Headphone Buying Guide

Headphones come in all shapes and sizes, spanning the gamut from small and sporty to large and professional. Junking the set supplied with your MP3 player is also the easiest way to improve its sound quality. We step you through the ins and outs, as well as the technical mumbo jumbo.

1. Choose a form factor
2. Six key headphone features
3. More features and terminology
4. Specs that (mostly don't) matter
5. Headphone connection types
6. Accessories and adapters

Big or small: choose a form factor
A long, long time ago, before the Age of the Walkman came along and revolutionised them in the 1980s, headphones were big and clunky. In those bygone days, headphones were stay-at-home things, relegated to late-night, LP music listening. That was then; the latest generation of slimmed-down headphones injects high-resolution music or home-theatre sound directly into your ears.

The distinctions between portable and home headphones are melting away, but the following rundown of headphone types will clarify your buying options. How you intend to use your headphones -- for music, home theatre or gaming -- and where you plan to do your listening -- at home or on the go -- will narrow the range of possible types you'll want to research. The four major form factors are listed below, from the smallest and most portable to the largest which are, naturally, the least portable.

There's no wrong headphone style; whether you prefer snug-fitting earbuds or full-size, padded ear-cup models is a matter of personal preference. Choose the one that best fits your needs and your idea of comfort.

Earbuds
Earbuds are commonly issued as freebies with MP3 players, but higher-performance buds can offer sonics that rivals full-size models. Their tiny earpieces rest on the outer ear or need to be inserted into the ear canal; some models include ear clips for a more secure fit.

Upside
Ultracompact and lightweight; can provide moderate to excellent isolation from external noise; little to no interference with earrings, glasses, hats or hairstyles.

Downside
Sound quality and bass response often not comparable to those of full-size models; can cause discomfort over periods of extended use; some models are difficult to insert and remove; the idea of putting foreign objects in the ear is counterintuitive and uncomfortable for many people; dual-cable design means more possibilities for tangled wires.

Also known as
In-ear headphones.

Portability
Highest.

Sports headphones
This loosely defined category usually refers to lightweight, non-earbud models with two general headband styles: standard vertical bands that arch over the head or horizontal designs that extend behind the head or neck. These headphones are almost always open-backed designs (such as the ear-pad models below), with good reason: if you're jogging, the last thing you want to do is completely block out the ambient noise of the street around you.

Upside
Behind-the-neck designs won't interfere with your hairstyle or your hat and will usually stay put during running or jogging.

Downside
A lot of stylish, slender headphone designs aren't all that durable. Some behind-the-neck designs exert higher-than-average amount of pressure on your ears.

Also known as
Fashion headphones; vertical headphones; behind-the-neck headphones; clip-on headphones; neckband headphones; Walkman-style headphones; portable headphones.

Portability
High.

Ear-pad headphones
These headphones rest on your outer ears and run the gamut from inexpensive portables to high-end home models. While ear-pad headphones can have closed designs that cover the ears, they are never fully sealed as full-size circumaural models are.

Upside
Comfortable and less prone to overheating ears than full-size headphones. Some models even fold up for easy transport.

Downside
Less effective noise isolation than in-ear or full-size models, and less powerful bass compared with full-size headphones.

Also known as
Supra-aural headphones; open-backed headphones; semi-open headphones; closed-back headphones; on-ear headphones.

Portability
Medium

Full-size headphones
The tech-speak description for this type of headphone is circumaural -- it includes any headphone with ear cups that fully enclose your ears. Because of their size and their acoustic isolation, full-size headphones are often considered to be better suited to home use rather than as a portable option.

Upside
Large headphones offer potential for maximum bass and loudness levels, and by fully enclosing your ears they effectively block outside noise.

Downside
Large size is cumbersome for portable use and some full-size models can be uncomfortably hot, making your ears sweat. Ear cups and headbands can also often interfere with earrings, glasses, and hairstyles.

Also known as
Circumaural headphones; closed-back headphones; ear-cup headphones; over-the-ear headphones.

Portability
Lowest.

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