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How to buy the best headphones and earphones

On-ear or over-ear, find the best style, sound and fit to suit you.

woman listens to headphones with eyes closed

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?

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In-ear headphones.

Headphones vs earbuds

Consumer headphones fall into one of two categories:

Earbuds fit at least part-way inside the ear canal, sometimes also clipping onto the ear. They're commonly called in-ear headphones or earphones.

Earbuds are 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.

However, 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.

The smaller size also means that wireless and noise-cancelling earbuds typically have a shorter battery life than on-ear/over-ear headphones. They also can't accommodate buttons so you need to use touch or voice controls, which can be fiddly.

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Around-ear headphones.

Headphones sit over your head and come in around-the-ear on on-ear styles. Sometimes, they're colloquially called cans.

The larger size usually means that you'll get better sound reproduction than with in-ear headphones. They can limit ambient noise more effectively and can be hung around your neck when not being used. Wireless and noise-cancelling models also usually have longer battery life than earbuds, and some support physical buttons rather than touch controls which can be easier to use.

But 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 earphone too.

Are over-ear or on-ear headphones better?

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 and therefore easier to store and transport. 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 (if the store allows).

Are wired or wireless headphones better?

Headphones connect to audio devices via a cable, Bluetooth or other proprietary wireless system in the case of some TV specific models. 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 a version of Bluetooth. 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. Some wireless over-ear/on-ear headphones (cans) include a cable input, so you can switch to a physical connection if you prefer.

What are truly wireless headphones?

These are 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.

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Sony WF-1000XM3 true wireless headphones.

Wireless connection types explained

Though Bluetooth is more or less the default wireless connection option, there are a few different versions available. Some of varying quality and only supported by certain headphones and devices (phones, laptops etc) with their own advantages and disadvantages. Below is a list of all the major versions but you need to check the specifications on your headphones and connected device to see what's supported.

How to pair Bluetooth headphones

The specific pairing process varies depending on your brand and model of headphones and the device you're using, but the basic steps are almost always the same. You need to activate pairing/scanning mode on the headphones and your device.

First, turn on your headphone's pairing mode. This usually involves holding down the Bluetooth button, or pressing the touchpad, for three to five seconds. You should hear a prompt such as noise or voice that says "pairing." The headphones will then scan for another Bluetooth signal for about ten to 20 seconds. Check the instructions for the exact process.

While the headphones are scanning, open the Bluetooth settings on your device (smartphone, tablet, laptop etc) look for an option called pair or add new device. Tap it and it will list all available devices nearby. Find the brand and model of your headphones, tap it and the two should pair after a few seconds. Once paired, they should automatically reconnect from then on.

Bluetooth phone screens

Look for these settings in your iOS (left) or Android (right) device.

Can you use wireless headphones on a plane?

You can use your Bluetooth headphones on a plane, even in flight mode, but the process is a bit fiddly. Flight mode turns off your mobile network and all wireless connectivity, as required by all airlines. However, you can turn Bluetooth back on in the settings and it will function as normal without causing interference. If you usually enjoy listening to your music on streaming services, you may need to download some of your favourite playlists to your smartphone to enjoy on the flight.

In flight entertainment isn't as easy. You'll need to buy a Bluetooth adaptor that fits the weird two- or three-pronged armchair input that can sync to your headphones. Though these exist, we haven't tested them so we can't comment on ease of use or sound quality.

How do noise cancelling headphones work?

There are two types of noise-cancelling headphones; passive and active. Passive noise cancellation blocks noise from getting in by forming a snug fit around or inside your ear, kind of like earmuffs. Active noise cancellation is quite different.

Without getting too technical, all you really need to know is that sound travels in waves. You can cancel out sound in a recording by duplicating and inverting the waveform, before putting the two against each other. Active noise cancelling headphones basically do the same thing on the fly. They have built-in microphones that capture the environmental noise and invert the wave to cancel it out.

Many modern headphones let you adjust the level of noise-cancellation, either buttons/touch controls, or in an accompanying smartphone app. Mid-level cancellation, for example, will let in some noise which can be a useful safety feature if you're walking near a busy road.

It will chew through the headphones battery however so keep that in mind if you're heading out on a long trip. You can usually turn off noise cancelling to extend battery life.

Other things to look for.

Battery life: long battery life is important if you travel a lot (including public transport) and if you want to use wireless connectivity and active noise-cancellation. Over-ear/on-ear headphones tend to have a longer battery life than in-ear headphones. Models with detachable cables may keep working if the batteries die, but you'll lose wireless connectivity and active noise cancelling features. The carry case that comes with truly wireless headphones almost always has a battery too for charging on the go.

Cable converters: converters let you plug wired headphones into a range of devices that support AUX 3.5mm, USB-A and USB-C.

Cable length: this should be long enough to allow you to reach a music player or aircraft sound plug connection comfortably without entangling you in excess wire.

Carry case: try to find headphones with a hard case as this will provide the best protection during travel. Soft cases can keep everything together, but they won't really protect the headphones.

Controls: there are a number of control options and it's up to you to find one that suits your needs. Some buttons are on the cable, others are built into the side of on-ear/over-ear headphones, and many use touch controls instead. You can even find some that support physical and touch controls. These are usually used for things like volume, pausing, skipping songs and answering calls. Touch commands can be fiddly and unresponsive at times.

Detachable cable: some wireless cans have a cable input so you can switch between wired and wireless mode when needed (e.g. when the battery dies).

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These headphones have physical controls and an optional cable input for wired listening.

Foldability: foldable headphones are handy if you travel a lot. Just make sure that the joints don't catch your hair.

Leakage measurements: this 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.

Microphone: a microphone gives you the option to make and answer calls and issue voice commands without having to get your phone out of your pocket.

Replaceable parts: it's easy to lose the ear canal fittings in ear buds and the pads around on-ear/over-ear headphones can get damaged over time. Good headphones should allow these to be replaced and parts should be readily available at retailers or via the manufacturer's website.

Voice commands: these let you communicate with digital assistants such as Alexa, Google Assistant or Bixby. You can use them to pick songs, make calls or even ask about the weather. Some headphones have built-in support for these whereas others need to piggyback off your phone. The only real difference is built-in support yields faster results as the headphones can handle the processing.

Tips to protect your hearing

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.

Can you wear headphones while driving?

There aren't any state or territory laws that specifically prohibit fully licensed drivers from wearing headphones whilst behind the wheel. However, they can work against you in the event of an incident.

States and territories have broad rules about maintaining proper control of the vehicle and removing any distractions. Headphones can be considered a distraction and may be considered the cause of an accident by police. This is because the idea of what constitutes proper control and distractions is often left up to police discretion.

Also, if you're using headphones to answer phone calls, then they may fall under specific smartphone legislation. This can make things particularly dicey for L and P-plate drivers, depending on which state you're in.

In fact, some states and territories do specifically prohibit L and P-platers from wearing headphones while driving. Even if yours doesn't, it's best to be cautious and not wear headphones until you have a full license.

Even if you are fully licensed, it's probably best to keep your headphones out. Not only can they be a distraction, but they can also block external sounds from your car or other drivers which could lead to a crash. If it's absolutely necessary, try to use a single bud in one ear, instead of blocking both.

Our car GPS buying guide below has a full breakdown of the smartphone legislation for each state and territory.

What about cycling?

Like driving, there aren't any laws prohibiting headphone use while riding a bike. However, road safety rules for drivers also apply to cyclists, which includes distractions and proper control of the vehicle.

How to clean your headphones

Headphones get the double whammy of being exposed to all the bodily gunk that's in and around your ear and everything floating around in public. You should give them a good clean every now and then.

You can clean earwax from your in-ear headphones by gently scraping it out with a needle or toothpick. Be very careful, as you can easily pierce and permanently damage your headphones if you're too rough, or push the earwax deeper into the electronics.

If this doesn't work, lightly push some blu-tack against the hole and pull it up. The earwax should cling to it and lift right out. Again, don't be too rough as the blu-tack can become stuck quite easily. If your earbuds have removable silicon fittings, take them off and give them a wipe with a damp cloth.

You can clean the wires and outside of the earbuds, or over-hear headphones, with alcohol wipes. Be careful using this on the pads as it may degrade the lining. Gently brush away anything that's accumulated inside the headphones.