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Headphone buying guide

Buying headphones can be head-spinning. Here's what you need to know

The experience of buying headphones can be like buying a car: Overwhelming, rife with misinformation, and a good opportunity to get ripped off if you’re not careful. With countless models on the market from thousands of brands, finding the right pair can feel like a needle-in-haystack scenario.

Luckily, here at Digital Trends, we review boatloads of audio equipment, and we’ve discovered some key ways to discern between the deserving and the drivel. Of course, if you want specific recommendations, you can check out our individual reviews, or better yet, our best-of lists (see below), but there’s something special about doing research and coming up with the perfect pair. In that spirit, we’ve crafted this headphone buying guide to help you get the absolute best sound and features for your dollars. Let’s do this!

Some relevant articles that could help:

Editor’s note: We’ve also posted a list of relevant terms at the bottom of this article to help you decipher all the jargon commonly used in headphone land.

Picking the right type of headphones

If you really care about sound and usability, we kindly suggest you avoid just walking into Best Buy, grabbing some eye-catching headphones off the shelf and hoping things will work out. The same goes for buying out of airport vending machines or just picking the highest-rated pair on Amazon (besides, those reviews aren’t always legit).

Beyond just making sound, different kinds of headphones offer all kinds of handy features like active noise cancellation (ANC), Bluetooth connectivity, and all sorts of built-in sensors; not to mention, there’s great variance in terms of how they sound and feel. With just a little bit of effort, you can find a set of headphones that you will love for years to come.

To help you begin your search, we’ve assembled a list and description of the most popular archetypes of headphones. Whether you’re talking about the wired or wireless variety, here are some basic design styles to consider before buying.

Over-ear headphones

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Circum-aural headphones, better known as “over-ear” headphones, bring big drivers and, therefore, big spacious sound to the party. Open-back circum-aural headphones are typically the best-sounding headphones out there, but they provide little to no passive noise isolation — i.e. you hear everything around you. With a good seal around the ear, closed-back models provide better passive noise reduction — both for you, the listener, and those around you — but watch out for bloated bass.

Over-ear headphones are popular choices for home listening, office use, or for travel purposes.

Benefits: Strong bass response, expanded soundstage, potentially better detail and dynamics.
Drawbacks: Big, bulky, not suitable for active lifestyles.
Example: Sony MDR-1000X Wireless

On-ear headphones

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Supra-aural headphones, or “on-ear” headphones, tend to be smaller and more manageable than their over-ear 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. On-ear headphones are typically used in the same circumstances as over-ear headphones.

Benefits: More compact and lightweight that over-ears, without sacrificing much power.
Drawbacks: Smaller soundstage. Matching ear-cup size to ear sizes can be tricky, with potential for uncomfortable pressure and heat build-up.
Example: Marshall Mid ANC wireless headphones

In-ear headphones

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Sometimes called in-ear monitors or “canal phones,” 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 quality, the eartips must fit just right. Technically speaking, anything with removable eartips is an in-ear headphone. In-ear headphones are most popular for everyday use, commuting, and exercise.

Benefits: Pocket-sized, good for active users, great passive noise isolation, potential for high fidelity.
Drawbacks: Uncomfortable for some, tendency to fall out if not fit properly.
Example: Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless SE wireless headphones


Image used with permission by copyright holder

Earbuds sit just inside the ear and broadcast sound at (rather than in) the ear canal. They are among the least expensive headphone options and are often included with portable media players (or offered by airlines to watch movies on flights). Something to keep in mind is that you’ll often see the term “earbuds” used in reference to in-ear headphones. In particular, most pairs of “fully wireless earbuds” are actually in-ear headphones (see below). Actual earbuds are fairly rare these days.

Benefits: Cheap, comfortable.
Drawbacks: Little (if any) passive noise isolation, poor sound quality.
Example: Apple EarPods

True wireless headphones

Bragi's Dash Pro Tailored by Starkey
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

“True wireless earbuds” or “fully wireless earbuds” — same thing — are a bit of a misnomer, as they’re almost always actually in-ear headphones. (Exceptions include the Apple AirPods.) Whereas most wireless headphones are connected via a neck leash (or, in the case of on-ear and over-ear headphones, a headband), true wireless earbuds consist solely of two little earphones with zero wiring. They almost always come with a little charge case, to help you avoid losing them and to augment their usually-poor battery life. True wireless earbuds are popular for exercising and commuting.

Benefits: Stylish, pocket-sized, great for exercise, serious autonomy.
Drawbacks: Poor battery life, easy to lose, middling sound quality for the money.
Example: Jabra Elite 65t

Wired vs. wireless vs. true wireless

You may have noticed each of our headphone examples above is of the wireless variety, and that’s no accident. In fact, the vast majority of new consumer headphones indeed offer wireless connection, though most still connect the two earpieces together by wire — either through the headband or (for in-ear headphones) via a small tether. True wireless headphones are the only kind with zero cables, though they come with their own drawbacks (as noted above).

There are numerous reasons manufacturers now focus on wireless headphones, including new innovations in wireless tech such as improved fidelity, longer-lasting batteries, and a more solid wireless connection to your device. Not to mention the fact that many smartphone makers (ahem, Apple and Google) have done away with the headphone jack altogether. The simple truth is that most buyers love the convenience of wireless headphones, and since many models also plug in when needed, there’s good reason to look at a pair of wireless cans.

That said, wired headphones still offer better fidelity, and as long as there are audiophiles, there will always be a place for them. In addition, you’ll get more bang for your buck from a wired version (if you can still find them), so if you don’t mind the cable, you can save some green.

To cancel or not to cancel?

Bose QC35
Bose QC35 Image used with permission by copyright holder

Along with wireless connection, many new headphones also now come with active noise cancellation (ANC). Pioneered by Bose back in the ’70s, these headphones use battery-powered electronics and exterior microphones to reproduce sound that is 180 degrees out of phase with the noise around you, in essence eliminating some of those ambient frequencies. Use of these headphones is popular with frequent flyers and public transportation commuters. Active noise-canceling options are most popular in over-ear and in-ear models but can be found in on-ear models as well.

Keep in mind that headphones with ANC are often heavier, bulkier, and more expensive. In addition, not all noise canceling is created equal, so you’ll want to shop our list of the best noise-canceling headphones (linked at the top) to find the best choice for you.

Other advice

Do your research

Once you’ve decided on a headphone archetype and any extras you might want to come with them, it’s time to do a little research. The internet can be 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. Try checking out our headphone reviews, or refer to the link bank near the top of the page to see some of our favorite picks. There are also plenty of headphone forums where you can ask specific questions of people who may own the product you’re eyeing.

Be careful of online product ratings and reviews

As previously referenced, Amazon reviews — and reviews on pretty much any online retailer — are sometimes fake, paid for by the manufacturer to give their headphones a reputation of quality. That doesn’t mean you should discount online reviews altogether, but it does mean you should read reviews carefully, and look at the name of the reviewer. If it reads like it was written by a robot or it’s full of buzzwords, it might not be reputable.

According to the Washington Post, more than half of the thousands of reviews for the top 10 Bluetooth headphones on Amazon at time of this publication were “problematic,” indicating a high likelihood that they were paid for, so … watch out.

Have a listen

Once you’ve assembled a short list, we strongly encourage you to find a store where you can audition your headphone candidates. If that’s not an option (and it very well might not be, since Radio Shack is dead and Best Buy only stocks a few brands), 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.

Common features and terms 

Bluetooth: This is the primary means of wireless connectivity in the vast majority of headphones (and in many other technologies). While removing wired connections will always result in some loss of audio quality, Bluetooth has progressed to the point where wireless codecs like aptX HD and Apple AAC offer relatively impressive fidelity. There are Bluetooth headphones of all kinds, and each pair mentioned in our examples above uses the technology.

Passive noise isolation: This refers to a pair of headphones’ ability to block out sound passively, simply by fitting snugly in, on, or around the ear.

Inline mic or controller: A common feature especially on in-ear headphones, and almost always present on leash-style wireless headphones that allows users to answer phone calls without removing the headphones. Both single-button controllers (for Android) and three-button controllers (for iOS) exist. Single-button remotes typically require a combination of multiple presses to execute different functions and usually relegate volume control to your phone or listening device. Three-button remotes simply add volume up and down buttons.

Sensors: Some headphones — mostly fully wireless earbuds and leash-style wireless headphones — employ a variety of built-in sensors. These range from accelerometers and gyroscopes, which can track your motions for exercise purposes (or automatically pause music when you remove one of the earphones, as with the Apple AirPods), to biometric heart rate sensors and optical touch sensors (used to swipe and tap to control music playback and phone calls).

Voice assistants: Some headphones feature digital assistants — like Siri, Alexa, Google Voice, or Bixby — built-in. You can activate them and speak to them through the microphone to get information as you would with a smartphone or smart speaker.

Sound amplification: Some headphones include sound amplification technology, which can be toggled to boost certain frequencies — like voices, if you’re having a conversation — while reducing certain frequencies (like traffic).

Volume limiting: Some headphones are designed to limit volume, ensuring that you don’t harm your hearing by jamming too loudly.

Neckband earphones: Also called “leashed” or “tethered” earphones, neckband earphones are wireless, but the left and right earpieces are connected by a cable or band designed to sit on the back of your neck.

Eartips: The part of an in-ear headphone that actually sticks into your ear canal. In-ear headphones almost always have removable eartips (and most headphones will come with extra sizes, at the very least). Silicone and memory foam eartips are most common, and some silcone tips are flanged to improve fit and seal.

DAC: This stands for digital-to-analog converter. It’s the piece of technology which converts digital signals into audio playback that your ears can perceive. All smartphones, computers, and portable music players have built-in DACs, and wireless headphones have DACs and amplifiers built in as well. Some music lovers use stand-alone DACs and amplifiers in concert with their laptops or phones to get clearer, better-sounding audio.

HRA: This stands for Hi-Res Audio. Some headphones are certified to play back high-resolution audio, which means they’re capable of reproducing frequencies up to 40kHz (which is actually above the limit of human hearing). If that’s the case, you should see the logo Hi-Res logo somewhere on the website or on the packaging itself. That said, there are many audiophile headphones (including many of the best headphones in the world) which do not have the certification.

Editors' Recommendations

Nick Hastings
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Nick is a Portland native and a graduate of Saint Mary's College of California with a Bachelor's of Communication. Nick's…
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