Choosing the best headphones can be tough. I won’t go into the various types of headphones, as we’ve covered that on this site in detail, but there are some general principles you need to follow in order to make a purchase you don’t later regret. Of these considerations, sound quality has to rate the highest, but you should also check out the noise isolation or noise cancelation characteristics as this will contribute to your ability to use any pair of headphones in an environment that is less than quiet. Finally, comfort is something that we find to be immensely critical.
I once listened to a pair of AKG headphones that I thought sounded spectacular, but the pressure the headband put at the top of my head made them nearly unbearable to wear after about an hour. Other headphones from the same brand were perfectly comfortable—each model is unique. I try to take all of this into account when teaching people how to buy the best headphones for their needs.
At the top of my list when considering any type of headphone is sound quality. You want to listen for two things right off the bat: high-end detail and bass response. I try to listen for cymbals that have a nice crispness to them, but without losing that naturally live decay. For bass, I check for subsonic hits such as those found in electronic music and synth tracks. I also check for bass guitar in recognizable tracks where I know I’m going to hear that low E ring out…
I next move on to the midrange. That means you want to listen to male and female vocals. The best headphones and earphones have a tone that is natural. You should NOT feel like you are listening to a recording—that is, unless you’re trying to do your listening tests with overly compressed modern pop music. If you are, then knock it off! Switch to something with some dynamic range. Male and female vocals should not sound “boxy” or nasally…unless you’re listening to Bob Dylan, in which case all bets are off!
Try to ascertain whether the stereo image is nice and wide, and whether or not you can hear where each instrument is placed within the soundstage (the virtual layout of where the engineer placed them in the mix). This is the equivalent of placing loudspeakers correctly in a room. Most headphones have a nice stereo image, but some have been known to overtly place center sounds right “in your head” such that you feel like the lead vocal is coming from inside your brain. That’s not something I typically enjoy.
Noise Isolation or Noise Cancelation
Getting rid of outside noise is important in any listening you do, and the best headphones pull this off without degrading the sound quality. There are two basic ways this can be accomplished: passive noise isolation or active noise cancelation. In my experience, passive noise isolation is best for environments that aren’t excessively noisy, such as the home, when jogging, or in a quiet office. For excessive noise, like that found in an airplane, factory or a truly noisy office, active noise cancelation is going to reign supreme. The last word on getting good sound in any environment is hearing only what you want and rejecting the rest. Both noise isolation and noise cancelation help you accomplish this. Many noise cancelation systems, however, color the sound. And while many claim to also work in passive mode (so you continue to be able to use the headphones when the battery dies), the sound is often muddled when it is not run through the active circuitry.
Passive noise isolating headphones and earphones have traditionally been my favorites for reference-quality sound, but when you’re on a plane, it doesn’t matter how great the sound is if it’s drowned out by a steady drone from the engines. I once rode on a turbo prop and measured 110 db SPL from my seat—thank goodness I had a pair of noise canceling over-ear headphones with me!
The Best Headphones Emphasize Comfort
The last thing you need to make sure of when choosing a good pair of headphones is comfort. If you have the best-sounding pair of headphones in the world, but they make your head sore after 60 minutes of wearing them, what good are they? And that’s not a hypothetical example, either. In the past I have reviewed a $1300 pair of headphones that I later realized couldn’t recommend to anyone because of the comfort issue. After wearing them an extended period of time I realized the top of the headband began to really hurt my head right at the peak where the headband sits. This should be a good example and lesson in that you can encounter comfortable or uncomfortable headphones at any price. Look these features to stay on target:
- Lightweight design (in-ear, on-ear, over-ear)
Headphones shouldn’t weigh a ton. Though the manufacturer may think making their phones out of aluminum might give them a cool look, it often results in additional weight that you don’t want on your head. For in-ear models, the design needs to be such that the cable doesn’t pull the earphone out of your ear. Metal earphones may look cool, but they make for very heavy loads that tend to tug in the wrong places.
- Distributed weight (on-ear, over-ear)
The weight of the headphones should be evenly distributed across the headband, not focused in one location, like the top of your head. Also, the ear cups should bear some of the work, but they should not fit too snugly. With specialty Bluetooth models (some of which fit behind your head instead of over it) you really need to watch the weight distribution and balance as it gets even more critical.
- Ear cups that fit well (on-ear, over-ear)
As alluded to above, your ear cups should have a nice snug fit, but shouldn’t take the brunt of the work in keeping your headphones on your head. If they squeeze too tightly, you’re going to feel it after only a few minutes. Give it an hour and you’ll wish you had never bought those headphones! Also, for on-ear and over-ear models, the material used for your ear pads needs to be able to breath so that you don’t sweat. There’s nothing worse than ear cups that build up heat and get all sweaty as you wear them.
- Comfortable in-ear design with options (in-ear)
When shopping for in-ear headphones, you want to make sure you have some sizing options for the silicone or foam inserts. One size typically doesn’t fit all, and having options means that you will stand a good change of finding a design and size that fits your ear well and secures the earphones in your ear canal.
If you nail the perfect trifecta of sound quality, noise control and comfort, then you’re on your way to audio nirvana. Of course, your next challenge will be to then take what you’ve learned and translate that into what you need when shopping not just of the best headphones, but for other products as well—say, buying a good pair of loudspeakers!