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

Accessories, peripherals, and add-ons
Headphones are often dismissed as an accessory to audio/video products, but they have a full array of accoutrements. Better models will include some of these -- phono adapters or extension cables, for instance -- but most of these are available separately and at minimal cost.

Adapters

Airline plug to 3.5mm
While some airline seats now use standard 3.5mm connectors, many still use an older, dual-prong design.

Phono plug to 3.5mm
This common adapter will let you use your smaller portable headphones with home A/V equipment, such as A/V receivers and CD/DVD players.

3.5mm plug to phono jack
Some high-end headphones designed for home use (such as the Grado SR125) are equipped with the larger phono plug. This adapter lets you plug them into the 3.5mm connector found on nearly all portable devices and PCs.

2.5mm plug to 3.5mm
Mobile phones are becoming increasingly agile multimedia devices. If you want to enjoy a music or video on your smart phone, this adapter will let you plug your 3.5mm headphones into any 2.5mm mobile phone jack, such as the one found on the Nokia 6110 Navigator. You'll enjoy your music much more on standard stereo headphones than via the monaural headset supplied with some mobiles.

Splitters
Want to watch a DVD with your airline seat mate or share your favorite playlist? A headphone splitter turns one jack into two.

Extension cables
If you're headphone cord is too short, you can always go longer with an extension cable. While most cables are available in set lengths, some portable extenders use a retractable design for added portability.

In-line remotes
Many music players utilise a small remote control with basic transport functions -- play/pause and forward/reverse skip, for instance. In-line remotes are often at the end of a short extension cable and frequently include a clip for attaching to a shirt or jacket. While these remotes are almost always proprietary to the device, they usually have a standard minijack port so that they can be used with any headphones. There are also generic in-line remotes with volume and mute controls that will work with any combination of player and headphones.

Cable wraps
If your headphone cable is too long, you should consider investing in a cable wrap. This simple accessory will effectively shorten the length of your headphone cable to your ideal length.

Headphone amplifiers
What you plug your headphones into can significantly affect their sound, and trust us: the quality of the amplifiers built into portable CD/MP3 players is generally awful. It's not their fault: the little guys have to power their electronics and their internal amplifier using a few puny volts. Even some of the better home A/V receivers' headphone jacks offer highly variable sound quality.

If you find yourself listening to headphones a lot of the time and care about sound quality, you might want to consider purchasing a headphone amp. Both home and portable headphone amplifiers are available.

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