The Complete Guide to Buying Headphones

Here’s the ultimate headphone buying guide that will save you a lot of time.

It’s a simple guide that will lead you by asking a few questions. Decide by following the steps, and you’ll have a better idea about what you want and what specific models are best for you.

1. What’s Your Purpose for Buying Headphones?

How you want to use your headphones and for what purpose is the most important question to answer. It will be a lot easier to decide what kind of design and technology is best for your needs.

Choose between:

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

Table of Contents

    Home Listening

    Headphones for the home 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, check out the over-ear headphones with wires, those offer 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 in and out but have better soundstage which means better audio quality.

    Portable (on-the-go)

    As portable headphones, smaller on-ear and in-ear headphones are best.

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

    As for on-ear headphones, look for foldable ones as they’ll save you more space which is always good.

    You should also pick wireless Bluetooth headphones for a hassle-free experience while you take them around. Cable is annoying if you move around a lot.

    Still, if you’ll only use them inside, like in school, you can get wired. They’ll work fine.

    Working out and Sports

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

    They need to be sweat and water-resistant and stay put during movement.

    For this reason, ear buds (in-ears) and on-ear headphones are best.

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

    Today you can find many dedicated sports headphones and earbuds that come with special wings and eartips for extra stability and comfort.

    You can check out the best workout headphones here.


    Pic: Sean Do | Unsplash

    For immersive gaming, you need a quality gaming headset. A good combination of headphones and microphone that 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 quality 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 get a pair of regular headphones and combine them 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.

    You can choose from over-ear headphones (often slightly smaller) and earbuds. Make sure they feature active noise cancellation. True, ANC headphones usually cost more money, but 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 you can find 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.

    2. What Type of Headphones Do You Want?

    Arguably there are 3 main headphone types you need to choose from:


    over-ear headphones

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


    on-ear headphones

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

    In-ear (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 there are true wireless earbuds.

    Have You Considered Bone Conduction Headphones?

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

    Do You Want Wireless?

    Apart from that, 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 and require constant charging but provide a better user experience for most people. If you hate charging the battery life stick with wired.

    As for wired headphones, you have 2 choices.

    The standard 3.5mm plug that’s supported by most audio devices or

    USB-C headphones that are hard to get and don’t sound that good

    If you have one of the newer smartphones with USB-C or Lightning connections getting a dongle that changes your phone’s port to 3.5mm is necessary.

    Will You Use a Headphone Amp?

    If you use a headphone amplifier, then you can get headphones with higher impedance. And, high-end headphones tend to require one, so don’t splash your money on pricey cans if you don’t have a headphone amp.

    Lower impedance headphones can get louder with a smartphone. For wireless Bluetooth headphones that doesn’t matter because they use their own DAC.

    3. What Features Do You Want?

    Mic and remote control

    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.

    Noise cancelling

    Active noise cancellation is a proven technology that cancels out unwanted background noise. So, you can focus on your music and videos in peace.

    ANC is widely used in headphones for traveling as well as everyday headphones.

    If listening to music in peace without the noise is important to you, get noise-cancelling headphones.

    They cost a bit more money but are worth the price.

    Check the top noise cancelling earbuds or headphones.

    Open-back design

    Generally, most headphones have a closed-back design, but some of them have an open back.

    It means the drivers are not enclosed in the casing but open to air. Open-back headphones, thus leak a lot of sound and let in a lot of ambient noise. Closed-back headphones are better at passive noise isolation.

    Open cans aren’t the best for loud environments but great for home listening.

    So, the benefit of the open back is bigger soundstage that improves the overall sound quality. It’s something to consider.

    Find out how well you can hear audio quality.

    Do you have a better idea about what you want and how to buy headphones?

    4. How Much Are You Willing to Pay for Headphones?

    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. Some have different sound signatures, some are bass-heavy, some have a flat response, and some are closer to a V-shape.

    So, depending on what headphones you choose, you’ll get a different sound out of them.

    If you prefer deep bass response, go for bass headphones.

    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.

    Here’s an explanation of the sound quality in headphones, so you’ll have a better idea of what you want.

    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.

    Which brands make the best headphones?

    According to a 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.