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Buying guide: Headphones

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Editor's note: We've published an updated version of this article, Buying Guide: Find the Best Headphones (2012).

If you're looking to improve the audio coming from your iPhone, iPad, or iPod, new headphones will do wonders. Similarly, a good set of headphones is a must-have for those times you want to listen to your Mac privately. However, the variety of styles and options is wider than ever—and the opportunities for in-person testing fewer. To help you find the perfect set of headphones, here’s the 2011 edition of our yearly buying guide: what to look (and listen) for, descriptions of the different types, and specific recommendations. (We covered speakers in our annual speakers buying guide.)

Whichever model you choose, don't forget to protect your hearing.

What to look for when shopping

Unlike with speakers, headphones don't differ much on features—you plug them in, put the earpieces on (or in) your ears, and listen. (One exception, covered below, relates to remote/headset functionality.) For the most part, the main differences between models are type, comfort, and sound quality. I cover the different types of headphones below, but here are a few things to keep in mind when shopping.

Specs and sound quality: As I noted in our speakers buying guide, you should generally ignore manufacturers' specifications—especially frequency-response numbers. There's no standard testing methodology for headphone frequency response, and many vendors exaggerate their specs for marketing reasons. Even if specs were accurate, they wouldn't tell you much about how a particular set of headphones actually sounds.

Instead of reading specs, use your ears. (If you can't audition a product in person, read reviews from a source you trust.) As with speakers, a quality set of headphones reproduces audio with good balance between the treble (upper), midrange, and bass (lower) frequencies, producing full, rich sound while preserving detail. However, because of their especially small drivers (speakers), headphones present a unique challenge when it comes to bass response: Unlike huge speaker woofers that you can not only hear, but feel, the drivers in most headphones can't reproduce the visceral impact of low bass—you may be able to hear the lowest frequencies, but you probably won't be able to feel them.

I point out this bass issue because some vendors address it by emphasizing certain bass and upper-bass frequencies to give their headphones more "kick." This helps the headphones stand out from other headphones in the store, and some people—especially those who use their headphones when exercising or for beat matching—really want that visceral impact. But such headphones often become fatiguing to listen to over time. If you're interested in accurate audio reproduction, be careful not to be wowed by emphasized bass. (The same goes for exaggerated treble detail.) The best approach is to audition a set of headphones for several hours—or, even better, several days—with a variety of music. If the headphones still sound great at the end, there's a good chance they'll satisfy you over the long run.

Headset functionality and inline control modules: Thanks to the popularity of the iPhone, many current headphone models include, right on the cable, an inline module with a microphone and one or more remote-control buttons, much like the inline remote on the iPhone's stock earbuds. At the minimum, the remote features a single multi-function button for controlling media playback; making, taking, and ending phone calls; and taking advantage of iOS's Siri and Voice Control features. More-recent models include dedicated volume-up and -down buttons, as well. The module's microphone can be used to talk on the phone, make voice recordings, and give Siri and Voice Control commands.

In recent years, Apple has standardized on the special headphone jack required to support these features, so you can now use inline-module headphones with the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch, as well as recent Macs and other recent iPods. This has led to even more headphone models sporting the special module, giving you many more products to choose from without having to give up the convenience of a remote and microphone.

Fit/comfort: Unlike most consumer-electronics devices, you actually wear headphones. So how well a set of headphones fits you—your head, your ears, and even your ear canals—plays a significant role in your long-term satisfaction (or lack thereof). I include a few comfort-related tips below, when describing the different types of headphones, but reading about a particular style is no substitute for actually giving a product a test drive (or a test run, as the case may be).

Where to buy: Sadly, fewer and fewer brick-and-mortar retailers carry quality headphones, and even fewer actually let you try the products in the store—especially if you're talking about in-ear-canal headphones. This makes it difficult to audition the sound and fit of headphones before you buy them. The solution, if you will, is to buy from a retailer with a generous return policy, so if you're unhappy with the way a set of headphones fits or sounds once you get it home, you can return it. This goes for both local and online retailers. For example, Internet headphone retailer HeadRoom carries a huge assortment of great headphones and offers a 30-day, no-questions-asked return guarantee—even on in-ear-canal models.

Headphone types and recommendations

There are literally thousands of headphone models out there, varying dramatically in style, audio quality, features, and price. But nearly all of them fall into one of several main types: earbuds, in-ear-canal, canalbuds, lightweight, full-size, noise-canceling, or wireless. Below are brief descriptions of each type, along with a few of my recommendations at various prices. I’ve noted which models include an Apple-style inline remote/microphone module. (Prices listed are MSRP; you can find many of these models at significantly lower prices.)

Of course, as with our speaker recommendations, these lists are by no means exhaustive—there are many quality headphones that aren't listed. But the products recommended here are a good place to start.

Yuin's PK2

Earbuds: Earbuds, the type of headphones included with every iPhone and iPod, sit loosely in your outer ears. Although earbuds don't produce outstanding sound, they’re compact and relatively inexpensive. Apple's stock 'buds are actually decent as earbuds go; you're not going to get a huge upgrade in sound quality by simply replacing them with a different model. Still, there are a few alternatives out there that provide modest improvements if you're looking for a new set. Recommendations:


In-Ear-Canal Headphones: These headphones, also known as canalphones, use silicone or foam eartips that fit snugly—and fairly deep—in your ear canals. Like earplugs, they block most external noise, so they’re great for travel and noisy environments. They’re also capable of producing stunning audio quality. On the other hand, some people find canalphones to be uncomfortable, and the best ones come with an equally stunning price tag. Note that we didn't test as many new canalphones this year as in years past, so the list of recommendations is heavy with solid veterans. (For more information, check out our primer on in-ear-canal headphones.) Recommendations:

Etymotic's mc3

If you find the silicon or rough-foam tips included with most canalphones to be uncomfortable, an inexpensive and worthwhile upgrade is a set of Comply replacement eartips. In my experience, these soft-foam tips tend to be more comfortable and seal better than most stock eartips.

Alternatively, if you decide to spend the big bucks on a set of high-end canalphones, I enthusiastically recommend going all-in and getting custom eartips—tips custom-made for your particular ears. The process requires an audiologist visit to get impressions taken of your ears, but the benefits include substantially better comfort. (On some models, you may gain better noise isolation and better sound quality, as well.) Many canalphone vendors offer custom eartips for around $150 plus audiologist fees; Etymotic Research currently offers them for $100 (including fees) as part of the company's Custom-Fit program. A step above custom eartips are custom in-ear monitors, which place the actual headphone circuitry in larger, custom-made earpieces.


Spider's Realvoice

Canalbuds: Canalbuds, which occupy a middle ground between earbuds and in-ear-canal models, have become quite popular over the past decade. Compared to canalphones, canalbuds generally use smaller eartips that sit just inside the ends of your ear canals instead of deep inside them. Good canalbuds easily best earbuds in terms of audio performance and noise isolation, but fall short of good canalphones in those areas. On the other hand, canalbuds tend to be more comfortable than true canalphones because they don't sit so deep and don't fit so tightly; they're also usually less expensive. (See our in-ear-canal-headphone primer, linked above, for more information on canalbuds.)

As recently as a couple years ago, few canalbuds included the Apple-style inline remote/microphone module. These days, this feature is common on canalbuds, so we've included only models that include it. Recommendations:


Sennheiser's PX 100-IIi

Lightweight Headphones: These portable and (usually) reasonably priced headphones use larger drivers than earbuds and canalphones, and their similarly larger earpieces rest against the outside of the ears. Some lightweight headphones have a thin headband that goes over or behind the head. Others use a small clip on each earpiece that slips over the ear—these earclip-style models are often ideal for exercising. Some lightweight headphones also fold up for easier traveling. Although many lightweight headphones produce mediocre sound, there are a number of standouts. Recommendations:


Full-Size Headphones: If you don’t mind some extra bulk, a set of good full-size headphones—so named because they fully cover or surround your ears—will usually sound better than good lightweight models. Many full-size headphones are also very comfortable, thanks to generous padding and ergonomic designs. However, contrary to what you might expect, not all full-size headphones are designed to fit large heads, so be sure to try before you buy (or, again, make sure you can return them if they don't fit well).

B&W's P5

Full-size headphones fall into two categories: closed and open. Closed models block out some degree of external noise (and also keep your music from disturbing others), while open models, which some people prefer sonically, let more noise in and out. Note that to reach their potential, many full-size models (open or closed) require more juice than you'll get from the headphone jack on a Mac, iPhone, iPad, or iPod. Those listed here work well with the low-power headphone jacks on these sources. Recommendations:


Audio-Technica's ATH-ANC7b

Noise-Canceling Headphones: If you’re not a fan of in-ear-canal 'phones, but you want something that can filter out external noise such as airplane engines, train rumblings, or the hum of a crowd or noisy office, consider investing in a good set of noise-canceling headphones. These headphones sample outside sound and then pipe in an inverse audio signal to “cancel out” a good deal of monotonous noise. (For more on the technology and its limitations, see my review of noise-canceling models from a while back.) Although they don’t usually sound as good as comparably priced in-ear-canal headphones, noise-canceling models are easier to put on and take off, and they let you hear what’s going on around you.

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