Headphones now come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes to suit our every need. From extravagant audiophile-pleasers that offer incredible frequency range and clarity, to something you can wear at the gym.
The process we recommend to picking the right headphones is to first learn which style of headphones will provide the experience you're after, then consider your personal preferences for sound reproduction (ie: clearer treble vs more bass, etc) and finally start shopping within your budget.
Below, we detail all the major styles of headphones and what compromises a tight budget is likely to impose on the audible experience.
Earbuds sit just outside of the ear canal, using the tragus point to keep them in place. Needless to say, not everyone's ears are well suited to holding onto Earbuds, so this style may be ruled out from the start if you don't happen to have the manufacturer's ideal ear.
You've probably had a few pairs of Earbuds in the past, but the freebies bundled with Smartphones and MP3 players are just the tip of the iceberg – their basic performance can be outstripped just by spending a little extra money, or they can simply be replaced with an equivalent pair if the originals are lost or damaged.
Due to the imperfect shape of each ear they rest in, Earbuds will never offer the same level of sound reproduction as the other styles. They typically have little in the way of bass and don't block ambient noise, leading to increased listening volumes.
A good pair of Earbuds can last a long time and sound fine for regular use with portable media players or compressed audio source. Their light weight, and the fact they exert no pressure on the head, makes them ideal for all-day use with or without glasses. But if audio fidelity is your main concern, read on...
Earphones are slowly overtaking Earbuds as the most ubiquitous low-cost headphones, with some electronics manufacturers now including them free with more costly devices. They share some of the best features of Earbuds, like their low weight and spectacle friendliness, while improving on sound reproduction.
Earphones are a little like earplugs, in that little rubbery plugs go into the entry of the ear canal. This forms a seal which blocks more ambient noise than Earbuds, and thus provides a more controlled environment for the sound. Earphones almost always come with a set of plugs in different sizes to suit most heads.
This key difference can provide boosts in bass and overall clarity for a better listening experience. Some people may not like the feeling of the Earphones in place, but with time this usually becomes a non-issue. One drawback to the plug style of Earphones is that they are much less appropriate for sharing than Earbuds.
When looking to save money on Earphones, expect compromises in bass and high end clarity. Overall, a pair of Earphones should beat the equivalent price Earbuds for responsiveness and overall listening experience.
Supra Aural headphones sit on top of the ear, using padded cushions for comfort and noise reduction. Each driver is joined by a headband or neckband which is generally also padded for comfort.
This style of headphone can deliver much better sound than either Earbuds or Earphones thanks to much larger drivers. Recently, famous Supra Aural headphones like Beats by Dre or the Noontec Zoro have made this style of headphone trendy and popular. Their bass reproduction can run from 'flat-response' to heavily augmented low ends, and likewise their mid and high ranges tend to be very good.
Supra-Aural headphones can be foldable, wireless and/or noise cancelling. They can be compact or cumbersome, and are offered in many shapes and colours. This lends them to become fashion statements, but this doesn't have to diminish their performance (especially among high-end brands).
Drawbacks to the Supra Aural design can include limited comfort for people wearing glasses, pressure on the head and ears during long term use, and ambient noise leakage if the cushions aren't a good fit with your ear shape.
When on a tight budget, lower priced Supra Aural headphones tend to make compromises on either treble, bass, comfort and/or build quality.
Nothing beats a set of fully-enclosed, studio-quality Circumaural headphones. Premium headphones in this style can easily outperform multi-channel stereo systems, and even more reasonably priced pairs will do better than the other styles when it comes to audio quality.
Circumaural headphones have a dense foam-packed cushion with sits around the ear, making a contact seal with the side of your head for maximum passive noise reduction. Coupled with large drivers (generally of a superior quality than those found in Supra-Aural headphones) the audio fidelity available in this style is second to none.
Circumaural headphones are prized by professionals and consumers alike, from music composers to gamers, for their ability to deliver accurate sound across larger ranges. Again, Circumaural headphones can provide truer 'flat-response' sound, or shaped frequencies which accentuate the high or low end to better suit personal taste.
Drawbacks to Circumaural headphones include poor compatibility with glasses, heavier overall weight and shorter battery life on wireless sets. However, comfort is likely to be much higher even at lower price points.
Saving money on Circumaural headphones is rarely a good idea, but if you're on a tight budget you can expect to see the money saved in sound accuracy, materials and the quality of extras like built in microphones.
Earphones, Supra-Aural and Circumaural headphones now come in wireless variants, with some using the much-improved Bluetooth technology, and others using infra-red or radio frequencies. Each type of wireless has its own pros, cons and price points.
Benefits to a Wireless option include greater freedom of movement, no tangles and no tripping hazard. With Bluetooth, multiple source devices can be paired and easily switched between. If paired with a phone, calls can be answered and rejected without picking up the handset. Bluetooth tends to be the best all-round option, with RF being the favourite among audiophiles.
Drawbacks to Wireless include a limit on battery life, with some headphones chewing through batteries or requiring regular recharging. Weight also increases in line with the size of the internal battery, which may lead to comfort issues during long term use.
With the exception of Earbuds, all headphones offer some level of passive noise cancellation by creating a seal between the outside world and your ear. Circumaural headphones are the best at passive noise cancellation, but their performance varies between manufacturer and model. Passive noise cancellation is good enough for homes, offices and sound studios, but falls short on airplanes and in public.
Active Noise Cancellation uses a special piece of built-in hardware to 'listen' to the ambient noise around you and play back the same sounds 180 degrees out of phase. This tricks our ears into not hearing those frequencies, and can provide an uncannily silent environment in which to enjoy our music – even at thirty thousand feet.
Drawbacks to Active Noise Cancellation can include muddier audio in any frequency range depending on your environment. If the outside noise being cancelled coincides with the musical frequencies you're trying to listen to, it may not be correctly picked up by your ear. Active Noise Cancellation also relies on an extra power source, so expect additional weight and charge times for the battery.
In an effort to help you make the right purchasing decision, we've devised a simple rating system that ranks the five most important aspects of any pair of headphones:
We base our ratings on a comparison (where appropriate) with the superb Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro headphones. They are Circumaural studio-quality cans made for people who love audio accuracy and just a little extra bass. They're what we think of when people say comfortable. They're also darned expensive, so when a pair of cheaper headphones scores highly, you can expect them to punch well above their weight in that category.
All of our ratings are also weighted individually to give you an idea of their strengths and weaknesses of each pair of headphones. Short of being able to try them on, we hope that between our description and the star rating, you'll find the right match for you.
Sound is very subjective, and what sounds good to us may fall short of your expectations. If you need more information on any of our headphones, or have a question we haven't answered here, please fill out the form on our Contact page and we'll do our best to set the record straight.