Choosing the best headphones for your needs requires a bit of research. Your planned use can help narrow your choices, and you should always weigh sound quality against other features such as comfort, isolation, weight and portability. Technical specifications such as frequency response, sensitivity and impedance are helpful but often misleading.
High-quality headphones feature noise reduction that blocks out external sounds using active noise control rather than passive noise isolation. The ear cups contain electronics that sense ambient sound and generate an opposing noise wave that cancels out the unwanted one. It is powered by a battery and fed into the headphones’ speakers and audio. The anti-sound is destructive and erases the noise, while the desired audio waves are unaffected. The “total harmonic distortion” (THD) of headphones measures how well they can transform electrical information into audible sound waves. THD describes the audio distortion that occurs when listening at high volumes. A higher THD means that the diaphragm in the speaker cannot vibrate fast enough, producing distortion in the sound.
Most headphones come in over-ear or in-ear designs, with some also including a wireless option known as “true wireless earbuds.” In-ear headphones are designed to fit into the ear canal and can block some external disturbances, although they may allow sound to reach nearby persons. Over-ear headphones rest on the head and can seal out much ambient noise while providing excellent comfort for extended listening sessions. They also tend to be larger and can be heavier than in-ear designs. The premium tier of headphones typically costs more than $200 and will deliver superior build quality and superb audio performance. Click here to start shopping for your new headphones. Utilize special offers and savings to enjoy the best audio quality.
Frequency response measures the headphone’s ability to reproduce audio frequencies within the range of human hearing (20-20 kHz). It can be visualized as a graph, with frequency on the x-axis and volume (in decibels) on the y-axis. This chart is created by taking a sample of the headphone’s output and measuring how much energy is produced at each frequency. This information is then plotted on a graph, with a compensated response curve on the top and raw measurements on the bottom. These graphs aim to provide an accurate visualization of how the headphones perform and give an idea of how they’ll sound.
In general, higher frequencies correspond to higher pitches and lower frequencies to lower-pitch sounds. Depending on your listening preferences, look for headphones with an extended low-frequency range for added bass punch or more high-frequency extension for clarity and detail. Another factor to consider is total harmonic distortion, which measures how much distortion the headphone has at higher volumes. It is caused by the inability of the headphone’s speaker diaphragm to vibrate quickly enough to produce the desired sound. A good quality pair of headphones will have a THD below 1%. This information is in the spec sheet for each headphone model and the manufacturer’s website.
When shopping for headphones, you should look at a pair with a high sensitivity rating to enjoy your audio experience. A high sensitivity rating means the headphones can produce a louder sound with less power from your device. It can save battery and help you avoid distortion. Headphone sensitivity is usually reported in decibels per milliwatt (dB/mW) and is sometimes converted to dB/V so that you can directly compare headphones. It is a good way to find comparable headphones, but you must know that manufacturers can report sensitivity in different ways.
A higher sensitivity will mean the headphones require less power to reach your desired volume level, saving battery life and reducing the risk of ear damage. However, a lower sensitivity may lead to a decrease in sound quality. It is important to remember that the human ear can only comfortably handle a maximum of 110dB of sound for 15 minutes or less. While listening to music at these levels can be fun, it can quickly cause hearing loss and other health problems. Therefore, limiting your exposure to loud music and listening at a lower volume whenever possible is best.
Impedance is the headphones’ resistance to electrical current. It is expressed in ohms (). High-quality headphones have lower impedance than cheap ones and must be paired with headphone amplifiers that match their impedance, or you’ll hear a hissing sound when music is played. Impedance affects how loud the headphones can be played, but not in the way that you might expect.
Higher impedance requires more power to drive, reducing the headphones’ overall volume. Most consumer headphones have lower impedance. Headphones with higher impedance are better suited for stationary systems with headphone amplifiers. They can be used with mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets without a headphone amp, but they may have a quieter sound than a well-equipped stereo system or professional mixing/mastering headphones.
Typically, the ideal headphone impedance is 2.5 to 8 times greater than the source output impedance. It is called the “rule of eighths,” and audiophile publications often quote it. It is flexible, however, as most modern headphone designs are designed to appeal to a large market, which usually means a wide range of portable devices. The exception is electrostatic headphones, which typically have much higher impedance and require special high-impedance headphone amplifiers to be driven properly. These can be quite expensive.