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How to choose a pair of headphones

With so many options available, choosing the right headphones is a tricky business. Beyond variations in colour or general styling, the most obvious decision is between an over-the-ear and an in-ear style. It is a consideration that helps to sum up many of the other decisions that have to be made.

Headphones

Headphones or Earphones?

One of the first decisions you will have to make is if you want an earphone in your ear or a headphone that either sits over your ear or completely covers it:

Earphones, including in-ear styles and earbuds, tend to be small and light. Convenient and packable, they slip easily into a pocket or bag. They also don’t run a large strap over the top of the head, which makes life easier for those with long hair. This style is often bundled with smartphones.

Over-the-ear headphones are larger and heavier than earbuds. Their greater bulk makes them less convenient and portable. Most phones in this style have a broad strap running over the head, though some smaller variants will route the strap behind the head. Their larger size allows them to pack in more technology, so even basic models can have very good sound quality. This style is often used with a built-in microphone for gaming and online chatting. Robust and inexpensive, they are a good choice for children.

Larger phones can also cover the ears more completely and so retain the sound you’re listening to while keeping more of the outside noise out. This is particularly true for circum-aural models, which use pads to cover the ears, but also applies to supra-aural designs, in which the earcups sit on the ears rather than around them. Closed-back styles, which cover the back of the earcups, are more effective with passive noise reduction than open-back styles. Open-backs, however, allow a broader soundscape, with sounds seeming to come from a distance rather than from inside the listener’s head.

Choose your headphones depending on where you will use them

It helps to consider how and when the devices will be used. Larger styles are good for use at home or in studios, but lighter and smaller designs are more suitable for sports use. Used while jogging or at the gym, heavier models will quickly feel uncomfortable and are liable to fall off.

Even with smaller and more appropriate earbuds, it is important to get the right fit. Some sports models include a loop that sits around or in the ear, making the fit more secure. Others run a narrow band behind the neck and below the hairline, which holds the unit in place and can comfortably be used with hats or ponytails.

Just as headphone styles vary, so do earphones. Earbuds hang in the outer ear, which makes them very convenient but also liable to slip out of place. As their name suggests, in-ear designs use a flexible tip to sit snugly into the ear canal. To ensure a good fit, better quality in-ear models are supplied with several interchangeable tips in varying sizes and shapes. This ensures a good seal, excluding ambient noise and making them less likely to fall out during exercise. This style can give good sound quality while being unobtrusive, and it is often used for on-stage monitors.

Earbuds block less ambient noise, but this is preferable for cyclists who like to hear traffic or security personnel who need to hear ambient noise and radio transmissions. Some designs use a small loop to hold the earphone in place on or over the ear. Their convenient size and good passive noise reduction mean in-ear styles suit commuters contending with noisy buses or trains. Commuters might also consider folding designs of larger on-ear headphones, like the Sennheiser PX 100 II, an open-back model available for £35.

Smartphones and Wireless

Headphones or earphones intended for use with MP3 players or smartphones should have compatible in-line controls. Controls built into the cable will allow volume regulation and other adjustments. Models for smartphone use include call controls and a microphone. The Bose IE2 series includes in-ear sports variants and options compatible with iOS, Android, Blackberry and Windows phones, with prices ranging from £75 to £120.

Another issue worth considering is cable length. A longer cable suits those using a computer or home stereo, but for commuting or exercising a shorter cable is more convenient. To give users more flexibility, extension cables are sometimes supplied. Wireless offers an alternative solution. Wireless headphones for home or office use rely upon a base station connected to mains power transmitting via FM or Bluetooth. Earphones more commonly use Bluetooth. In both cases, the receiver’s batteries must be kept charged, but some units work with an optional wired connection.

Noise Cancellation

Headphones are available with active as well as passive noise reduction. While phones with passive noise isolation are shaped to create a seal that helps keep noise out, active noise cancellation systems monitor ambient noise and create a matching sound wave to cancel it out.

Active systems require power to do this and draw it from batteries or through a USB or similar connection. Without a power supply, some models will still function as standard headphones, but others will not operate at all. Logitech’s UE 9000, for example, costs around £230 but is an over-ear, closed-back, Bluetooth model that includes active noise cancellation, iOS compatibility and an optional cable for wired use.

Sound Quality

It helps to try headphones for comfort and for their sound quality and style. If a trial is not possible, check the models’ specifications. These often refer to the sound frequency range the phones can reproduce. A typical range is 20Hz to 20,000Hz, but variations reflect style as much as quality. Read descriptions to understand what headphones are best suited for: some sound profiles emphasise bass frequencies and are good for rock music, while others are more balanced and suit spoken word or classical music.

Higher quality and more expensive designs will, for example, use additional signal-transmitting armatures to achieve high-fidelity sound across a wide range. This level of fidelity will suit professionals but is excessive for joggers listening to MP3s. Styles and prices vary considerably, but with a clear idea of how you will use your earphones you are sure to find what you need.

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