Music to the ears … Choosing the right headphone

by Sarthak Moghe on February 1, 2011

So you got the latest iPhone or iPod and believed that it and the shipped white earphones are the best thing that happened (or can happen) to music, don’t blame your naivety after reading the post.

After all, there were people who once believed the earth to be flat. For my other readers who already are, or planning to graduate in their music experience, perhaps this article can help you pick the right headphones/earphones.

The first thing one must understand is headphones are like shoes, neither one size fits all nor one type suits all activities (Sure you love your favorite expensive Italian leather, but ask yourself, would you be wear them while playing tennis? And for my female readers, please don’t take it as an advice (or excuse) to buy another pair of Jimmy choo… Recall we are talking headphones here… not shoes!)

So the next thing you got to ask yourself is “where at most am I going to listen to music?” and then answer your question from the options below

Wearing Type

Between Headphones, Headphones v/s Earphones, On-Earphones v/s In-Earphones and so on…

Remember the time when wearing headphones that sized bigger than your head was the “in-thing”? Well, those days are back now and you can see a lot of manufactures not considering the form factor as the biggest marketing strategy. And there is a reason to it, headphones in contrast to earphones have bigger driver units with broader frequency range that offer deeper bass and higher highs (which means better listening experience) and better noise isolation (not to be confused with cancellation) . However, as it’s said “with great power comes great responsibility”, these bigger headphones are more expensive, bulky and not pocketable, can break if dropped or under pressure and may drain your ipod battery slightly faster. So my recommendation is to keep an earphone with you on the move, while enjoy that guilty pleasure tracks on a set of headphones at home/office or while using public transport

Within headphones, one can either go for an over ear or closed cup type, in which the headphone cups cover entire ear. They provide good noise isolation (although may be lesser than in-ear type covered later) but in my experience, tend to be less comfortable for long time wearing. On ear, on the other hand sit on the ear and allow airflow causing less sweating. Regardless of the type you chose, the most important thing (after quality of course) to check is the softness of the earpad’s housing/lining. I would suggest not buying sponge/foam cups as they tend to cause itchiness and irritation on prolonged usage. Rather go for polyurethane PU or leather covered pads that are much comfortable to wear. The pressure exerted by the head band is also important with respect to comfort. So unless you are a Dj who wants to keep a tight grip over the ears, go for bands made of aluminum or toughened single strip plastic that are light and durable. Remember, the band-snap is the most common problem with headphones. If you are planning to carry these headphones around in a bag, then make sure the cups have swivel design, and band preferably foldable.

The in-ear phones (aka ear-canal earphones or monitors) have been around for a while, but I guess it wouldn’t be wrong to credit Sony with making it popular amongst common folks. And given its superb noise isolation, best fit and powerful bass response, they soon became the most popular earphones of today. However, there have been complaints about the prolonged use of silicon buds blocking the ear canal causing numbness and decreasing sensitivity. Though manufacturers continue to debate, I am sure most of users who wear them for more than 1-2 hrs everyday feel dampness in the ears. Conventional on ear headphones (like the default iPod ones) perhaps offer the most comfortable long listening experience, given they are rubber/silicon lined and are as easy to carry, but fail to provide a full, rich music experience, grip and noise isolation.

Other types include, behind ear or neckband type, ear clip type that is designed specifically for sports and outdoor activities. However they only provide a better grip and prevent your buds from slipping, and have less or no quality improvements. Same is the case or those considering wireless and/or Bluetooth as their pick. Although the new standards of Bluetooth 2.1 and A2DP provide almost similar quality, be aware that these wireless signals drain your iPods/mp3 players/phones at a much higher rate than wired ones

The specification on the box is Greek to me…

This indeed has been a great mystery. Despite of the plethora of headphones I have tested or used with more or less similar specifications, my experience has been different every time. So the best suggestion is to hear them out yourself, preferably two at a time and rule out the weaker. But if the electronic stores in you city aren’t so friendly, let me try to relate you with the effects of these specs and not the acoustical physics related with it

Frequency response/range: Broader the better. Though most of the manufacturers who usually manufacture their headphones for average mortals are between 5Hz to 25 KHz (25,000 Hz), there are few who stand out designing for music enthusiasts with range between 0.5-3 Hz upto 64,000 Hz. However, bear in mind that no matter how great the range reads, it’s only as good as the source. For example listening to an MP3 encoded (aka quantized) at a lower bit rate than 128Kbps is not the right pick for your music players.

Type can be dynamic closed (most in –ear types) or dynamic open (traditional ear/headphones). This has got nothing to do in terms of quality specs (unless it’s static type)

Driver Unit measured in mm, specifies the size of the magnet that reproduces the sound. And usually bigger drivers produce better quality sound. However due to the different form factors of earphones v/s headphones, always compare between two or more set of similar kind.

Sensitivity is not as sensitive information in terms of comparing. Usually it describes the sound pressure level and all the head/ear phones will come with sensitivity specification between 98-110db/mW so that they don’t make you go deaf.

Power Handling Capacity is another less important jargon used by few manufacturers to trap the innocent audience to consider high numbers as better quality, when it just states how much power the driver (headphone) can handle before it blows up. So unless you are a Dj/producer or planning to hook your headphones to an amplifier, don’t let this number drive you.

Impedance is important as higher impedance headphones offer lesser hiss levels. But the flipside is that higher impedance demands higher power, and thus not necessarily is an iPod /mp3 player’s best friend. So any headphones with impedance between 20-40ohms is a decent choice for humans, and 64ohms and above for an enthusiast, depending on the source.

Rest all specs like Diaphragm, Magnet (preferably neodymium), Cord and Cord Length, Plug (unless it’s not or you don’t want 3.5mm standard jack) should not stop you from picking the right pair for you.

And for the Noise Cancellation, it’s always best to have, but you may want to consider your budget and acknowledge that it may need an external battery(s).

Since I am no expert, it would be unfair for me to recommend any brands or models here. However in my less significant life as a Dj, a music lover and a headphone/speakers enthusiast, I remember my journey as a kid wanting a $1 Chinese earphones to making my way here having used/tried Creative EP-210, EP-240, EP-630 Sony MDRE829V, MDRE10LPH, MDREX32LPB S2, MDRV250V, American Audio HP 550, Technics RP-DJ1200, Senheiser HD 201, HD 448, HD 218,  Bose IE2, AE2, OE , Monster Beats by Dre and many more…

So if you feel this information was anyway useful or would like an opinion before buying, do drop a comment, and I would be more than happy to make you “love thy music”!

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