Shopping for a new set of headphones can be a daunting task, given the wide array of styles, types, and prices. But it doesn't have to be—and we're here to help. If you can answer these five questions, you'll be well on your way to finding a set of headphones, earphones, or earbuds that should provide years of sonic enjoyment.
Before hitting the list below, here are a few things to consider. One is that there are great headphones for nearly every budget, so don't give up on good sound because you think you can't afford it. But also remember that you might not need a pricier set of 'phones that can reveal every ounce of detail if you're mainly listening to compressed mp3s or less-than-pristine YouTube videos.
Also, the model you choose has to be comfortable, especially if you tend to wear your headphones for extended periods of time. That may lead you to choose one type instead of another. For example, I personally can't wear in-ear earphones for more than 15 or 20 minutes without them becoming excruciatingly painful, so even my portables are on-ear models. You may decide to own several sets of headphones, depending on whether you're listening at home or on the go. My go-to cans at home are large, over-the-ear models that are really too large to lug around.
Finally, for many of us headphones have become as much a fashion item as a piece of audio gear. That's fine, but you don't have to sacrifice decent sound for an eye-catching design, though you're likely to pay a bit more cash for the extra flash.
Enough said. Here's our list of questions that should help narrow down your choices.
1. Will you be using the headphones primarily with a phone or tablet? If so, then pay attention to the headphone's sensitivity and the controls built into the inline remote control. Sensitivity is a measure of how much power it takes to drive the headphones to satisfying volume levels. Since most portable devices have much less power than a home A/V receiver, you should look for a model with at least medium sensitivity, although a model with medium-high or high sensitivity will alleviate most concerns. If you want to use the headphones to receive and disconnect phone calls, make sure the headphone's inline remote control has a built-in microphone and buttons that let you answer and disconnect calls without having to dig your phone out of a pocket, bag, or knapsack. You may also want to consider a wireless model that can connect to your phone via Bluetooth rather than a wire.
2. Will you be using them in a noisy environment? Then you'll probably want a model that can either block out some external noise, or one with active noise cancellation. Most in-ear earphones, which are jammed into the ear canal, and closed, over-ear headphones (sometimes called circumaural headphones) do a decent job of blocking out external sounds. Models with active noise cancellation use tiny microphones that capture the frequencies of incoming noise, and use battery-powered electronic circuitry to create out-of-phase frequencies to "cancel" the noise. Our headphone Ratings for noise-canceling models include a rating for sound quality and noise reduction.
3. Will you be using them while working out or engaging in active sports? If you will, you'll need earphones or earbuds that will stay in place during vigorous motion. Some models have special eartips or bands that provide a secure, snug fit, and more models now have water- and sweat-resistant materials or coatings that repel moisture and allow them to be washed after strenuous workouts.