Shopping for headphones can be overwhelming. There are thousands of headphones out there to choose from. This post will make it easier for you to focus on the things that matter.
The Golden Rule of Headphone Shopping
There is no one headphone to rule them all
Headphones are designed with specific use cases in mind, so your purchase should be dependent on the environments in which you'll be using them. A studio engineer has very different requirements than a gamer/streamer, daily commuter, or DJ. The key is to understand your specific combination of requirements well enough to find headphones that are good or great at everything you'll be using them for.
Based on the activities you are involved in, it probably makes sense to have more than one pair. For the average person, I think the sweet spot is one cheaper wireless pair for the gym or outdoors that you can throw around in your bag, and one nicer pair for everything else.
Furthermore, audio quality is subjective. We all have different hearing abilities so someone else's perfect headphone might sound average to you. At some point, you just have to try it, so don't get too caught up in the research. Most companies have good return policies for headphones if you aren't able to demo it ahead of time and end up disliking whatever you decide on.
You don't need to break the bank
Headphones can get expensive but rest assured: the law of diminishing returns is in full effect:
Excellent headphones are available at every price range, even sub-$10. I'm looking at you, Panasonic Ergofit. If you go that route, I recommend spending the extra $5 to get the version with the in-line microphone. That covers the essentials for most people.
And let's be honest: high quality headphones are a luxury unless you use them professionally. Set your max price before you start shopping to avoid budget creep. You don't need to break the bank to find headphones you'll love.
The art of tuning out crying babies
If you're a frequent bus or air traveler, it’s worth the extra money for Active Noise Cancelling. Otherwise, closed-back (isolating) headphones or in-ear headphones that seal with rubber ear tips are typically a better option: you'll get better sound quality for your buck while still retaining a good degree of noise isolation.
[Update: my opinion has changed on this. Good (keyword: good) noise cancelling headphones have a wide variety of uses. I started a forum thread as I'm curious the various situations where people find noise canceling headphones useful.]
Must-know technical terms
There is a lot of technical jargon when reading a headphone spec sheet. Here are the most important ones you should be aware of:
Closed-back vs. Open-back
This refers to the design of the ear cups or housing.
Closed-back headphones are sealed and noise isolating, meaning they don't leak sound out or in. This is great for headphones you'll be using in quiet environments where you don't want to bother those around you, or be bothered by them. This makes it the safe choice as they can be used pretty much anywhere.
Open-back headphones have an "open air" design which means there is sound leakage, with the trade off of improved acoustics. You usually get a better soundstage (sense of space) with open-back headphones, but they leak sound out and in.
Bluetooth Codecs: Spotlight on aptX Low Latency
Codecs refer to the way your audio files are compressed and transmitted wirelessly from your device to your headphones. Headphones can be compatible with multiple codecs.
Most codecs focus on audio quality (e.g. aptX HD and LDAC), and chances are you don't need to worry about the supported codecs. It will just work and you probably won't notice any degradation in quality.
However, if you plan on using your headphones for watching movies or playing games, get a headphone with aptX Low Latency support or equivalent (these things change over time).
This ensures there will only be delay of ~40ms between what is displayed on the screen and what you hear in your headphones which is unnoticeable to the human ear. Compare this to other codecs which can have a delay of 150ms which may be noticeably irritating. Note: your source device needs to support broadcasting aptX LL. You can buy an USB aptX LL wireless transmitter for about $20-$30 if needed.
The drivers in headphones refer to the technology used to generate the audio waves. You can safely consider this technical jargon because it is not a strong indicator of the quality of the headphone. Popular driver types are dynamic, balanced armature, and planar magnetic. Companies implement these technologies in various ways, so comparisons between headphones using the same driver type is not necessarily apples-to-apples.
DACs & Amps: Do you need it?
Don't assume you need extra gear like a DAC (digital-to-analog converter), amplifier, or DAC/Amp combo. Many headphones only benefit little or not at all from external amplification.
If you want to keep things simple and don't want to worry about extra gear, stick to a headphone with low impedance around 32Ω and you should be fine.
To dive a little deeper, you can research how impedance and sensitivity matter when it comes to driving a headphone properly.
Summary / TL;DR
- There is no one headphone to rule them all. Make sure your headphones are made for the environments you'll be using them in (gym, travel, etc).
- Get familiar with the basic terms. Google is your friend.
- Set your budget early. There are great headphones at every price point.
- Active noise cancelling is only worth it if you travel/commute a lot.
- Check your prospective headphone's impedance and sensitivity specs to make sure they can be driven sufficiently from your source. You may need an external DAC/amp to get the most out of your headphones.