There are three main types of headphones to choose from: in-ear, on-ear and over-ear.
Also known as earphones or earbuds, in-ear headphones are designed to fit in your ear. They are the smallest type of headphones, with some models weighing as little as four grams. However, because of the smaller size, these headphones tend to sacrifice sound quality, especially when it comes to bass levels.
In-ear headphones can typically fit in a pocket or small purse and can be easily worn by those who wear glasses regularly. While most people find earphones to be comfortable, some people don’t like the feeling of headphones that sit inside their ears.
On-ear headphones sit directly on top of your ear. They typically offer better sound quality than in-ear models, but don’t block out as much noise as over-ear ones.
On-ear headphones are better for use in hot environments than over-ear models as they’re less likely to cause your ears to overheat. However, some people find the pressure of on-ear headphones to be uncomfortable.
Over-ear headphones typically offer the best sound quality and noise isolation. However, they’re also the biggest and bulkiest type of headphones, which means they won’t fit into your pocket or even a small purse.
Unlike on-ear headphones, they’re designed to envelop your ear instead of sitting directly on it. Some people find this to be much more comfortable, while others don’t like the feeling of pressure on their head. Also, if you wear glasses, you might find over-ear headphones to press uncomfortably against the arms of the glasses.
Other types of headphones
Wireless and Bluetooth headphones. Another popular type of headphones is wireless or Bluetooth. These headphones don’t have any cables and instead connect to your phone or another device using Bluetooth technology. Wireless headphones need to be charged regularly and some come with a charging case so that you can top up the battery on the go.
Fitness headphones. Sports or fitness headphones are specifically designed for use while exercising. They are typically more durable and either sweatproof or fully waterproof. When choosing a pair of sports headphones, make sure they stay in place while you’re moving around.
How to compare headphones
When choosing a pair of headphones, consider the following factors:
If you can, try the headphones on in a store. Make sure to leave them on for a bit, at least 10 minutes, to get a real sense of how comfortable they are. Some headphones will feel comfortable at first, but get heavy, uncomfortable or even painful if you wear them for a while.
Keep in mind, what’s comfortable for someone else might not be comfortable for you.
Audio quality is one of the most important factors to consider when comparing headphones. While paying more will generally get you better quality, you don’t necessarily have to buy a top-of-the-line pair to have a good listening experience. When you try the headphones on, see if you can test out several different types of music, including music that was recorded recently as well as older music to check the headphone’s range. Also, listen to spoken audio like a podcast to make sure you can hear it clearly.
Noise-cancelling headphones can be a life-saver if you want to block out the sounds of a noisy office or a crying baby on a plane. With passive noise-cancelling, the design of the headphones physically blocks out ambient noise while active noise-cancelling uses a frequency to cancel out noise. Some headphones use a combination of passive and active noise-cancelling. However, blocking out ambient noise can sometimes be dangerous. If you want headphones for outdoor activities like urban running, look for a pair that lets in external noise for more safety.
Headphones can come with several different types of controls, including in-line controls that allow you to change settings on the actual headphones without using your phone. Some in-line controls are buttons on the actual headphones, while others are located on the cable. Without in-line controls, you’ll have to use your phone or paired device to adjust the volume, play and pause music, skip tracks or answer calls.
Some headphones leak sound, allowing it to be heard by the people next to you. This is more common with open headphones that let in more ambient noise. Test out the leakage amount by having someone else wear the headphones so you can check how much you can hear of what they’re listening to.
If the headphones are wireless or have an active noise-cancelling setting, check how long the battery life lasts. Some headphones only last a few hours without needing to be charged while others can last a full day. If the headphones come with a charging case, check how many recharges it holds and how long the headphones take to recharge.
Make sure any wires are long enough so that you can put your phone in your pocket or bag without the cord pulling on the headphones. Keep in mind, long cables get tangled more easily. If you don’t want to deal with cables at all, look for wireless or Bluetooth headphones.
If you want to travel with your headphones or protect them when they’re bouncing around in your gym bag look for a pair with a decent carrying case. Also, check how easily the case opens and make sure it won’t open in your bag by accident.
If you plan to wear your headphones while working out or walking in the rain, look for a pair that is at least water-resistant or sweatproof. Some headphones are fully waterproof and can be used while swimming.
If you want to be able to answer or make phone calls while using your headphones, look for a model with a built-in microphone.
When you hold the headphones in your hands, pay attention to the material and durability. You can also check reviews to see how long they typically last and if they break down frequently.
Some headphones include a one- or two-year warranty. Make sure to check what is included and if there’s anything that will void the warranty, like using charging cables from another brand.
Buying online vs in-store
It’s always a good idea to try headphones on before you buy them to check how comfortable they are and if you’re happy with the audio quality. However, this isn’t always possible. Some headphones are only available online and many online stores offer cheaper prices and discounts.
If you order your headphones online and haven’t been able to try them on in-person, make sure you check the returns policy. This way you can try them out at home and send them back if they hurt your ears or aren’t what you’re looking for.
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Sarah Brandon is an editor at Finder. She has a degree in Psychology from New York University and loves learning about why people do what they do. Sarah has researched and written about a wide range of topics, from pool fences to private jets to personal loans. But no matter the subject, her number one priority is figuring out what information our readers need to make the best decisions.
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