What do you look for in headphones? There are many models to choose from, but your planned use should greatly narrow your choices. Sound quality, of course, is important to all; but for some, big bass is a must where others prefer open, full-range reproduction that emphasizes overall accuracy. Other factors include isolation, comfort, weight, portability, fit, etc. Are you needing good headphones for casual listening, to plug into a portable player of some kind? Or are you looking for a set of studio-worthy reference headphones for monitoring recordings? The following discussion of the different types of headphones and their applications will give you the basic knowledge you need to choose the right headphones for your purpose.
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What they tell you and what they don’t
The best way to evaluate headphones is by listening to them. Put on some acoustic guitar music—you’ll easily hear the difference between good and not so good. But two headphones that sound very different often will have similar specs. Probably the easiest and most useful spec is the price. In general, quality and performance relate well to price. Driver size is an important spec, especially if you want big bass. Typically, the larger the driver, the greater its ability to reproduce bass frequencies. Specs such as frequency range, sensitivity, etc., may be helpful to knowledgeable buyers deciding between high-end headphones, but not especially helpful for a less knowledgeable buyer choosing among lower-end headphones. A more helpful way of choosing among brands is to compare customer reviews on our website and look for reviews on harmonycentral.com.
Sweetened vs. flat frequency response
When you listen to the same material through different headphones, you’ll hear differences that are due in part to "sweetening." Sweetening refers to the EQing of the headphones to make the music sound better. In open-backed headphones, for instance, the bass frequences may be emphasized to counter the natural leakage of bass through the open back. Most general-listening, consumer headphones are sweetened in some way. There are two common sweetening modes: Free Field (FF) and Defined Field (DF). The first simulates an open listening environment without reflection, and the latter simulates an enclosed listening environment such as a room. For critical listening such as monitoring a mix, you don’t want any sweetening at all, but rather a flat frequency response that lets you compare and set levels precisely.
Circumaural: This type of headphone can be closed or open-backed. The term circumaural refers to how it cups your ear. Its padding encircles the ear and forms a seal. These headphones are usually comfortable, and closed-back models provide isolation from external sounds and keep the headphone sounds from leaking out. A circumaural design is a good choice for recording applications and for DJs who need to monitor music in loud environments.
Supra-aural: Headphones of this design are similar to circumaural headphones, except that instead of encircling the ear, they rest on it. Usually these headphones are lighter and therefore more comfortable. But since they do not seal as well as circumaural headphones, they are not as isolating.
Open air: Also referred to as "open-back," these headphones can be either circumaural or supra-aural, but the back of each earpiece is open, allowing sound to escape freely in both directions. Because they are non-isolating, they are not a good choice for recording studio applications. If used by a singer, for example, the headphone sound can leak and be picked up by the microphone and influence the tonality of the final recording. Their positive quality is an open, airy sound that isn’t fatiguing to the ears, which makes them a good choice for general listening.
Semi-open: This type of headphone, as the name suggests, falls between a fully open design and a closed-back design. While some sound leakage can occur, there is less than with an open-back design. Semi-open headphones usually offer a realistic stereo field, low distortion, and extended low-frequency response. They are often used for recording where there are no open microphones to pick up resonance from them.
Closed or sealed: These are the most isolating type of headphone. The backs of the earpieces are completely closed, which, along with an effective seal around the ear, prevents sound from passing in either direction. This design is especially good for monitoring in loud environments, and for use in recording because they keep sound from leaking out and being picked up by microphones. They also tend to have strong bass response, so DJs mixing dance music like them. On the downside, they can cause ear fatigue after use for extended periods.
Portable headphones: These are the open-air, lightweight, foam ear pad headphones used with portable players of various sorts. Often the ones that come with players are cheap and you may want to replace them with better quality headphones of a similar kind. They are light which makes them ideal for active wear, and the better ones can sound fantastic. Because they allow you to hear external sounds such as that runaway garbage truck bearing down on you, they are suited for use during activities where awareness of your environment is important.
Earbuds: Earbud headphones offer the ultimate in portability and light weight. They have no headband or foam pads that rest on the ears. They simply fit into the ear and form a seal that isolates the sound so that only you hear it. The better earbud-type headphones are hard to beat for sound quality, which is remarkable for such small drivers.
Noise-canceling headphones: As many commuters know, listening to music while traveling by car, train, or airplane is made difficult by the general level of background noise. For critical listeners, this can be frustrating because it blurs the nuances of the music. Noise-canceling headphones are designed to remove the background noise. They do this by means of phase-canceling technology.
Wireless headphones: There are a number of wireless headphones available. The advantage of having no cable is obvious. You’re free to roam as you listen. There are three basic types: infrared, RF, and digitals. Infrared models have a shorter reception distance and require line-of-sight orientation to the base unit transmitter. The RF models transmit further and will work through walls, but noise and sound quality can be an issue. Digital wireless converts signals to a digitally encoded signal, then the headphones convert it back to analog. This type is more noise-free than infrared and RF but more expensive. They also require power for the transmitter and battery power for the headphones.
DJ headphones: There are quite a number of headphones intended for DJ use. These are usually circumaural closed-back headphones designed for isolation. Many are standard two-cup headphones, but DJs also use single-sided headphones with just one cup. This allows them to hear a mix and the room simultaneously. Typically DJ headphones are louder so they can be heard over high ambient sound levels.
Fit and comfort
Comfort is important. Any headphone will feel fine if worn briefly, but when worn for long periods, many become uncomfortable. Wear the headphones for at least 20 minutes before deciding about comfort. The larger the ear cups the better when selecting closed-back, circumaural headphones. For headphones that rest on your ear, smaller is better, and fabric padding or leather can soften the pressure.
Weight is a factor in long-term comfort: in most cases lighter headphones are more comfortable. For long listening periods, the super-light portable headphones with foam pads are ideal.
The headband also influences comfort. Most headphones use a hanging style headband, but behind-the-neck styles are also available. Earbuds dispense with the strap entirely, so are more comfortable in that regard. Whatever the type of headband, you want it to be adjustable. Another feature for enhancing comfort is the rotating cup, especially on over-the-ear phones. You can adjust them to your head to reduce leakage and increase comfort.
Usually portability isn’t an issue: for active listening you get the lightweight portables designed for that purpose, while the heavier closed-back circumaurals are usually used for studio work and don’t do much traveling. These days, however, laptop computers and compact interfaces have made on-location recording more popular. This application requires closed-back, sealed-cup headphones that are bulkier. Fold-up designs are more portable and protect the headphones in transit. It’s wise to have some sort of case for your recording headphones if they are to travel.
You want your headphones to last. Unfortunately, durability often equates with heavier weight. Light headphones can be sat on or snapped in half more easily. You just have to be careful with them and put them in a protective case when they’re not on your head. If they are fold-ups, check out the hinges to see how strong they look. Are the cables substantial or thin and delicate? If you are buying higher priced headphones, find out if replacement parts are available. It’s a lot cheaper to replace a cable or the ear pads than to replace an entire set.
Basically, you want a cable with enough length for your situation, but it is best to avoid an exceptionally long cable because it can negatively effect sound quality by lowering volume and introducing noise, as well as becoming more easily tangled. A decent pair of headphones will likely have a shielded cable which counters noise. If you buy headphones with too short of cable, you can always add an extension, but you should be careful to get an extension cable of equal quality to the cable from the headphone. You should also add the length you want with a single cable rather than two shorter ones, as multiple connections can degrade the signal.
Another consideration is single-sided or double-sided cables. Single-sided have internal circuitry to carry the signals to the appropriate ear pieces. Most consider one-sided designs preferable, as the split type can become tangled too easily.