Choosing a Headphone That's Right for You
How often do you evaluate your headphones? Is there a better fit for your noggin? Have you ever wondered how other headphone styles could complement your lifestyle? Is your current headphone or earbud the right pair for you?
Earphones & IEMs
If you’ve ever 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, first, when choosing a new headphone or earphone.
How (Not) To Choose A Headphone
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.
And by the way, aren’t headphones just speakers resting against our ears to make us look “cool?” Sure, certain brands 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 know better. 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, the earphone or custom-molded “in-ear monitor” (IEM) can offer our lifestyles so much more.
Music artist sporting headphones covered in diamonds | Credit: https://slate.com
When it comes to great sound, 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 we don’t need. For serious music fans, the investment high-end headphone brands make adds up to build-qualities in portable designs that offer our on-the-go lifestyles more musical immersion and deeper escapism. Whether it be for home-enjoyment or mobility, again, it’s finally time we 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; ignore what you don’t need.
In Summary: What To Avoid When Choosing Headphones
- 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 better brands.
What To Look For In Better Headphones
When it comes to great sound and the ergonomic applications where different headphone styles can fit into our lives the best, here’s what to look out for when selecting a new headphone, earphone or IEM.
What You Need: The Specifics.
While style is important when selecting the right headphone, other factors are even more essential. These specifics are different with each headphone style, and these features will vary in value depending on the size and geometry of a user’s head-shape.
Knowing the meaning of these features and the terminology used to describe sound is crucial to making an informed decision that helps you get the most out of a new headphone or earphone:
Circum-aural: Refers to Full-Size headphones that fit over-the-ear.
Ergonomic Flexibility: A headphone’s ability to fit within a scenario for any type of application, whether that be in the home, on-the-go or professionally.
Ergonomic Scenario: The situation or application where a headphone’s use is optimized for the greatest performance and the best sonic results.
Cable Attachment-Style: Wired headphones come in two styles:
1.) Detachable (a.k.a interchangeable).
2.) Hardwired. Hardwired headphones can be “Hacked” for better performance.
Cranial Geometry: The unique contours of the human cranium that can impact a headphone’s “fit” or the level of comfort around the user’s head. This makes certain headphones a better fit for users with varying head shapes and sizes. If the geometry of the headphone does not align with a user’s unique head and ear geometry, this can impact the headphone’s “sealing condition,” and cause the sound to “leak” out. When this occurs, the headphone’s impressive sense of presentation and comfort-level may be compromised, entirely.
Listening-Style: The way a user prefers to listen to music. Typically, users may prefer to listen more analytically, or they may prefer to relax and “get lost” in the music. There’s no right or wrong way to listen to music.
IEM: Acronym referring to “In-Ear-Monitor.” There are two styles:
1.) Pre-formed “Universal" IEMs or Earphones - these are pre-molded to fit inside the ear canals, universally.
2.) Custom IEMs - custom-molded impressions required by an audiologist to fit the unique contours of a wearer’s ear canal.
Isolation: Created when a tight “sealing condition” around the ears effectively prevents sound from leaking out.
Sealing Condition: This feature helps lock in the sound (called “isolation”), and prevents it from leaking outside of the headphone.
Sense of Presentation: The way a sound is oriented or presented to the listener. It affects the way listeners perceive the locale of a sound’s source and provides a sense of where the sound is being produced.
Sound Signature: The unique intrinsic sound quality of a headphone, music player, DAC, or audio cable. Some audio products emphasize the higher treble ranges while others strengthen the bass. This overall sound profile of audio devices helps audiophiles fine-tune the listening experience by pairing the right headphone cable, DAC, or music player with their headphones. Learn more about sound profiles using this Guide to Sound Signatures.
Supra-aural: Refers to headphones that rest against the user’s ears, or “on-the-ear.” This is one of the most common headphone styles in the consumer market.
Interested in learning more about high-end audio? Check out this Dictionary of Audiophile Terminology to learn the most important technical and psychoacoustic expressions needed for getting started in this deeply satisfying hobby.
Knowing more about these features will ensure that your decision to buy a new headphone is not only an educated one, but also one that fits just right into the lifestyle you lead. For that specific geometry of the beautifully unique noggin which varies for everyone, choosing the right Fit-type is critical to sustaining listening sessions, comfortably.
Consider The Ergonomics of Headphones
Big sounding bass and expressing fashion-statements are excellent features to consider in headphones; however, the ergonomics of our lifestyles are truly unique. Just like our tastes in music, the artists we follow and the concerts we attend are reflections of ourselves, the ways we listen to music is an outward expression of that passion too. The thoughtful considerations we place into headphone styles, and how we incorporate the different types into our lives tells an even deeper story about who we are as fans of music. This ergonomic feature separates us from casual music listening.
When it comes to the most tailored fitting headphone, have you identified the unique ergonomics of your lifestyle?
It’s important to remember there’s no right or wrong way to approach our listening sessions. For many, there’s more than one ergonomic application; and many of us bring our enjoyment of music into more than one scenario. For those serious about their musical immersion, whether at home, in the office, or on-the-go, always consider the ergonomics. Apply the style that fits in the best with your scenarios.
Ergonomic Scenarios: Simplified.
Below are the most common ergonomic scenarios to consider, so you can bring the best sound with you no matter where you are.
|For Home||For Mobility||For Professionals|
A.) For Home - Choose a headphone style that’s best for enhancing critical listening and enjoyment at home or in private offices.
B.) For Mobility - Choose a headphone style that’s best for supreme listening while on-the-go.
C.) For Pro - Choose a headphone style that’s best for professional studio monitoring, mixing, mastering, and enhancing the musical performance.
The Ergonomics Of Fit-types: Explained.
Next, the table below breaks down these ergonomic scenarios and examines the headphone style best suited for each ergonomic category.
For Home/Private Offices
|Full Size||Earphones & IEMs||Open Back||Closed Back||Wired|
|On Ear||Full Size||IEMs||Closed Back||Wireless||Portable||Noise Canceling|
For Pro Audio Applications
|Full Size||Earphones & IEMs||Open Back||Closed Back||Wired|
How To Choose The Right Headphone Style For Your Ergonomic Scenario
In this section, we’re examining the major differences between the fit-types, so you can decide which ones to incorporate into the ergonomics of your lifestyle.
|Full Size||On Ear||IEMs||Closed Back||Open Back||Portable||Wired||Wireless||Noise Canceling|
Portable vs Less Portable Headphones
Portable Headphone Styles
Like many decisions, there are pros and cons to weigh when choosing the right headphone style for our lives. For example, larger styles such as Full-Size designs require the ear-cones to be large enough to not only surround the user’s ears but also large enough to isolate sound, effectively. “Isolation” is created when a tight “sealing condition” around the ears effectively prevents the sound from leaking out.
Sometimes, the features of larger Fit-types will come with a few drawbacks that could limit the ergonomic flexibility of the headphone. For example, great isolation and tight-sealing conditions may limit the availability of scenarios best suited for using headphones. Compared to “lighter” Fit-types which are more portable and easier to travel with, larger Fit-types can typically have a “heftier” and “bulkier” weight to consider with these designs. After all, larger sometimes implies high-quality “bulky” and “heavy” materials all working together to surround the wearer’s ears, and form a solid sealing condition.
Sometimes, the features of larger styles will come with a few drawbacks that could limit the ergonomic flexibility of the headphone. For example, great isolation and tight-sealing conditions may limit the availability of scenarios best suited for using headphones. Compared to lighter styles which are more portable and easier to travel with, larger fitting-types can typically have a heftier and bulkier weight to consider with these designs. After all, larger sometimes implies high-quality bulky and heavy materials all working together to surround the wearer’s ears, and form a solid sealing condition.
If producing a headphone with a superior soundstage is important, so should the ability to sustain the listening session comfortably without fatiguing the ears. Less portable headphones are often the most comfortable Fit-types available due to the materials and the build quality that helps sustain longer sessions when listening at home. However, highly portable headphones tend to be lighter and fit more comfortably while on-the-go.
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. The brand we recommend the most for users with larger noggins is HiFiMan. This brand is known for its highly flexible designs and excellent levels of comfort, even when on-the-go.
- Portable: Lighter and easier to transport - the best choice for mobile on-the-go music enjoyment.
- Less portable: Usually larger and heavier build-quality. Best for Home, and Professional desktop applications, and can be the right portable fit-type for users with larger than average cranial geometries, wanting the most comfortable headphone for them when on-the-go.
Feeling confident that Portable headphones are the right type for you? Head over to the Portable category and shop for all the best Portable headphone styles on the market. To narrow down the search, here are the best portable options and the least portable options we recommend for budding audiophiles.
Full Size vs On Ear Headphones
When it comes to presenting the best soundstage, Full Size (over-the-ear) headphones are the reigning choice amongst audiophiles. This is due to the larger circum-aural design, which surrounds the ears and encases the 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.
Similar to other small headphone styles available, On Ear fit-types 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. Examples of Full-Size headphones that are also highly portable are the new Aeon 2 Open Portable and Aeon 2 Closed Portable Headphones by Dan Clark Audio.
Earphones vs IEMs
In Ear Monitors
Many audiophiles prefer a “wider” sense of presentation compared to the “narrower” “in-your-head” sense of presentation that Earphones and In-Ear-Monitors (IEMs) can deliver. Compared to the smallest and most portable Earphone and IEM fit-types, 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.
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 are concerned, there are no right or wrong answers. There are only preferences and compromises; advantages and disadvantages.
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 Earphones. The reason for this preference amongst 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. Being the only custom-molded fit-type available, custom IEMs offer the most personalized isolation and sealing condition of any headphone style.
On the other hand, custom IEMs can be expensive, and the procedure requires an audiologist's expertise to ensure the impressions are captured with exacting precision and form. Pre-formed Earphones, or “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. To get started with In-Ear-Monitors just like the pros do it, check out the Audeze iSINE10 In-Ears and Astell & Kern Billie Jean IEMs by Jerry Harvey Audio.
- Earphones: Best for Mobile and Professional applications.
- Custom IEMs: Offers the most personalized isolation and sealing condition of any headphone style. This fit-type is the best for more serious critical listening of on-the-go audiophiles or music industry professionals who require un-compromised comfort for the most “up-close” and intimate experience with their music of any fit-type available.
Feeling confident that the most portable headphone style is the right style for you? Explore the most popular Universal and Custom Earphones & IEMs on the market best suited for newcomers, now.
Closed Back vs Open Back Headphones
This is one of the most important styles to consider when choosing a new headphone. 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 all of your ergonomic scenario covered.
The main difference between the two lies in how the drivers in each 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 designs 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 the most musical soundstage. However, since the ear cups are “open” as opposed to being closed, the sound waves produced by the drivers are exposed to other people near you as well. So, Open-Back headphones generally fit into more private or secluded ergonomic scenarios, such as in the home or a private office. If you’re shopping for your first Open Back style, don’t sleep on the new Audeze LCD-1 Headphone for Mixing and Mastering or the Sennheiser HD 660S Open-Back Headphones.
Since the backs 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 Earphones and IEMs, Closed-Back headphones typically offer a sense of presentation that’s a little more “intimate,” “narrow,” and more “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 details are desired. Ready to upgrade to a better Closed-Back headphone? We recommend the Focal Listen and the Fostex TH-610.
- Open Back: Best for critical listening at home, and Professional applications where the tonality of a mix is crucial for the way music industry professionals need to listen.
- Closed Back: This style fits in with any ergonomic scenario you throw at it. Whether you need to listen on-the-go, privately in the home, or even professionally, the Closed-Back design is the most ergonomically flexible style of all.
Which style is better? Read the Closed Back Vs Open Back Guide to learn everything about the good, the bad, and especially the fidelity for this important headphone style.
What's the best Closed-Back headphone on the market? Watch the Royal Rumble of Closed-Backs duke it out in The Last Focal Elegia Headphone Review, and find out which design comes out on top.
Wired vs Wireless
As though headphones weren’t already portable enough, today, shoppers have the option of choosing between Wired and Wireless stylesas well. 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 and earphones offer the most ergonomic flexibility of all the headphone styles, and the convenience is liberating for anyone on-the-go.
Bluetooth | Credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluetooth
On the other hand, one major disadvantage of wireless Bluetooth technology 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 new 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 upgraded cables made with higher-quality materials. Doing this 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.
Think you might be an audiophile? Read more about the hobby in this essential Music Lover Vs Audiophile guide and learn how far the pursuit of truth can take you.
However, even though Wireless headphones can’t match the tonal flexibility of Wired styles, most Wireless headphones have application settings that emulate this feature. The Sennheiser Momentum Wireless Headphones, and Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise-Canceling Headphones, both have adaptable EQ features, allowing users to adjust the EQ curves based on the preferences set up on the app. To learn more about the adaptable EQ features of Wireless headphones, check out this detailed review of the Best Noise-Canceling Headphones.
- Wired: Best for critical listening at home, Mobile listening on-the-go, and Professional applications where the tonality of a mix is crucial for the way music industry professionals need to listen.
- Wireless: This styleis all about the extra convenience. It’s the best for on-the-go music lovers. Limited options are available for on-the-go users who are more serious about the quality of their audio.
Below are the top Wired and Wireless headphones or earphones recommended for upgrading your audio fidelity at home or on-the-go.
Noise-Canceling vs Non-noise Canceling
Noise-Canceling technology is a “bells and whistles” feature most music lovers don’t need, but for the right ergonomic scenarios (e.g. those who travel frequently), noise-canceling headphones do come in handy. For these shoppers, Noise Canceling technology is an essential tool for anyone with an always-on-the-go lifestyle.
Shoppers of Noise-Canceling headphones typically fall in a different category compared to shoppers who care about great sound. Noise-Canceling shoppers are generally more interested in solutions that help them relax during a flight, focus in a noisy environment or to aid in falling 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, Noise-Canceling headphones are not the best solutions for those shopping for great sounding immersive audio; however, this is changing. There are more options available today which merge the best of both worlds with the ergonomic needs of each kind 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.
For example, Sony (a brand known for producing some of the best high-end headphones on the market) recently applied its expertise in supreme sound to the production of its first Noise-Canceling headphones for audiophiles: the Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise-Canceling Headphones and the Sony WF-1000M3 Wireless Noise-Canceling Earphones.
So, you’ve decided that Noise-Canceling headphones are the right style for your lifestyle, but still need help deciding which one to buy? We have you covered. Read our detailed review of the Best Noise-Canceling Headphones to find out which ones duke it out, and which comes out on top..
- Noise Canceling: Best for Mobile listening on-the-go while traveling, commuting, road-tripping and getting work done in noisier environments where concentration is essential, and music listening is less critical. Limited options are available for on-the-go users who are more serious about the quality of their audio.
- Non-noise Canceling: This style is all about the music. For users who are more serious about the quality of their audio, and less interested in Noise Cancelling tech, skip this feature for now, and focus on the fidelity of your music.
When it comes to Noise-Canceling headphones or earphones delivering deeply satisfying sound quality for more serious listeners, the options are slim. However, it’s nice to know the options are growing as more audiophile-grade brands enter the market, providing both types of shoppers with the benefits of more all-in-one solutions.
By now, you’ve evaluated all the headphone styles. Now you know the pros and cons of each. If the headphone or earbud you currently use isn’t meeting the demands of your lifestyle or satisfying the inner desire for music that’s more immersive, then fine-tune the listening experience with the help of a better fitting headphone for your ergonomic scenario. Whether in the home, or on-the-go, don’t be left without when the need for music is the strongest. Now, you know exactly what to look for, and what to avoid when choosing a new headphone or earphone that’s truly tailored just for you.
Here are the Top Recommendations for each headphone style, so you can start the journey and reach your own version of audio bliss.