Hey there! Welcome to my ultimate headphones buying guide.
I’ve been a serial buyer and user of headphones for about 25 years now.
In that time, I’ve bought good sets, great sets, a few bang-average sets…and a couple of absolute stinkers!
Maybe I can help you pick a great set of headphones first time!
I certainly hope so, because that’s why I wrote this ultimate headphones buying guide.
First up, we’re going to take a look at the most suitable types of headphones for different uses.
And then we’re going to look at what actually goes into making a great set of headphones…why aren’t all headphones created equal?
Shall we crack on?
Ultimate Headphone Buying Guide
First things first…
…what do you need a new set of headphones for?
Do you have one main use in mind? Or do your new cans need to cover a few different uses?
Audiophile, DJ, music producer, gamer, runner…just a straight-up lover of music?
Whatever your intended use, we’re going to make sure you know the key features to look out for in each case.
Audiophile / Music Lover Headphones
I’ve put audiophiles and music lovers/enthusiasts together because when it comes to buying headphones…
…these people are after the same thing.
The very best true replication of the original music they have the budget for.
Sound quality over everything else.
We’re talking music enthusiasts who have a deep passion for high-quality sound reproduction and appreciate the finer nuances of audio.
When it comes to buying the best headphones for audiophiles and music lovers, there are a few specific qualities and features they tend to look for…
…here are the main ones:
- Sound Quality: The most crucial factor for audiophiles is sound quality. They look for headphones that provide a balanced and accurate representation of audio across the entire frequency spectrum. This means that the bass, midrange, and treble should be well-defined and not overly boosted or suppressed.
- Spacious & Identifiable Soundstage: Good soundstage creates the perception of spaciousness and separation between instruments and vocals. Audiophiles prefer headphones that can produce a three-dimensional, immersive experience, making them feel like they are sitting in front of a live performance.
- Detailed Resolution: Audiophiles appreciate headphones that can reproduce even the finest details in the music. They want to be able to hear subtle nuances, instrument placements, and background sounds that might be lost with lower-quality headphones.
- Neutral and Flat Frequency Response: Audiophiles often look for headphones that have a neutral frequency response, meaning they do not overly emphasize any particular frequency range.
- Open-back vs Closed-back: Open-back headphones are preferred by some audiophiles because they provide a more natural, spacious sound, but they may not be suitable for use in noisy environments. Closed-back headphones offer better isolation and are more suitable for portable use, or just in noisier environments.
- Impedance and Power Requirements: Some audiophile-grade headphones have higher impedance, which might require dedicated headphone amplifiers to drive them effectively. Audiophiles may seek headphones that match their existing audio equipment.
- Comfort and Build Quality: Since audiophiles often spend extended periods wearing headphones, comfort is essential. A well-built, durable construction and comfortable materials are highly valued.
Of course, personal preferences always come in to play as different people will prioritise certain qualities over others.
And we can’t totally ignore the price tag, as the price range of headphones can significantly impact the features and sound quality on offer.
Studio / Music Producer Headphones
It’s fair to say that anyone involved in music production and studio work, also want honest sound replication.
But these music studio professionals probably have a keener eye on comfort and durability, because they’ll be wearing their cans a lot, and often over long periods of time.
Recording studio workers and music producers have specific requirements that differ from those of audiophiles due to the nature of their tasks in a studio environment.
Here are the key qualities a recording studio engineer or music producer will tend to look for when buying new headphones for the studio:
- Accuracy and Flat Frequency Response: The most crucial aspect for studio workers is accuracy in sound reproduction. They need headphones with a flat frequency response, meaning the headphones should not boost or attenuate any specific frequencies. This allows them to hear the audio as it actually is, without colouration, enabling them to make precise mixing and mastering decisions.
- High-Quality Isolation: Good sound isolation is essential to avoid sound bleed from the headphones into nearby microphones and to help the studio worker focus solely on the audio they are working on.
- Closed-Back Design: Closed-back headphones are generally preferred (but not always) in studio environments because they offer better isolation.
- Durability: Studio environments can be demanding, and equipment needs to withstand frequent use. Sturdy construction and durable materials are important to ensure the headphones can handle a professional studio setting.
- Comfort: Studio workers often spend long hours wearing headphones during recording, editing, and mixing sessions. Comfortable headphones are essential to prevent fatigue and discomfort during extended use.
- Replaceable and Detachable Cables: Studio workers prefer headphones with detachable cables, allowing for easy replacement if the cables get damaged or wear out over time.
- Extended Frequency Range: Headphones with an extended frequency range can help studio workers hear both low-end bass frequencies and high-end treble frequencies accurately.
- Foldable and Portable Design: If the studio worker’s job involves frequent travel or they need to monitor audio in different locations, having foldable and portable headphones can be beneficial.
- Compatibility with Headphone Amplifiers: Some studio-grade headphones may have high impedance, requiring dedicated headphone amplifiers to achieve optimal performance. Compatibility with such amplifiers is advantageous for the studio worker.
Overall, the primary focus for recording studio workers and music producers is accuracy, reliability, and durability.
They need headphones that allow them to make precise and informed decisions during recording, mixing, and mastering processes.
Music producers and sound studio engineers often have different preferences when it comes to choosing between open-back and closed-back headphones…
…and their decision depends on the specific tasks they work on in the studio.
Open-back headphones are generally favoured by music producers and studio engineers for certain critical listening tasks, such as:
- Mixing and Mastering: Open-back headphones provide a more natural and spacious soundstage, allowing producers and engineers to hear a more accurate representation of the audio and better perceive instrument placement, depth, and panning. This helps them make precise decisions during the mixing and mastering process.
- Analytical Listening: When examining the details and nuances of the audio, open-back headphones can reveal more subtle aspects of the sound, such as reverb tails, frequency balance, and transients.
- Extended Sessions: Open-back headphones can be more comfortable for long studio sessions due to their airy design, as they reduce ear heat and minimise listener fatigue.
However, closed-back headphones also have their place in music production and sound engineering:
- Tracking and Recording: Closed-back headphones are preferred during recording sessions (tracking) because they provide better isolation. They prevent sound leakage into microphones, helping musicians to focus on their performances without being distracted by external noises.
- Noise Isolation: In studios with multiple simultaneous recording sessions or noisy environments, closed-back headphones can offer essential noise isolation for the engineer or producer to concentrate on their work without distractions.
- Monitoring in Noisy Environments: When sound engineers need to monitor audio in loud environments, closed-back headphones can be more practical as they block out external noise and provide a more focused listening experience.
Both open-back and closed-back headphones have their strengths and weaknesses, and many music producers and sound studio engineers may use both types for different stages of their work.
The choice of headphones often depends on the specific tasks and requirements of the studio environment at any given time.
Solid, precise bass and crystal clear highs. That’s how I would describe the performance prerequisites of any headphones I buy for DJing.
The mids can’t be muddy of course, but they don’t need to be exceptional either.
Noise isolation on the other hand, does need to be exceptional. But passive isolation only, no active noise cancellation for me when DJing, I find it isolates you from the atmosphere as well as the noise. Just too much!
And don’t overlook the need for comfort.
You may well be wearing your chosen cans for two, three or four hours at a time.
You’ll want something that sits both comfortably over the ear as well as across the top of your head for prolonged periods of time.
Here are the key qualities a DJ would look for when buying a set of new DJ headphones:
- Sound Isolation: DJs often work in noisy environments, such as bars, clubs and festivals. Excellent sound isolation is crucial to block out external noise, allowing focus on cueing and beat-matching accurately.
- Rotating Ear-cups: Headphones with rotating or swivelling ear-cups make it easier for the DJ to listen to the headphones with one ear while keeping the other ear open to hear the crowd and the monitor speaker.
- Comfort and Durability: DJs typically wear their headphones for extended periods during performances, so comfort is essential to prevent fatigue. Additionally, the headphones need to be durable to withstand the rigours of live shows and frequent use.
- Closed-Back Design: Closed-back headphones are always preferred by DJs because they provide better sound isolation which is important in loud environments.
- High Sound Pressure Levels (SPL): DJ headphones should be capable of handling high sound pressure levels without distorting. This ensures that the headphones can handle the loud volumes often associated with DJ monitoring.
- Detachable Cables: Removable cables are practical as it’s easy replace damaged cables and have the option to use coiled cables that don’t get tangled during performances.
- Bass Response: DJs often rely on the bass frequencies to cue and mix tracks effectively, so headphones with a clear and well-defined bass response are preferred.
- Folding and Portability: DJ equipment needs to be easily portable, and foldable headphones fit this requirement, allowing DJs to store and carry them conveniently.
- Style and Aesthetics: While not a critical factor, many DJs do adore themselves and appreciate headphones that have a stylish appearance to complement their image during performances.
- Single-Sided Cable: Headphones with a single-sided cable are preferred to prevent cable tangling.
- Replaceable Ear-Pads: Replaceable ear-pads are valuable as they can wear out over time due to frequent use, and having the ability to replace them extends the life of the headphones.
DJ headphones should provide a balance between comfort, durability, sound quality, and practicality.
DJs often develop preferences based on their individual style and the genres of music they specialise in, so finding the right pair of headphones is a personal choice.
DJs always go for closed-back headphones.
You can’t write an ultimate headphones buying guide without covering gaming headphones. Not any more!
But I’ll be straight-up with you…
…I’ve never bought a set of headphones for gaming, so I had to bring in some help with this one, from a friend who is a serious gamer.
So with that quick heads-up, here are the key features and qualities that gamers typically look for when buying a new set of headphones:
- Sound Quality: Excellent sound quality is essential for gamers to immerse themselves in the gaming environment. They want headphones that provide clear and accurate sound, allowing them to hear details like footsteps, gunshots, and environmental cues.
- Surround Sound: Gaming headphones with surround sound capabilities offer a more immersive experience by providing a sense of directionality, making it easier to identify the source of sounds in games.
- Comfort: Gamers often wear headphones for long gaming sessions, so comfort is crucial. Headphones with plush ear cushions and an adjustable headband are preferred to reduce discomfort and fatigue.
- Noise Isolation: Good noise isolation helps block out external distractions, allowing gamers to focus on their gameplay without disturbances from the surrounding environment.
- Microphone Quality: Many gamers communicate with teammates during multiplayer games. A high-quality, noise-canceling microphone is essential to ensure clear and crisp communication.
- Wireless Connectivity: Wireless gaming headphones offer greater freedom of movement, especially for gamers who prefer a clutter-free setup or play games on consoles from a distance.
- Battery Life: For wireless headphones, longer battery life is preferred to avoid interruptions during extended gaming sessions.
- Low Latency: Gamers require headphones with low latency to ensure that the audio is in sync with the on-screen action, preventing any delay or lag, but this is sometimes hard to achieve with wireless headphones as they have a relatively high latency.
- On-Ear Controls: Convenient on-ear controls for volume adjustment, muting the microphone, and other functions are preferred for quick adjustments during gameplay.
- Design and Aesthetics: Many gamers also consider the design and aesthetics of the headphones to match their gaming setup and personal style.
Thinking about these features and qualities will help gamers find a set of headphones that best suits their gaming needs and preferences.
Running / Gym Headphones
Headphones or earbuds?
I have to say that I can’t figure out how anyone can either run out workout while wearing headphones.
For me, I just can’t get them to feel comfortable. But others obviously can, so hey, let’s consider them both!
What I know for sure, whether you choose headphones or earbuds, is that the sound has to be crisp and punchy.
Because you make quite a lot of noise when running or working out, so your buds/phones need to easily penetrate all that racket. You do not want to be struggling to hear your music during your work-out.
Whether it is earbuds or headphones, here are the key features and qualities that are important to runners and gym-goers:
- Secure and Comfortable Fit: Crucial to prevent headphones from falling out during intense movements and activities. They should stay in place and feel comfortable for extended wear.
- Sweat and Water Resistance: Headphones or earbuds designed with sweat and water resistance can withstand the moisture generated during workouts, ensuring they remain functional.
- Wireless Connectivity: Wireless headphones or earbuds offer freedom of movement during workouts, eliminating the hassle of tangled cables and allowing for unrestricted mobility.
- Long Battery Life: For wireless options, long battery life is essential to last through extended workouts without needing frequent recharging.
- Sound Quality / Punchy Sound: While audiophile-grade sound might not be a top priority, gym users still want headphones or earbuds with clear and balanced sound to keep them motivated during workouts.
- Noise Isolation or Ambient Sound Mode: Noise isolation can help block out external distractions, while some users may prefer an ambient sound mode to stay aware of their surroundings, especially when running outside.
- Lightweight and Portable: Lightweight and portable headphones or earbuds are preferred for easy carrying and convenience, especially for runners who may want to stash them in a pocket or armband.
- Durability: Gym users need headphones or earbuds that can withstand the rigours of workouts and occasional accidental drops.
- Easy Controls: Simple and intuitive controls for volume adjustment, play/pause, and track skipping are preferred for easy access during workouts without interrupting the flow.
The best headphones or earbuds for use while either running or in the gym should fit comfortably and very securely.
If they don’t, you can almost ignore all the other qualities because you will be totally distracted by trying to keep them in place, and you will ruin your training session.
Headphones Buying Guide: Manufacturers / Brands
For pretty much every product out there, you’ll tend to find a few big names dominating the marketplace.
The headphones market is no different.
The core technology underlying each brand of headphones is pretty similar. But that isn’t to say there isn’t very significant difference in performance, because there definitely is.
Quality of materials used, manufacture and production are key in what makes one set of headphones deliver an altogether different listening experience to another.
And after all is said and done, you may just find that one brand simply make headphones that are just exactly right for you, regardless of what everyone else thinks!
Here are a Few of my Favourite Headphone Brands:
Sennheiser: Worn by live TV sports presenters, TV crews, airline pilots, studio engineers and DJ’s. This is a big name in the world of headphones, and for good reason. These guys have notched up seven decades of studio sound equipment manufacture experience in their pursuit of perfect sound. Their HD 25 cans have been around for ever, undergoing several upgrades along the way, and are loved by sound professionals the world over.
Pioneer: Their name is readily associated with high quality sound equipment for home, studio and live performance. They too have bags of manufacture experience and showcase this through a meticulous attention to detail. The people at Pioneer have a knack of turning out super-cool looking cans (not that this should be part of your buying criteria) and are another big favourite with sound professionals right around the globe.
Audio Technica: Multi-decade experience creating high-performance microphones, headphones, wireless systems, mixers and electronic products for home and professional use. These guys also regularly get chosen to provide the microphones and headphones for globally televised sporting events…a great indicator that both their sound clarity and sound isolation is at the very top-end.
Beyerdynamic: These guys knocked out their first set of cans for serial production in 1937…now that’s experience in pretty much anyone’s book! Ticking all of the boxes for beautiful sound quality, outstanding sound isolation and comfort, the range of headphones produced is up there with the very best.
Headphones Buying Guide: Key Specifications
Browsing for the best headphones can be an intimidating experience for anyone who may be a little unfamiliar with the technical jargon that is found on the manufacturer specification sheets.
Here’s a brief overview of some of the common technical terms you’ll encounter when buying headphones:
- Over-Ear (circumaural), On-Ear (supraaural), In-Ear: Over-ear headphones completely enclose or cover the ear. On-ear headphones sit resting against the outer ear. In-ear…I reckon you can probably take a pretty accurate guess at this one.
- Open-Back or Closed-Back (sealed): Closed-back headphones are designed to block outside noise using a passive acoustic seal. Open-back headphones have the back of the cups open or vented. This lets more sound out of the headphone and also lets more outside sound into the headphone.
- Isolation: How much a pair of headphones eliminate outside noise naturally through their design, fit and manufacture.
- Noise Cancellation: How much a pair of headphones eliminate outside noise by employing dedicated active noise cancellation technology within the headphone itself.
- Driver: Probably the most important part in a set of headphones. The driver converts an electrical signal into sound pressure that can be heard by the ear, or more simply…sound. Headphone spec sheets will note the diameter of the drivers diaphragm in milli-meters. As a general guide (but definitely not always true), the larger the driver, the better the sound.
- Sensitivity and Sound Pressure Level (SPL): These two terms are interchangeable and you may find either on the headphones specification sheet. Very basically, they tell you in decibels (dB) how much volume the headphones can push out.
- Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): When you push any piece of sound equipment to the point where it’s close to it’s peak volume level, you expect to start getting some level of distortion. This number is expressed as a percentage and tells you just how much distortion you can expect when the volume is close to its maximum level.
- Frequency Response: This is measured and expressed in Hertz, and as a range, on the spec sheet. It’s simply the range of frequencies that the headphones can detect and produce from bottom to top…or bass to treble. For example the Sennheiser HD 25 has a Frequency Response of 16 – 22,000 Hz, which I think is a slightly wider range than the human ear.
- Impedance: How to explain this clearly? High electrical resistance = high impedance = more power required to drive your headphones. Lower electrical resistance = lower impedance = less power needed to make your headphones work. Most headphones for Djing tend to come in within a range of say 60 – 80 Ohms which is comfortably below the point where you’d need a dedicated amplifier to power your cans.
As you’ll be starting to gather, headphone specifications can get complicated and pretty involved.
What we’ve noted above are really the basics without going into the underlying detail. This should be enough to help you make a better informed decision when buying your new set of cans.
But should you be so inclined, and if there’s a tech-geek inside you waiting to get out, you should have plenty of fun getting to grips with the physics and electronics that go into producing great headphones.
Don’t get too obsessed with the specifications when choosing your new headphones.
Use the numbers as a guide in narrowing down which headphones might be the right ones for you. And which are right for you will depend on a number of things including how you use them, where you use them, and what you listen to when using them
What Should You Look for When Buying New Headphones?
We’ve probably already covered this when looking at the specific uses above.
But, just to broadly summarise the generally excepted requirements:
- Sound Quality: Look for headphones with clear, balanced sound and good frequency response to enjoy accurate and immersive audio.
- Comfort and Fit: Ensure the headphones are comfortable to wear for extended periods and have a secure fit to prevent them from falling off your nut.
- Durability and Build Quality: Choose headphones made from high quality, durable materials with sturdy construction to ensure they can withstand regular use.
Open Back or Closed-Back?
Some intended uses, largely rule-out the possibility of either one or the other.
For instance, DJs never use open-back headphones, simple as that!
But if you have the option of either, here’s a brief summary of what’s good, and not so good, about each of them
- Advantages: Open-back headphones have perforated ear-cups that allow air and sound to pass through, resulting in a more natural and spacious soundstage. They typically offer a more immersive and open sound, making them ideal for critical listening and audio enthusiasts who prioritise an accurate representation of sound. The open design also reduces ear heat and provides a more “airy” listening experience.
- Disadvantages: Since sound leaks in and out of the headphones due to the open design, they don’t provide much isolation and are not suitable for use in noisy environments. Additionally, the lack of isolation can disturb people around the listener, making them less practical for public or shared spaces.
- Advantages: Closed-back headphones have a sealed design that offers better noise isolation, making them suitable for use in noisy environments or when privacy is essential. They also prevent sound leakage, allowing listeners to enjoy their music without disturbing others. Some closed-back models can provide a punchier bass response due to the sealed enclosure.
- Disadvantages: While closed-back headphones can offer good isolation, the soundstage is often perceived as more intimate or closed compared to open-back headphones. This might not appeal to audiophiles who prioritize a more expansive and natural sound.
Ultimately, the choice between open-back and closed-back headphones depends on personal preferences, intended use, and the listening environment.
Is It Okay to Buy Cheap Headphones?
Buying cheap headphones can be a viable option depending on your specific needs and intended use.
But, it’s essential to consider certain factors and understand the trade-offs associated with buying cheaper headphones:
Pros of Buying Cheap Headphones:
- Affordability: Cheap headphones are budget-friendly and can be a good choice if you’re on a tight budget or need a temporary solution.
- Basic Audio Needs: If you only require headphones for casual listening to music, watching videos, or making phone calls, inexpensive options might suffice for basic audio needs.
- Portable and Disposable: Cheap headphones can be convenient for on-the-go use, and you might worry less about damaging or losing them.
Cons of Buying Cheap Headphones:
- Sound Quality: Lower-priced headphones may not deliver the same level of sound quality as higher-end models. The audio may lack clarity, have an imbalanced frequency response, or produce distorted sound.
- Build Quality: Cheap headphones often use cheaper materials and might not be as durable as more expensive options. They could be prone to breaking or wearing out quickly.
- Comfort: Cheaper headphones may not have the same level of padding or ergonomic design, potentially leading to discomfort during extended wear.
- Limited Features: Inexpensive headphones might lack additional features found in higher-priced models, such as noise cancellation, wireless connectivity, or customisation options.
The suitability of cheap headphones depends on your intended use and preferences.
If you require high-quality sound for critical listening, professional use, or extended sessions, investing in more expensive, reputable headphones might be a better option.
But, if you need basic headphones for casual use or are looking for a temporary solution, affordable options can be considered.
What Determines Sound Quality in Headphones?
The sound quality of headphones is influenced by various factors.
But, there are a few main ones that play a very significant role in determining the overall audio performance:
- Driver Type and Size: The driver is the component responsible for converting electrical signals into sound waves. The size and type of driver used in headphones directly impact sound quality. Larger drivers generally have more surface area to move air and can produce more robust bass and overall sound. Additionally, different driver types, such as dynamic, planar magnetic, or balanced armature drivers, have unique characteristics that affect the headphone’s sound signature.
- Frequency Response: The frequency response refers to the range of frequencies that the headphones can reproduce, typically measured in Hertz (Hz). A broader frequency response allows headphones to reproduce a wider range of audio frequencies, from deep bass to crisp treble. Headphones with a flat frequency response aim to reproduce audio without significant emphasis on any particular frequency range, resulting in a more accurate and neutral sound.
- Impedance and Sensitivity: Impedance, measured in ohms (Ω), and sensitivity, measured in decibels per milliwatt (dB/mW), affect how efficiently the headphones convert electrical signals into sound. Lower impedance headphones are easier to drive and work well with portable devices like smartphones and laptops. Higher impedance headphones often require dedicated headphone amplifiers to reach their full potential and are more common in high-end audiophile headphones. Sensitivity indicates how loud the headphones can get for a given amount of power, with higher sensitivity headphones requiring less power to produce the same volume.
- Materials Used in Manufacture: The quality of materials used in the manufacture of. set of headphones plays a big part in the end-products sound quality.
Of course, there are other factors like the headphone’s design, enclosure type (open-back or closed-back), and even the quality of the audio source that can influence sound quality.
A combination of these factors determines how headphones sound, and individual preferences play a significant role in choosing the best headphones for specific use cases.
Well, that’s my ultimate headphones buying guide! Not too much to add really.
Latest fashion and trends, along with the marketing strategies of some manufacturers can make choosing the best headphones a nightmare for anyone unfamiliar with the some of the technical terms.
But once you scratch the surface, it becomes apparent that as long as you arm yourself with a bit of knowledge around a few key areas, such as sound quality, noise isolation, comfort and reliability, you’re pretty well equipped to make a well-informed buying decision.