If you have been spending some time these days looking for headphones and asking yourself how you can find the perfect one, the short answer is that there is no ideal way to choose the best headphones! There is just no way around it––audio is one of the most subjective things, making it very difficult to objectively measure or even describe its quality.
While it is impossible to understand the sound signature of a pair of headphones (or earbuds), there are still a few metrics and factors that do make a clear distinction between different types of headphones and headsets.
In this headphone buying guide, we will not tell you what to buy. Rather, we will cover what features you should pay attention to when you shop for a pair.
Closed-back vs. open-back
Most headphones have a closed-back design, meaning they create a seal around your ear with very little sound bleed. These headphones are especially preferred if you want a pair to take anywhere, like public transit, because they seal sound to prevent bothering people around you.
Unlike closed-back headphones, the open-back types of headphones don’t create any seal around your ears, so audio goes out the back of the headphones just as much as it passes through them to your ears. But what open-back headphones lack in noise isolation, they make up for with a “wider soundstage.”
Listening to music with open-back headphones feels like you are sitting in front of a band as they play their music around you. It’s not like you are listening to two speakers sitting on top of your ears. Thus, open-back headphones generally offer a more immersive music experience. But they generally tend to be less bassy because they lack the seal offered by closed-back headphones, which helps amplify bass sounds.
If you are thinking of buying an open-back type of headset, make sure you use them with a stationary setup. Otherwise, you will be disappointed if you wear them on public transit and start to get looks from people that are annoyed by your music. For this reason, you won’t find many open-back Bluetooth headphones as they are not designed to be portable.
Wired vs. wireless headphones
The wireless vs. wired headphones debate is an age-old one. Wired headphones have long been the standard for studios and still are because it is crucial not to have even a millisecond of lag. With these types of headphones, you can also generally expect higher audio qualities at lower prices; this is not to say all wired headphones sound better than all wireless headphones––absolutely not.
But, generally, you can get marginally higher audio quality for cheaper with wired headphones. The lower price to quality ratio is predominantly because the money isn’t going towards a battery, software R&D, wireless technology, or licensing wireless audio standards such as aptX. Even in the lowest-latency wireless headphones or earbuds (such as the AirPods Pro), there is still the tiniest bit of lag. But for daily media consumption, this is hardly a problem considering the convenience wireless headphones provide.
Nevertheless, the lag can be a problem for some. For instance, when it comes to gaming headsets, wireless is an uncommon option because even a couple of milliseconds of lag is unforgivable in a competitive gaming setting. So, it all comes down to your use-case scenario to see whether you should go for a wired or a wireless pair.
So, how to know whether you should opt for wired or wireless headphones? If you conduct activities like gaming or mixing music, where a lag in sound can cause serious inconvenience, go wired (except for a very limited selection of wireless gaming headsets, which have a wireless dongle that works around Bluetooth audio lag, like the Logitech G633 Artemis). But, if you want to take your headphones with you everywhere and don’t mind a few milliseconds of lag, you may want to research wireless options.
Measured in Ohms, impedance relates to how easily a pair of headphones can be powered; the lower the impedance, the easier it is to power a headphone.
The iPhone wired earbuds that used to come in the box, are 40 Ohm earbuds. But some of the more professional types of headsets or headphones may go well beyond that number and hover around the 60-70 Ohm mark. This is when your average phone will struggle to power these professional headphones (which are often studio monitors), and if you use them with your phone, you will experience flat sounds.
If you are looking at a pair of headphones you like and see their impedance is 60-70 Ohms (or higher), you might need to consider purchasing an audio interface with a pre-amp built in to be able to fuel your power-hungry headphones. If you are set on using those high-impedance headphones with your phone, you may also want to invest in an external DAC (digital/analog converter) that can power your headphones when you wish to connect them to your phone. While every phone has a DAC, not every DAC can power high-impedance headphones.
Frequency responses range between 15–28,000Hz, but it barely tells you anything about sound quality. It shows the lowest and highest frequency that the headphones can generate. Generally, anything around 20–20,000Hz would be acceptable.
If you go lower in the lowest and higher in the highest, a bit of headroom can be appreciated just to make the extreme highs and lows a bit clearer. However, it would be barely noticeable, especially to the untrained ear. We advise that you do not pay too much attention to the frequency response; unless you have exceptional hearing, you probably won’t notice the deviations.
You may have noticed quite a few companies boasting about 40mm drivers in their headphones. While 40mm is a good size, it is hardly an indication of higher quality sound. If you look around just a bit, you will find plenty of low-end types of headphones that also boast 40mm drivers but do not offer great sound quality. Also, if bigger drivers were indeed better, why do people even consider getting earbuds, which often come with smaller drivers?
Don’t be tricked by the driver size––it’s hardly a significant factor in sound quality. The main efficacy of the driver is delivering more bass. Whether that bass is clear or that level of bass is desired is a different matter that you must consider on your own, based on your needs and preferences.
The sound profile is something you will not find on the boxes of the products, and it may be as close as we can get to a meaningful measurement that can give you a good idea of the overall sound signature you should expect from a pair of headphones or earbuds. It looks something like this:
The Y-axis is the Amplitude level in dB (decibels) to show how loud each frequency (X-axis) is. If you are looking for a neutral sound, you would want the line to be consistent around whatever dB it is. Like this graph that represents the sound profile of Sennheiser’s HD600’s from rtings.com. Let’s examine this chart a bit more closely.
Hopefully, the graph is a bit more understandable.
If you manage to find one of these graphs for your headphone (usually, they are not available on the manufacturer’s website or the box), it can give you a pretty good idea of the overall sound signature. If the headphone offers a lot of basses, you can visibly see it. If there are a lot of highs, you can see it on the graph before you hear the sparkly sound of the headphones.
Where do I go from here?
With all that said, you might still not even know what your sound preference is! In that case, you may need to look for headphones that are widely praised for their sound, then experiment with the equalizer (if the software allows you) to see what kind of sound signatures you like. You may even be able to do that with your current headphones. However, taste in sound is something you will have to accumulate over the years, and your taste might even change over time.
The chase for “perfect” sound is a never-ending one. The only thing we hope to have achieved in this headphone buying guide is to have made you more aware of the features you should be paying attention to when finding a type of headphone that matches your needs. Make sure to research the headphones you have your eyes on extensively and look at different sources to get as close to a realistic idea of how the headphones will sound as possible.
Of course, no number of graphs, specs, or marketing buzzwords can come close to experiencing your favorite track with the headphones you are researching. Rather than needlessly looking on the internet for how to choose between headphones based on specs, experiencing the sound and the comfort first-hand is probably as close as you can get to the ideal way to choose the best headphones. The next best thing is an awareness of what makes a “good” headphone better than a “bad” headphone and reading people’s experiences and referencing them to your existing knowledge and understanding. Hopefully, you got part of that knowledge from this article.