience and will often offer enhanced bass response.

Do I want an in-line mic/control with those phones?

If you’re not an iPhone user, there’s an important distinction to be made between in-line mic/controls that are “Made for iPhone” and other smartphone controls. Specific models are made for Android, while some are more universal. Be sure to find a model that is compatible with your smartphone, so you can enjoy all the benefits.

What’s the difference between noise-isolating and noise-canceling headphones?

Ear-covering headphones, especially ones with substantial padding, passively isolate your hearing from the sound around you. Noise-canceling headphones, on the other hand, use advanced electronics to actively emit an out-of-phase signal to cancel or reduce exterior noise. Noise-canceling headphones enable the user to fully hear and enjoy music without boosting it to uncomfortable volumes.

What’s a major difference between noise-canceling headphone models?

Noise-canceling headphones use a battery (disposable or rechargeable) to power the electronic circuit that listens for exterior frequencies and generates a counter-frequency. The difference is that some models can continue to be used as passive headphones even when the battery dies, while others—sometimes referred to as active noise-canceling headphones—can’t be used at all (except as earmuffs) until power is restored. In situations not conducive to shopping for a battery or recharging a battery—like on a plane flight—you’ll probably prefer the former type.

What criteria should I use in terms of phones as fashion accessories?

Your choice of color may be important, especially for complementing what you’re wearing. Black, by far, offers the most choices and is the least likely hue to clash with clothing or earrings. Also consider the rainbow of choices available including blue, orange, pink, purple, green, yellow, red, gold/copper and, of course, white. But you can also choose wood grain for a more natural look, chrome if you’re a biker or into heavy metal, or clear if you’d prefer your own colors to come through.

Black Blue Orange
Pink and Purple Green Yellow
Red Metalic White

How ornate you want your phones to look is a matter of personal taste, but fans of a particular musical artist may like the idea of flaunting a signature pair from the likes of Dr. Dre or Quincy Jones. Earphones are sometimes designed by well-known fashion designers, including Vivienne Tam.

Wood Grain Miles Davis Dr. Dre Vivienne Tam

Though you can buy serviceable earphones costing in the single digits, you can also spend upwards of $500 on a sound isolating, Kevlar reinforced, gold-tipped pair. Some people consider earphones a form of functional jewelry.

What types of phones are audiophile grade?

Although full-sized headphones will generally provide the best performance, there are some earphones marketed to audiophiles as well. If you’re looking for the best performance, ideally, you should try out several pairs of phones before making a buying decision. If you’re in the New York City area, the B&H SuperStore has a headphones department that enables you to audition models on display. You can even plug in your own portable player to listen to music you’ve selected for a test drive. Watch the online video: Headphone Demo Area.

Another high-end convention is audiophile-grade headphone amplifiers for bypassing the built-in digital-to-analog conversion and low-power integrated amplifier of an iPod. Headphone amplifiers allow a better listening experience on high-end headphones, which generally aren’t built for volume.

What about the cable?

The least expensive earphones sometimes come on a short leash, which may be adequate if your player is in your shirt pocket but way too restrictive if you’re plugging them into a floor-squatting computer while listening at your desk. You can remedy this with an audio extension cord with a female plug on one end and a male plug on the other. If you are a tidy sort and would like to manage your headphone wires and keep them tangle free, you might consider picking up some cable wraps. Another way to avoid annoying tangles is to buy earphones with a flat cable.

What, if any, adapters are included?

The headphone jack in airline seats once always consisted of two-prong inputs, often forcing you to rent pedestrian phones to take advantage of the in-flight entertainment. This old design hasn’t entirely disappeared, but seats today are more likely to include the same type of jack found on your iPod. Still, it can’t hurt to bring an adapter. Some noise-canceling headphones include the adapter in the box. Some headphones may include a 1/4-inch stereo phone adapter for use with a home theater receiver so you can use the 1/8-inch plug from your earphones. When an adapter isn’t included or you misplace it, you can always get one separately as an accessory.

Do I need virtual surround sound?

Digital sound processing built into some headphones offers the illusion of effects coming from many directions. If you’re watching a movie or TV show with 5.1 audio, donning a pair of virtual surround sound headphones is a way to enhance the action without waking the baby or your roommate.

What about wireless earphones and headphones?

When being wired to a computer at your desk, a music player in your pocket or a receiver in your living room cramps your style, consider a battery-powered headset. If your portable player or A/V receiver has Bluetooth wireless technology built-in, get Bluetooth headphones. Other types of radio frequency (RF) headphones may come with a separate transmitter you plug into the source player and an electrical outlet.

What are collapsible headphones?

Instead of being rigid, the headphones fold up for storage. They often come with a carrying case or pouch. Non-collapsible headphones, on the other hand, may come with a dedicated stand.

The Takeaway

  • Recognize the types of activities in which you plan to engage while using the phones. You may not want to use the same phones for both passive and active pursuits. Earphones are better for mobile use or while working out, but headphones are superior while seated.
  • Noise-canceling headphones are best for plane trips or noisy environments.
  • If you’re fashion conscious, color and style are considerations.
  • A built-in mic is essential if you’ll be using the earphones with a cell phone.
  • Your best bet for wireless connectivity is a set of Bluetooth headphones used with a Bluetooth-enabled music player, cell phone or A/V receiver.

Discussion 3

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One omission makes it a dangerous article for others and useless for me. There is nothing about headsets or earbuds that have SAFETY FEATURES to SAVE YOUR KIDS (or your) HEARING!!! They are out there!
Big B

Good article...I think you should also mention different wire types available with earphones such tangle-free flat wires and cloth-wooven cords. Also its worth explaining the impedance in the range of phones because lower impedance (Ohms) draws more power from the source (ipod, mobile, etc) resulting in more battery usage from your portable device. Buying quality headphones or earphones was really hectic for me as it was hard to understand the specifications listed by many brands such as the frequency and sensitivity and the huge difference in prices. For anyone who need a little more explanation about "Understanding Earphone Specifications" I found a great article (couldnt find anything better) at an ebay review page here http://reviews.ebay.com/Understanding-Earphone-Specifications_W0QQugidZ10000000003855022.

Hope this helps anyone with their purchase...


A comphrehesive well written article, accompanied by some stroboscopic,  wickedly distracting graphics. Please, static or slowly changing graphics instead of a rocl and roll lightshow.