The Complete Guide to Buying Headphones

Save time with a guide to buying best headphones for you.

The guide will lead you by asking a few questions. Answer by following the steps, and you’ll have a good idea about what headphones are best for you.

Table of Contents
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    1. What Type of Headphones Do You Want?

    Arguably, there are 3 main types of headphone designs you can choose from:

    over-ear
    on-ear
    in-ear (earbuds)

    Then you can choose from features:

    wireless or wired
    closed-back or open-back
    active noise cancelling
    bone conduction

    Over-Ear

    over-ear headphones

    Over-ear headphones are the standard big cans that offer a lot of comfort but are big and heavy. The ear cups overlap the ears, hence the name over-ear (circumaural).

    These are most suitable for professional and home use when sound quality is a priority. Due to their large drivers and thick padding you get the best comfort and sound possible.

    On-Ear

    on-ear headphones

    On-ear (supra-aural) headphones are smaller with ear cups that don’t cover the ears but are pushed against them.

    They tend to be portable due to their size and lighter weight. Great for commuting, throwing them in a backpack, and enjoying on the omve.

    In-Ear Headphones (earbuds)

    Apple earbuds

    In-ear monitors or earphones are the smallest headphones we know. They fit inside the ear canal and take up very little space, so they’re portable and lightweight. Perfect for sports and on-the-go listening.

    You can get them super cheap, as low as $10, or expensive for $1000+ for custom in-ear monitors. Plus, like the Apple Airpods in the picture above, true wireless earbuds  are the latest design type.

    But, the current true wireless earbuds are often struggling with short battery life, especially if they have ANC. Tips before buying earbuds.

    Do You Want Wireless or Wired Headphones?

    wired and wireless headphones

    You need to decide if you want wired or wireless headphones.

    It has a big impact on headphone choice, user experience, and prices.

    Wireless headphones:

    •  Tend to cost more money
    • Better user experience without wires
    • Require frequent charging
    • Extra features with apps (if available)
    • Shorter lifespan, technology gets outdated faster

    Wired headphones:

    • Tend to be cheaper
    • Wires get in the way
    • No need to charge, work all the time
    • Usually no app support or customization
    • Evergreen technology that stays great for years

    There are 2 ways to connect headphones with a cord:

    The standard 3.5mm plug (AUX) that’s supported by most audio devices and Lightning and USB-C headphones that are hard to get and don’t sound that good.

    If you have one of the newer smartphones with a USB-C or Lightning ports getting a dongle that changes your phone’s port to 3.5mm is recommended (or use Bluetooth).

    Closed-Back or Open-Back?

    Generally, most headphones have a closed-back design.

    But some of them have an open back or semi-open construction.

    Koss Porta pro open-back headphones

    Koss Porta Pro are open-back headphones with high sound leakage but great soundstage.

    It means the drivers are not enclosed in the casing but open to air. This means a couple things:

    • Open-back headphones, leak a lot of sound and let in a lot of ambient noise.
    • Open cans sound better due to a bigger soundstage that improves the spatial cues (gives more of a life-like sound experience).

    On the other hand, closed-back headphones:

    • Are much better at passive noise isolation. So, other people don’t bother you, and you don’t bother them with your music.
    • Have a smaller, more intimate soundstage that originates from the middle of your head instead of around you.

    If you need good awareness of your surrounding, then open-back is a better option, as long as you don’t mind the sound leak.

    Active Noise Cancelling

    Active noise cancellation is a proven technology that cancels out unwanted background noise.

    It helps you focus on your music and videos in peace.

    Bose noise cancelling headphones

    Noise canceling headphones are a popular commuting accessory.

    ANC is widely used in headphones for traveling as well as everyday headphones. In fact, it originally got popular with pilots who are exposed to high frequent engine noise.

    If listening to music in peace is important to you, get noise-cancelling headphones.

    But there are limitations of ANC:

    • It’s only effective for constant and lower frequency sounds. It doesn’t cancel sudden random noises. Also, it won’t remove conversation and high pitches.
    • ANC headphones cost quite a bit more money. Top consumer models ranging in the $300-$500 price range.

    Check the top noise cancelling earbuds or headphones.

    Bone Conduction Headphones

    While bone conducting headphones aren’t a big group they are a viable option.

    AfterShokz Aeropex bone conduction headphones

    You might only have a choice of a couple different models but if regular headphones don’t work for you, these are something to consider.

    They send sound through the bones and work great in any sports settings including swimming. They keep your ears perfectly open to environment which is their advantage.

    You can find top bone conduction headphones here.


    2. How Do You Want to Use Your Headphones?

    The most important question is how to choose the right headphones for you and your needs. Knowing what the headphones need to do well will narrow the selection.

    Popular options to choose:

    Home Listening
    Portable (on-the-go use)
    Working Out and Sports
    Gaming (gaming headset with a microphone)
    For Traveling and Commuting (noise cancelling)
    All-around, versatile (a bit of everything)


    Home Listening

    Headphones for home listening can be big and wired since you can relax on your couch while listening or watching TV. So, the convenience of the wireless isn’t that amazing, and you don’t have to worry about the size either.

    Therefore, to maximize sound quality and comfort, check out:

    Over-ear headphones with wires

    You can get wireless too but expect to pay more money for lower audio quality.

    You’ll get the highest sound quality for the price. You can choose from closed-back and open-back designs.

    The difference is that open-back designs leak more sound but have better soundstage which means better audio quality.

    Portable (on-the-go)

    The best portable headphones are:

    Smaller on-ear and in-ear headphones

    Earbuds (or in-ear headphones) are the smallest and thus easiest to pack and take with you. You can usually get them cheaper too.

    For on-ear headphones, look for foldable construction as they are easier to store and take with you.

    Wireless

    You should pick wireless Bluetooth headphones for a wire-free experience. Cable is often annoying and in the way when you walk and move.

    Though, if you’ll only use them inside, like in school, you can get wired headphones and save some money.

    Working Out and Sports

    Headphones for working out and running have a couple special requirements:

    They need to be at least sweat or water-resistant and stay put during fast movement. For this reason…

    Earbuds (in-ear headphones) are the best, with on-ear headphones coming second.

    Make sure they have at least IPX3 rating (higher is better) or other certified sweat-resistance.

    You can find many dedicated sports headphones that come with ear wings, hooks, and eartips for extra stability.

    You can check out the best workout headphones here.

    Gaming

    Credit: Sean Do | Unsplash

    For immersive gaming, you need a quality gaming headset.

    A headset is a good combination of headphones and microphone.

    It will help you talk with your friends and enjoy high-quality sound.

    If you enjoy video games, a gaming headset is highly recommended, as it will vastly improve your experience.

    Hear the footsteps of your enemies before you see them, enjoy the positional accuracy of sound from an open world game and talk with your friends in comfort and perfect clarity. It’s essential equipment for any semi-frequent gamer.

    Most gaming headsets have an over-ear closed-back design with a boom microphone. You can get wired or wireless headsets.

    Also, make sure to pick the right set for your gaming platform.

    Generally, you can find PC gaming headsets as well as PlayStation and Xbox only models.

    As an alternative, you can combine a pair of regular headphones with an add-on microphone like the ModMic Wireless.

    For Traveling and Commuting (noise cancelling)

    Some of you might be traveling a lot and want a pair of headphones just for that. You’re in luck.

    Today, you have more choice of active noise cancelling headphones than ever before. Active noise cancellation is convenient, and it works great for travelers.

    Get over-ear headphones (often slightly smaller) and earbuds with active noise cancellation.

    Make sure they feature active noise cancellation. Even though, ANC headphones usually cost more money, it’s worth the price in the long run.

    With good traveling headphones, you’ll cancel out a lot of annoying background noise and enjoy your music or videos in peace (or get some sleep). These are the go-to headphones for frequent fliers and commuters.

    Cancel the engine noises, and people chatter with the best noise cancelling headphones here.

    All-around, versatile (a bit of everything)

    The versatile headphones do a little bit of everything. You can use them at home, take them with you as portable headphones and even take them on the run or to the gym.

    They might not be the best at anything but decent for many things. This way you only need one pair of headphones.

    You can pick any model for this job as long as they have the features you want.

    Average headphones might not be the perfect workout headphones but can still survive a bit of sweat.

    Also, take a look at wireless and foldable options for better convenience if you commute.

    3. What Features Do You Want?

    Microphone and Remote Controls

    Many headphones come with a built-in or in-line microphone and remote control for making phone calls and easier management of music.

    If you use a phone for listening to music and get calls frequently, this might be an essential feature for you.

    Water Protection

    Water is the biggest enemy of electronics. If you need headphones for working out or even just using outside in the rain, some level of water-resistance is recommended.

    Thankfully, a lot of the modern workout headphones come with dependable protection from sweat and water. Keep in mind, a higher IPX rating is better.

    Get water-resistant headphones to prolong their life and get more versatile headphones.

    Related: Bluetooth waterproof headphones and best swimming headphones.

    Special Bluetooth Codecs

    Today, unique Bluetooth codecs have become popular because they supposedly improve the wireless transmission of data, and thus, sound quality.

    The most common ones are aptX, aptX HD and Low Latency, LDAC, and AAC.

    And, while it’s true they improve the bitrate and send more data to your headphones, the sound quality difference is negligible, especially the older you get (hearing gets worse with age).

    You don’t have to believe us. Find out if you can hear the difference in audio quality from compressed and original.


    Do you have a better idea about how to buy best headphones for you?


    4. How Much Are You Willing to Pay?

    The price range you’re willing to consider is always an important question.

    Now, everybody has a different idea about how much cheap headphones cost and what’s expensive. But, the most common price ranges are the following.

    • Expensive, audiophile headphones are anything over $400.
    • High-end consumer headphones range from $200-$400.
    • Mid-end headphones cost from $50 to $200.
    • Cheap headphones generally cost anything under $50.

    These are our categories based on experience and are not set in stone. Prices have been increasing in the last couple of years and are prone to changes in the future.

    More expensive headphones are usually better and offer higher audio quality and better technology, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best choice for everybody.

    Maximizing the value you get from new headphones is the most important thing when making a decision. The price is an important factor.

    In fact, we love finding great cheap headphones that offer a ton of value.

    Here some of the most popular price categories:

    5. What Kind of Sound Do You Prefer?

    Not all headphones are made the same.

    They come with different sound signatures. The most common are:

    Balanced, flat – all ranges equally represented, great for all music genres

    Bass emphasized, bassy – low ranges are boosted, it goes deeper and has more power, great for modern popular music, liked by bassheads

    V-shaped – emphasis on bass and treble, makes the music more lively and energetic, popular for working out

    These are generally the most popular sound signatures but they’re not set in stone. There are other combinations of frequency responses and each pair of headphones is unique.

    In any case, if you prefer powerful bass response, go for bass headphones or earbuds.

    In case you’re not sure what you prefer, getting balanced, flat headphones is a good starting point as they sound good with all genres of music.

    And, while audiophiles might want to persuade you that balanced sound is the only way to go, there is no objective standard for what’s the best. So, listen to what you like most.

    Here’s an explanation of sound quality in headphones to get a better idea.

    6. What Makes Best Headphones for You?

    The last but not least, you need to ask yourself what makes headphones stand out for you.

    Do you prefer certain headphone brands or colors? What are your personal expectations? Ask yourself this…

    What brands do you like?

    There’s nothing wrong with personal preferences.

    What kind of reviews are headphones getting?

    Other people’s experience can tell you a lot about a product. It always pays to read those.

    What durability do you expect and want from your pair of headphones?

    You might be a heavy user that needs tough and tested headphones. Get the right headphone type to keep away from disappointment.

    Think About What You Want (with the questions above)

    And, you’ll have a much better idea about what headphones are best for you.

    You might likely find a perfect pair of headphones in one of our guides.

    Related Questions

    What is the difference between headsets, headphones, and earphones?

    • A headset is a combination of headphones and a microphone. Headsets for gaming are the most common.
    • Headphones are regular over-ear and on-ear that you fit on your ears.
    • Earphones are the small ear buds that fit inside your ears.

    Do I need a headphone amplifier?

    Only wired headphones with higher impedance require an amplifier. And, high-end headphones tend to need one for best sound. So, don’t splash your money on pricey cans if you don’t have a headphone amp.

    Keep in mind, lower impedance wired headphones can get louder with a weak power source like a smartphone. But high impedance models will clearly lack in quality.

    In case you’re buying wireless Bluetooth headphones, they have their built-in DAC, that’s usually strong enough to get the most out of the drivers. Though, you can still get a wireless headphones amplifier for the best Hi-Fi experience.

    What are the best headphone brands?

    According to an all-year 2018 survey, the top 10 brands voted by our visitors are:

    1. Sennheiser
    2. JBL
    3. Bose
    4. Skullcandy
    5. Sony
    6. Audio-Technica
    7. Beats
    8. Bang & Olufsen
    9. Beyerdynamic
    10. RHA Technologies

    You can find the survey here.

    Is it better to buy headphones online or in a store?

    There are pros and cons to each.

    Online you can make better and faster research. In the store, the salesperson will usually just try to sell you the headphones they get the best commission for (if commission based).

    The selection of different headphones is also much better online since stores don’t have the space to stock all the products.

    On the other hand, you often get hands-on experience in stores when they present test headphones. You can take them in your hand, listen to them and try their fit. Nonetheless, many headphones are just stored in boxes, and you can’t try them on without the salesperson.

    Plus, you never know how many people tried those headphones before you buy them. Personally, I like knowing my headphones are brand new and I’m the first to wear them since made in a factory.

    What about prices?

    Generally, online prices are lower, but that’s not always the case. You can find a good deal in a store too if you’re shopping at the right time.

    Consider shopping on special discount days and holidays. Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales are great examples.

    Buying headphones online is convenient. You can do it from the comfort of your couch. You don’t even need a laptop because almost everybody has a smartphone nowadays.

    Choose from a wide selection of headphones, compare the prices from different stores, and get the best price at the moment. Going to a store is a hassle for many people, and it’s more expensive if you need to drive there.

    How can you tell what headphones are wrong for you?

    You get your new pair of headphones delivered to your home. You’re excited. You open the box and try them on.

    They get uncomfortable really quick. While quality headphones provide great comfort for most people, they might not work for you personally. A pair of cans can get great reviews for comfort, but if they irritate your, return them and get another pair.

    You don’t like the sound quality. All headphones sound different. Some are flat, some bass-heavy and some in between. In any case, if you don’t like the sound of your new headphones and can’t get used to them, you should send them back. You’ll probably stop listening to them and put on some shelf forever. It’s a waste of money.

    You maxed out your credit card. Sure, expensive headphones are usually better, but that doesn’t mean you need to get an audiophile pair to be happy. You can find great value for money headphones that don’t cost an arm and a leg. $300 headphones aren’t 3 times better than $100 ones. Keep that in mind.

    Should you buy used headphones from eBay or other secondhand sites?

    You can definitely do that if you’re okay with having used headphones. You can save considerable money.

    But you have to be sure that the fact other people have worn your headphones doesn’t bother you.

    Plus, if you get wireless headphones, you should know that battery life diminishes with age. The older the headphones, the worse the battery capacity.

    Also, they might have visible signs of wear, skin grease, and an uncomfortable smell. It’s possible to reject those headphones but make sure that’s a policy on the secondhand site you’re using.

    What other question should you consider? Please let us know if missed some important aspect of headphone shopping.

    Now, remember what you learned here and go shopping. Hopefully, you get precisely what you want.


    By the way, what do you think of our headphone buying guide? Did it make it easier for you to buy headphones? Please let us know in the comments below or send us a message.