Everything You Need to Know on Your Headphone-Buying Journey
When was the last time you shopped for a pair of headphones? Did you go in blindly? Read a bunch of reviews or ask for recommendations? Maybe you were lucky enough to test drive a few pairs. Whether you're looking at your first high-end headphone purchase or this is your fifth go-around, you may feel overwhelmed by the plethora of high-quality headphone brands, options, and styles. After all, there's so much out there:
- Open-back headphones vs. closed-back headphones
- Over-ear headphones vs. on-ear headphones vs. in-ear monitors (IEMs)
- Wired headphones vs. wireless headphones
- Noise canceling headphones ...
And that's just for starters. You also have to think about ergonomics (fit and comfort), as well as how and where you'll be listening to your headphones. After all, headphones are a lifestyle purchase as much as they are about listening to music. You need them to fit into your day-to-day life.
Le'ts not forget the ultimate deciding factor in your purchase: The way a headphone sounds. Because what good are your headphones if they don't sound absolutely amazing to your ears?
We created this Headphones 101 guide to help you weed through your options so that you can find the best audiophile-quality headphones for you to enjoy hi-res audio. Bells and whistles are nice, but they may not be what you need. Hype can be exciting, but it's worth looking past. When you're investing in high-end headphones, you want to be sure you make the best buy for you.
Cut Through the Headphone Hype
The best headphone brands spend their research and development dollars on materials that improve the level of comfort and the quality of sound instead of bells and whistles and cosmetic glitz and glam. For serious music fans, the investment that high-end headphone brands make adds up to portable designs that offer our on-the-go lifestyles more musical immersion and deeper escapism. Whether it be for home enjoyment or mobility, we need to focus on immersive sound quality and ignore the things we don’t need. Instead, spend the money on headphones made by brands that specialize in the best sound quality.
When was the last time you evaluated your current headphones? Is there a better fit for your noggin or your ears? Have you ever wondered how other headphone styles could complement your lifestyle? Are you using cheap earbuds but thinking there is something better?
Is your current headphone the best for you?
If you’ve pondered these questions, then the headphone or earbud you currently use probably isn’t meeting your expectations. It’s also likely your headphones or earbuds are not satisfying the inner desire we all share for immersive musical expression. So, let’s examine what to avoid, when choosing a new headphone, be it a traditional style or an in-ear, audiophile-quality IEM (in-ear monitor, or earphone).
Earbuds are just tiny speakers sprouting out of our ears like Q-tips, sticking out of the sides of our heads. When connected to our smart devices, they help us manage our daily lives by keeping us informed with the comings-and-goings from our social media, news, text messages and humdrum notifications pinging the plethora of screens we own.
Moreover, earbuds don’t have to actually sound good -- at least not anymore. With our expectations of great sound already lowered by lower-resolution streaming services, why should we care about the quality of our earbuds or headphones?
These days, earbuds are smart devices, too. They’re too busy processing other important tasks and distracting us away from great-sounding music, end-game results and that deeply satisfying escapism which can also be a form of meditation. It’s finally time to focus on the sound quality and ignore most of the bells and whistles.
Trends and glitz are fun, but don't shortchange yourself with headphones that are uncomfortable or that don't bring you endless hours of pure musical joy!
And aren’t headphones just speakers resting against our ears to make us look “cool?” Sure, brands like Beats and Skullcandy proclaim to provide “big bass.” That’s convenient and befitting for the latest trends in popular music, but that doesn’t communicate anything meaningful about us as unique individuals, does it? Larger headphones with their colorful logos and trendy designs, after all, do have the added benefit of helping us introverts avoid excruciatingly uncomfortable interactions when on-the-go by signaling to strangers that “Hey, we’re busy right now.” So there is that, at least.
But there’s so much more out there, and our ears deserve to hear better sound. While we agree headphones can indeed be a fashion statement, notifying the world around us about our individuality, great headphones can fulfill an even deeper need. And while earbuds provide assistive technologies that help us stay connected and informed, in-ear monitors (IEMs) can offer our lifestyles so much more.
- Don’t judge a headphone based on how it looks.
- Focus on sound quality; ignore the bells and whistles you don’t need.
- Price matters - when it comes to great sound, headphone brands spend their research and development dollars on designs that fit comfortably, and present sound to users, brilliantly. Spend your hard-earned money on headphones made by higher quality brands.
Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Headphone
What's your listening style?
Before you shrug your shoulders and say, "I just ... listen," consider this: We audiophiles and music enthusiasts have very different ways of listening to music. Broadly speaking, you have your so-called "analytical" listeners and your "get lost in the music" listeners.
What does that mean, exactly?
An analytical listener likes to pick apart and analyze, if you will, every detail and nuance in music. It's an active form of listening in which you are highly attuned to everything you're hearing. You want to hear every lip smack, every inhalation of breath, every guitar pluck in its individual glory. You delight in the details.
Other people prefer to "tune out" -- totally or to a degree -- when they're listening to music. Getting lost in the music without hyperfocusing on details is their preference. There's an element of immersion here, whereby you can zone out or even forget that you're not right there in the middle of the music.
Of course, you may not strictly fall into one camp or the other. Maybe it depends on your mood, or the type of music you're listening to. For example, you might want more detail when listening to classical, but less when listening to rock and roll. Or maybe it's the other way around. We're talking in generalities here, but listening style is an important consideration here, and you want a headphone that will provide you with the experience you desire.
What type of music do you listen to?
We know what you're thinking -- you listen to many types of music. Most of us do! And even if you do gravitate toward one particular genre of music, you know that there are many variations within that particular genre. Rock and roll, for example, isn't just one sound. Wailing electric guitars and thumping drum beats exist alongside slow and soulful ballads under the umbrella of rock and roll. Likewise, modern country doesn't exactly sound like classic country. So when we talk about genres here, we are defining them by their most quintessential sounds.
Now, it's not as straightforward as saying "this particular headphone is for this type of music," and there's no headphone that will work only for a single type of music. Many headphones will work for many types of music, and some headphones will really make your
music shine no matter what you're listening to. That being said, certain headphones are better suited for one type of music vs. another, be it rock 'n' roll, classical, jazz, classical, country, EDM, or something else. And you want to do everything you can to optimize your favorite music, right?
Whether you're purchasing your first pair of audiophile headphones or you've been around the block a few times, the music you listen to the most should be an important consideration in the headphones or earphones (also called in-ear monitors or IEMs) that you choose.
Now, keep in mind that these are all just guidelines. We might recommend certain parameters for choosing a headphone for jazz, for example, but your ears might tell you something different. A sommelier will make recommendations about wine and food pairings, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily right for you. If you don't like red wine, you will never want to pair it with a juicy steak. It's the same with headphones and audio in general. Guidelines exist to help you wade through a plethora of options, but in the end, you need to trust your own instincts and preferences.
Where and How Will You Use Your Headphones?
The venue for your listening sessions needs to play a big role in your headphone decision. Where will you do most of your listening? At home? In a quiet or shared office? At the gym? In noisy coffee shops? On a train or plane? Will leakage of sound disturb those around you? Likewise, what degree of outside sound will you want/need to block out?
Will you be using them for short periods or long sessions? You'll want the best-fitting (for you) and most comfortable (to you) headphones to maximize your enjoyment.
Will you be moving around or sitting still? Depending on your level of activity, you'll need to think about a headphone's ability to stay on your head in place (or in your ears).
Your answers will tell you a lot about the type of headphone you need to focus on in terms of headphone style, size/weight, sound leakage, and portability.
What's Your Current Audio Setup?
Whatever headphones you end up buying, they won't exist in a vacuum. After all, your headphones are only conduits to your music; they need to be connected to a source. What will your source be? Will you be listening on your phone? A computer, laptop, or tablet? Do you currently have a speaker system or a headphone system? Is it a desktop or a whole-room system? What are your space requirements?
Some headphones are easier to drive than others; others are more power-hungry and will require you to connect to a headphone amp. This is an important consideration for the headphones you choose. That being said, just about any high-end headphone or IEM will benefit from the addition of an amp.
Also, know that amps (and other components like DACs and cables) have their own sound signatures, and you'll also want to explore what the best match(es) might be for your chosen headphones. If you will be buying your headphones first (and we recommend that you do), we can suggest a great DAC/amp to pair them with. If you already own a DAC/amp and don't intend to get another, this will be a consideration for whichever headphone you choose.
Get to Know Headphone Types
Open-Back Headphones vs. Closed-Back Headphones
Whether your goal is to improve your music listening on the go with a fantastic closed-back design, or to listen unapologetically with the most musical open-back designs in the privacy of your home, Moon Audio has you covered.
The main difference between the two lies in how the drivers in each headphone are ventilated. In open-back designs, the ventilation airways allow the passage of air to move freely around the drivers, whereas the drivers are not ventilated in closed-back headphones since the backsides of the ear cups are covered. The results of each design impact the overall sense of presentation in ways that will matter to you and those around you.
Generally, open-back headphones present a wider soundstage and a spacious sound. However, since the ear cups are “open," the sound waves produced by the drivers are audible to people in your vicinity. Additionally, open-back headphones let outside sounds in, which can compete with your music or divert your attention. So, open-back headphones generally fit into more private or secluded ergonomic scenarios, such as the home or a private office.
Since the cups of closed headphones are covered (hence the name “closed-back”), this design generally fits into any ergonomic scenario, especially when on the go. Similar to IEMs, closed-back headphones typically offer a sense of presentation that’s a little more “intimate,” “narrow,” and “in-the-head.” This can be a great feature for bass-heads or for any application where an up-close analysis of more “forward”-sounding musical details is desired.
Over-Ear Headphones vs. On-Ear Headphones vs. In-Ear Monitors (IEMs)
Over-ear (circum-aural) headphones:
These are full-size headphones in which the entire ear is surrounded. With over-ear headphones, you get an intimate sound with less noise leakage, but these headphones are also bulkier and heavier. When it comes to the widest soundstage, full-size headphones are the reining choice among audiophiles. This is due to the larger circum-aural design, which surrounds the ears and encases sound waves within the design's larger ear-cup chambers. This feature helps lock in the sound (called “isolation”) and prevents it from leaking out where the leaked sound waves not only could disturb other people sitting nearby, but also compromises the brilliant soundstage of full-size headphones. When a headphone’s “sealing condition” is broken, the resulting sound waves leaking out are called “leakage.” This is bad, and an important issue to look out for when considering either fit-type.
For the geometries of certain users’ head-shapes, only the larger Full-Size types fit comfortably. For users with larger cranial geometries, Full-Size headphones are generally recommended even though some Full-Size options could add a tad bit more weight for the user’s neck to carry when on-the-go.
Sennheiser HD800 S Over-Ear Headphones
On-ear (supra-aural) headphones:
The extra-dimensional “width” achieved through full-size headphones is lost in the exchange for the better mobility afforded by the smallest headphone style on the market. Similar to other small headphone styles available, on-ear headphones position the drivers closer to the ears compared to full-size headphones. However, for many, there’s a significant sonic advantage when placing the drivers farther away from the ears rather than closer. The compromise here is an ergonomic one. Being a smaller form-factor, on-ear headphones travel lighter, but they cannot present a soundstage that competes with the better presentation afforded by the larger, heavier, and sometimes bulkier full-size headphone style. This is why full-size headphones are the best choice for critical listening at home, private offices, or professional studios. However, many headphone brands offer full-size designs that are lighter and more practical for portable on-the-go applications.
In-ear monitors (IEMs):
IEMs (also called earphones) are often equated with earbuds, but the two are not the same. Unlike earbuds, which are held in place by the concha ridge at the center of your outer ear, IEMS sit inside of the ear canal. The tighter seal of IEMs leads to much better sound than typical earbuds, which tend to have weaker volume and bass.
Now, many audiophiles prefer a “wider” sense of presentation compared to the “narrower” “in-your-head” sense of presentation that IEMs can deliver. That being said, IEMs are becoming more sophisticated all the time, with many models offering a soundstage and sonic benefits that were previously the domain of traditional headphones. While IEMs were originally designed for music professionals, many audiophiles are opting to use them for listening at home or on the go. (Did we mention how incredibly portable IEMs are, and that they offer great sound isolation, particularly custom-fit pairs?)
On the other hand, a “narrower,” and more “intimate” sense of presentation that’s more “centered” in the forehead is usually achieved the best with these smaller and more portable headphone styles. In fact, with Earphones & IEMs users can experience a sense of resolution and intimacy with the music that isn’t possible with any other fit-type. It’s important to understand that where psychoacoustics is concerned, there are no right or wrong answers. There are only preferences and compromises; advantages and disadvantages.
Custom IEMs vs. Universal IEMs
When it comes to the best sound quality and the most immersive experience on the go, audiophiles and professional musicians generally prefer custom IEMs as opposed to universal fit IEMs. The reason for this preference among users who are the most serious about their listening sessions is the better comfort and sound quality that custom IEMs deliver. Custom IEMs are molded by an audiologist to fit the one-of-a-kind impressions of a wearer’s uniquely shaped ear canal. Custom IEMs offer the most personalized isolation and sealing condition of any headphone style.
On the other hand, custom IEMs can be more expensive, and the procedure requires an audiologist's expertise to ensure the impressions are captured with exacting precision and form. Because they are made specifically for the user's ears, they can't be easily resold to another user. Universal IEMs, however, are designed to fit in the ear canal universally, making this fit-type more convenient and more economical. Similar to other headphone styles, the pre-formed "universal” molding isn’t the right style for everyone’s ear canals, but for many users, the universal IEM is the perfect fit.
Most universal IEMs come with several pairs of silicone or foam ear tips in varying shapes and sizes so that you can find the most snug fit for your ears. You can also buy aftermarket ear tips from places like complyfoam.com.
Wired Headphones vs. Wireless Headphones
As if headphones weren’t already portable enough, today shoppers have the option of choosing between wired and wireless styles. Wireless Bluetooth technologies are making headphones even more portable. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to consider with the modern conveniences that wireless technologies afford to headphone users.
For example, wireless headphones offer the most ergonomic flexibility of all the headphone styles, and the convenience is liberating for anyone on the go. And with wireless earphones, you eliminate a headset altogether.
On the other hand, one major disadvantage of wireless Bluetooth headphones is often the sound quality compared to that of wired styles. Although not having to be tethered to an audio source can be convenient and extremely gratifying, the audiophile-grade quality is only available in headphones made by brands, adopting the Bluetooth codecs, supporting higher resolution audio such as the Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones and the HiFiMan Ananda BT headphones. This limits the options headphone shoppers have who are more serious about upgrading the sound of their music. However, the options are growing.
Another disadvantage of wireless headphone styles overlooked by the majority of shoppers is the lack of tonal flexibility. The freedom from wires comes at an additional cost to the flexibility in sound tonality options that most shoppers aren’t even aware of. Since nearly all high-end wired headphones are fitted with detachable cables, wired headphones offer the convenience to enhance a wired headphone’s sound signature by switching to an upgraded headphone cable instead of the cheaply made stock cable that comes with every headphone. This means wired headphone users have the advantage of tailoring the sound of their music even further by switching to premium headphone cables made with higher-quality materials. Upgrading the headphone cable changes the tonality and sound signature of Wired headphones to suit the music and the user’s tastes on the fly. This level of flexibility simply isn’t possible with wireless styles. Not everyone listens to music in the same way, and our tastes in music are uniquely our own. So, this flexibility in sound signatures is a prized feature found only in wired headphones. For this reason, wired fit-types are coveted by headphone users who are serious about the sound of their music and hearing it on their terms.
Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) technology is a “bells and whistles” feature that can be an absolute luxury or necessity for certain ergonomic scenarios (e.g. travel, noisy offices). Available in both wireless and wired setups, noise canceling headphones can be used with or without music and effectively reduce ambient sounds, effectively isolating you from outside distractions and annoyances.
Many people have heard of noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds such as Bose QuietComfort and Apple AirPods Pro. You can certainly find many options on Amazon or at Best Buy.
Shoppers of noise-canceling headphones typically fall in a different category than shoppers who are seeking the highest-fidelity sound. The former are generally more interested in solutions that help them relax during a flight, focus in a noisy environment, or fall asleep while on a road trip. These shoppers are generally less interested in the quality of their audio and more interested in a solution that helps them navigate the ergonomics of their lifestyles in therapeutic silence.
Consequently, manufacturers have invested more heavily in research and development that concentrates on their proprietary brand of noise-canceling technologies rather than the quality of the headphone’s drivers. On the other hand, non-noise canceling manufacturers have concentrated their research and development efforts on materials and drivers, which all combine to present the most immersive soundstage to the user.
For these reasons, active noise-cancelling headphones have traditionally not been the best solutions for those shopping for great-sounding immersive audio; however, this is changing. There are options available today that merge the best of both worlds with the ergonomic needs of each type of shopper. Manufacturers have stepped up their games when it comes to producing noise-canceling headphones for audiophiles that can provide a more immersive sense of presentation.
We live in an "on the go" age. Whether it's frequent travel, fast food obtained in and eaten in our cars, or commuting to work, we often take things to go. This includes our favorite music, podcasts, and audiobooks that we listen to on our iPhones or Android phones or portable audio players. For audiophiles, the desire for great sound outside of the home demands portability. "Portability" in the realm of headphones comes down to two things:
1) How easy can you pack up/carry the headphone with you while on the go or traveling?
2) Can the headphone be driven from your phone or a portable device?
As for ease of transport, that can be pretty straightforward: Bulkier, heavier, full-size headphones may not be what you want to travel with. Smaller, lighter IEMs as well as headphones that fold up are much more friendly for on-the-go scenarios. And, obviously, wireless, battery-driven headphones are by nature portable, offering you hours of on-the-go playtime.
The drivability of a headphone is another important factor. Some headphones, including electrostatic headphones or more power-hungry dynamic or planar magnetic headphones, require the use of a headphone amp. While you may (if you're fanatical enough) opt to lug full-size components with you to a hotel room, the need for an amp effectively eliminates your ability to listen to a headphone on a plane, at the gym, or on a walk.
The AEON 2 from Dan Clark Audio folds up for easy portability.
Best Headphone Type for Your Lifestyle: At a Glance