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?
Want to know how we get our review results? Check out how we test headphones.
If you've just unwrapped a shiny new phone with extra space for all your music collection you'll likely get a new set of earphones to match. That fact that they're new doesn't mean they're any good.
The standard issue earphones in most cases aren't usually good enough for capturing the detail in high-quality music and movies. So if you want to take your audio from awful to awesome, you'll need to make a few crucial decisions.
The first thing you need to consider is the choice of headphones (outside your ears) or earphones (inside your ears). This may largely be dictated by how and where you will use them as much as by the shape and size of your head and ears. There are pros and cons for each type, so if you're an avid music listener or movie fan you might want different styles for different occasions.
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 (see below).
- 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.
- Volume controls, preferably on the cable, can come in handy and save you fiddling with, or having to look at your music player while 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 than closed models because they are designed to allow more air to circulate through the casing. Some listeners prefer the airier sound of an open design, 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 have bought an iPhone 7 smartphone, be prepared to either move to a wireless headphone or use the 3.5mm Lightning adapter. However if you use the adapter, 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.
As a general rule, 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. 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.
- Tip: 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.