Things to Look Out for When Buying Headphones

Back in the day, a pair of headphones was a pair of headphones. There were good ones and bad ones, but there really weren’t a lot of options in terms of ergonomics and particular advantages in certain situations (like going to the gym). We now find ourselves at a precipice, a time when the horizons are so broadened in terms of the choices you have, that you now have to “learn” how to choose a proper pair that will fit you like a glove. 

Note: In this article, we won’t discuss earphones. This is because there is not as much to say about them outside of specs, which will be described in the specs section anyway.

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If you’re looking for a pair of headphones to tie up to your desktop and won’t use them for anything else, it might well be worth getting a USB headset. Why? Because the headphones are not relying on your sound card’s ability to transmit sound accurately. Sure, you’ll have to install drivers and add some proprietary software, which can be a bit buggy at times. However, a good pair of USB headphones can deliver a delicious experience like no other. Another option would be to get fiber-optic digital headphones if your sound card has a port.

But if cables are not your thing and you love to walk around, grab a pair of wireless ones. Well, you knew that already, didn’t you? But perhaps you didn’t know that if you and someone else get the same pair, and that pair runs on a simple 2.4 GHz band, you might end up hearing each other’s music. That can get annoying. So, if you’re living with someone else and want to get two of the same headphones, make sure they use Bluetooth. If they’re advertised as simply “wireless headphones” but don’t contain any indication that they use Bluetooth, avoid them like the plague. I once tried using two similar wireless 2.4 GHz keyboards in the same room with disastrous results. The same applies to headphones or any other wireless hardware you’re using. An added advantage to Bluetooth is the ability to pair the headphones up to your phone if you plan to take your music with you outside.

Is your house noisy? Does your significant other watch TV with the volume up while you’re trying to relax to some Vivaldi? Add noise-cancelling to the list of things you want your headphones to have.

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You’ll find lots of headphones that go around the back of your head instead of over it. “What’s the deal with those? Are they even comfortable?” you may ask. Well, headphones that wrap around the back of your head are particularly suited for high-motion situations. For example, if you’re out jogging and wearing a pair of Bose QuietComfort headphones (those are very heavy and go over your head), there’s a chance you’ll obliterate them halfway through the jog.

Headphones that you wear over your head are prone to falling off, particularly if the headband is weighted. Those are better suited to situations where you stay still for long periods of time.

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Each headphone comes with a certain amount of padding around (or on) the ears and over your head. I suggest you try each one out to see what suits you. There are some things you might not notice immediately when you try out a pair of headphones, though. For example, a large amount of padding around the ears can trap heat making them all icky, sweaty, and uncomfortable after some time. If you’re bothered by the excessive heat, either invest in central air conditioning or get a pair of headphones with padding that sits on your ear. Don’t like either? You’re out of luck, for now.

Another thing you might not immediately notice is how the weight of the headphones affects you. Don’t just get a pair of big headphones just because they look cool. Think about the fact you might be wearing this thing for hours. Try getting something between 200 and 300 grams in weight. Anything lighter would be nice only if you feel good in them. If you think you might like something heavier, first try putting some equally heavy headware on for a few hours to see if that bothers you or not. Chances are that heavy headphones will affect the vertebrae around your neck in the long run even if you feel comfortable with them.

Let’s review what kinds of specs you should be looking for in terms of ballpark figures, and explain each one briefly:

  • Ohms: Electrical impedance is measured in ohms. They are a measure of how much resistance (“friction”) is generated when an electrical current passes through them. High-impedance headphones require more energy to generate amplified sounds. They’ll sound quieter in low-power equipment. Anything below 25 ohms will probably break your eardrums if you use a powerful amplifier. If you’re just buying one to attach to a computer or a phone, try something in the low 30s. My pair of USB headphones reads 32 ohms and has a very beautiful volume range.
  • Sensitivity: Most headphones will show a certain amount of sensitivity, measured in decibels (dB). This is only very important if you’re matching a pair of headphones to a particular amplifier, which is not the case for most people purchasing consumer electronics. However, if you’re curious, sensitivity determines how loud a pair of headphones will play at a certain voltage. It has little to do with sound quality.
  • Driver Size: Larger drivers produce more bass. Smaller drivers produce higher frequencies. The larger the principal driver, the better bass you’ll hear. I recommend getting a pair with at least a 40 mm driver if you want crazy bass.

If you have any further questions about headphones, or a question about a particular model, please leave a comment and someone will answer!