Headphones Buying Guide

If you’ve spent more than five minutes checking headphones online, you’ve probably realised a few things:

  1. There’s thousands of different headphones.
  2. There’s thousands of different headphones with different properties and use cases.
  3. There’s thousands of different headphones with different properties and use cases, all within your budget.
  4. So you’ve furrowed your brow, opted out of the stress, and foisted this job to your future self (your limited spare time is better spent in nobler pursuits—like searching through your Netflix or Steam backlog).

All the headphones I’ve purchased have been for different uses, and each one has come with pros and cons. There’s a lot to consider, and hopefully this guide will help make the decision easier. Keep in mind that the following is in general terms. You may find a specific pair of headphones that behaves unexpectedly or as if it had different properties, and that’s fine. But this should match at least 90% of standard headphones on the market.

If you just want to get some recommendations for headphones based on different use cases and budgets, you can skip down to the section titled,”Which headphones should I buy?”

 

What are headphones? What are the most important properties of headphones?

‘Headphones’ are miniature speakers (drivers) that are placed on the listener’s head, so that they can hear sounds and limit disrupting other people. Pretty straightforward, right? But as I mentioned above, headphones come with different properties. For example: open or closed back; over-ear or on-ear; 2.0, 5.1, or 7.1 surround sound setups; sound signatures; and the list goes on (and on, and on).

Here is a quick primer on each of those more important properties:

Audio-Technica Open-back Headphones

Open vs. Closed Headphones

Open headphones have an ‘open back’ behind each speaker (hence the name), which unfortunately means that they leak sounds and you can hear background noise more easily. Okay, not great for being in a crowd.

However, compared to their closed counterparts, they often are more comfortable and breathable which means your ear won’t get as warm or sweaty and you can wear them for longer. Additionally, open-back headphones are often prized for having a wider sound stage (more on that later).

Closed headphones have stronger bass, and don’t leak anywhere near as much sound. But inversely to open ones, they can get rather warm since they don’t breathe as easily (and have a narrower sound stage).

Koss On-ear Headphones

Over-ear vs. On-ear Headphones

Over-ear headphones are comparatively bulky compared to their on-ear cousins. They have thicker headbands and cups that fully encase each ear. They tend to be more comfortable than on-ears, especially over long listening periods, except in very hot situations. But that potential added comfort (and possibly greater noise isolation) comes at the expense of portability—over-ear headphones tend to be better for home use.

On-ear headphones are often foldable or at least more compact. Because they don’t encompass the ear, they have less pronounced bass than their over-ear counterparts, and they can cause ear soreness or discomfort from compressing the ears over long listening periods. Nonetheless, they are best for those on the move. Highly mobile or space-conscious users will also want to consider in-ear headphones (earbuds and the like), but those aren’t the focus of this article.

Virtual (Stereo, 2.0) vs. True (5.1 or 7.1) Surround Sound Headphones

This is one of those rare cases where you should fake it, and then never make it. By that, I mean you’re often better off with virtual surround-sound than ‘true’ surround-sound headphones.

Why, you may ask?

AKG Stereo Headphones

Assuming identical costs, stereo headphones for virtual surround sound will have their budget divided between two drivers, whereas true surround sound headphones will have their budget divided among 10+ drivers. At a given price point, I would rather have two quality drivers than have 10 mediocre ones. Plus, since there’s only one driver in each cup, they can be bigger and provide a better sound. For the best results, only users with the highest budgets and the most prior audio knowledge should consider true surround sound headphone options.

Moreover, virtual surround is getting better all the time, with Windows 10 coming out with Windows Sonic a couple of years ago, and several USB DAC/Amps also sporting virtual surround.

Sound Stage Variations among Headphones

This one is a little tricky to define, and often you’ll come across different definitions and opinions on what this means. You’re listening to music on headphones, which means the drivers are barely more than an inch away from your ears. Yet some music sounds like it was recorded in a small studio, or a large open space, or even a concert hall. How well this is portrayed by the headphones is the sound stage. Or to summarise, it refers to how big the room ‘feels’ that the song is virtually playing in.

For most users, this is perhaps a concept that’s less important than others. It can give music that extra sparkle, something that just makes it that little bit better, but it shouldn’t be a deciding factor if you’re on a limited budget or primarily playing video games.

 

Which headphones should I buy?

Unsurprisingly, everyone has different requirements and preferences. Some people want to hear the exact placements of footsteps and gunshots in a game; some want middleground headphones good for both dialogue and music for watching movies; and some want wide sound stages with high accuracy for listening to music. Whether by budget or design, each set of headphones has trade-offs. They may excel in one area, but not in another.

Here’s a quick guide in case you’re not sure what to look for:

Use Case Scenario

Recommended Qualities

Suggested Headphones $50-150

Suggested Headphones $150-300

Music

Open (Closed if bassy music)

Over-ear

Stereo

Sony MDR-7506 Philips Fidelio X2
Movies

Closed

Over-ear

Stereo

Audio-Technica ATH-M40x AKG K-712
Games

Closed

Over-ear

Stereo

HyperX Cloud II Sennheiser GSP 600
Portable Listening (cabled)

Closed

On-ear

Stereo

Koss Porta Pro V-Moda XS
Maximizing Comfort

Open

Over-ear

Stereo

Audio-Technica ATH-AD500X AKG K-702
Maximizing Sound Quality / Overall Experience

Open

Over-ear

Stereo

Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO Sennheiser HD600

 

As a bit of a side note, you can still improve (or decrease) the performance of your headphones by modifying the equaliser settings. An equaliser is a filter that changes the loudness of certain frequencies. In combination with the above information, you can alter almost any headphones to suit your own preferences.

Personally, I have open, over-ear, stereo headphones—but I happily use them for gaming (keep in mind you can set stereo headphones up for virtual surround, as mentioned above).

 

Future Reading

Everything above, to an extent, involves the experience of the listener. In other words, it’s about general opinions and the preferences described throughout are not an exact science. In a future article, I’ll touch on details such as noise, frequency response, distortion, and time-based errors, which are more quantifiable.

 

Sources