How to choose the best headphones

DIY Musician Blog post on picking the best headphones

Finding the right headphones for the job.

One fine evening last June I sat down after a workout to eat dinner and enjoy a few episodes of Frasier. I plugged my headphones into my computer so as not to disturb my neighbors (thin walls in my old building), but when I clicked Play, only the right channel had sound. I jiggled the jack in the headphone port, but nothing changed. The left channel was shot. My skills with a soldering iron are non-existent, so repair was not an option. I had owned this particular pair of Sonys for over five years and had put innumerable hours of music, movies and games through them; they had served their purpose and then some. It was time to buy a new pair of headphones.

What commenced was a summer of research, purchases and returns. Eventually I found a pair of closed back, low impedance, over-ear headphones that satisfied all of my requirements. If you’re considering a new pair of headphones and that last sentence sounded like Klingon to you, read on to learn all the terminology you need to know to pick the perfect pair for you.

Headphone Design

In just about every world, “design” relates to aesthetics, and while the two common headphones designs do look different, it’s how they sound different and in what scenarios they’re used that set them apart.

1. Closed back headphones

This is the most common type of headphone and the design most brands use for their consumer models. The backs of the earcups (the part that faces outwards) are closed off from the outside world by a covering, usually plastic and occasionally metal in high-end models. This traps the sound in and can offer some manner of sound isolation, meaning it prevents sound from leaking out and ambient noise from outside the headphones from leaking in. Even without active noise cancelling, many closed back headphones offer enough sound isolation that the wearer can’t hear someone talking who’s standing right in front of them.

The advantage: Only you can hear what you’re listening to.

The disadvantage: This design closes the sound in and can make the soundstage narrow.

Soundstage is the perceived placement of the audio mix around the listener. A closed design makes the listening experience more intimate but can make everything in the mix sound like it’s stacked on top of itself instead of spread out around the listener’s head. A stacked and narrow soundstage can sound artificial and unnatural to our ears, since up until the introduction of headphones to the consumer market in the 1960s, humans listened to music played all around us, either in a live setting or from loudspeakers strategically placed around us.

 

Sony MDR-V6: the closed back classics

2. Open back headphones

Like its name implies, this design has the back of its earcups open. The most common layout for this design is a grill over the back of the earcups so one can see through to the driver, which is part within the device that moves air within the earcup to make sound. This design is the complete opposite of closed back. Open back headphones offer no sound isolation and often leak like a sieve, meaning everyone can hear what the listener is playing and the listener can hear most outside noises unless he or she has the volume cranked, further annoying anyone around them.

The disadvantage: Open back headphones are not for use in public unless you want to start a fight. These are for home use only.

The advantage: That sweet, wonderful, wide soundstage.

Because open back headphones allow air to flow freely through the grills and drivers and into your ears, what you’re listening to sounds like it’s all around you. Many devotees of open back headphones use the term “outside the head” to describe the phenomenon. Think of it as being at your own (somewhat) private concert, that feeling of the music enveloping you, left, right, up and down. If you’re looking for a pair of cans for use only at home by yourself, consider hitting your local audio store to try a pair of open back headphones. The sound quality is worth locking yourself away from the outside world.

 

Grado SR80e: a typical open back design. Note the grill on the back allowing airflow to the driver

Impedance

In the audio world, impedance denotes the power required to drive a particular component. The impedance in speakers and headphones is measured in ohms (using the omega symbol Ω), which is the unit of measurement for electrical resistance. In general, a headphone rated a higher impedance will be more difficult to drive than one rated lower. This means a stronger amp is required to properly move the driver. Headphones can be reasonably split into two categories of impedance.

  • Low impedance: A headphone up to about 50 ohms (or 75 at the very top end) is considered low impedance. This means the pair can be powered by mobile devices to a satisfactory volume without the use of external amplification. With the proliferation of smartphones and tablets over the last decade, most consumer headphones are designed with low impedance to enable listener to power them with the devices most commonly used to listen to music now. If you use your mobile devices to listen to music, look for a headphone with low impedance. The ohms rating will be in the specifications section of the listing on Amazon or wherever you’re looking. Most consumer headphones are rated around 30 ohms. That’s the sweet spot for a mobile-friendly pair.
  •  High impedance: Any headphone from about 75 ohms and higher is considered high impedance and not normally designed for use with a mobile device alone without any outside source of amplification. Now, this does not mean a high impedance headphone will outright not work on a mobile device. If you buy a headphone rated at, say, 250 ohms, you can still play them with a smartphone or tablet. However, you will need to turn the volume near its maximum and the sound quality will not be at its full potential. It will sound thin and under-developed, especially in the lower register. When driven with proper power, a high impedance headphone will outperform one with lower impedance driven from a device without a dedicated amp.

Much like the open back design, the majority of high impedance headphones are made to be used at home with additional amplification. If you decide to go this route, buy a dedicated headphone amp to plug in to your computer to really bring out the full potential of your cans. It doesn’t take much from one of these to successfully drive even power hungry headphones, so don’t think you need to spend big money. Most of your investment should be going into your headphones, so if you decide on a high impedance pair you can get a mid-range amp for around $100 that will make those cans sing. Your ears will thank you. 

Earcup size

Headphones come in two different earcup sizes, which we’ll outline below:

  •  On-ear: This earcup design sits directly on the ear, making contact with the outer parts of the ear. Most consumer headphones are on-ear, and this earcup design tends to be the most affordable. With this type of earcup we bring in another term to describe the fit of headphones: clamping force. It matters greatly for on-ear models because if the clamping force is too tight it can cause discomfort for even moderate listening sessions as the on-ear design will push your ears into your head. Now, everyone’s head is shaped differently so one person’s “too tight” is another’s “just right,” but if you take some time to read reviews of the pair you’re looking at and a recurring critique is that the clamping force is too tight, that’s a good indication they’re uncomfortable for most head sizes and not just tiny or giant craniums.
  • Over-ear/around ear: Also known as “circumaural” in the audio biz, over-ear/around ear headphones are made to encompass the entire ear. The earcups are big enough for just about any ear size to comfortably fit inside the cups. Now just like head size for clamping force, “over-ear” is subjective depending on just how large someone’s ears are, but if you check out some images of a typical over-ear model, you’ll notice the earcups are huge, and designed with all but the top percentile of ear sizes in mind.

While over-ear models tend to be a bit pricier than their on-ear siblings, their advantage is that the majority of them are far more comfortable. Since the ear fits entirely inside the cup, it is not pressed against the listener’s head, so there’s no stress on the ear itself. I have my pair of on-ear headphones at home for recreational listening (maybe an hour each night) and a pair of over-ear at work, and I find I can wear the over-ear almost all day every day with very few breaks because my ears fatigue much less than with the on-ear model.

If you’re looking for headphones to use for extended periods of time – whether you’re going to use them for work or just enjoy long listening sessions – consider over-ear.

 

Sennheiser HD600: over-ear, open back, high impedance headphones. Those giant earcups will fit over just about any ear

Sound signature

The sound signature of an audio component refers to how it is tuned across the frequency spectrum: bass, midrange and treble. This is the most subjective aspect of choosing a pair of headphones, as people prefer different emphases on different frequencies. In the audio community, certain terms are used to describe headphones with different sound signatures:

  • “Warm” means the headphones tend to be heavier on the bass. These have more prominent low end and may often be “fuzzier” or “muddier” since the emphasis on bass can lead to distortion across the spectrum. If you like more oomph in your music, look for that terminology in headphone reviews you watch or read.
  • “Bright” is used to describe headphones that emphasize treble. They are the opposite of warm headphones in that they highlight the high end and tend to be more detailed than warm headphones. Some people find this focus on the high frequencies to make these headphones sound “brittle,” and brighter headphones will bring out the flaws in a recording more than warmer headphones.

It’s also worth mentioning that as people age, their sensitivity to higher registers lessens, as that is the first frequency that weakens in hearing loss. For this reason, many listeners middle age or older will find bright headphones more appealing because they emphasize a frequency that their ears require some assistance in hearing properly. Younger listeners will likely find bright headphones too harsh because they are still capable of hearing up into the higher ends of the spectrum.

Application

Lastly, if you’re looking for a new pair of headphones, there’s one question you should ask yourself: What am I going to use these for? Different headphones are better for different applications. Some of the terms used to describe the headphones are general, like “musical.” What does that even mean? In headphone reviews, that means the sound is “colored” a certain way by the manufacturer, either to emphasize a certain frequency or to make it more “fun.” These headphones are not what you would want to use for a more professional application, like mixing or mastering. For that, you would want “reference” headphones. These tend to be more accurate and true to your audio source. Audio engineers use reference class headphones when working because they reveal more details in the mix, good or bad. So if you’re listening to lower quality, compressed audio files, or you’re just looking for an exciting listening experience, it’s best to stay away from reference class headphones.

Where can I find headphone reviews?

Now that you’re armed with the knowledge you need to locate the ideal pair of headphones, the next step is to do some research. There are plenty of resources online that feature headphone reviews and discussion. Here are some of my favorites:

https://www.whathifi.com/us

https://www.headphonesty.com/

https://www.head-fi.org/

As usual, Amazon is a fine source of general reviews, but I find specialized sites like those above to be more informative and knowledgeable about something as niche as headphones. While hearing is subjective, I will err on the side of someone who has listened to dozens of pairs of headphones and knows where a set fits in all of the categories I outlined. So if you’re in the market for some new ‘phones, do your homework before you buy and you might just find that perfect pair.



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