Headphone buying guide


Put away those white earbuds. You can do better. The headphone industry has recently exploded, and as a result we now have a selection of headphones so vast, trying to pick just one borders on intimidating. With our headphone reviews, we aim to help readers narrow things down to a handful of qualified choices by offering some insight on a given headphone’s features, build quality, sound quality and relative ranking against like-priced models. Read on for a quick and dirty guide to go about picking out the best headphones for you.

Make sure to check out all of our headphone reviews as well as our selections for the best over-the-ear headphonesbest in-ear headphones and overall best headphones.

Picking the right headphone type

If you really care about sound, then we kindly suggest that you do yourself a favor and avoid just waltzing into an electronics store, grabbing some random headphones off the shelf and hoping that things will work out. Beyond just making sound, different headphone technologies can provide all kinds of handy features such as noise isolation, mobile device control and wireless operation; plus they all sound and feel totally different. With just a little bit of effort, you can find a set of headphones that you will love for years to come. This guide will help point you in the right direction.

The first challenge: There are too many choices! To help you narrow down which type of headphone is right for you, we’ve assembled a list and description of the most popular types of headphones.

Circum-aural: Better known as “around-the ear” headphones, circum-aurals bring big drivers and, therefore, big spacious sound to the party. Open-backed circum-aural headphones are among the best sounding headphones available, but they provide little, if any, passive noise isolation. With a good seal around the ear, closed-back models provide better passive noise-blocking, but watch out for tubby bass. Drawbacks: Big, bulky, not suitable for active lifestyles.

circum aural headphones buying guide

Supra-aural: Better known as on-ear headphones, supra-aurals are smaller and more manageable than their circum-aural cousins while still providing big sound. Most supra-aural headphones are closed-back and provide decent noise isolation if they fit well on the ear. Drawbacks: Matching ear-cup size to individual ear sizes can be tricky, potential for uncomfortable pressure and heat build-up.

Canal-phones: Also known as “in-ear” headphones, these bullet-shaped headphones are inserted into the ear where they seal just outside the ear canal. Most in-ear headphones provide excellent passive noise isolation but to get the best sound and noise-blocking, the ear tip must fit just right. Drawbacks: Uncomfortable for some, tendency to fall out if not fit properly.

in ear canal headphones

Half in-ear: A rare but effective design, almost like a hybrid between an ear bud and in-ear headphone. These often provide great noise isolation and superior bass response. Drawback: Not comfortable for all listeners.

Ear bud: Ear buds sit just inside the ear and broadcast sound at (rather than in) the ear canal. They are one of the least expensive headphone options and are often included with portable media players. Drawbacks: Little, if any, passive noise isolation, poor sound quality.

generic common earbud headphones

Active noise cancelling: These headphones use battery-powered electronics to produce sound 180 degrees out of phase with ambient noise. Use of these headphones is popular with frequent flyers and public transportation commuters. Active noise-cancelling options are most popular in circum-aural and in-ear models but can be found in supra-aural models as well. Drawbacks: Heavy, extra battery compartment, expensive.

Inline mic or control: An increasingly common feature that allows users to answer phone calls without removing the headphones. Both single-button and three-button options exist. Single-button remotes require a combination of multiple presses to execute different functions and usually don’t allow volume control. Three-button remotes simply add volume up and down buttons. Drawback: Mics not always of the greatest quality, difficult to monitor voice volume while speaking.

headphones inline mic earphones guide

Wireless: Wireless headphones have come a long way in the last few years and offer better sound quality than ever before, if you’re willing to pay the price. Bluetooth wireless headphones work well with portable devices while home-based wireless rigs usually operate on the same wireless radio frequencies as wireless Internet routers and cordless phones. Drawbacks: Bluetooth is finicky, RF is subject to interference.

Doing your research

Once you’ve decided on a headphone type and any extras you might want to come with them, it is time to do a little research. The Internet is your friend here. Start looking into headphone options that offer the features you want in a price range you are comfortable with, then read reviews on those models to get a feel for which performed well and which didn’t. We strongly suggest reading more than one review, since sound appreciation is highly subjective. There are also plenty of headphone forums where you can ask specific questions of people who may own the product you are interested in. Of course, you’ll want to launch your research right here at the Digital Trends headphone review page!

Having a listen

Once you have assembled a short list, we strongly encourage you to find a store where you can audition your headphone candidates. At the very least, order a pair or two from a merchant with a liberal return policy. It’s important to determine for yourself if the headphones sound right for you and equally important to determine if they fit well and are comfortable enough for long-term use.