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

Connectivity options: plugs and jacks
From 20-year-old Walkman models to state-of-the-art MP3 players, most audio devices use the standard 3.5mm connector, but there are some competing connection options. Don't like cables? A small but growing number of wireless headphone options are becoming available. Just make sure your headphone plug matches the jack on your audio source.

If your device doesn't have one of the standard analog jacks, it will almost certainly offer an adapter (an inexpensive add-on converts the proprietary port on the Nintendo Game Boy Advance SP to a standard 3.5mm jack, for instance). Additionally, adapters are available to convert any of the analog connections from one to another: 3.5mm to phono, 2.5mm to 3.5mm, and every variation in-between. See the accessories section for a complete list of adapters.

3.5mm plug
This is by far the most common headphone connector, especially for portable A/V devices.

Also known as: minijack; 1/8-inch; Walkman-style.

2.5mm plug
This is the smaller cousin of the 3.5mm. It's usually found on cell phones and similar communication-oriented multimedia devices. The 2.5mm plug almost always includes a two-way design so that it can handle both microphone and headphone transmissions via a single connection.

Also known as: mobile phone-style

1/4-inch plug
The larger, older 1/4-inch plug style is still commonly found on non-portable A/V equipment such as receivers, home stereos, and DVD players.

Also known as: full-size; phono.

Communication headsets and surround headphones designed specifically for PCs usually have more than one plug. Communication headsets usually have separate headphone and microphone 3.5mm plugs, while some PC-centric surround headphones have three plugs to interface with the corresponding ports on the back of surround-sound PC audio cards.

USB headsets are almost exclusively relegated to PCs and game consoles. The connection is digital rather than analog and can handle two-way communications via a single connection.

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