A good pair of headphones is like a bra that fits, or the right style of boxers. Once you find that perfect fit, nothing else will ever feel right again. It’s the kind of gadget choice that ruins anything less than the best for you.
Finding the right pair can be a long and confusing process; with dozens of brands and multiple styles and gimmicks available to choose from, it can be an overwhelming prospect to go out headphones shopping, and be sure that you’re getting the right pair.
That said, there are a few important things you can keep on your mind to make the journey just a little bit easier. In this guide, we offer some advice on buying the most luxurious style of earphones, the over the ear headphones.
What Are Over The Ear Headphones?
Headphones typically come in two forms—over the ear and on-ear. The distinguishing factor between the two is where the cups rest. In both cases, the tension of the headband is what keeps the cups on your head.
With on-ear headphones, the cups press against your ears. The main draw of on-ear headphones is that they’re smaller and more portable than over the ear headphones. They’re also lighter, which may make them more comfortable for some people, and don’t warm up as much.
Over the ear headphones have large cups that press against the sides of your head, without touching your ears.
They have more room for bigger drivers and generally have better sound quality. Their cups also form a better seal around your ears, improving noise isolation. For the most part, if weight isn’t an issue, over the ear headphones are the most comfortable as well.
If you want the best comfort and sound quality out of your cans, then over the ear headphones are the best choice for you.
Wired Or Wireless
For the longest time, wired versus wireless has been a simple question of quality versus convenience. But with new technologies and codecs available to wireless headphones, that question is getting a little more nuanced.
Wired headphones use the traditional 3.5mm or 6.3mm headphone connectors that have been in use for decades. This often offers the best possible sound quality for any situation. They also don’t require charging, and will instantly work with any device with a 3.5mm jack.
With wired headphones, you also have the option to improve the quality of your sound by adding a headphone amp. These connect between your sound input source and your headphones, modifying or amplifying the audio in some way so that it sounds better.
Wired headphones aren’t 100% straightforward, though. Some high-quality headphones have high impedance, which is the total electrical resistance inside the headphones’ circuitry. This means that they’ll sound very soft when plugged into smaller devices like phones or iPods. You’ll need a headphone amp to fix this problem.
Aside from that, many phones are losing their headphone jacks, which forces you to use USB Type-C or Lightning dongles with them. This can make wired headphones even more inconvenient.
Wireless headphones use Bluetooth technology to receive sound wirelessly from an audio source.
As the name suggests, they don’t need wires, and most headphones have a very acceptable range of 10 meters. This makes them very convenient for exercise, commuting, or other situations when you’re listening on the go.
Wireless headphones used to have far inferior sound quality to wired headphones, because Bluetooth technology doesn’t have a high enough data transmission rate to provide true lossless audio. However, new audio codecs such as aptX HD and LDAC are closing the gap between wired and wireless quality.
Because of this, today it’s very difficult to tell apart wired and wireless sound. And if you’re just listening to lossy MP3s or Spotify on your phone, then the difference is pretty much negligible.
Of course, wireless headphones require charging. A decent battery life is 15-20 hours, but some exceptional models go as high as 30-40 hours.
Some wireless headphones combine the best of both worlds by including a wired mode that bypasses the Bluetooth system. You’ll get all the top-tier sound quality of wired, with the option to switch to the convenience of wireless.
Open-back Vs Closed-back
“Open-back” and “closed-back” refer to whether the back of your headphones’ cups are closed off to outside sound, or let it in.
If you’ve never heard the difference between open-back and closed-back headphones, then it’s very difficult to articulate just what that difference is. Your best bet is to go to an audiophile display or a headphones store and find out for yourself.
That said, here are the basics.
This kind represents the majority of over the ear headphones you’ll see. They offer a lot of noise isolation, making them perfect for listening in noisy places outside your home.
However, the design of closed-back headphones means that a tiny bit of sound will reverberate within the cups, making the so-called “soundstage” feel very small. This doesn’t mean that they don’t sound good, however.
With open-back headphones, small holes or a grille in your cups allow ambient sound into your ears.
The result is that your soundstage is huge and natural-sounding, as it blends in with background noise. It also lacks the tiny reverb of closed-back headphones.
However, the ambient sound can overwhelm your music in noisy places, so it’s not suitable for walking around a city, or listening in a loud vehicle.
Noise cancellation in your headphones can feel like a gift from the gods if you’re often listening to music in loud environments. They also allow you to listen to your music at much lower volumes, which can protect your hearing.
However, noise-cancelling can greatly inflate the price of a pair of headphones. On top of that, sometimes sound quality is affected by activating the noise-cancelling feature.
Finally, all noise-cancelling headphones, even wired ones, need to be charged or require batteries.
The absolute best way to discover the pair of headphones that suits you is to audition them. It’s very difficult to get a feel for comfort and sound quality without actually trying them on, and no spec sheet can truly convey whether a pair fits your preferences.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to make a decision without trying on every pair of headphones in the world. Take these factors into account when purchasing, and you’ll be able to narrow down your choices.