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 Choose a headphone style - CNET headphone buying guide

A long, long time ago, before the Age of the Walkman came along and revolutionized them in the 1980s, headphones were big and clunky. In those bygone days, headphones were stay-at-home things, relegated to late-night, LP music listening. That was then; the latest generation of slimmed-down headphones injects high-resolution music or home-theater sound directly into your ears.

The distinctions of portable and home headphones are melting away, but the following rundown of headphone types will clarify your buying options.

How you intend to use your headphones--for music, home theater, or gaming--and where you plan to do your listening - at home or on the go - will narrow the range of possible types you'll want to research. The four major form factors are listed below, from the smallest (or most portable) to the largest, which are the least portable.

There's no wrong headphone style; whether you prefer snug-fitting earbuds or full-size, padded ear-cup models is a matter of personal preference. Choose the one that best fits your needs and your idea of comfort.

Earbuds - Also known as: In-ear headphones. Earbuds are commonly issued as freebie 'phones with portable players, but higher-performance 'buds can offer sonics that rival full-size models. Their tiny earpieces rest on the outer ear or need to be inserted into the ear canal; some models include ear clips for a more secure fit. (To see an example of ear clips, check out our review of the Koss KSC22.)

Upside: Ultracompact and lightweight; can provide moderate to excellent isolation from external noise; little to no interference with earrings, glasses, hats or hairstyles.

Downside: Sound quality and bass response often not comparable to those of full-size models; can cause discomfort over periods of extended use; some models are difficult to insert and remove; the idea of putting foreign objects in the ear is counterintuitive and uncomfortable for many people; dual-cable design means more possibilities for tangled wires.

Portability: Highest.

Sports headphones. Also known as: Fashion headphones; vertical headphones; behind-the-neck headphones; clip-on headphones; neckband headphones; Walkman-style headphones; portable headphones

This loosely defined category usually refers to lightweight models with two general headband styles: standard vertical bands that arch over the head or horizontal designs that extend behind the head or neck. Some sport headphones have an ear clip or attachment in the place of a head- or neckband. These headphones are almost always open-backed designs (such as the ear-pad models, below), with good reason: if you're jogging, the last thing you want to do is completely block out the ambient noise of the street around you.

Upside: Behind-the-neck designs won't interfere with your hairstyle or your hat; usually stay put during running or jogging.

Downside: A lot of stylish, slender headphone designs aren't all that durable; some behind-the-neck designs exert higher-than-average amount of pressure on your ears.

Portability: High.

Ear-pad headphones. Also known as: Supra-aural headphones; open-backed headphones; semi-open headphones; closed-back headphones; on-ear headphones.

These headphones rest on your outer ears and run the gamut from inexpensive portables to high-end home models. While ear-pad headphones can have closed designs that cover the ears, they are never fully sealed as are full-size circumaural models (see below).

Upside: Comfortable; less prone to overheating ears than full-size 'phones; some models fold up for easy transport.

Downside: Less effective noise isolation than in-ear or full-size models; less powerful bass compared with full-size headphones.

Portability: Medium.

Full-size headphones. Also known as: Circumaural headphones; closed-back headphones; ear-cup headphones; over-the-ear headphones.

The tech-speak description for this type of headphone is circumaural--it includes any 'phones with ear cups that fully enclose your ears. Because of their size and their acoustic isolation, full-size headphones are often considered to be better suited to home use rather than as a portable option.

Upside: Large 'phones offer potential for maximum bass and loudness levels; effectively block outside noise.

Downside: Large size is cumbersome for portable use; some full-size models can be uncomfortably hot and make your ears sweat; ear cups and headbands often interfere with earrings, glasses, and hairstyles.

Portability: Lowest.

Seven key headphone features

Once you've narrowed down the size and form factor of your prospective headphones, you can focus on specific features and applications: noise cancellation and isolation, surround modes, gaming/microphone options, and wireless solutions.

Noise-canceling headphones. These headphones hush ambient noise by creating antinoise that obviates the noise at your ear. They don't eliminate noise entirely, but the better models significantly reduce the whoosh of jet planes' air conditioning systems. They're somewhat less effective at quieting the background din on trains and buses. It's important to note that noise-canceling headphones come in all form factors, from full size to earbuds.

Upside: Since you no longer have to crank up the volume to overcome background noise, you can listen at lower levels, which leads to reduced ear fatigue. You'll also hear more low-level detail in your music.

Downside: Some users may be sensitive to the antinoise, which exerts pressure on your eardrums. Most folks won't notice it, but we recommend auditioning noise-canceling headphones before you buy; all NC phones use batteries to power the circuitry, which may be stored in the ear cup of larger 'phones or in a separate in-line module on smaller models.

Noise-isolating headphones. Sealed full-size over-the-ear headphones effectively block out the environment and attenuate background noise at home. They're also popular as recording monitors. For portable use, tiny in-ear headphone models resemble earplugs and can seal out noise from trains and planes.

Upside: Noise-isolating 'phones offer excellent seclusion from ambient or external noise--equal or even superior to noise-canceling 'phones. Since you no longer have to crank up the volume to overcome background noise, you can listen at lower levels, reducing ear fatigue. Noise-isolating designs don't need batteries and don't exert pressure on your eardrum. They're ideal for frequent flyers and commuters.

Downside: Some listeners are uncomfortable inserting these in-ear phones into their ears. You must achieve a secure seal, or bass response will suffer. Isolating yourself from outside noise may prove unsafe for active users who are walking or running. Large, over-the-ear models can become uncomfortably hot and make your ears sweat. » Back to top

Surround headphones. Some models electronically synthesize surround effects to create a bigger than stereo sound field, while other headphones employ a more benign acoustic approach to deliver some semblance of a surround field between your ears. A handful of models even jam multiple speaker drivers into the earcups for "true" surround sound. [By contrast, Dolby Headphone is a surround-sound mode available in some AV receivers that simulates surround effects with any headphone plugged into them--jump to the bottom of this page for more information.] Surround headphones are targeted primarily to home-theater fans or to gamers, but they also sound great with music.

Upside: Surround headphones create a more spacious sound than conventional stereo headphones.

Downside: The surround effect may seem artificially hyped or overly reverberant. The quality of the surround effect varies from one design to the next. No models sound as spacious as a multichannel speaker array.

Communication headsets. Whether it's for voice-to-text transcription, online gaming, or PC-centric Voice over IP (VoIP) services such as Skype, a growing number of business and entertainment applications require two-way communications. Headphones with a built-in microphone provide an all-in-one solution.

Upside: Single headset can provide headphone and microphone functionality; no need for additional clutter of unreliable tabletop or speakerphone-style microphones.

Downside: Game consoles such as Xbox and PlayStation may require headsets with semiproprietary connections or need special adapters.

Wireless (home). Cordless headphones have been around for years, but they have only recently started to approach the sound-quality standards of the better corded 'phones. Nonportable wireless headphones--full-size models with large base stations that aren't suitable for portable use--employ one of two transmission methods: infrared or radio frequency (RF). Infrared uses pulses of light to transmit signals from the base unit to the headphones, but you have to remain within the line of sight of the transmitter to receive signals. Radio frequency models use radio waves to accomplish the same job, and since the radio signals can pass through walls, they generally suffer fewer signal dropouts.

Upside: No encumbering wires; listen to TV, DVDs, and music without being tethered to your equipment; base stations often have extensive connectivity options; some models offer surround modes.

Downside: Few wireless models can approach the sound quality of wired models, and many add a certain amount of background hiss or noise. Moreover, some RF models can interfere with cordless telephones or home-networking systems.

Wireless (portable). Portable wireless headphones represent the cutting edge in headphone technology. New models employ either Bluetooth or RF transmission between the headphones and a small base dongle that plugs into the audio source, such as an iPod.

Upside: No wires snaking from your backpack, purse, or pocket.

Downside: In addition to needing frequent recharging or battery swaps, the small base station creates extra bulk that cuts down on portability. Furthermore, wireless sound quality is rarely up to wired standards

Dolby Headphone. No, Dolby hasn't jumped into the headphone-manufacturing business. Dolby Headphone is a surround processor that synthesizes multichannel effects and expands stereo separation over any pair of stereo headphones. The technology does not synthesize quasisurround from conventional stereo sources such as CDs or FM radio; instead, it enhances 5.1-channel DVDs and stereo recordings, respectively. The result is a sound that's less claustrophobic and "stuck in your head," and more akin to the effect of listening to speakers.

Dolby Headphone is a cool technology, but it's important to realize that it can be independent of the actual headphones. For instance, the Harman Kardon AVR 635 AV receiver has on-board Dolby Headphone processing, which will work with any headphones you plug into it. On the other hand, the Pioneer SE-DIR800C wireless headphones include Dolby Headphone technology built into the base station, so you can hook them directly to a DVD player. Because the processor is built into the audio source--the AV receiver, in most cases--the surround effect will work with any headphones that are plugged into it. If you're looking for Dolby Headphone, be sure to get an AV receiver that supports it; if you're looking for surround headphones--models that use internal circuitry to electronically synthesize surround effects--focus on the actual headphones instead.

More features and terminology

The size, type, and technology of a pair of headphones are all critical to a purchasing decision. But it's important to demystify the bevy of features and headphone-specific vocabulary. Listed below are the most important features you'll need to consider before finding the perfect pair of headphones.

Bass. Even at its very best, headphone bass is never the sort of pants-flapping, sock-it-to-your-gut experience you literally feel from massive speakers or subwoofers. Those systems' bass is as much felt by your body as heard by your ears. Earbuds are tiny and portable, but--except for a couple of high-end models--they can't compete with full-size, over-the-ear headphones for deep bass response or visceral dynamic range. As with speakers, headphones need at least 10 hours of vigorous use before they sound their best.

Sealed or open? Sealed headphones--the noise-isolating, in-ear models or the full-size ear-cup designs--acoustically isolate your ears from your environment. Of course, the degree of isolation varies from one pair of headphones to another, and the seal limits the leakage of the headphone's sound out to the room. Sealed models are ideal for private listening, where you don't want the sound to be heard by other people. Open headphones--such as foam ear-pad models and many sports designs--are acoustically transparent and allow outside sound to be heard by the headphone wearer, and a good deal of the headphone's sound will be audible to anyone near the listener. Generally speaking, such headphones produce better, more "open" and speakerlike sound than sealed designs. Precisely because they don't block out everything from the outside world, open-backed headphones are recommended for outdoor activities, such as jogging, that require awareness of your environment.

Comfort and weight. Assessing sound quality is always a subjective exercise, but the only way to judge comfort is to put on a set of 'phones and listen for at least 10 minutes. Do the ear pads exert too much pressure on your ears? Headphones that enclose or cover your ears can get uncomfortably hot, but you'll have to wear them for a while to find out. Some of the bigger sealed models with cushy leatherette pads are the worst offenders. Pro-style headphones are comparatively bulky and can feel uncomfortably heavy after hours of use. Lighter headband-style headphones are almost always more comfortable than heavier ones. And even if they're not, they're less of a hassle to carry around.

Durability. There's no reason a headphone should be treated as disposable technology. Unlike almost everything else in the realm of consumer electronics, this year's headphones won't be obsolete six months or a year from now. In fact, there's no reason a good pair of headphones can't last for the better part of a decade. Be sure to assess the build quality of your prospective headphones. Some earbuds and portable 'phones are relatively fragile, for instance. If the headphones fold up for easy storage, are the hinges robust, or will they fall apart in a month or two? And consider that the ear pads and earbuds will get extensive wear and tear over the life of the headphones; while some models incorporate replaceable ear pads or ear tips, most do not.

Portability. Earbuds and lithe portables travel well, but those styles and ergonomics aren't for everyone. Despite their relative bulk, many airline travelers prefer large, full-size headphones that fully cover the ears, such as the Creative Aurvana Live. But some larger headphones travel more easily than others. Frequent flyers will want to look for collapsible headbands and folding ear cups when seeking out larger headphone models. Similarly, many headphones include customized carrying cases, which travel better than, say, wrapping your headphone cables around your iPod.

Cable dressing and length. Most stereo headphones have just one cable, usually attached to the left earpiece (sometimes called single-sided cabling). Some models--and all earbuds--use a Y-cable that connects to both earpieces (double-sided). The actual cable plug, meanwhile, is usually one of two designs: a straight I-plug or an angled L-plug; the latter may be useful if your portable player has a side- or bottom-mounted headphone jack.

Preferences for the length of headphone cables vary for portable users, especially depending on where you prefer to wear your device: a backpack or a pants pocket necessitates a longer cable, while you'll opt for a short one when wearing a player on a neck lavalier or an armband. But a cable length at either extreme need not be a fatal flaw: extension cables can lengthen those that are too short, and cable wraps can tighten up ones that are too long.

Specs that (mostly don't) matter

You find a few of the following specifications on the headphones' box or on the manufacturer's Web site. Here's what they mean and why you can usually ignore them

Frequency response. Frequency-response specifications in full-size loudspeakers are generally pretty useless in predicting sound quality, but headphone frequency-response numbers are even worse. Manufacturers have routinely exaggerated frequency-response figures to the point that they're irrelevant. Even the flimsiest, cheap headphones routinely boast extremely low bass-response performance--15Hz or 20Hz--but almost always sound lightweight and bright. Generally, bass buffs will be happier sticking with larger 'phones.

Total harmonic distortion. True, headphones with lower actual total harmonic distortion (THD) will sound better than 'phones with higher THD. But the quoted THD numbers--"less than 1 percent"--aren't helpful in predicting sound quality. Listen to recordings of simply recorded acoustic guitar to assess the distortion of one set of headphones vs. another. Some will sound appreciably cleaner than others.

Impedance. Generally speaking, the lower the headphones' electrical impedance (aka resistance), the easier it is to get higher volume. But here again, the low impedance is no guarantee of high volume capability; other factors can still limit loudness potential. Since many MP3 players have feeble power output--the iPod is a notable exception--smart shoppers should check the loudness before purchasing any pair of headphones. To be sure, listen with your player.

Headphone connection types

From 20-year-old Walkman models to state-of-the-art iPods, most audio devices use the standard minijack connector, but there are some competing connection options. Don't like cables? A small but growing number of wireless headphone options are becoming available. Just make sure your headphone plug matches the jack on your audio source.

Minijack plug - Also known as: 1/8-inch; 3.5mm; Walkman-style.
This is by far the most common headphone connector, especially for portable AV devices.

1/4-inch plug - Also known as: full-size; phono.
The larger, older 1/4-inch plug style is still commonly found on nonportable AV equipment such as receivers, home stereos, and DVD players.

2.5mm plug - Also known as: Cell phone-style
This is the smaller cousin of the minijack. It's usually found on cell phones and similar communication-oriented multimedia devices. The 2.5mm plug almost always includes a two-way design so that it can handle both microphone and headphone transmissions via a single connection.

Multipronged. Communication headsets and surround headphones designed specifically for PCs usually have more than one plug. Communication headsets usually have separate headphone and microphone minijack plugs, while some PC-centric surround headphones have three plugs to interface with the corresponding ports on the back of surround-sound PC audio cards.

USB. USB headsets are almost exclusively relegated to PCs and game consoles. The connection is digital rather than analog and can handle two-way communications via a single connection.

If your device doesn't have one of the standard analog jacks, it will almost certainly offer an adapter (an inexpensive add-on converts the proprietary port on the Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP to a standard minijack, for instance). Additionally, adapters are available to convert any of the analog connections from one to another: minijack to phono, 2.5mm to minijack, and vice versa.

 

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