Updated: December 5, 2012

Headphones Basics
Choosing the Right Pair

A Practical Technology Guide and Buying Tips

Going for the right headset can be a relationship-saving event; it can allow you to listen to music and movies late at night, without keeping your family awake or better still, without having someone telling you to lower it down in no certain terms!

This guide explains the basics to help you choose the right pair. It also explains the different types of headsets, discusses the issue of wired versus wireless, and identifies related health hazards associated with inappropriate headset use.

We conclude this article by presenting a few tips to help you when making a purchase.

Sennheiser RS180 Digital Wireless Headphone with automatic level and adjustable balance control

Sennheiser RS180

Rated as one of the best wireless headphones for the audiophile, the RS180 comes complete with automatic level and adjustable balance controls; instead, the slightly less expensive RS170 targets the home theater enthusiast and comes with virtual surround sound headphone technology.

Up to four headsets comprising a mix of RS180 and RS170 can be operated via a single transmitter, while the wireless headset recharges via the cradle.

Introduction: More than just music listening

There is a whole lot more to headphones than listening to your favorite music whenever you want. The use of an appropriate headset can provide relief from distracting ambient noise while working or traveling. Even if it's just an issue of getting better sound from your home theater receiver, a high-end pair offers a cheaper alternative to upgrading a speaker system.

Whatever your requirement, the prerequisite to a good headset listening experience is totally dependent on choosing the appropriate pair of good quality headsets. Unfortunately, many treat such a purchase with a little bit of disregard, possibly because these represent a relatively small expense in comparison to the rest of their home theater setup.

The truth is that to enjoy the best audio experience, it is essential to have an understanding of what to look for—from specifications and features, to the design options most suitable for your needs; the latter is partially dependent on the environment in which you will be using your pair. Why?

Cheap headsets might be good enough for listening to your favorite CD while jogging, yet they are unlikely to deliver the same level of acoustic performance you enjoy with a good set of speakers. One may argue that it is not right to compare different technologies, in that though these are somehow related, speakers and headsets are designed to cater for different needs.

On the other hand, one should be aware that with today's virtual surround sound technologies such as Dolby Headphone, it is still possible to experience music and movie audio with extraordinary clarity and realism when using a pair of good quality-headphones. Hence, making the right purchase would surely make a big difference in your headphone-listening experience.

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Understanding Headphones Specifications: Choosing Your Headset

There is no better way to ensuring you pick up the best headset for your needs than to have at least a basic understanding of specifications used to define headset features and characteristics.

1. Dynamic or Static?

There are two basic types of headsets acoustic drivers: dynamic and electrostatic.

The dynamic-driver use the same technology employed in dynamic-driver loudspeakers; these represent the most common type of speakers based on the use of a cone-type diaphragm attached to a voice coil. In a similar manner, electrostatic headset drivers share the same electrostatic speaker technology where the diaphragm is no longer a cone but a thin sheet of stretched Mylar that is subject to varying electrostatic charge.

Whatever the acoustic driver technology in use, the end-result is always a vibrating diaphragm that moves to displace air to create sound. Electrostatic headphones are capable of delivering exceptional sound detail, especially at the high-end of the sound spectrum, with very low distortion; but these tend to come with a premium price tag. In general, dynamic type headsets represent a more affordable solution even though high-end sets can still be relatively expensive.

2. Comfort

Whatever your listening requirement, late night music listening, watching TV, etc., it is important that your headset sits comfortably in place. In particular, if you'll be listening for long stretches, look for headphones that come with a padded headband that can be adjusted to comfortably fit the size of your head.

3. Sealed, Open, Earbuds or Canal 'phones?

Another basic consideration is the type of headset design to opt for. If you are after a good solid pair of headphones, the solution is a sealed or open-air design, but for completeness shake, we will discuss all four types.

Sealed sets represent the classic heavier, robust type of headset solution. These are necessary if you need sonic isolation - e.g. when listening in noisy environments or on the contrary, when working in a shared environment e.g. an office shared with others whom you don't want to disturb as a result of sound leaking out of an open design headset.

If you won't need the isolation of a sealed design to block out distractions, etc., open-air headsets deliver the best overall sound quality. A major advantage of the open-air headset over the sealed type is their lightness, which makes them feel quite comfortable even following extended period of use. These units are normally reasonably priced but tend to be quite fragile and may break easily.

If you want to go for a small headset, Earbuds and Canal type headsets represent the solution to your needs.

Klipsch IMAGE S4 In-Ear Enhanced Bass Noise-Isolating Headphones

Klipsch IMAGE S4
In-Ear Enhanced Bass

Noise-Isolating Earbuds

Featuring superior bass response and exclusive oval ear tips for long-term comfort and excellent seal.

Earbuds are tiny 'phones that fit into your outer ear, held in place by a lightweight headband or with small clips that attach to your ears. These are extremely light, but if you want to enjoy the best sound, you need to find a set that provides a good fit to your outer-ear.

Good sets tend to give excellent bass response that you not only hear but feel as well.

Canal-type 'phones are so small that they fit right into your ear canals; they require no headband or clips whatsoever. These sets provide an airtight seal in your canals, greatly reducing outside noise. Their main disadvantage is that their small cushions, which fit into your ear canals, will pick up earwax easily and quickly and so they must be cleaned or replaced regularly.

4. Portability

Open-air, earbuds, and canal-type headsets all form part of what are referred to as 'Portable headphones' in that these are extremely lightweight, thus allowing for ease of mobility.

The features to look for when choosing a good set of portable headsets depend on want you will be doing. For example, surely you do not want your set to come loose during exercising. Earbuds, in-ear headphones, and headsets with clip-on earpieces are designed with active users in mind. Around-the-ear earcups may also provide a more secure fit, and more isolation from outside noise, than an on-the-ear design.

Some open-air headsets come in a choice of either behind-the-neck or no-headband design instead of the traditional over-the-head band; neither of these will mess up your hair while you listen to your favorite music!

5. Headphone Impedance & On-the-Ear Sensitivity

Impedance: One issue that's especially important when choosing a pair of headsets is impedance. So called low impedance and high impedance pairs should not be intermixed.

Low impedance headsets may vary from 75 ohms up to about 150 ohms. Sets falling within this impedance range may be directly plugged into the headphone jack normally found on recording and playback equipment. Higher impedances sets have a typical impedance of around 600 ohms; these are more useful in studio installations where many units may be wired in parallel for studio monitoring applications.

The 600-ohm models are more rugged than low impedance ones in that the higher resistance coils are less susceptible to burn out than low impedance models. On the other hand, high impedance sets require a higher driving signal to produce the same level of sound output in comparison to low impedance headsets. This means that low impedance type will sound louder when plugged in devices with low output voltages such as portable CD players, etc. In reality, because of the limited power available from portable players, headsets for portable use should have a maximum impedance of 64 ohms.

Worth keeping in mind here that the lower the impedance, the more efficient the headset drivers are in converting the incoming electrical energy into sound. On the contrary, the higher the impedance, the more electrical energy is required to drive the headsets tiny speakers.

Sensitivity is usually stated as the in-the-ear sound pressure level (SPL) produced by one milliwatt (mW) of audio input.

We discuss the issue of sound pressure levels further on in this article when discussing hearing damage. For the time being, it is sufficient to note that in reality, a few milliwatts of power are sufficient to drive a stereo headset to very high listening levels.

6. Noise-Canceling Headsets

Whether you do a lot of traveling, have to work in a distracting sound environment, or just live in a busy household, noise-canceling headsets can be godsend!

This technological wonder incorporate sophisticated active circuitry which relies on tiny microphones to pick up the noises around you. The electronics inside generates an identical but out-of-phase signal that when played back in the headsets, helps to cancel and quiet the outside noise.  The following video clip by Bose better explains the whole concept; it is mainly a promo video for the Bose QuietComfort 15 noise cancelling headphones but it still worth watching.

Courtesy: Bose

Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones

Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic
Noise Cancelling Headset

Rated among the best in noise-cancellation technology.

Noise cancelling headsets tend to be heavier than normal sets in view of the added batteries used to power their active noise-canceling circuitry. Should you decide to opt for this type of headset, check battery life specifications before you buy.

Wired vs. Wireless: Which is the right for you?

We all fancy wireless headsets, but then it all depends what are your real needs as both wired and wireless have their pros and cons.

Wired Sets

Unless you are going for a wireless pair, make sure that your wired set come with a long enough cord to enable you to hook your headset to your stereo or A/V receiver, PC, etc. while enjoying your music listening from your seating position.

Ideally, try to avoid extension cords as it is easier to get entangled in something when moving around in your home theater room with a long cord between your headset and the AV receiver. At the same time, the cord length itself should not be the primary deciding factor when choosing headphones; after all, one can always bridge the gap with a suitable extension cord.

Again, from a practical perspective, headsets with a one-sided cord attached to one earpiece but not both, help minimize tangles.

Wireless Sets

Wireless sets open up a whole new world of listening possibilities. You can listen to your favorite music while moving around the house or yard without carrying a portable player. And cord concerns are no longer an issue.

Models may use either a radio signal (RF) operating over the 900MHz or 2.4GHz/5.8Hz bands or infra-red (IR) technology. Models using RF may support a range of up to a few hundred feet, meaning you can walk anywhere within the range and still enjoy a great sound. By contrast, models using infrared transmission work only if you stay within sight of the transmitter.

Systems using 2.4GHz/5.8GHz transmission generally rely on digital wireless technology to transmit uncompressed digital audio between the emitter base and the headset. The result is CD-quality sound.

Since wireless units run on batteries, models that include rechargeable types are more convenient and cost-efficient in the long run. If you decide to go for a pair of wireless headphones, try to buy a set that automatically charges when on the cradle with the battery still in place. Additionally, try to get an extra battery ready to swap over when the one in use runs out; this applies to all battery operated headphones - not just wireless. Equally important, try to avoid models using NiCd batteries as these are quite unsuitable for heavy use; they don't fully discharge over time because of the infamous memory effect. NiMh and Li-Ion do not suffer from this.

Some wireless units offer built-in virtual surround sound processing using Dolby® Headphone and other surround formats; this helps create a powerful virtual surround sound field. And if you want the best possible reception without fiddling with controls, look for wireless sets that provide automatic tuning.

But wireless headphones have their cons as well. These are more expensive than standard wired headphones especially if you opt for a high quality pair. They may also exhibit issues with battery life problems and interference, while cheaper models may have background noise problems mainly noticeable during periods of silence.

However, with a good quality wireless model such as the Sennheiser RS180 or Sennheiser RS170 featured above, you should expected superior sound that is much better than FM stereo broadcast.

Buying Tips

1] If you will be making use of your headphones solely with your home AV system, then go for the higher quality classical type of headset. The higher weight associated with these models should not be much of an annoyance since in these circumstances, you will be seated.

2] The standards you apply when purchasing headphones should be pretty much the same as those you apply when purchasing other AV equipment. Definitely, you will still want to enjoy clear sound with good bass response with the least possible distortion, irrespective of whether you are listening to your favorite music CD through a set of speakers or through a pair of headphones.

3] May be too obvious but often ignored, when making your purchase, make sure the cord terminates in a plug size that's compatible with the component or portable you'll be listening to. If it comes with a mini-plug and your equipment has a standard size socket, you would have to use an adaptor.

4] Some headphones include detachable parts, like ear cushions and cords that you can replace if you need to. This can be pretty handy especially with portable expensive types.

5] Good fit and comfort are basic requirements for an enjoyable experience. The best headphones would be of little use to you if they do not fit properly; you simply would not be able to keep them on long enough to view your favorite movie. Hence either try before you buy or ensure that you are covered by a suitable return policy.

6] This try-before-you-buy approach should apply also when analyzing the headset acoustic performance; use a music CD that you know for evaluating headphones.

Safety Issues: Headset Use and Hearing Damage

This article will not be complete without addressing the issue of hearing damage with headset use. A good pair of headphones would normally deliver better sound quality at even higher sound levels than many inexpensive speaker systems can ever deliver. This leads to many treating themselves by letting the volume up. Our advice is: DO NOT do it!

Your ears can begin to suffer permanent hearing loss by sustained exposure to sounds over 85dB SPL, a level easily exceeded by most home stereos and portable music players. In reality, most headphones may easily exceed a 100dB sound pressure level.

But what does this 85dB SPL represent in real terms?

In order to answer this question, it is important for one to understand what this dB SPL measurement is all about.

dB SPL is a ratio of the measured sound pressure level created by a sound source and the reference level; in this case, what is of interest as our reference level is the human hearing threshold. This is referred to as 0 dB SPL.

Noise measurements that take into account the human ear's sensitivity are referred to as A-Weighted dB(A). It is interesting to note here that the ear's response to a constant level sound source varies with frequency. The human ear tends to be insensitive to low bass notes while it compresses higher sound levels, hence the use of a logarithmic scale to express sound measurements.

Taking 0dB reference as the threshold of human hearing, than 50dB represents very soft music, while soft popular music or a noisy office environment may very well reach 75dB SPL. In comparison, a hair dryer or an alarm clock 1 meter away goes up to 80dB while traffic noise in a busy city junction already reaches 90dB SPL. This is already above the safe hearing level. Further up the scale, an ambulance siren measures 120dB SPL. A Jet takeoff gets up to 120dB, exceeding 140dB if you are within a 25 meter distance.

Back to music listening, loud passages of music may easily exceed 100 dB while SPL during Rock Concerts and in Discotheques may go up to 110dB and more. So think twice before raising the volume: your headset may very well deliver unsafe high sound pressure levels even with minimal power input, risking permanent hearing loss.

Our advice: Use your headset with respect, and you will surely have an enjoyable long-term headphone listening experience.

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 Article Content

Issues discussed in this article

Blue bullet  Introduction: More than just music listening

Blue bullet  Understanding Specs Choosing your headphones

Blue bullet  Wired vs. Wireless: Which is right for you?

Blue bullet  Buying Tips: Points worth taking note of

Blue bullet  Safety Issues: Headset use and hearing damage

 Headphone Guides

Articles covered under this section

Blue bullet  Introduction to Wireless Headphones: Wired vs. Wireless

Blue bullet  Dolby-Headphone:
- Overview
System Requirements

Blue bullet  Headset Accessories: Maximizing your Listening Experience

Detailed Index of Headphone related guides appearing on our site is available here.

Home Theater Guides

Recommended Technical Guides

Wireless Speakers Systems

Wireless Media Players

Surround Sound Formats

TV Viewing Distance Guide

Room Acoustics and Soundproofing

Home Theater Seating

Installing Speaker Wire

HDMI Cable Guide

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