Everyone with a smartphone needs a good set of headphones. Our phones make noise, and usually it's when we want them to make noise — watching a video, listening to music, playing a game or even talking on the phone are sounds we want to hear, but everyone around us probably doesn't. Luckily, there are plenty of companies out there that have just what we need and are happy to sell headphones of one type or another to us.
For some of us, the headphones that came in the box or a pair we picked up from a big-box store are fine. And that's OK. Nobody here thinks we all should spend time and stress over headphones unless you're having fun while doing it. But if you want to try and find the best headphones for you, we have a few tips that can help.
This isn't an article that's going to tell you which set of headphones you should buy. Instead we're going to talk about what you should look for when you wade through the thousands and thousands of different headphones you can buy so you can make the right choice the first time. Knowledge is power and all that jazz.
What type of headphones do you want?
There are several different styles of headphone to choose from, and they all have advantages and disadvantages. The first thing you need to consider is what you want to do with them. If you only want headphones for consuming media, you can skip looking for models with a mic. A mic is pretty handy to have if you think you'll need to take a call while you're listening to music on the bus, but good headphones with a mic are usually a little more expensive than good headphones without.
And we're not going to talk about Bluetooth in this article. That's another subject that deserves its own discussion, and we'll have it. For now, we're only talking about headphones that you plug into your phone or tablet or whatever else makes noises you want to hear.
- Earbuds: A lot of people love earbuds. They are small and easy to carry around, discreet, and can sound pretty good if you pick the right ones. As a bonus, most times they are a good bit cheaper than other types of headphones. Some of the drawbacks are issues staying in place if you're moving around a lot, they can be uncomfortable and oftentimes they can't deliver big loud bass.
- On-Ear headphones: These can be a good middle ground between earbuds and big over-ear DJ models. They can bring much bigger sound, there are plenty of affordable models, and they aren't too big to fit into a bag or purse. They aren't very discreet, so not the best choice if you don't want anyone to know you're on your phone.
- Over-Ear headphones: These are for people who want the most sound, and don't even care how they look. They are big and bold, so hiding them is usually out of the question and you'll need to lug them around. You can find over-ear headphones in open back models so you can have a little awareness of what's going on around you, or closed back models that are almost noise-cancelling. In either case, over-ear headphones will deliver the biggest sound possible while on the go.
What to look for
Once you've decided what type of headphones you need, you need to know what to look for to pick the best set for you.
There are a lot of factors here, and if you ask 10 people to recommend a brand of headphones, you'll should (hopefully) get 10 different answers. Don't fall into the trap of buying the headphones that are popular right now and everyone is talking about. Chances are they bought them just because someone else told them to buy them. Take the time to find the pair that works best for you.
Sound "profile": This is the single most important thing to consider if you're going to use your headphones mostly to listen to music. Headphone drivers can (and are) designed and built in different ways that can accentuate certain sound frequencies over others. "Audiophile" headphones will have what's called a "flat" profile. All the sounds, from low-frequency bass to high-frequency trebles are delivered pretty much equally.
Most headphones have been tuned so that the ends of the scale — the lows and the highs — are going to be more pronounced than the middle. You will notice a big difference between the two. Flat-profile headphones usually have words like "studio" or "monitor" in their description, and "sweetened" — that's the term for adjustments to the sound profile — headphones will use words like "Extra Bass." Premium headphones should be tuned so that the high and the low stand out, without the middle sounding bad.
Price: Price is usually the most important option of all. Some people are willing spend $3,500 on a pair of headphones, and there are headphones out there for them (and they sound incredible). For the rest of us, you need to remember that you usually get what you pay for. You can buy a set of earbuds for $3.99 in the checkout line at the supermarket, but you'll probably be immediately unhappy with them. You can also spend too much because of the name on the box. Generally, stick to names you recognize as having a good track record for electronics, pick a model in your price range and then search for user reviews.
Impedance: This is an electrical term, but you'll see it when you look for a good set of headphones. To explain how it matters for headphones is a little technical — you want to match the output impedance of the source to the input impedance of the electrical load to maximize power transfer and minimize signal loss. Don't worry if that doesn't make sense just yet, we're going to figure it out.
Your phone has a certain "level" of power output through the headphone jack. You need to make sure the headphones you buy are designed to work well with that "level" of power. This is easier than you think, thanks to modern packaging and advertisements. If your phone isn't recognized as having any type of "Hi-Fi" audio, you want to find a set of headphones designed specifically for smartphones or music players. That means look for something that says it's designed for an iPod if you don't want to wade through all the specs. That's cheating, but it will work.
If your phone does have a premium DAC and headphone amp, your safe spot is around 60 Ohms, but you'll really need to wade through those specs if you want to try and match the right cans to your phone. The Internet is your best friend in this situation.
Frequency response: This is a measurement of what sounds a pair of headphones can produce. The wider the range, the more sounds can be played. Look for headphones that range from 10 Hz to 20 kHz at a minimum if you're going the premium route.
There are more things that can be considered, like sensitivity or driver size if you really want to geek out over a set of headphones. I encourage you to geek out at will, but as long as you consider the basics above you'll be able to pick out a set of headphones that work for you. And, if you have the option, try out the headphones you're considering before buying. All of the reviews and tech specs in the world mean nothing if you don't like the way the headphones sound.
These aren't recommendations — they're more of a starting point if you want to find the perfect pair of cans for you. Here's what I use (and why) as well as what I'm saving up to buy.
I rarely use earbuds. I find them uncomfortable, and none ever seem to want to stay put in my ears. But I do have a pair that I use sometimes and carry in my bag: Samsung Level In-Ear headphones.
I like them because they are tuned well, have a long tangle-free cord, offer inline controls and a mic (I do talk on the phone a good bit) and have plenty of choice when it comes to cushioned tips. They stay in my ears a lot better than any other earbuds I've tried, and they sound decent for earbuds.
The best headphones in my price range, that fit my taste, are the Sony MDR7506 over-ear model.
The biggest reason is that they have a fairly flat response, and you can buy them for less than $100. They're big and the heavy coiled-cord can be a struggle to wrangle. But they are comfortable and sound really nice to me. These cans and my V10 go with me anytime I think I'll be listening to music. I really like them, and I really like knowing that if I lose or break them I'm only out $80.
I have a friend who has a pair of Oppo PM-3 closed-back headphones. After borrowing them for a while, I'm saving up to get a pair of my own. They aren't outrageously priced ($400), but they aren't exactly an impulse buy — especially when I have a pair that I already like. I've spent plenty of time testing headphones at places like Crutchfield and Musician's Friend (I apologize to everyone for being that guy who is just looking) and I think these Oppos sound perfect — for me.
Remember — getting opinions from other folks is all well and good, but don't rush out and buy anything without doing a little research. If you like lots of bass, you'll hate the headphones I love. But if you consider these tips while you're shopping, you can find the perfect pair of headphones for you.