Buyer’s Guide–Headphones and earphones

A situation that may easily come your way is that you may need to purchase a set of headphones for use with your MP3 player, smartphone or laptop. Similarly, a pair of headphones may come in handy as a gift idea for most people who travel or use the mobile or portable computing and audio equipment a lot.

Headphone acoustic-design types

Headphone driver-positioning arrangements:

Intra-aural: This type has the speaker driver placed within or on the ear canal and is typically represented by the classic hearing aid or the common earphones supplied with most personal-audio equipment. Some intra-aural headphones use a hard U-shaped headband that hangs around your neck, similar to the cheap “pneumatic” headsets that used to be used for airline inflight entertainment.

Circum-aural: The speaker driver in this kind of headphone sits outside the ear but has the ear enclosed with a sound-proof foam ring wrapped in vinyl or leather. This type is commonly used with aviation headsets and with headphones until the late 1970s.

Bang & Olufsen Form 2 headphones

Bang & Olufsen Form 2 headphones – An example of a premium supra-aural headphone design

Supra-aural: With this type of headphones, the speaker driver is wrapped in foam and is intended to just sit on the ear.

Headphone enclosure or housing types:

A pair of headphones that uses a circum-aural or supra-aural driver positioning arrangement can either have a closed-back or open-back housing.

Closed back: This type does not have any perforation or venting on the drivers’ housings. It is known to provide a focused sound with less sound leakage and improved bass response.

Open back: Here, the enclosure is vented or perforated or the headphones are designed as if the driver mounted freely on the bracket that is attached to the headband or ear clip. These typically can yield an accurate sound with good drivers but cannot be heard easily in noisy environments and can suffer sound leakage where other can hear the content.

Headphone Styles

There are three common styles of headphones that you can choose from.

Earphones

Earphones typically describe the class which plug in to or clip on your ears and don’t have any headband of any sort. Earlier versions used to plug in to your ears like a set of earplugs or a hearing aid, but these evolved over time. For example, Sony ran a set of earphones which were a supra-aural type that had the speaker sit on your ear and they clipped on like the arms of a pair of glasses.  But most of today’s earphones typically have a small speaker that just faces in your ear with the unit resting in your ear.

Traditional headphones

Voyetra Turtle Beach M3 gaming headset

Voyetra Turtle Beach M3 gaming headset – an example of a circum-aural-style headphones

Then you have traditional headphones with a headband that sits over your head. This style has existed ever since this class of device was invented and most of the good-quality heavier-design closed-back types typically used a padded headband.

Compare this with lightweight supra-aural designs like the types that were popular when the Walkman came on the scene. These typically had either a lightweight aluminium or plastic strip serving as the headband with their earpieces anchored on to plastic brackets.

Street-style headphones

Another style that has started to appear in the late 90s is the “street-style”  where the headband wraps around the back of your head and the set rests on your ears in a similar vain to a pair of glasses.

Other points of interest

Headsets

A headset describes any class of headphones that have a microphone either on the cord or as a boom that is attached to one of the headphone housings. Denon has integrated the microphone in to one of the earcaps in some of their headset designs rather than using a separate microphone on a boom or the headset cord.

These are used for communications applications like smartphones, forum chatter in online games, business call-centre telephony or Skype / VoIP telephony. They are also being considered useful with voice-activated assistant software of the Siri, Google Now and Cortana kind that is becoming part of desktop and mobile computing.

Wired headsets typically have a four-conductor 3.5mm plug which may work with some devices like laptops or iPhones but may not work with other devices. These may also come with a breakout cable to plug in to a microphone jack and a headphone jack.

Noise-cancelling headphones

Most manufactures are selling a range of “Active Noise Cancelling” headphones that are pitched for travel use. Here, these headphones, typically traditional closed-back circum-aural types, use battery-operated circuitry that feeds a form of “anti-noise” to combat the low-frequency noise that you hear when in a plane, train or bus. You are still able to hear voices from around you such as announcements that come over the vehicle’s or aircraft’s emergency-announcement system and these headphones can play program material coming from any audio device that you connect to them. Here, you have the ability to hear the program material in relative peace and quiet without the drone of the vehicle’s or aircraft’s engines distracting you.

Wireless headphones

Some manufacturers supply wireless headphones that use an infrared or radio link from the audio source to the headphones.

There are some of these headphones that require that they work with a manufacturer-supplied transmitter that connects to the audio source. It may allow for special functions like headphone surround-sound or as a cost-saving measure for very cheap setups. These are more applicable if you intend to use them with a regular TV or music system rather than a computer or mobile device.

On the other hand, most of these headphones and headsets work using Bluetooth standards. This is in order for them to work with your mobile phone as a hands-free communication device. But they can work with Windows 7 and MacOS X Snow Leopard computers for communications or entertainment; or they can work with a Bluetooth transmitter for a wireless link to existing audio equipment. As far as traditional desktop computers go, you may need to use a Bluetooth dongle to bring this wireless functionality to these computers.

If you do buy Bluetooth headphones, make sure that they comply to Headset Profile, Hands-Free Profile for headsets that have a microphone; and, in the case of those that have stereo headphones, A2DP audio profile. If the headphones or headset implements a form of media control, they should implement it to the AVRCP profile.

Questions

Do you need to have two or three pairs of headphones “on the go”?

You may think it is unnecessary to have more than one set of headphones in your possession and ready to use. But this may be an advantage where you want to have a particular set of headphones suited to a particular kind of audio content or listening environment.

For example, you may use a pair of earphones or circum-aural headphones for listening in a noisy environment or to hear the detail in a piece of music whereas you may use a pair of lightweight supra-aural headphones when you go jogging so you can hear the traffic.

What kind of headphones suit your needs best?

If you are doing a lot of walking, you could benefit from a good-quality set of lightweight supra-aural headphones because they are not tiring to wear and you can still be aware of the traffic and other sounds around you.

A pair of closed-back circum-aural headphones, perhaps equipped with active noise cancelling can come in handy if you use public transport, especially planes, buses, diesel-powered trains or underground trains (subways) frequently. This can cut out the droning noise associated with these public-transport options and let you focus on your programme material.

Similarly a DJ or someone who likes to do a lot of recording could benefit from a good-quality pair of circum-aural headphones. Some of these headphones that are targeted at this application may be described as “monitor” headphones because you are after the high-quality sound that you want to use as a reference while not hearing outside noises or allowing sound to leak out thus causing a feedback loop with a public-address or broadcast application.

When you want to hear an accurate sound while listening to music or other content especailly when alone, you could benefit from a good-quality pair of supra-aural headphones that have large drivers like the Sennheiser range. This may be of importance with classical-type music, some kinds of jazz music or a lot of the down-tempo music classes like easy-listening / lounge or ambient / chillout music.

On the other hand, closed-back headphones can yield improved bass response which is important for popular up-tempo music, especially jazz, funk / soul, dance music or rock.They can also be handy if you want a distinct weighty impact from sound effects in video or games content.

What to look for with headphones

Things to look for to see long service life

When you buy a set of any headphones that you use a lot, make sure that you can purchase replaceable earpads or foam rings for the headphones. This is important that as you use a set of headphones, the earpads or foam rings do tend to tear or come apart over the years of use and you still want to have your headphones comfortable to wear.

Headphones that have a “single-sided” cord have an advantage because the cord comes in to only one housing with the other housing being serviced by a cable that passes through the headband. This cuts down on cable entanglement and can avoid the situation where you could ruin one earpiece due to the cable being tugged on that earpiece.

Some premium headphones do have the cord detachable from the earphone housing. The advantage here is that you can replace the cord if it gets damaged, which is something that can easily happen as you use the headphones out and about.

Conclusion

When you choose the right sets of headphones for your private-listening or communications needs, you will be in a better position to enjoy them better in the application you have bought them for.

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