Choosing The Right Headphones For Music

Vincent Tabora
Mar 19, 2019 · 9 min read

Headphones, and their smaller counterpart earphones (e.g. earbuds, airpods), are speakers designed for attachment to the head or directly to the ears. It provides audio enjoyment for the user without disturbing others while the headphones isolate the audio for your privacy as well. Since these are personal devices that will be used often, they must be suitable to the user. I am going to present a guide on what to look for when choosing headphones.

A headphone is basically an electro-acoustic transducer, which is an analog playback device that converts electrical signals into variations in air pressure which vibrates a diaphragm. Inside your headphones is a magnetic coil that sends an electric current from the connection to a source e.g. music player. The source is where the music will be playing from and it can be a smartphone, laptop, music player or any other device. The electric current creates a resultant force from the magnetic fields in the coils, which drives the diaphragm to vibrate to produce sound. This produces the music that one hears.

It is good to have headphones that not only produce great music, but also have sturdiness, comfort and longevity. Looks are not the best consideration for headphones, since that can be misleading. Taking a look at the specifications is more important. It is also worth looking into what the headphones will be used for. There are casual, sporty, active and even immersive designs from vendors.

Choosing your headphones correctly will maximize its value and utility.

Here are some important things to look at.

Styling and Design

Although this is not the most important consideration, you will want to take a look at this if you have a certain activity that requires it. This is usually for users who do certain activities while listening to music. The requirement here will be for an active and sporty design. The headphones or earphones, should be able to stick to the head or ears while in motion. Certain hooks that clip around the ears or headbands that tightly hold, are important features.

If you are a runner or gym rat looking for headphones you can wear while working out, then you have to consider styling and design. The headphones should have anti-sweat capabilities and water resistance. For further convenience and practical purposes, wireless headphones allow for more motion especially during intense workouts.

Gaming headphones are another story. There are types you can buy that come with an integrated microphone that is a more convenient way for gamers to communicate with their team members or other players. However, if there is no microphone with the headphone, then a separate one will be needed.

Your typical headphones fit over-the-ear with a headband. A more sleek and refined design are what high-end consumers look for. This has to do with the construction of the headphones itself e.g. form and aesthetic appearance. Fancy looking headphones may actually cost more, due to their construction and design, but do not actually have the best performance.

Wired Or Wireless

Many headphones today are still wire based with a 3.5mm connecting jack. If the headphone wire cord is too short, it can limit your head movement. Users can buy a coupler to extend the wire length, but otherwise there are headphones that have > 3 feet cord lengths. The standard cord length on headphones is 3.9 feet/1.2 meters for reference.

Now it is possible to cut the cord and go wireless. Big name brands now offer both headphones and earphones that connect to your music source using bluetooth. There is a certain range between the headphone and device though, and it can be prone to more interferences than a wired cord.

Wireless ear buds (Photo Source Rowkin)

Audiophiles prefer wired headphones because they have better quality when it comes to audio fidelity or hi-fi performance. There is also no latency and it is compatible with most legacy devices that have a headphone audio jack port. They also don’t require a battery to operate, you just plug it in. They are also much cheaper, but it depends on the quality and brand. Professional headphones used in commercial systems are really expensive though, but provide the best audio quality ideal for music producers.

Wireless headphones and earphones are being marketed more for convenience and design. Without wires it can readily connect using bluetooth radio signals to compatible devices. While it is really discernible in audio quality compared to wired headphones, it does have some disadvantages. These headphones require battery to operate, so they must be recharged just like a smartphone. Once they malfunction or if the battery is dead, then your device will not operate. Some wireless headphones can also pick up interference from other devices, but better designs use more robust shielding techniques to prevent this from happening.

Comfort

If you actually go to a brick and mortar store rather than shopping online, you can try out the headphones. The most important thing to consider when trying them out is the comfort. Remember, headphones can be worn for hours like when traveling or to pass the time. If they are not comfortable this can be an issue for the user.

A nice, and soft ear pad on the headphones give comfort to your ears. Some types may fit too tight or the pressure to the ears cause plenty of discomfort. These pads should be soft and fit around the ear firmly. For earphones, an important consideration is that they don’t sink too deep into the ear canal but also must fit securely without falling off. This should also not cause any sort of discomfort or irritation, so trying them on at a store has its advantage over online shopping.

Comfort means longer use for consumers (Photo Credit: Tirachard)

Some users want total and absolute immersion when wearing headphones. In that case the best type of comfort would be one that allow the ear pads to cup the ears tightly, but without too much pressure to cause discomfort.

Frequency Response

This is often mentioned as a feature. What frequency response is about has to do with the range of audio frequencies that the headphones can produce. These audio frequencies translate to sounds, produced in the low frequency range (bass) to the higher frequency (mids and treble) range. Some brands advertise a frequency response with a range from 10 Hz — 22 kHz. Those ranges are actually either too low or too high for humans to hear. The actual range of audible frequency in humans is between 20 Hz to 20 Khz. In any case, a wide frequency response of ranges shows what the headphones are capable of. For hardcore audiophiles, the widest range of frequencies produces the best music. Otherwise, most people will not have the ears to identify everything they hear in the audible range of frequencies. Just remember that these metrics don’t measure sound quality, they just measure the frequency range the headphones are capable of.

Short wavelength audio is characterized by high frequency sounds. Longer wavelengths represent low frequency sounds.

Volume

Sound intensity or volume determines the loudness. Some users prefer loud volume to play their music, while others prefer a more calm but high quality non-distorted audio. The loudness of the sound produced is measured in Sound Pressure Level (SPL) using the dB (Decibel) as the unit of measurement.

SPL is logarithmic in nature, so its intensity doesn’t have a steep increase, but is more gradual.

The SPL uses the pressure of air as a reference value. 120 dB is usually the threshold for intensity in loudness that can cause discomfort to the listener’s ears. High-end headphones may have an SPL rating of up to 115 dB and close to 120 dB. That just provides information on how loud the headphones are when it is at full volume.

It is important to note that good headphones will not distort the sound at high SPL levels. Poorly made headphones can get “blown out” due to the intensity of the sound pressure level. Perhaps the design was not able to handle the SPL. It is good to read certain reviews about the product to see if it has any known issues. The Internet is always a good source for information regarding these issues that would otherwise not be known.

Noise Cancelation

This is a coveted feature for its obvious benefits. Noise cancelation is a feature that extracts unwanted sounds, or what is referred to as noise, from the audio being played. The noise is not produced from the actual audio being played, but this refers to noise coming from the outside. It sometimes becomes too distracting in an environment where there are plenty of people or while riding for hours on an airplane. Noise cancelation allows a more immersed experience where the user can focus on the music while shutting the outside world.

Another good benefit to noise cancelation is that it can help users sleep better in really noisy areas. By playing soft and relaxing music without turning the volume up, noise cancelation goes to work by taking the outside noise, much like recording it on a microphone, and then using it as a sort of output back into the user’s ears. So it seems that it is feeding the noise back to the earphones, but it is not. That is because it will then cancel the noise by matching its frequency with another wave, creating what is called destructive interference. That is what results in noise cancelation.

Strict audiophiles who prefer pure analog sounds will not appreciate these features, but for most users they are fine. It is important to note that when you have noise cancelation it will isolate you from the outside world, so it is probably best to still have awareness of what is around you. It is not a good idea to drive a car while using noise canceling headphones or wearing any headphones for that matter. Operating heavy machinery, which requires both audio and visual sensory feedback is also not the time to wear noise canceling headphones. These are just some examples of things to be aware of.

Get Headphones For Your Needs

Let us be practical and consider why buy headphones in the first place. If it is to replace old ones, then you would want something similar than the old one but updated to more recent specs. If you plan on using it for running or working out, don’t forget to get the appropriate type or else you could ruin your headphones.

The type of headphone can also depend on the type of music a user listens to. Some prefer loud bass and more low frequency sounds from musical genres like hip hop and R&B. Others may prefer a more mellow balance with smooth jazz and light rock. Many teenagers prefer catchier tunes in the pop, rock and electronic music genres that boost both low and high frequency sounds. Some headphones are designed for specific genres, so that is something to consider.

There are also “smart headphones” being marketed that implement a form of AI. These are just additional features that were developed to learn habits and musical preferences. They can also connect to streaming music services over a Wi-Fi connection, but as in the case of most free services, the tradeoff here is that your data will be collected for informatics and insights for third party ads. If that is the case, GDPR laws should force these companies to become compliant with disclosing to the users what data is being collected.

A $1,000 studio headphones is not ideal for using in the gym. You also would not want to buy active wear headphones if you only plan on sitting while listening to music. The active design will not be utilized well enough, so it is better off using regular headphones. For the serious audiophile or musicologist geek, a really nice quality and build is ideal. If all they do is listen to music for hours every day, comfort will become important as well.

Delivering the best music for headphones is not so much dependent on the source. A stereo component will provide the best audio source for speakers more so than headphones. Headphones will be more than suitable for devices like smartphones, tablets and laptop computers.

You usually get what you pay for too. Whether it is online or at the store, check out what your needs are first and match it to the headphone specs and features. Hopefully this guide provides some information on how to choose what is high definition.

Disclaimer: The information is provided for reference purposes only. The author is not liable for any decision made regarding purchasing of headphones. Please, always do your research to verify facts.

High-Definition Pro

Multimedia, Imaging, Audio and Broadcast Technology

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