In-Ear or Over-Ear? Open or closed? Neckband or True Wireless? Studio or DJ? We’ll show you how to find the right headphones for your needs in this Headphone Buying Guide and finally, we’ll let you know our favorite headphones of 2022.
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Rise of the headphones: dive down and show off
Let’s talk about headphones! The IT industry association Bitkom has interesting figures on this: 71 percent of all Americans (from the age of 16) currently have one or more headphones, which are used daily by 38 percent of owners.
Sales figures have been increasing for years (currently over 16 million units per year in the US) and anyone who visits their local electronic shop will find that headphones are now being given significantly more space on the sales floor than was the case before the smartphone was.
The big names of the past (Sennheiser, AKG, Beyerdynamic, Sony, etc.) have been joined by new brands (Beats, Apple, Samsung, etc.), which has increased the choice even more – it’s no longer that easy for us consumers to keep track and make the right purchase decision.
What’s behind the hype? Well, the purpose of headphones is by no means just “listening to music” – according to the Bitkom study, they also serve to “block out the environment” or as a “fashion accessory” and are even a “status symbol”.
Conclusion: What used to be an audio niche product has become a coveted and smart lifestyle object that can sometimes cost a little more. So it can’t hurt to know a little bit about headphones.
Nura – NuraTrue
True Wireless Earbuds with Personalized Sound, Active Noise Cancellation, up to 24 Hours Battery, Bluetooth 5.0, aptX, Sweat Resistant
Headphone distinguishing features: This is what the manufacturer’s designations mean
- With or without cable: Wired headphones do not need a battery, they are connected to the playback device via a jack socket (usually 3.5 mm) while Wireless headphones work with Bluetooth or radio (2.4 GHz) and need an integrated battery. Except for the “annoying” cable (trip hazard, wearing part), wired headphones are technically superior (no latency, no compression, no disconnections) and are especially recommended for home use and in the studio. On the other hand, models with Bluetooth are much more comfortable on the go.
- How “wireless” would you like it to be? If the two housings of an in-ear headphone are connected with a cable (but receive signals via Bluetooth), we call it a neckband model. If there are absolutely no cables, then these are truly wireless headphones (e.g. beats studio).
- Overhead headphones: You can also wear them while ironing, but that’s not why they’re called that. The real reason is the connecting piece between the two housings (earphones), which sits on the user’s head like a headband. The bracket holds the two housings in place and provides the necessary contact pressure. In most cases, the length is adjustable so that the headphones fit different head sizes. By the way: It is often feared that wearing headband headphones could lead to hair loss (“headset baldness”), but has not yet been proven.
- Open, closed, half-open: This refers to the design of the housing in which the sound transducers are located. Closed headphones shield better from the environment (passive noise isolation) and tend to sound more powerful (e.g. Shure SRH440 at Amazon ). Open headphones are practically only suitable for quiet environments though they often offer a wider soundstage and are therefore preferred by audiophile music lovers. Half-open headphones are the golden mean and ideally combine the advantages of both designs.
- Over-Ear, On-Ear, In-Ear: Headband headphones with large housings that completely cover the auricles are called over-ear headphones (“circumaural”). More compact designs rest on the auricle and are called on-ear headphones. When the housing is inserted (partially) into the ear canal, they are called in-ear headphones. These are available both with silicone fittings (“earphones”) and without (“earbuds”).
- ANC (Active Noise Cancelling): Electronic process that detects ambient noise with microphones and quickly suppresses it. It doesn’t ensure absolute silence, but it can effectively soften low frequencies in particular (engines, aircraft noise). ANC headphones usually cost a little more than conventional models.
- Studio and DJ headphones: Professionals in the field of music production and event technology have special requirements. If headphones are to be used for mixing and mastering recordings in the studio, they must be neutrally tuned and preferably not distort the sound in the slightest. Lifestyle headphones are not suitable for this, since the manufacturer often gives them their own sound character (e.g. bass emphasis). DJs pay attention to good shielding from ambient noise and particularly robust and flexible designs. The headphones are often put on and taken off in just one ear when the tracks are crossfaded – it’s practical if the housing can be angled using a joint (e.g. Pioneer HDJ-CUE1 at Amazon).
- Headset: Many headphone models come with built-in microphones, making them technically suitable for making phone calls or communicating in games. In this context, the term “headset” is appropriate – even if there are also “real” headsets and gaming headsets. These are headsets that are not intended for enjoying music, but mainly for communication (see also: Headset test: recommendations for home office, office, and Co. ).
Buying headphones: the most important questions
What does sound quality mean?
One thing we must be aware of is the fact that sound is an individual sensory perception. One listener likes a neutral sound (straight frequency response) while another person will find it sterile and boring. A classical music fan has different requirements from a headphone than someone who likes tech house.
The general rule is: high-quality headphones are particularly good at mastering all the different challenges and being a kind of all-around tool. Bad-sounding headphones, on the other hand, can hardly be appreciated even with software equalizers via an app.
Why is the seat so important?
Headphones are something that is worn directly on the body ( “wearable” ). This means that a good fit is crucial. In order to avoid expensive bad purchases and annoying returns, you should try out the model you want yourself beforehand – whether it’s on loan from a friend or in a shop (where to be fair, you can buy the right item right away).
In the case of in-ear models, the silicone fittings determine whether the fit in the ear canal is correct. Only good insulation ensures a rich sound: If the housing is too loose in the ears, the bass will be lost. If they are too tight, this leads to an uncomfortable feeling of pressure and even pain within minutes. Adapters are recommended for Flexible memory foam. When handling in-ears, you should also pay attention to hygiene (clean hands) – after all, you put an object near your eardrum.
Are Bluetooth headphones harmful to health?
On the subject of health, there are also isolated concerns about the radiation exposure emanating from Bluetooth devices. Although the electromagnetic fields can be clearly measured, they are not that easy to interpret even for scientists. “According to the current state of knowledge (…), the high-frequency radiation generated by Bluetooth networks is too weak to (…) trigger acute health effects,” according to the fact sheet of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (PDF).
The German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) generally recommends minimizing radiation exposure in order to keep possible but “unrecognized health risks” low ( information sheet as PDF ). Further information can be found in our article: “Is Bluetooth harmful or harmless?“
Bluetooth Multipoint: Why is it important when using multiple players?
Wireless headphones with multipoint support stay connected to multiple paired devices at the same time. This means that you can easily switch between different players (e.g. smartphone, tablet) when playing music without having to pair them again each time.
What about mobile apps and privacy?
In principle, anyone who buys modern Bluetooth headphones not only pays for the headphones themselves (hardware), but also for the firmware and app that goes with them (software). Some headphones cannot be used to their full extent without a smartphone app – this comes into focus when you have to create a login, which in turn collects data and transmits it to the manufacturer. Anyone who attaches great importance to data protection should take this aspect into account and find out beforehand how the manufacturer has imagined the use.
Noise-canceling (ANC) in headphones: what does the technology do?
The topic of noise canceling has been making its way through to consumers more and more in recent years. The active reduction of external noise can actually ensure a soothing quiet, in particular by blocking out low-frequency and monotonous sources of interference (engine hum, air conditioning noise).
However, one should be aware that some advertising promises made by manufacturers are exaggerated. Even the best ANC headphones cannot achieve absolute silence like in an anechoic room, which is technically not (yet) feasible. However, it is audibly more pleasant to enjoy music on air or train journeys. Occasionally, users also ask themselves whether noise canceling is harmful to their health: the answer is no.