Buyer's Guide - Headphones, Earbuds
Read this guide for more knowledge on how to find the right pair of headphones or earbuds for you.
One tech essential for most people is a good pair of headphones, so that they can listen to music, watch videos or consume other audio media no matter where they are. This guide is meant to help narrow down the many good choices available for an interested buyer. For headphones/earbuds, the question is not which pair is “best,” but rather which one fits your intended use most exactly.
The Science of Audio Devices
If you’re looking to make an investment in a good pair of headphones, it may be useful to become educated on how exactly audio devices work. This section will give you a better understanding of what the posted specs of audio products actually mean.
Frequency Response (FR) is the sonic range that the audio device is designed to replicate. A device with a large FR range is more likely to produce a more “balanced” quality to your music. The low bass notes will be deeper, the middle range notes will be clearer, and the high notes will be sharper. These things combined with make the sound seem as natural and balanced as possible; a device without an acceptable FR will feel much hollower.
Some devices are made to have a FR that focuses on the lower frequency notes in the music for a more pronounced bass section. This may be attractive depending on your interests; however, other songs without many bass sounds, and higher notes instead, may be of lesser quality as a trade-off.
Headphones are rated with a simple FR rating of the Hz that the device encompasses, such as 20Hz – 20,000Hz (the highest frequency a human can hear). A device that encompasses this range will likely produce all of these sounds uniformly, but having this range is not solely indicative of the quality of the sound produced by the machine.
Impedance refers to the resistance that the Hz current will experience as it travels through the device. This amount of resistance will affect sound quality, power source, and volume output. Headphones with high impedance need less current to drive them, so there is less sound distortion in the audio, but with the trade-off that they will need more power to achieve this. This means that using a high impedance headphone with a lower-power device (such as an iPod or a cell phone) will drain the connected device’s power more quickly, because it has to work harder to compensate for the impedance level.
Conversely, low impedance headphones will work at a lower voltage (so, less power being used) and deliver a louder, slightly less-elegant sound. But, this may be preferable to you, depending on how you are listening to your music, like if you spend a lot of time listening to music on your cell phone.
Impedance is measured in Ohms (or, the omega symbol). It is also a directly proportional measurement, so a device with a 50 Ohms rating has a higher impedance than a 10 Ohms device.
Sensitivity refers to how efficient the audio drivers are at using the power that they receive. In practice, sensitivity deals with the tradeoff between the power used and the durability of the machine. Lower sensitivity means it requires more power to achieve the optimal tone, but it will also be a more durable machine, meaning you could play louder, more intense music (such as a heavy metal song!) with less chance of compromising the product. In contrast, a higher sensitive product will be more efficient at power consumption, but also require a more delicate handling. Sensitivity is measured in dB.
Over-Ear vs On-Ear
Over-ear headphones have ear pads that are large enough to engulf the entire ear, while on-ear headphones’ pads rest on the outer ear. You may look to the difference in ear pad size between the Beats by Dr. Dre Studio 2 Wireless Over-Ear Headphones (below, left) and the Beats by Dr. Dre Solo2 Wireless On-Ear Headphones (below, right).
The larger cups of over-ear headphones will provide a more “natural” quality to your sound, because the encircled vibrations on the ear more accurately mirror the way we hear sounds in the natural world. Therefore, over-ear headphones will have a more spacious sound. Additionally, some people may feel the over-ear design is more comfortable, as it may have a lesser chance of feeling a tight pressure on the ears due to the larger size.
Still, some may see the possible difference in sound quality as a worthy sacrifice for the smaller, on-the-go size of the on-ear headphone. You may also prefer the more immediate sound of on-ear to the spacious sound of over-ear. Another side note is that on-ear headphones may be preferable to those who also wear glasses because the over-ear headphones may get more in
the way (or vice versa).
There seems to be no difference in bass power capabilities between the two types, though the smaller size of the on-ear headphone may also come with a smaller driver as well, which will impact bass power. Ultimately, the final factor between the two will be personal preference.
In general, earbuds are going to rank slightly lower across the board than headphones in terms of power, sound quality, and other areas. Still, they have their uses as a cheaper and easily mobile product, and they still will perform well for the average user.
We usually use “earbuds” as a blanket term for any listening device inserted in the ear, but technically, there are two distinct kinds, which you’re likely already aware of. There is the classic earbud shape, such as the Sony Fashion Earbuds (left), which are more circular and rest on the outside of the ear. But there are also earphones, such as the Audiofly AF45 In-Ear Earbuds (right), which are pointed and are meant to rest further within the ear canal. The difference between the two is that, since earphones rest deeper, they will provide more noise reduction and isolation. This may be preferable to some, but you may also desire not to be as cut-off from your environment when you listen to your music, in which case earbuds are suitable. You may also find one shape more comfortable than the other, which is a matter of personal preference.
Earbuds (as opposed to headphones) have an added feature of being capable for many specialized shapes to suit your needs, ear shape, and/or comfort. For those with difficulty keeping the standard earbud on their ear, or who may want to have a more secure earbud grip during exercise or other activities, consider looking at an ear hook design. You could go with a JVC In-ear Ear Sports Clip (below, left) that will attach to your existing headphones, or a Sony MDR-AS200 Sports Headphones (below, center) which are designed with a hook shape. If regular earbud shapes do not conform to your ears well, you can also look at earbuds with special designs, such as the yurbuds Inspire 100 Earbuds (below, right).
Scenarios to consider
There are a lot of differing factors that may affect your headphone preference, so here are specific preference scenarios that you can use to help make your decision. You may find that you fall under several of the categories.
- Lower sensitivity
- FR optimized to bass notes if possible
- Possibly a lower impedance
- Over-ear headphone
- Higher impedance
- Wide FR
Primarily mobile listening
- Lower impedance
- On-ear headphones
Highest quality sound
- Wide, crafted-balanced FR
- Higher impedance
- Higher sensitivity
- Over-ear headphones
- On-ear headphones
- Lower impedance