Headphone Buyer's Guide

    Intro

    by Headsnack

    Back in the early days of home hi-fi audio, headphones were used primarily as a tool to listen to LPs, late at night. In the early 80s, with the advent of the Walkman, the personal, portable headphone market began to take shape. Now, thirty years later, we are at the pinnacle of audio quality, style, options and comfort.

    Perhaps you’re reading this guide to figure out what all the fuss is about. After all, you have that pair of plastic ear buds that came free with your phone! The first thing to understand is that they were free for a reason. They are made with inexpensive components and will not transmit the fidelity that your precious music collection deserves. If you want all your tunes to be faithfully reproduced, you’re going to want to upgrade.

    The first thing you should ask yourself is how you will be using them. While you can use one pair for everything, each style/form is usually created with a particular use in mind. For example, if you need a pair to listen to music on your mobile device, you might not be looking for the same features found in a pair of headphones engineered for studio use, like tracking vocals or mixing down your band’s album. With so many different ways to pipe music into your ears, it can be overwhelming. This guide is designed to help you wade through the options to find the best pair for your needs.

    Note: In each category of headphone, you’ll find everything from entry-level to professional options.

    Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphone
    Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphone
    Bose QC20 QuietComfort In Ear Headphones For Samsung And Android Black
    Bose QC20 QuietComfort In Ear Headphones For Samsung And Android Black
    Beats by Dre Mixr On Ear Headphones Gold
    Beats by Dre Mixr On Ear Headphones Gold
    Westone UM Pro 20 Dual Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 20 Dual Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
    Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
    Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
    Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Closed Back Around Ear Professional Headphones
    Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Closed Back Around Ear Professional Headphones
    AKG K240Studio Professional Over Ear Semi Open Studio Headphones
    AKG K240Studio Professional Over Ear Semi Open Studio Headphones
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Acoustic Cancelling Headphones for Samsung and Android
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Acoustic Cancelling Headphones for Samsung and Android
    Shure SE535 Triple Driver Earphones
    Shure SE535 Triple Driver Earphones
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD 650 Over Ear Audiophile Headphones
    Sennheiser HD 650 Over Ear Audiophile Headphones
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones iOS White
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones iOS White

    What is a headphone?

    Headphones, sometimes referred to as “cans,” are output transducers, which means they convert audio signals (electrical energy) back into sound (acoustic energy). Unlike some pro audio loudspeakers, headphones are full-range transducers designed to fit snugly on the ears. Some designs block out ambient (external) sound, while others do not.

    Every model of headphone sounds different from the next, each with its own audio signature. Unlike speakers, portable headphones offer features to consider based on the environment in which you’re using them. Are you looking for long-term comfort for mix sessions, minimal sound leakage while traveling, or perhaps enhanced bass response for monitoring while performing in a club?

    Drivers
    Drivers are the unit that produces sound in headphones. They are made of magnets, diaphragms, voice coils, and other components. The better the driver technology and quality, the more faithfully the sound will be reproduced.

    Headphone Cables
    In several models the cable is permanently attached to the ear cup but more professional headphones have detachable cables. There are a few reasons for removable cables. The first is that they are replaceable, so should something happen to your audio quality over time, you can purchase a new cable. The second reason is that some models will come with two or three different cables of varying length and type, some being straight with others being coiled (helix). This is a great feature for those that want a high quality pair for use in the studio or for DJing, but then want to use the same pair for their mobile device. Attach the 10ft helix cable for DJing and then switch it to the 3ft straight cable for listening while commuting.

    Headphones cables are generally made of 99.5% pure copper wire, but in some circumstances, especially in higher-end headphones, they may be produced with materials such as oxygen-free copper.

    Headphone Plugs
    Headphone plugs generally come in two forms, the standard 1/4” plug or the smaller 3.5mm mini-plug. The 3.5mm is the same size you can find on portable audio devices such as today’s smart phones. Mini-plugs come in the standard straight format as well as L-shaped varieties. The tips of the plugs are usually gold-plated which prevents corrosion, a sound-quality killer. Most headphones come with an adapter that allows you to use either size plug.

    Frequency Response
    To the average consumer, headphone specifications might be overlooked. However, frequency response is important to understand. The lower the number, the more accurately bass frequencies can be reproduced, whereas the higher the number, the more high the frequencies present in a signal. Even though the human hearing range is 20-20,000Hz (Hertz), the greater the range of frequency response, the better the listening experience.

    Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphone
    Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphone
    Bose QC20 QuietComfort In Ear Headphones For Samsung And Android Black
    Bose QC20 QuietComfort In Ear Headphones For Samsung And Android Black
    Beats by Dre Mixr On Ear Headphones Gold
    Beats by Dre Mixr On Ear Headphones Gold
    Westone UM Pro 20 Dual Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 20 Dual Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
    Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
    Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
    Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Closed Back Around Ear Professional Headphones
    Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Closed Back Around Ear Professional Headphones
    AKG K240Studio Professional Over Ear Semi Open Studio Headphones
    AKG K240Studio Professional Over Ear Semi Open Studio Headphones
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Acoustic Cancelling Headphones for Samsung and Android
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Acoustic Cancelling Headphones for Samsung and Android
    Shure SE535 Triple Driver Earphones
    Shure SE535 Triple Driver Earphones
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD 650 Over Ear Audiophile Headphones
    Sennheiser HD 650 Over Ear Audiophile Headphones
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones iOS White
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones iOS White

    Headphone Designs

    Closed-back design Closed-back design
    Also referred to as circumaural, closed-back headphones fully enclose the ears to reduce sound leakage. Many over-the-head headphones are closed-back and are widely used for DJing, in the studio, and for casual listening where sound quality matters.
    Open-back design Open-back design
    Open back headphones enclose the ear but the sound may be audible to others, and environmental sounds may leak in. Being open creates a more natural listening experience but they are usually intended for private, indoor use.
    On-ear design On-ear design
    Also referred to as supra-aural, or ear-pad headphones, this on-ear design sits on top of your head but rests on your ears. They do not completely enclose the ear.

    In-ear design In-ear design
    Both earbuds and in-ears fall into this category. Earbuds fit inside the ear whereas in-ears need to be inserted into the ear canal. They are lightweight, ultra-compact, and can provide moderate isolation of outside noise depending on the style. In-ear monitors also fall into this category, designed for professional use on stage so that each performer can hear their own dedicated mix.

    Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphone
    Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphone
    Bose QC20 QuietComfort In Ear Headphones For Samsung And Android Black
    Bose QC20 QuietComfort In Ear Headphones For Samsung And Android Black
    Beats by Dre Mixr On Ear Headphones Gold
    Beats by Dre Mixr On Ear Headphones Gold
    Westone UM Pro 20 Dual Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 20 Dual Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
    Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
    Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
    Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Closed Back Around Ear Professional Headphones
    Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Closed Back Around Ear Professional Headphones
    AKG K240Studio Professional Over Ear Semi Open Studio Headphones
    AKG K240Studio Professional Over Ear Semi Open Studio Headphones
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Acoustic Cancelling Headphones for Samsung and Android
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Acoustic Cancelling Headphones for Samsung and Android
    Shure SE535 Triple Driver Earphones
    Shure SE535 Triple Driver Earphones
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD 650 Over Ear Audiophile Headphones
    Sennheiser HD 650 Over Ear Audiophile Headphones
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones iOS White
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones iOS White

    DJ Headphones

    DJ HeadphonesAll DJs require headphones in order to monitor what is being played back on each deck. As a DJ, there are a few different characteristics to look for. Most DJ headphones have swivel ear cups allowing for the single-ear listening position. This is necessary for DJing as you’ll want to hear what the crowd hears, while also being able to cue up or blend in the next song.

    Each ear cup length is individually adjustable for a secure fit. They should also be well cushioned for comfort because you may be wearing them for hours at a time. In addition to durability, portability is also important; which is why most DJ headphones are collapsible so they can be easily carried in a travel pouch.

    They are traditionally of a closed-back design with ear pads that enclose the ear perfectly so that sound cannot travel in or out. This not only blocks out noise, but also creates a controlled environment for better sound.

    You may also be interested in replaceable ear pads. If you take care of your headphones they may last for years to come, but depending on the conditions during storage, travel, and performance, the ear pads could wear out over time. Having the ability to buy replacements ensures a longer overall life.

    Some higher-end DJ headphones feature powerful neodymium magnets (part of the drivers) for powerful, bass-driven stereo sound. The Ultrasone DJ series feature their S-Logic Surround Sound which has 40% lower dB, giving you the same loudness sensation without the risk of eventual hearing loss. They also produce up to 60% less radiation than ordinary headphones, making them a healthier choice for your ears.

    See All DJ Headphones
    Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
    Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
    Ultrasone Edition 8 Ruthenium Headphones
    Ultrasone Edition 8 Ruthenium Headphones
    Pioneer HDJ2000MK2 Professional DJ Headphones in Black
    Pioneer HDJ2000MK2 Professional DJ Headphones in Black

    Studio Headphones

    Studio HeadphonesStudio headphones are sometimes labeled as “professional” or “monitoring” headphones. They employ a closed-back design to provide excellent attenuation of ambient noise. You can count on a robust construction combined with extensive features that meet the requirements of today’s most demanding applications. They also feature increased sound pressure level for accurate sound reproduction in all kinds of demanding use.

    There are a few things to look for when purchasing studio headphones. First off, make sure they’re comfortable for extended hours of use. Second, superior sound isolation is essential. This will prevent the metronome and/or music from leaking into your microphone. Finally, sound quality is key. Like a good pair of studio monitors, studio headphones should produce a flat, accurate representation of your music.

    Higher end versions feature replaceable parts (sometimes including extra detachable cables) and models such as those by Ultrasone are known to reduce ear fatigue (using their patented S-Logic technology) and have shielded drivers that lower emissions for healthier listening.

    See All Audio Headphones
    AKG K240Studio Professional Over Ear Semi Open Studio Headphones
    AKG K240Studio Professional Over Ear Semi Open Studio Headphones
    Sony MDR7506 Professional Stereo Headphones
    Sony MDR7506 Professional Stereo Headphones
    Shure SRH840 Professional Monitoring Headphones
    Shure SRH840 Professional Monitoring Headphones
    Shure SRH1540 Premium Closed-Back Headphones
    Shure SRH1540 Premium Closed-Back Headphones

    Specialty/High-End Headphones

    Specialty/High-End HeadphonesOutside of the studio market lies the high-end market for those that just want a pair of headphones for listening, without having to compromise audio quality. These will usually feature an advanced acoustic system with powerful neodymium magnets and lightweight diaphragms for a lifelike stereo sound experience. Some models feature Bluetooth technology so you can enjoy listening wirelessly.

    See All Audio Headphones
    Sennheiser HD 650 Over Ear Audiophile Headphones
    Sennheiser HD 650 Over Ear Audiophile Headphones
    Audio-Technica ATHW5000 Audiophile Striped Ebony Wooden Headphones
    Audio-Technica ATHW5000 Audiophile Striped Ebony Wooden Headphones

    Earbuds

    Earbuds sit inside the ear and are usually the style of headphone that comes free with your mobile device. Some are designed for just this, whereas others feature an asymmetrical cable that can be worn behind the neck or attach behind the ear. You can find ones specifically designed for athletic use, or some that feature a built-in remote or microphone so that they can be used to talk on the phone.

    While portability (you can carry them in your pocket), and ability to use them on a phone call are great features, fidelity and build-quality are sometimes compromised. Being that the cable is usually never replaceable, when something goes wrong and your sound starts to cut in and out, perhaps in one ear, you will need to repair or replace them.

    They are sometimes designed with style in mind, coming in different colors and adding accessories such as different sized ear pads. Once you get into the upper echelon of earbuds, you can expect a dramatic increase in sound quality.

    See All Earbuds
    Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
    Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
    Westone UM Pro 20 Dual Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 20 Dual Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphone
    Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphone
    Westone UM Pro 10 Single Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 10 Single Driver Earbuds
    Ultrasone Pyco High Performance Earbuds
    Ultrasone Pyco High Performance Earbuds

    In-Ear Monitors

    In-Ear MonitorsIn-Ears sit directly inside your ear canal. While some are designed for casual listening or athletic activities, these should not be confused with In-ear monitors.

    In-ear monitors are usually part of a wireless system. Sennheiser makes great in-ear wireless monitoring systems that are used by professional musicians. They allow musicians or audio engineers to hear a personal mix of their music while on stage. Imagine playing on stage with the ability to have your own mix of the music (perhaps you need to hear the vocals more than others in the band). In-ear monitors are in an invaluable, trusted tool for musicians that want to take their performance to the next level.

    The in-ear monitoring system is comprised of a sturdy metal housing transmitter that sends a mix wirelessly to a pair of in-ear earphones. They feature tunable frequencies for interference-free reception. Some models by Sennheiser feature an ethernet port to connect to software for visual control.

    See All In Ear Monitors
    Galaxy Audio AS-1100 Wireless In Ear Monitor System
    Galaxy Audio AS-1100 Wireless In Ear Monitor System
    Shure P3TR112GR PSM300 Wireless In Ear Monitor System
    Shure P3TR112GR PSM300 Wireless In Ear Monitor System
    Sennheiser EW300IEMG3 In Ear Wireless Monitor System
    Sennheiser EW300IEMG3 In Ear Wireless Monitor System

    Noise Canceling

    Noise CancelingNoise canceling headphones monitor the noise around you and cancel it out, helping you to focus more on what you hear, whether it’s music, or simply peace and quiet. They are popular for use on airplanes as they reduce the noise of jet engines which can cause ear fatigue over time. Due to their special abilities, they require batteries which usually last for extended hours of playing time.

    See All Noise Cancelling Headphones
    Bose QC20 QuietComfort In Ear Headphones For Samsung And Android Black
    Bose QC20 QuietComfort In Ear Headphones For Samsung And Android Black
    Audio-Technica ATHANC9 QuietPoint Active Noise Cancelling Headphones
    Audio-Technica ATHANC9 QuietPoint Active Noise Cancelling Headphones
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Acoustic Cancelling Headphones for Samsung and Android
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Acoustic Cancelling Headphones for Samsung and Android

    Accessories

    Headphone Amplifier Headphone Amplifier
    Headphone amps are distribution systems in which multiple pairs of headphones can be connected at once. These are ideal in studio situations in which every participant needs their own feed of music.

    Headphone Cables
    Headphone extension cables can come in handy in the studio environment, especially if your vocal booth is far away from your audio interface. Some headphone models such as those by Shure or KRK feature replaceable headphone cables, not to be confused with an extension cable.

    Headphone Cleaner Headphone Cleaner
    Headphone cleaner is used to disinfect headphones and earbuds. It is a safe way to remove oil and wax buildup as well as reduce odors. This is ideal for live sound venues, classrooms, studios, and any other place where multiple people use the same headphones.

    Headphone Travel Bags
    It’s always a good idea to protect your investment. There are several protective bags which can be used for travel and storage. These eliminate dust and protect your headphones during transport.

    Headphone Adapter Adapters
    If your headphones only have a mini stereo 3.5mm (1/8”) plug and you want to use them with professional audio equipment such as a DJ mixer, you’re going to need an adapter. Both 1/8” to 1/4” and the reverse are good to have on hand.
    Headphone Holder Headphone Holder
    Headphone holders employ a clamp that can be fastened to a microphone or cymbal stand. They are super handy for studio use and prevent your precious cans from hanging to the floor, risking damage. Some models are also free standing that can be placed on a desktop.

    Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphone
    Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphone
    Bose QC20 QuietComfort In Ear Headphones For Samsung And Android Black
    Bose QC20 QuietComfort In Ear Headphones For Samsung And Android Black
    Beats by Dre Mixr On Ear Headphones Gold
    Beats by Dre Mixr On Ear Headphones Gold
    Westone UM Pro 20 Dual Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 20 Dual Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
    Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
    Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
    Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Closed Back Around Ear Professional Headphones
    Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Closed Back Around Ear Professional Headphones
    AKG K240Studio Professional Over Ear Semi Open Studio Headphones
    AKG K240Studio Professional Over Ear Semi Open Studio Headphones
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Acoustic Cancelling Headphones for Samsung and Android
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Acoustic Cancelling Headphones for Samsung and Android
    Shure SE535 Triple Driver Earphones
    Shure SE535 Triple Driver Earphones
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD 650 Over Ear Audiophile Headphones
    Sennheiser HD 650 Over Ear Audiophile Headphones
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones iOS White
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones iOS White

    About the Author - Headsnack

    Hailing originally from Long Island, and now living in northern New Jersey, Headsnack has specialized in creating training materials for some of the biggest names in music gear retail, for over 12 years. His Training Snacks brand has produced several pro audio category and product training segments which can be found on YouTube and in written form on AmericanMusical.com.

    As a musician, Headsnack is a positive-minded producer, performer, and lyricist who specializes in electronic beat-making and writing hilarious songs that mock humanity. His music, which has been described by fans and reviewers as everything from “throwback boom bap” to “futuristic”, has been licensed to several artists, labels and films including Public Enemy, Sky Mall, and the Independent Film Channel. His viral-style YouTube videos have garnered over 25,000 views and he has also DJ’d for various clubs and parties for over 15 years.

    Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphone
    Shure SE846 Sound Isolating Earphone
    Bose QC20 QuietComfort In Ear Headphones For Samsung And Android Black
    Bose QC20 QuietComfort In Ear Headphones For Samsung And Android Black
    Beats by Dre Mixr On Ear Headphones Gold
    Beats by Dre Mixr On Ear Headphones Gold
    Westone UM Pro 20 Dual Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 20 Dual Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
    Sennheiser HD8 DJ Headphones
    Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
    Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Closed Back Around Ear Professional Headphones
    Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Closed Back Around Ear Professional Headphones
    AKG K240Studio Professional Over Ear Semi Open Studio Headphones
    AKG K240Studio Professional Over Ear Semi Open Studio Headphones
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Acoustic Cancelling Headphones for Samsung and Android
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Noise Acoustic Cancelling Headphones for Samsung and Android
    Shure SE535 Triple Driver Earphones
    Shure SE535 Triple Driver Earphones
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Westone UM Pro 30 Triple Driver Earbuds
    Sennheiser HD 650 Over Ear Audiophile Headphones
    Sennheiser HD 650 Over Ear Audiophile Headphones
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones iOS White
    Bose QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones iOS White
    See All Headphones
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