Headphones: Our buying guide

If you’re new to headphones (the large ones that go over your head), deciding which pair to buy can be a confusing and time-consuming process, potentially exacerbated by a lack of knowledge. Add in the fact that a lot of headphones look rather similar, and you’re faced with a rather difficult decision to make.

So we’ve put together a buying guide to help you figure out what headphones are best for you, or at least to arm you with the knowledge required to make that decision. It’s worth noting that when compared to earphones (the smaller ones), headphones are generally a more expensive and longer-lasting investment. With that in mind, we’ve created three different consumer profiles to suit different users – the beginner, the established listener and the ‘audiophile’.

The beginner (<$100)

For those completely new to headphones and with a relatively small budget, good-quality pickings aren’t as few and far between as you might think. Reputable brands such as Philips and Sennheiser have budget offerings which provide good sound quality without breaking the bank, and other lesser known companies are producing headphones that give reasonable quality for a low price. It’s important to understand that while products made by the big brands will often be of a good quality, the name isn’t everything.

Many people may think that at this price range you’ll mostly be looking at only on-ear headphones, as opposed to over-ear headphones, but the good news is that if you’re so inclined, $100 can buy you an excellent pair of over-ear headphones, and you might even be left with some cash in hand. For those unaware of the differences between the two, where is what you need to know.

  • On-ear headphones feature ear pads that simply rest on your ears and project noise waves in the general direction of your ear canal. On-ear headphones are generally cheaper than their over-ear counterparts, and generally lower quality. Their main drawback is the fact that they generally come without any sound-isolating features, meaning that a) you can hear other people, and b) other people can hear your music). This obviously isn’t ideal for anyone.
  • Over-ear headphones are headphones with ear pads designed to fit over your ear and enclose it, creating a much more sealed-off listening environment for your ears – and people around you. Over-ear headphones are often described as sounding more ‘spacious’ because their larger ear cups allow the audio drivers (the bits that project the sound) to be positioned further away from your ears. This means that more sound ends up bouncing around your outer ear, similar to if you were listening to music through nearby speakers.

On-ear headphones are more portable, and more suited to travel and exercise, being more lightweight and generally more flexible, whereas over-ear headphones are more suited to home use, along with studios and other situations where high fidelity is required.

In this cheap price range you’ll find a good number of quality on-ear and over-ear headphones.

Suggested on-ear pick for the beginner Sony MDR10RCW Compact On-Ear Headphones, priced $99.

Suggested over-ear pick for the beginner Sennheiser HD429 Over-Ear Headphones, priced $99.95.

The established listener ($100-$400)

For those a bit more knowledgeable about headphones, and with a larger budget, this is where headphones start to get really interesting. You’ve still got plenty of choice as far as on-ear vs. over-ear goes, and the quality found in this price range is exponentially better than what you’ll find for less than $100. That is not to say that cheaper headphones are bad, but it’s simply a case of the only way is up.

While this is technically the ‘mid-range’ for headphones, the best part of $400 will nab you an excellent pair of headphones which even the most discerning audio nerd should be fairly happy with. So focus more on finding a pair of headphones that will last for a while, and that are comfortable on your head and ears. Many headphone buyers have experienced the dismay of realising that their new headphones are causing some serious pain and discomfort after an hour or two of being worn, and you should try your best to avoid this heartbreak for yourself. Try on any pair of headphones you’re looking at buying in-store, so you can ensure they fit well on your head and don’t cause any discomfort.

Suggested on-ear pick for the established listener Beats by Dre Beats Solo², priced $259.95.

Suggested over-ear pick for the established listener Bose SoundTrue II Around-Ear Headphones, priced $249.

The audiophile (>$400)

This is where headphones get serious. The audiophile will stop at nothing and spend any amount of money to get the best pair of headphones they possibly can. As with the previous price range, anything you buy is going to be good – and $400 or more should get you an incredible pair of headphones, regardless of brand.

However, the only real downside of this price range is that your on-ear options are slim to non-existent. The audiophile range is dominated by over-ear headphones, because those are the headphones that afford your ears the highest sound quality. So if you’re strictly looking for on-ear headphones, you’ll either be relieved or annoyed that you can’t drop a huge amount of money on what you want.

At this price range, features such as advanced noise cancellation and attenuation are commonplace, along with real leather head straps and other fancy bits and pieces. If you know enough about headphones to spend $400 or more on a pair, it really comes down to what you want. There’s not much else we can tell you.

Suggested over-ear pick for the audiophile Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Over-Ear Headphones, priced $499.

You can compare different brands of headphones using our customer satisfaction ratings.

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