Choosing new headphones is not to be rushed into. There’s in-ear, on-ear, over-ear, wired, wireless, noise-cancelling, voice control. Decisions, decisions.
And, of course, the wider the choice the wider the price range. It’s easy to spend the price of a couple of drinks on a new pair of headphones, but it’s equally easy to pay the equivalent of a nice clean second-hand BMW if you so desire.
How much is the right amount? Which shape is the right shape? And is one brand automatically better than another? In short, what are the best headphones for you?
Pick headphones that are fit for purpose
To start with, it’s best to approach the idea of new headphones a bit like you might approach the idea of new footwear. When you choose new footwear, it’s all about what they’re going to be used for, right? You don’t buy a ballet slipper if you want tennis shoes, and you don’t buy hiking boots to go with your best suit.
So you need to make sure your headphones are fit for purpose. And there are, as mentioned above, three broad types: in-ear, on-ear and over-ear. You’re allowed to let your own idea of what looks good on your head come into play but, equally, when and where you’ll be doing your listening is important too.
At first glance, an in-ear design such as the AirPods Pro might seem the commuter’s best bet – after all, they tend to be more compact, more discreet and lighter than bigger alternatives. But there’s no shortage of on-ear designs that are light enough to wear for an extended period without problems, so don’t automatically rule them out. Over-ear designs, though, tend to be bulkier and heavier so some people might find the larger designs too ostentatious for sitting on a packed train. That said, a lot of well designed over-ears can work all day, as our top headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM3, prove nicely.
If you’re going to be using your headphones at home, though, they don’t need to be especially light or especially compact. The over-ear option is probably your best bet for home listening, as the bigger earcups (and bigger speaker drivers behind them) tend to offer a bigger, fuller and larger-scale sound.
Maybe you’re a frequent flyer. If that’s the case, you’ll almost certainly want to investigate some of the numerous over-ear pairs that offer active noise-cancellation. The best of these are remarkably effective at taking engine-drone out of your listening equation altogether.
A note on open-back headphones
You should also consider the people around you when you’re wearing your new headphones. In-ear designs tend to form a physical seal with your ear, so there’s little danger of sound leaking out and annoying your spouse/fellow traveller/co-worker/whoever.
But on-ear and over-ear designs can, if they’re an ‘open-back’ design, leak sound quite promiscuously and make you deeply unpopular with those around you. Designers like an open-back configuration because it tends to make for a bigger, more open sound for the wearer – but really, you should only have open-backed headphones on your shortlist if you’re going to be using them when you’re alone.
Once you are confident you’ve decided on the appropriate configuration of your headphones – their shape, size and feature-set – there are further factors to be considered.
Wired vs wireless
The convenience of wireless headphones no longer has to be traded off against performance.
Developments like aptX HD Bluetooth allow high-resolution audio files to be streamed wirelessly. Meanwhile, innovations such as pairing both left and right headphones to the source (rather than having one side pair with the player and then stream to the other) and low wireless latency (to keep audio and video in sync) mean wireless listening is no longer ‘all convenience, no performance’.
What’s your headphones budget?
Price is the most obvious. The world’s best-selling headphone is a JVC design, available in literally hundreds of different colours – it sells for under a tenner. At the other end of the scale, we recently had the pleasure of getting our heads inside a pair of Focal’s exquisite Stellia over-ear headphones that can be yours in exchange for £2,750. The chances are you’ll set a budget somewhere between those two extremes.
Before you commit the cash, though, think about exactly what you’re going to be listening to. If you like to listen to podcasts on your commute, or you’re a subscriber to the free tier of Spotify, then you can probably won’t need to break the bank.
Podcasts are all midrange information – that’s where the human voice sits in the frequency range, after all – and Spotify’s free tier is so compressed it frankly doesn’t deserve anything special in the headphones department. So you can get away with a fairly modest spend – and if you look at the picks in our WIRED Recommends headphones guide, you’ll see that £40 or £50 buys you something that’s more than up to the task.
On the other hand, you may be doing the decent thing and subscribing to one the world’s better-sounding streaming services – TIDAL Masters, for example. You may have a lot of high-resolution digital audio files on your home network you want to do some justice to. Or maybe you’ll be playing vinyl in your home and don’t want to disturb anyone else while you’re doing it. If so, you should probably set aside absolutely as much as you can afford – it will be worth it.
Try out your shortlist for comfort and fit
By now, hopefully, you’ll have a reasonably short shortlist of possibilities. Which means trying them on and checking them out – and here’s where you start to consider stuff beyond immediate sound quality.
Comfort, for example. There are more than one or two very capable pairs of on- and over-ear headphones that have a tendency to heat up their ear-pads (and, consequently, your ears) after an hour or two of listening. It’s a strange and not automatically pleasant sensation. Too snug a headband can exert pressure on your head, too – and no one wants to feel like they’re been clamped into their own headphones.
Auditioning headphones shouldn’t be a problem. Even in-ear headphones should be available for a quick listen – any retailer worth his or her salt will have a packet of wet-wipes handy to make sure you don’t contaminate your ear. But when auditioning, make sure the headphones aren’t fresh from their packaging – even the tiny drivers fitted to the smallest in-ear designs rely on movement, and unless they’ve been playing for at least a little while (overnight, ideally, as a minimum) you won’t be hearing what they’re capable of.
Basically, you need to write yourself a check-list and then, well, check it off. Get the right headphones in terms of sound, functions, comfort and price, and you may never want to come out from inside them again.
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