The early popularity of personal music players and now the ubiquitous smartphone has pushed high-quality headphones and earphones onto the must-have audio accessory list. But what kind do you need? And quite apart from being a fashion accessory, how do you know they will provide good-quality sound?
Consumer headphones fall into one of two categories:
Earphones fit at least part-way inside the ear canal, sometimes also clipping onto the ear. They're commonly called earbuds or in-ear models.
- Pros: They're compact, relatively unobtrusive and can be stored in a pocket or purse. They can be relatively inexpensive or you can spend a couple of hundred dollars. Some come in a round-the-neck or clip-on-ear style for use while exercising and a wireless version can give you an even better experience while working out.
- Cons: You probably won't get the best audio fidelity to start with, and the delicate wires for some models can be damaged with continual wrapping/unwrapping, which can compromise sound quality. There's little way to block out ambient noise unless you use more expensive in-ear buds specifically designed for noise cancellation and isolation.
Headphones come in around-the-ear on on-ear styles.
- Pros: You can get better sound reproduction than with earphones, though you'll generally pay more. They can limit ambient noise more effectively and can be hung around your neck when not being used.
- Cons: Headphones can be much bulkier than earphones. They can easily get dirty if you don't also carry a case for them when not in use. They typically cost more than earphones.
Headphones are available in two flavours – around-ear/over-ear and on-ear:
- Around-ear/over-ear (circumaural) headphones completely surround your ear, and may provide added passive noise-cancelling properties, much like ear-muffs. The around-ear cushion may also help make them more comfortable to wear for long periods. The downside is you may find they get hot and sweaty after using them for a while and they're often large and bulky to store and carry. The weight of the headphones, good padding and tension adjustment are important for long-term comfort, as is the tightness of the spring band that holds them to your head.
- On ear (supra-aural) headphones are generally smaller. They rest on the outside of your ears, allowing more airflow around them. However, they may keep out less ambient noise. They also press directly on the ears rather firmly so can become uncomfortable fairly quickly.
Before you buy a set, try them out in-store and leave them on for as long as you can.
Headphones connect to audio devices via a cable, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. Each has its pros and cons, but your decision will be based on the input options supported by your device and audio quality (especially if you're something of an audiophile). Some headphones support wired and wireless connectivity.
- Wired: The classic cable that plugs into the headphone jack. It's better quality than Bluetooth, generally speaking, and ensures a clear connection that isn't prone to dropouts. They also don't use a battery. However, cables can get in the way, they tether you to your device and lower quality models can break easily.
- Wireless: These headphones/earbuds sync with devices that support Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection. The connection options will be noted in the specs, but almost all wireless headphones use Bluetooth. Some support Wi-Fi or proprietary version of Bluetooth such as aptX. Though convenient, maintaining this connection will drain battery life in the headphones and your smartphone/portable music player. Also, despite the name, the left and right cans/buds are connected via a cable or headband. Wireless just refers to the connection between the headphones and your device.
- True wireless: Essentially identical to Wireless, except the earbuds are not connected by a cable. Instead, one bud connects to your device which sends the signal to the other bud, or they sync via two independent signals. These eradicate cables altogether, but that makes them much more prone to interference in busy areas (e.g. public transport) and they are quite easy to misplace and damage. True wireless cans are not available.
Some wireless over-ear/on-ear headphones (cans) include a cable input, so you can switch to a physical connection if you prefer.
Sony WF-1000XM3 true wireless headphones.
The main wireless connection/encoding options are:
- Bluetooth (SBC): Near universal support. Introduces audio compression which will cause a drop in quality, though you probably won't notice if you're streaming Spotify from your smartphone.
- Bluetooth (AAC): Advanced audio coding, the default setting used by Apple software and devices, and YouTube. You can find it in almost every Apple audio product, and it's becoming more common in Android devices too. The quality is a bit better than SBC, but compression is still present.
- aptX: The beefy version of Bluetooth that introduces considerably less compression than SBC and AAC, with quality closer to CD, albeit at a cost. The amount of data flying around can introduce latency and slam battery life. Though most new Android devices can decode aptX, it's not very common in headphones due to licensing costs. Very few Apple devices support aptX.
- aptX-HD and aptX-LL: AptX HD is a near lossless (CD quality) version of aptX, while aptX-LL (low latency) includes inbuilt latency compensation to combat audio lag. These are reserved for high-end equipment.
- Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi has enough bandwidth to stream lossless audio between your device and headphones. However, it's support isn't exactly widespread and it can hit battery life hard, largely because your device will also constantly search for other Wi-Fi connections once its activated.
We haven't included the ever-growing list of proprietary codecs as they only cover a very small percentage of the market. If you see wireless specifications on the box that aren't listed here, head to the manufacturer's website for more information.
Please note, this is a general overview that does not factor in outside variables including the hardware in your playback device, its age, headphone build quality, audio source quality (e.g. CD, mp3, FLAC, streaming service) and codec support. Also, the definitions of "good quality" and "good enough" are subjective, so this explanation should be used as a starting point to help you find headphones that suit your needs.
- Volume controls, preferably on the cable, can come in handy and save you fiddling with, or having to look at your music player while being active or exercising. Some models have a version for Apple or Android smartphones due to the different features incorporated into the 3.5mm plug.
- A hard case can protect your headphones and keep extra attachments in order when you're travelling. A soft pouch can be easier to pack but doesn't give as much protection.
- Leakage is where sound escapes the headphones and can be heard by others in your vicinity. Open headphones tend to leak more sound than closed models with a solid outer casing. Some listeners prefer the airier sound of an open design as it allows you to hear some of the outside noise, while others find the audio isolation of the closed models more important.
- Efficiency is a measure of the amount of voltage necessary to drive the headphones. More efficient headphones need less power, but might be capable of producing very high volumes that could damage your hearing if used for long periods. Low efficiency may mean the headphones won't produce much volume with low-voltage devices (a small personal music player for instance).
- Cables should be long enough to allow you to reach a music player or aircraft sound plug connection comfortably without entangling you in excess wire. A detachable cable keeps it out of your way and can be handy for noise-cancelling headphones if you just want to listen to nothing at all.
- Plugs should fit the music player such as a phone, tablet, hi-fi system or games console. If you've bought an iPhone 7 smartphone, be prepared to either move to a wireless headphone or use the 3.5mm Lightning adaptor. However if you use the adaptor, you won't be able to charge your iPhone 7 at the same time.
- Cost matters and you generally get what you pay for. This means that generally speaking, the more expensive headphones and earphones will do a better job at sound reproduction.
- Sound quality of your music matters. Even the most expensive headphones won't make wonderful music out of digital files that have been heavily compressed or sampled at a low rate. To get a quality listening experience you need quality headphones and a good-quality music source.
Most of us can expect to lose the ability to hear some frequencies as we age. Excessive noise – including music volume – can speed-up this process and result in serious hearing loss if we overdo it. However, you can protect your hearing with these general rules:
- If you're listening to music on standard headphones or earphones and can't hear a normal conversation about a metre away, your volume is likely too loud.
- Remember, noise-cancelling headphones can cut out external sounds, so you need to monitor your audio volume.
- Cutting out ambient noise can also be dangerous, as you can't hear what's happening around you. It's unwise, for example, to wear headphones or earplugs of any sort when driving.
- Good-quality headphones and earphones can help save your hearing by producing higher-fidelity sound that allows you to experience more audio detail at lower volumes, so you don't need to crank up the volume too loud.
- Some audio players, including smartphones, let you set the volume limit so audio can't be played too loud. Apps are also available which can set volume limits to protect hearing. Check the online app store for your device.
Tip: If you like listening to music, then you probably enjoy going to a concert or two – or three, or four, or 50. The thing is, they're usually loud enough to wake the dead, but filtered earplugs can reduce these damaging volumes without reducing sound quality. See our filtered earplug reviews for more information.