After a period of hiatus, our Check Before You Buy series is back for the new year with a guide to an increasingly confusing investment these days – headphones.
Once a purely practical purchase, these days our headphones have become just as much an outfit accessory as any other item we wear. In what is perhaps now the most densely-populated corner of the consumer technology market, finding the right pair for you is a finely-tuned balancing act between performance, comfort, practicality and looks, all at a price you can afford. With major names and small niche brands all vying for your attention (and money), drowning out the noise is now more confusing than ever.
Here to help you navigate that audible minefield, we’ve outlined the four most important areas you need to consider when you buy a new pair of headphones, helping you make a decision you’ll love, every time you hit that play button. Check it out below and find out what you need to know before buying a leather jacket, waterproof jacket and school backpack.
Pick a Type
There was once a time when the only headphone choice available was what color foam you wanted on your Sony Walkman, but boy are those days over. As technology has advanced, so have the options available to us in terms of headphone construction, and the choices you make will affect not only the look and feel of them, but the sound they produce as well.
You may think the decision between “over the head” or “in the ear” is straightforward enough, but there are several subcategories within that division that need to be distinguished. The vast majority of over-head ‘phones are what is known as “supra-aural,” which means the ear cup sits directly on top of your ear, with the driver positioned fairly close to your ear canal (Samsung make a great pair, as do Harman Kardon). By pressing up against the outer part of your ear (or “pinna”), supra-aural headphones shut out some of the noise from the world around you, aiding their overall sound. However, this constant pressure can prove uncomfortable for some people, especially after long periods of wear.
“Circumaural” headphones, meanwhile, encase the entire ear within the ear cup, allowing the pad to rest on the skull surrounding the ear, creating a sound chamber inside. This large air cavity provides the most “normal” sound reproduction of any headphone design (PSB make an excellent example), and almost all high-end studio headphones will be of this nature; they are, however, rather bulky and less portable. Circumaural ‘phones are available with either a “sealed” or “open” back, and while an open back is ideal for a more natural sound stage, it offers zero isolation, meaning anyone around you will be able to hear what you’re listening to as if it were a muffled loudspeaker. Grado and Shure each make some of the best open-back headphones around, but if you’re going to be using them in confined public spaces, for the good of mankind, make sure you buy closed (like the Sennheiser Momentum).
If, however, you’re the type of person who finds small, in-ear headphones (or “earphones”) more comfortable and convenient, you also have a couple of choices on your hands (or should that be ears?). The most basic of all earphones are defined as “Intra-Concha,” and these are the type you will find shipped as standard with most cellphones or MP3 players. These earphones are almost all classed as “open,” meaning they leak sound all over the place, and the sound quality is often very poor (although Apple’s new EarPods are a rare improvement). With next to no bass response, users will often find themselves raising the volume of their music to potentially damaging levels to compensate for the lost frequencies. Here’s a tip: save your ears, and invest in something better.
Chances are, that something better will be a pair of in-ear monitors, or IEMs. Commonly referred to as “earbuds,” their mainstream popularity has skyrocketed in the past decade, due in large part to their often excellent sound quality (check out the Sony XBA-2 or these from Beyerdynamic). Using a flexible rubber or silicon tip, IEMs create a tight seal in the ear canal itself, providing the best sound isolation of any class of headphone and bass response that is only achievable at high price points with over-head headphones. The only real downside with a pair of IEMs is that the intense isolation levels can create a sense of disconnection with the outside world (a little like your ears popping, or putting your head underwater), although that can also be a benefit in noisy environments like trains or airplanes.
Know Your Specs
While it’s easy to make an assessment on a pair of headphones’ looks, one thing you can rarely try before you buy is the sound quality. That’s perhaps why headphones have become one of the most widely-reviewed items on tech-comparison websites over the years. But, if you don’t fancy wading into the gibberish world of audiophile geekspeak, here’s a brief rundown of what those little numbers on the packaging actually refer to, and how much attention you should pay to them.
The first number you’ll likely see will be frequency response. Measured in hertz (or kilohertz), this is the range of recorded frequencies a pair of headphones is physically able to reproduce. Low frequencies correspond to bass, while high ones equate to treble, and most headphones will quote a figure between 12-22 Hz at the bottom end and 20-22kHz at the top (human audible range is generally considered to be 20 Hz-20 kHz). However, this figure means very little on its own, as simply reproducing those frequencies tells you nothing about the volume at which they are created during playback. For that to be known, the figure must be followed by a decibel range (usually ±3dB), which states that the reproduced sounds will vary only by this amount from the original recorded material. In theory this means that you shouldn’t have to drastically increase the volume (or “gain”) on your player just to hear those low 20Hz bass notes, but it’s worth noting that these stats are rarely independently tested, and a lot of unscrupulous manufacturers can be rather creative in their application.
The next statistic you’ll likely come across is impedance. Without delving too heavily into a bewildering physics lesson, this is essentially the resistance of the components in the headphones to the electrical current produced by your music player. If you’re using a low-output device like a cellphone or MP3 player, you’ll want a pair of headphones with a low impedance rating (approx 30Ω or less, measured in “ohms”) as it may struggle to find enough power to produce a decent volume on a pair with a higher figure, such as hi-fi or DJ headphones (typically around 80-100Ω, or even higher). Conversely, don’t stick your low impedance headphones into a hi-fi or DJ mixer and crank the volume right up, or you’ll blow them faster than you can say “say WHAAAT.”
Yet, once again, the impedance rating is largely useless without the help of another figure: the sensitivity. Measured according to the sound pressure level, or SPL, generated from 1 milliwatt of power, it essentially tells you how good a pair of headphones is at converting that power into sound. Sensitivity is typically found to be between 90-110 dB SPL @ 1 mW, but be aware that a higher number does not automatically equal a louder pair of headphones. For that you need the figure converted to voltage, which requires some mild algebra (*cue horrified faces and sounds of frantic exit*).
Confused? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Bottom line, most everyday portable audio users will want a pair of headphones with a wide frequency range (20 Hz-20kHz), a low impedance (25-35Ω), and a high sensitivity rating (around 100 dB SPL @ 1 mW). Beyond that, you’re getting into audiophile knowledge territory, and we don’t have the beard for that.
Check Those Materials
To paraphrase a bit of street wisdom, when it comes to headphones, “It’s not where you’re from, it’s what you’re made of.” While a certain hip-hop celebrity-endorsed line of ear apparel has spread through popular culture like an ugly rash in recent years, anyone who’s actually held a pair in their hands for more than five minutes will know there’s a lot more to quality than big name branding.
There are three key areas to consider when assessing the materials used in headphone construction. The first is the general driver housing and headband. While plastics are a popular choice, given their inexpensive nature and light weight, there is a huge difference in their properties, and while some can easily stand up to the rigors of being taken on and off repeatedly (SOL Republic offer a 1,000-day guarantee on their headband), brittle thermosetting plastics run the risk of snapping if bent too far or too often. Good headphones will usually feature a flexible metal core in the band, which is then coated and given a cushion for comfort.
That said, advanced modern polymers can perform very well for the driver housing, and many brands will choose them specifically because they do not resonate as much as some metals. Nevertheless, a robust aircraft aluminum (such as that used in the Onkyo ES-CTI300) should remain sturdy and rigid, producing a crisp sound as well as being more physically hardwearing than plastic. Metal housing also confers very particular aesthetic benefits, and is a key factor in the appeal of a pair like the MUNITIO nines or the RHA T10i in-ear monitors. Bloc & Roc have gone as far as to plate their Galvanise S1 in 24k gold, while Grado even fashioned some from old whiskey barrels.
When it comes to the ear pads themselves, most low- to mid-price headphones will opt for synthetic, or “protein” leather, stuffed with foam. Many modern leather substitutes have a very soft touch, and are less prone to scratches than the real thing, but most high-end models will still opt for the authenticity of genuine leather, especially if they’re seeking a naturally tanned appearance. Recently, a handful of companies have started experimenting with memory foam in their pads (see the KEF M500 or Philips Fidelio NC1), which improves the comfort factor yet further, and while it is still possible to get headphones with traditional, all-foam pads (like the Sennheiser PX-100 series), their porous nature means they will have naturally less sound isolation than their airtight equivalents.
The final, and perhaps most important, area to pay attention to is the cable housing. With all the friction that a cable experiences rubbing against clothing or when coiled in storage, it’s very easy for the housing to become worn away, exposing the delicate wiring within. When that happens it’s just a matter of time before the connections begin to fray, then break, and the headphones themselves become useless. To prevent this from happening, you should avoid rubber-housed cables at all costs. Instead, seek out a pair with either woven fabric or Kevlar coating (such as those by MUNITIO, or Xiaomi’s Pistons). Not only will this not rip or tear like rubber, but its lack of traction against itself means it won’t tangle as easily either. For a win on all fronts, seek out something like AiAiAi’s TMA2 or V-Moda’s Crossfade M-100, which both come with fully-detachable, fabric-wrapped cables, meaning you can replace them even if they do wear out.
Settle on Some Extras
First and foremost, a pair of headphones is there to play music. That said, there are all sorts of additional features being dangled in front of customers these days, tempting them to spend a little more here or there, or to opt with one brand or the other. But which ones do you actually need, and which are just gadget-wanker gimmickery?
One that’s become increasingly popular is wireless technology, whereby headphones like the Bose Soundlink or these IEMs from Plantronics transmit audio data via Bluetooth, eliminating cables altogether. While the benefits of this are pretty obvious, be warned that Bluetooth was never meant to be used to communicate high-quality audio signals, and the very nature of the technology means that sound must be heavily compressed in order to send it over the airwaves. In the past this has resulted in a tinny, less-than-satisfying listening experience, but the technology is improving all the time, so make sure you go for a recent model if you want to go wireless. Headphones like the Parrot Zik 2.0 even use a bespoke smartphone app with a graphic equalizer, to further overcome compression issues.
Another feature that’s been a staple of mass-consumer (as opposed to audiophile) headphones for a number of years is the in-line remote. As well as doubling-up as a microphone to take cellphone calls hands-free, these are extremely useful for controlling playback without fishing around for your player in a pocket. However, be wary of low-cost headphones offering this functionality, as it’s notoriously liable to break and very tricky to repair or replace. For something a little more space-age, Urbanears’ Plattan ADV wireless headphones incorporate a touch-sensitive panel into one of the ear cups, allowing you to control playback and take calls using gestures, just like a smartphone touchscreen.
If you’re a regular train or airline traveler, you might want to think about buying some headphones with noise-cancelling capability. While IEMs and some closed-back circumaural headphones have an innate level of “passive” noise isolation, “active” noise-cancelling ‘phones use an internal microphone and sound relay to produce an inaudible soundwave that directly contradicts the frequency of the surrounding background noise. The result of this is a reduction in white noise by anything up to 75%, making them invaluable on long, noisy journeys. Check out Bose’s QuietComfort 25 for a circumaural pair, or the QuietComfort 20 if you prefer IEMs.
Lastly, one very small, but no less important thing to look out for is the cable jack. While it’s pretty standard that any decent pair of headphones will have gold-plated connections (for better sound quality), you might want to pay attention to whether the jack itself is straight, or “L-shaped.” If you’re likely to have your music player in a front trouser pocket for long periods, especially while walking, a straight jack will stick out at an awkward angle, creating a stress point where the cable rubs against the metal or plastic. This is a notorious cause of death for many pairs of headphones, as the wires quickly become frayed. An L-shaped jack, however, will sit flush along the top edge of your player and rotate as it moves, lessening this source of wear and tear considerably. While we wouldn’t go so far as to call it a deal-maker, it’s certainly worth considering if you’re torn between two otherwise similar pairs.
Beyond all that, the only thing left to really think about is how they look. And that, we’re happy to say, is entirely up to you…
Check out the rest of our Check Before You Buy series here, and stay tuned for future editions.