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Welcome to our guide to choosing the best headphones!
Understanding which are the best stereo headphones for your needs is not an easy task. Also because it depends on what you use your headphones for!
Do you want to listen to music with excellent sound quality? Or simply watch videos on your laptop without disturbing those around you? In both cases you definitely need some of the best headphones!
Today many of us like to relax listening to music even during air travel, or on the subway or while walking in the city. When we do sports as well, wearing earphones allows us to move to the rhythm of our favorite playlist!
In short, the world of stereo headphones offers a huge variety of solutions and models. So let’s try to understand together how to make the best choice for our listening habits.
Are Wireless Headphones Better Than Cable Headphones?
We can first distinguish between:
- wireless headphones
- wired headphones.
Until a few years ago wireless connection was considered less stable (with a consequent loss of audio fidelity), and the cost of wireless devices was significantly higher. Today we use wireless headsets every day, and wireless connection is not considered unstable anymore, provided we limit our choice to the best wireless headphones only.
One of the most widespread wireless connection technologies is Bluetooth: the pairing (association) with your smartphone happens automatically when the Bluetooth headphones are switched on.
Considering that we are talking about wireless headphones, pay attention to the stability and range (maximum distance between headphones and the transmitting device) of the connection. To have an excellent sound quality and a range of up to 30-50 feet (10-15 meters) you need to buy only the best Bluetooth headphones, relying on products of the highest quality brands such as Sony, Sennheiser, JBL, etc.
Talking about the best wireless headphones, it is important that you also consider the battery life, to avoid having to recharge the battery very often.
We will go in deeper detail on the best wireless headphones later in this guide.
Over-Ear Headphones, On-Ear Headphones and In-Ear Earphones
We also need to categorize the best headphones based on how you wear them. For each of these types we will describe the pros and cons, so that you can choose the most suitable type for you.
We can therefore distinguish between:
- In-Ear earphones: you insert them inside the ear, and the end of the earpiece is suitably shaped and deformable to better adapt to the ear canal. This terminal part is in fact often made of silicone. By purchasing a pair of the best earphones, you could find in the package several pairs of terminations of various sizes for a perfect fit regardless of the size of our ear-pads.
- On-Ear headphones (also known as supra-aural headphones): they are made to rest on the ear pads. The best on-ear headphones are padded for comfort. Pay attention if you use on-ear headphones for long: in the long run the pressure exerted on the ear pads could be slightly annoying for some of us.
- Over-Ear headphones (or circumaural headphones, or full-size headphones): they are equipped with large pads that completely encompass the ears, guaranteeing excellent noise-isolation. Obviously they’re not suited to the practice of sports, but some of the headphone models that guarantee the best audio quality are just of the over-ear type (go on to read this guide to understand why).
What Are the Best Headphones?
How To Choose the Best Headphones?
When you are about to purchase a new pair of headphones, always check the following:
- Audio Quality
- Noise Isolation
- Dimensions and Portability
- Comfort and Design
- Value for Money
What Does Headphones Audio Quality Depend On?
Perhaps the most important feature in choosing the best headphones is audio quality.
Audio quality is the ability of the headphones to faithfully reproduce both low and mid tones as well as high tones. Let’s see what audio quality depends on.
First of all audio quality depends mainly on the type and size of driver. The audio driver is the headphones component that transforms the electrical impulse into sound, so that our ears are able to perceive it. In general, the larger the diameter of the audio driver, the better the sound quality produced by it. Typically the best over-ear headphones, thanks to the fact that they can accommodate a larger driver, are the ones that give the best frequency response.
Still on the subject of audio quality, it depends a lot on the frequency response of the headphones. Let’s go a little more into details to understand what frequency response means.
The human ear perceives frequencies ranging from 18 Hertz (Hz) to 22000 Hz. In reality each of us is able to hear a different range of frequencies, based on age and how well we are trained to listen to music.
We therefore say that a pair of headphones is good quality if it is able to provide a frequency response ranging from 20 Hz to 20000 Hz, which is the frequency range perceivable on average by many of us. Needless to say, the larger the frequency response provided, the better the headphones.
But what happens when a certain pair of headphones can’t even cover the frequency range between 20 Hz and 20000 Hz? In this case the very low and / or very high tones would not be present, with a consequent decrease in the perceived audio quality.
The best in-ear headphones have on average a smaller frequency range, just because the driver must necessarily be smaller.
Don’t think though that in-ear earphones necessarily imply a less than optimal sound quality! Thanks to miniaturization, earphones with excellent audio quality are now available on the market, but you’ll have to choose among the best products only.
The sensitivity indicates the sound pressure (expressed in decibels dB) which, given a certain voltage, the headphones can provide. In practice the sensitivity represents the maximum volume up to which the reproduction of the sound happens faithfully.
Sensitivity is often provided by manufacturers among the headphones technical features. The best headphones have a sensitivity between 85 dB and 110 dB (or even more).
Also in this case remember that the greater the sensitivity (ie the number of dB declared by the manufacturer), the higher the headphones quality.
Impedance is measured in ohms, and indicates the resistance of the headphone coil to be crossed by an electromagnetic field.
The audio quality also depends on the impedance. In general the higher the impedance, the higher the audio quality. The problem is that by increasing the impedance, the intensity of the current that circulates in the coil of the headphones decreases. The audio volume that headphones can supply is really dependent on the intensity of this current. It follows that raising the impedance lowers the maximum volume provided by the headphones. A high impedance headset would therefore need an external amplifier to reach adequate volume levels.
The impedance values declared by the manufacturers are extremely variable. We go from a few ohms of small devices to batteries (for example an mp3 player), up to 600 ohms for certain headphones models.
Frequency linearity measures how constant the sound level is in relation to the frequency range covered by the headphones.
It is not possible that the sound level produced is always exactly the same throughout the frequency spectrum. What normally happens is that at certain frequencies the reproduced sound level increases or decreases. Frequency linearity is expressed in dB, and indicates the average deviation from a reference value.
In general the lower the linearity in frequency, the higher the headphones quality.
Signal to Noise Ratio
This is the ratio of signal power to noise power. It is a pure number, since it is given by the division of two homogeneous quantities (signal and noise in fact). Both of these quantities are usually expressed in Watts.
The signal to noise ratio is therefore given by the power of the signal divided by the power of the noise. In other words, it indicates how much the signal is more powerful than the noise.
High Fidelity Headphones
We often hear of high fidelity headphones. But what exactly does this mean?
High fidelity or Hi-Fi is actually a generic term, which dates back to the 1930s, when it was used to refer to high quality power amplifiers. Since then the term was associated with many audio (and even video) devices considered to be of excellent quality. High fidelity therefore means that the audio device in question has above average quality.
Since the 1970s, the need to define a standard to define exactly when a device could be considered high fidelity has been felt more and more.
Some of the most important parameters that Hi-Fi devices must meet are:
- signal to noise ratio
- frequency response
- slew rate
We have already had the opportunity to see in detail two of the main ones: frequency response and signal to noise ratio.
Best Headphones for Gaming
A particular category is gaming headphones. For the most advanced gamers in fact it is not enough to have headphones with perfect audio quality.
First of all, a gaming headset must have a built-in microphone, to play in multiplayer mode. In this scenario it is in fact necessary to communicate in real time with the other players.
The comfort of gaming headphones is essential, especially for long gaming sessions.
An important aspect is the number of channels, or the so-called surround effect. The surround effect makes you feel at the center of the scene, in the sense that you can perceive the direction of origin of the sounds. So you can also perceive the sounds of what happens in the video game behind your character, just as if it happened behind you!
As we said, the surround effect depends on the number of channels in the headphones. In practice, in each pad there is not just one audio driver, but more than one. In this case we talk about real surround. Obviously making multi-channel headphones with real surround is more expensive than building normal stereo headphones.
There is also virtual surround, which is a software simulated surround. In this case they are stereo headphones (and not multi-channel), and therefore cheaper.
Gamers also pay attention to their headphones design, which must be in line with their gaming station design. Therefore, gaming headphones are often characterized by LED lights that produce suggestive effects.
Other features appreciated by gamers are: noise cancellation and compatibility with most consoles and computers.
Best Headphones: Noise Isolation
The ability to isolate from external noise reaches the top in the best over-ear headphones, since they have large earpads built with special noise isolating materials.
In addition to the over-ear headphones, even the best in-ear headphones can provide good noise isolation when they fit perfectly into the ear canal. They in fact sort of close the ear canal thus considerably attenuating external noise.
In this sense you should consider ear buds that include various sets of ear tips of different sizes.
In addition, high quality earphones often also have a set of memory foam ear tips, a material that can adapt to the shape of your ear canal.
Noise isolation in on-ear headphones depends on the amount of padding and the pressure exerted on the ear (for finding the right pressure level it is essential that the headband is adjustable, to adapt to the size of our head).
Active Noise Cancellation
Most headphones (and especially over-ear headphones) are built with sound-absorbing materials, designed to reduce noise from the outside as much as possible. In this case we can speak of passive noise reduction.
Today there are headphones with active cancellation of external noise. Let’s see what it is and how it works.
In practice, part of the external noise is almost canceled through a device inside the headphone earpad that emits a sound equal to the external noise but out of phase with it by 180 degrees. This means that the headphones with active cancellation reproduce the noises coming from the outside, displacing them. The result is that the two sound waves (the external one and the one generated by the headphones) cancel each other out, and the listener no longer perceives the annoying external interference.
One of the typical uses you can make of headphones with active noise cancellation is during an air trip so as to eliminate the noise of the engine.
Usually a good device for active noise cancellation is expensive. We therefore advise you to avoid headphones with active cancellation characterized by a low price.
Finally a warning: if in general a perfect isolation from external noise helps to improve the perceived audio quality, there are situations in which it is better to be able to perceive external noises, and therefore these are only attenuated. For example, if you wear earphones while jogging outdoors, you need to be able to hear outside noises for your safety.
Best Headphones: Size and Portability
Wireless in-ear earphones are the smallest type of headphones, and considering there’s no wire they allow you for the maximum freedom of movement and portability. The best Bluetooth earphones are the ideal choice for listening to music while doing sports. Considering that while working out the earphones will be subjected to sweat (and also rain in the case of outdoor activities), they must be resistant to sweat and water splashes.
Bluetooth headphones can have a cable that connects the two earphones. This solution guarantees a good degree of freedom of movement, and is also quite economical. The maximum freedom of movement is when the two earbuds are totally independent (therefore not connected by any cable). Obviously this solution is more expensive, but it has no equal in terms of comfort.
The best on-ear headphones, especially when they are light and foldable, represent a good compromise and can also be used while traveling. When we make long air journeys for example, we may want to combine excellent sound quality with taking up the smallest space in our suitcase. If you are looking for the best travel headphones, you should consider purchasing a pair of on-ear headphones.
Over-ear headphones, due to their larger dimensions, are often more difficult to transport, and usually have greater weight.
How Bluetooth Headphones, Radio Frequency Headphones and Infrared Headphones Work
As we have already said, wireless headphones allow for maximum freedom.
Today there are various wireless communication technologies used in headphones and earphones:
- Bluetooth: today it is the most widespread technology. It uses shortwave radio frequencies, and has a maximum range of about 30 feet (about 10 meters). Through the pairing process it is possible to connect many different types of devices (eg smartphones, laptops, televisions, cameras, printers, etc.) to your headphones. For example, the smartphone creates a private network to which devices that are within the maximum range and that are compatible with that Bluetooth standard (for example your headphones) can register. The Bluetooth protocol has the advantage of being very widespread and cheap, and of not needing a transmitter to work. The audio signal is also compressed to be transmitted, but the best Bluetooth headphones still guarantee excellent sound quality.
- Radio frequency: a transmitter emits electromagnetic waves on the radio band, which are received by a receiver. Usually the transmitter is contained in the charging base, while the receiver is a small antenna included in the headphones. One of the advantages of this technology is the very wide range of action, up to 300 feet (about 100 meters). Within the maximum range, they offer good sound quality. The disadvantages are a higher cost and the possibility of being subject to radio interference. Often the best radiofrequency headphones are used to get an immersive experience when watching movies, TV series or multimedia in general.
- Infrared: a transmitter emits a beam of non-visible light (on infrared frequencies) which encodes the sound signal that arrives at the receiver on the headphones. This technology has the advantage of being economical and not subject to interference. On the other hand it is characterized by a poor range of action (max about 30 feet, or 10 meters), and there must be no obstacles between transmitter and receiver.
Wireless Headphones: Battery Life
As mentioned in the introduction, if you are looking for a pair of cordless headphones you will also have to pay attention to the battery life.
Wireless headphones in fact work thanks to a rechargeable battery. The rechargeable batteries are made of different materials, among the most qualitative there are for example lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries. Lithium ion batteries also have a shorter charging time, compared to other types of batteries such as Nickel Metal Hydrate (Ni-Mh).
Some over-ear headphones are equipped with a charging base (in particular those with radiofrequency, where the base also acts as a transmitter).
Then there are full wireless headphones (that is with the two independent earbuds) that have a protective case that recharges the earphones when they are stored.
What Does Headset Comfort Depend On?
Sometimes we wear headphones for several consecutive hours, just think of when we listen to music during a long journey. It is therefore important to evaluate the comfort of the model we are going to buy.
The best over-ear headphones are comfortable to wear, thanks to the fact that they don’t exert much pressure on the ear pads.
They are also comfortable because they are usually characterized by abundant padding in both the pads and the headband.
But beware of the heat in your ears that a prolonged use of over-ear headphones can cause especially in the summer!
Depending on the quality of construction and materials, on-ear headphones and in-ear headphones can be characterized by different levels of comfort.
We remind you again that for maximum comfort, on-ear headphones and over-ear headphones must have a finely adjustable padded headband. The headband in fact must adapt perfectly to the dimensions of our head, also to have the best stability when you wear them.
The comfort of in-ear headphones is closely related to the shape and size of the ear tips you insert into your ears. It is important that there are multiple pairs of silicone or memory foam ear tips of different sizes. When you buy in-ear headphones, make sure they include ear tips in the small, medium and large sizes.
Finally, let’s not forget the design: the best headphones in fact combine elegance with comfort!
There are headphones with a classic, modern, retro or minimal design… Let’s say it is above all a question of choosing the style that suits you best.
Almost all the headphones are also available in many different colors, both to satisfy our personal tastes and to ensure the best color match with our clothes.