Choosing the Right Headphone: 7 Things to Consider

Choosing the Right Headphone: 7 Things to Consider Choosing the Right Headphone: 7 Things to Consider

There are two types of people: those who simply buy the first pair of headphones they come across, and the ones who go down the rabbit hole and start discovering the endless options available to anyone, from the casual listener to the audiophile and audio engineer.

If you’re of the latter kind, welcome to our 2024 in-depth guide on how to choose headphones! In the following paragraphs, I’ll try to discern the differences between the various types of headphones you can get, depending on your needs, sound expectations, and budget. By the end of this article, you should have a comprehensive understanding of how our next headphones should look like.

I also included a list of my recommended headphones for each category, which should help you get started on your quest for sonic perfection.

Let's dive in!

1) What Are You Looking For?

This is the first and perhaps most crucial step when choosing headphones: identifying your priorities as a listener.

Portability, accuracy, comfort, wireless connectivity, noise cancellation options: these are only a few of the characteristics you might be looking for, and it’s not like there’s a pair of headphones that offers it all.

There’s no doubt that in-ear headphones in all their forms are the most portable option you can find. While you can easily carry them around wherever you go, they can hardly reach the level of clarity and immersiveness of over-ear headphones, unless you're willing to invest in high-end, wired in-ear monitors (more on that later).

Accuracy often comes at a price: a neutral sound signature makes the sonic experience “colder” and less relaxing. On the other hand, headphones with an imposing sonic character might drastically change the sound as it was intended by the artist. There's an ongoing debate in the high-fidelity ecosystem about this sonic and philosophical conundrum.

On-ear headphones give you the best comfort, but are nowhere near as portable as in-ear, or even on-ear headphones. Wireless connectivity is a crucial feature for many who listen to music on the go, but there are reasons why music professionals use wired headphones: they’re more reliable, sturdier, and offer superior sound quality than most wireless headphones.

Noise cancellation is great if you need to focus on something while in a noisy environment, but it's not an option if you're a music producer, as it affects the frequency spectrum way too much. Noise-cancelling cans also tend to be more expensive without offering an improved sound quality compared to similarly priced, non-ANC options.

These are only a few examples of how choosing a new pair of headphones often forces you to choose one feature at the expense of another. My recommendation is to start by identifying when and where you listen to music, and then focus on the sound characteristics you expect from your new headphones.

In the following sections, we'll delve deeper into the different factors that can help you identify the best headphones for your needs.

2) Sound Quality: The Defining Factors

Good sound quality is subjective, so it’s hard to talk about it without getting too philosophical. However, there are certain aspects of sound that are measurable and comparable, which is what I suggest you focus on, at least at the beginning of your research.

First of all, the frequency response , i.e. the range of bass, mids, and treble that the headphones can produce. A wider frequency response translates into headphones that can produce more sounds, bringing to life a more immersive soundstage.

Next comes the impedance . Lower-impedance headphones require less power to deliver high audio levels. In general, headphones with a smaller impedance (fewer than 25 ohms) need less power to generate higher levels of audio and are designed for smartphones, computers, and mobile use in general. On the other hand, headphones with an impedance of 100 ohms or more are suitable for stationary use (home sound systems) or high-res players.

The sensitivity of the headphones defines how loud the headphones can get. Most headphones have a sensitivity level of around 110 dB/mW. However, if you like to listen to music loudly, look for headphones with higher sensitivity.

Finally, the driver of the headphone is the part that converts the electrical signal into sound. Generally, the larger the driver, the better the sound, especially for bass.

Ultimately, we all have our own way of perceiving and appreciating audio, meaning that the ultimate judge of your new headphones is you and the way you feel when listening to music through them.

3) Wired vs. Wireless headphones

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that nowadays wireless headphones are largely more popular than their wired counterparts. Their portability and modern design make them ideal for commuters, casual listeners, and even audiophiles, so long as they’re willing to invest in high-end Bluetooth models.

That said, there are reasons you might want to opt for wired headphones. They don’t rely on battery or external power sources, they tend to offer a more accurate sound, which you can further enhance with an external DAC, and are generally less expensive.

Audio purists and sound engineers usually go for wired headphones, whereas music enthusiasts who need portable and fashionable solutions might prefer wireless headphones. But there are no golden rules here, either.

All in all, if you're constantly on the go, wireless headphones are obviously the best choice. If you're leaving your headphones at home or in your office, opting for wired headphones might be a great way to make the most of your budget.

4) In-ear vs. Over-ear vs. On-ear

Each headphone fit style comes with its pros and cons, both in terms of portability and sound quality.

In-ear headphones, also called earbuds, fit straight into your ear canal and are great for those who value portability above all else. If that sounds like you, the options in these categories are either true wireless earbuds or wired in-ear monitors (IEMs). The latter kind is used mostly by artists on stage or audio engineers, but over the last few years, audiophiles have started using them to listen to music on the go because of their accuracy.

Over-the-ear headphones cover the entirety of your ear, which makes them more comfortable during long listening sessions. Having more room for drivers and electronics, over-ear models usually offer better sound quality than other styles.

Finally, on-ear headphones are a compromise between in-ear and over-ear headphones, with a design that rests on top of your ears, improving their portability without drastically reducing sound quality when compared to their over-ear alternative.


5) Open vs. Closed back

Headphones with an open-back design allow air to pass through the ear cups, which creates a more natural and spacious sound. Closed-back headphones, on the other hand, keep sound from escaping or entering the headphones.

In my experience, open-back headphones offer a realistic soundstage that enhances the beauty of music, but they require a quiet and isolated listening space to be enjoyed fully.

Closed-back headphones allow you to isolate yourself from the rest of the world and not disturb others, as the music you're listening to won't get out easily. On the other hand, their closed environment often affects the sound's naturalness.

6) Noise cancellation (active and passive)

You’ll find passive noise isolation in headphones that physically block out external sounds through a solid seal around or in your ears. This method ensures that the soundstage is not affected by the noise canceling effect, but it's not very efficient in terms of reducing noise in loud environments.

Conversely, active noise cancellation headphones (ACN) use an onboard battery and dedicated tiny microphones to analyze the sound of your environment and cancel it out. These noise-isolating headphones analyze the external noise environment and provide the right amount of noise cancellation for the best levels of silence.

Without getting too technical, these headphones' microphones read the waveform of external noise and create a small amount of noise at the same amplitude and frequency, playing it "out of phase." These waveforms then cancel each other out.

It's also worth mentioning Transparency Mode, a feature that modern ANC headphones often come with, which allows users to let in certain external sounds without having to remove their headphones.

Transparency Mode uses the same microphones that detect outside noise for active noise cancellation, but instead it amplifies certain sounds like conversations or traffic signals to ensure you're aware of your surroundings at all times.

While these technologies are useful and valuable in many ways, it's worth mentioning that both ANC and Transparency Mode have a huge impact on battery life: on average, enabling ANC can reduce the battery life of your headphones by 10% to 20%.

6) Casual vs. Critical Listening

This is a dualism I’ve always struggled with. Choosing between transparency and a warm, analog-like sound, is not just a matter of taste, but also a defining aspect of your approach to music.

As a music producer, most of my audio reproduction gear tends to recreate a clear, unaffected sound. For me, it was a natural process that started with getting used to the sound signature of my studio headphones, which then had an impact on the way I listened to music outside of my studio.

As a result, I almost always use headphones with a transparent sound signature.

That’s not everyone’s taste, and I see why many music listeners prefer the warmer vibe of more colored headphones, or the heavier low-end of many blazoned headphone brands, et similia. It’s always a good day when you find a pair of headphones that help you appreciate the music you love in a whole new way.

I won’t try to convince you that more neutral headphones are the best option. Instead, I’ll tell you the pros and cons of each type of headphones.

Analytical headphones are good if you want to hear the music as the artist intended it to sound. These are revealing headphones that can give you an accurate sense of spatiality, helping you improve your understanding of how music is made.

However, the listening experience can be exhausting and nowhere near as enjoyable as it is with headphones designed for easy listening. The image is too accurate, the separation between instruments too wide, and you might feel the trebles piercing and the lows not deep enough.

Most consumer headphones offer a more distinctive coloration that can enhance the warmth and vibrancy of your music, giving it the analog feel of your parents’ old sound system. This type of sound makes the sonic experience more enjoyable and relaxing, perfect for prolonged listening sessions.

A more colored signature comes at the expense of accuracy and clarity. A distinctive coloration might improve your Miles Davis record collection but worsen your techno playlist on Spotify. It's hard to find an enjoyable pair of headphones that deliver excellent sound quality across all styles and genres.

Obviously, there are endless shades of grey here, with many headphones offering a unique combination of warmth and neutrality you won’t find elsewhere. Once again, you’re the ultimate judge, so all you can do is test out as many headphones as possible and make your choice.


7) The (expensive) world of Audiophile-level headphones

There comes a point in everyone’s music enthusiast’s life when they feel the need to upgrade their gear. Usually, it happens because of a friend with better headphones or because they realized some songs they know by heart just don't "feel right."

Whatever the reason, they start looking for better headphones. And that’s how audiophiles are born.

Bear in mind that the world of audio-fidelity is one of painful research, endless trial and error, and considerable financial commitment. Opinions on every pair of audiophile headphones abound, and usually range between utter abhorrence and absolute love. So choosing a pair of headphones by reading reviews is a risky business.

However, if this is the path you’ve chosen for yourself, here are my thoughts on the matter.

By spending around $300 you get the best value for money, especially if you’re just getting started. Around the three hundred dollar range you’ll find headphones that can greatly improve your listening experience without breaking the bank.

Spending more might indeed give you better-sounding headphones, but will you be able to hear the difference? Chances are the benefits of a slightly improved sound won’t justify the bigger investment, at least for those who just entered the audiophile world.

Upgrading headphones will likely start a chain reaction that’ll revolutionize your entire audio reproduction system.

Your audiophile-level headphones will truly shine when they're playing hi-res music, meaning you might want to start using them when listening to vinyl records or lossless audio files.

Spotify and YouTube Music do not offer hi-res audio streaming, meaning that the positive impact of your brand-new headphones won't be as audible as it could be on these platforms. Tidal, Qobuz, Amazon Music and Apple Music do offer hi-res audio.

You might also feel the need to further enhance the soundstage by adding a professional DAC for headphones, and/or getting a dedicated digital audio player (DAP).

The combination of a professional DAP and high-quality headphones is usually a great, and not very expensive, first step in the world of audio-fidelity.

If you’re serious about your passion for music and want to enjoy it in the best possible way, going for audiophile-level gear will quite possibly change the way you experience sounds. It’s a never-ending process, but also one that’ll give you the satisfaction of knowing that you’re honoring the music and artists you love.

My Top Picks for Each Category

We’ve spent a lot of time discussing the technical aspects of the best headphones, so how about we take a look at some of the best models for each category?

While there are plenty of excellent headphones for every budget and needs, here are what I believe are some fine examples of models that combine great performance, durability, and excellent value for money.

Bear in mind that most of these headphones fall into two or three of the categories mentioned below. My intention is to provide you with a “best of” for every feature you might be interested in, hence the different sections.

Grado SR325 (Best On-Ear Headphones)

It might be a biased opinion (I’ve been using them for years), but if you're looking for exceptional clarity and an engaging soundstage at a reasonable price, getting the Grado SR325 is a no-brainer. Their sound is articulate and enveloping, with just enough warmth to preserve clarity while enhancing the beauty of every composition. However, their on-ear design can be uncomfortable.

Sony MDR 7560 (Best Headphones for Music Production)

If you’ve ever been in a recording studio, you probably saw these cans already. The Sony MDR 7560 are a staple in the industry and for the right reasons: they offer accurate sound reproduction, a wide frequency range, and they last a lifetime (except the replaceable earpads). Oh, and they cost $100! If you’re a music producer, regardless of your skill level or genre, you should buy a pair of these.

AKG K72 (Best Affordable Headphones)

I can’t believe you can get these for $50. Not only are the AKG K72 extremely comfortable, but the soundstage they create is impressive for the price, with a subtly enhanced low-end that perfectly blends with the neutral presentation on the higher side of the spectrum. They are not pro headphones by all means, but they are definitely the best consumer headphones if your budget is below $100.

Sony WH-1000XM5 (Best Over-Ear Headphones)

An ergonomic and stylish design and exceptional noise-canceling technology, the Sony WH-1000XM5 are versatile enough to satisfy the needs of many, with a precise soundstage that even demanding music connoisseurs will appreciate.

Focal Bathys (Best Wireless Headphones)

If you're looking for high-fidelity sound without the cords, the Focal Bathys is your best bet. With Bluetooth aptX Adaptive support and an impressive battery life, these headphones offer reliable performance, a smooth tonal balance, and detailed imaging.

HiFiMan Sundara (Best Open Back Headphones)

The HiFiMan Sundara offer a transparent and detailed sound profile you’ll easily fall in love with. The soundstage is immersive and airy, detailed without sounding unforgiving. Remember that its open-back design means you’ll hear what’s around you, and whoever is around you will hear what you’re listening to. That said, these cans offer a premium listening experience.

Sony WF-1000XM5 (Best In-Ear Headphones)

Unless you want to spend a fortune on professional IEM monitors, the Sony WF-1000XM5 are a great option, offering a clear and detailed sound in compact form. Ideal for active lifestyles, they offer a secure fit and extremely intuitive touch controls.

Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO (Best Closed Back)

While ideal for professional recording and audio engineering, the DT 770 PRO offer an outstanding and versatile performance that’d work well with music enthusiasts of all kinds. Comfortable, durable, with a detailed yet pleasant signature, they’re a great all-in-one solution for content creators and music lovers.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones (Best Noise Cancelling Headphones)

Bose noise cancellation technology has set the standard for years, and with the QuietComfort Ultra, you also get the Immersive Audio feature and a top-of-the-class sound design. The noise isolating system is perfect and totally customizable, which makes them my recommended option for those into noise-canceling headphones.

MEZE 99 Classics (Best Headphones for Beginner Audiophiles)

The MEZE 99 Classics combine exceptional build quality with a rich, warm sound that will appeal to those entering the world of audio fidelity. Their wooden earcups enhance audio quality and look stunning, but their colored sound texture might not be everyone’s taste.

Final Thoughts

And that’s all I know about headphones.

I hope this guide will give you the guidance you need when buying headphones, whether you need them for casual listening at the gym or for critical audio engineering in the studio.

If you got this far, you deserve a final tip. Here it is:

Ignore everything you just read, and also all the reviews you find online.

Great headphones are the ones you love when playing music through them. Love can't be quantified or analyzed; it's simply how you feel. If the $50 cans you have resonate with you whenever you use them, investing in a higher-end pair of headphones might not be necessary.

All I’m saying is don’t feel forced to upgrade your gear. You may already have everything you need to make every album unforgettable.

Good luck!

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