The Ultimate Guide to Buying Headphones: Top Factors to Consider

This is a complete guide to buying headphones.

In this in-depth guide, you will learn:

  • How to set a budget and what to expect for your money
  • How to choose a type of headphones 
  • What’s the difference between various headphone types
  • What are trustworthy brands
  • Lots more

So if you are ready to go “all in” with choosing the right headphones, this guide is for you.

Let’s dive in.

Chapter 1 

What should I consider when buying headphones?

In this chapter, I’ll go through all the choices and factors you’ll run into while buying headphones.

  • Price
  • Type/Features
  • Audio
  • Brand

This chapter will provide a quick overview of various options you’ll have and different decisions you’ll have to make when buying a set of headphones.

studio headphones buying guide

How much do headphones cost?

Headphones price usually ranges between $50 and $300. 

For $50, you can find low-end wired headphones, gaming headsets, or entry-level wireless ears. 

Above $250, you can find headphones with advanced noise cancelation, headphones with multiple drivers, and headphones made by premium brands.

What are the different types of headphones?

The basic types are:

  • Over-ear
  • On-ear
  • In-ear
  • Earbuds
  • Bone conduction

These 5 types quickly grow to 14 when mixing all the various features headphones have nowadays.

What are the features of headphones?

Headphones features vary by:

  • Size
  • Technology
  • Design
  • Connection

By size, we have:

  • On-ear
  • Over-ear
  • Earbuds

By technology, we have:

By design, we have:

  • Closed-back headphones
  • Open-back headphones

By connection, we have:

  • Wired
  • Wireless
  • Air tube

What determines the audio quality of headphones?

There are 4 factors that influence the headphone’s sound quality:

  • Drivers – Headphones with more drivers tend to have clearer and more precise sound.
  • Frequency range – With headphones that have a wider frequency range you should have a better sound (in theory). Industry standard is 20 to 20,000 Hz.
  • Impedance – The measure for impedance is Ohm. More Ohm headphones have they will need more power, so you might need an additional amplifier.
  • Sensitivity – It’s basically loudness. Headphones with 100 dB can play louder sound than the ones with 27 dB.
  • Isolation – Headphones can have passive (physical) isolation and active (software-made) isolation. More isolation means fewer outside noises.

Which is the best brand for headphones?

Brands like Sennheiser, Shure, Bose, Jbl, Audio Tehnica, and Sony have ruled the market in the past 3 decades. 

However, there are several new brands like Jaybird, Libratone, Beats, and others you should keep your eyeballs on.

Chapter 2 

Determine your budget for headphones

In this chapter, we will talk about numbers. You must prepare yourself on what to expect.

Usually, the higher the price, the better the sound, or the higher the price, the more advanced the technology.

Since we all have a limited budget, we must give up something. 

Ask yourself an important question. What is one feature you are not ready to compromise? 

If it’s sound, you may let go of other options like wireless connection or noise cancellation to get the most out of the feature most important to you.

Here is what you can expect for a certain amount of money.

buying good headphones

Under $50Usually plenty of random brands, but if you pay attention, you can grab decent JBL or Xiaomi earbuds or Panasonic on-ear headphones at best.

$50 – $100 – At this range, you can grab a pair of solid wired-on-ear or over-the-year headphones. It’s not unusual to find a great set of Bluetooth or bone-conduction headphones as well.

However, I don’t recommend experimenting with wireless or noise-canceling headphones at this stage.

$100 – $250 – The best “bang for buck” headphones are usually in this range, and no need to overpay. At this price point, you can find everything except advanced noise-cancellation headsets.

$250+ – At the highest price tags, you can expect 3+ drivers, advanced noise cancellation, and audiophile brands like Sony, Bose, Sennheiser, Bang & Olufsen, and others.

Chapter 3

Consider what type of headphones you want

In this chapter, I will explain all the different types of headphones and their main differences.

Types of headphones:

  • Over-ear
  • On-ear
  • In-ear
  • Bone conduction

By the end of this chapter, you should know which type is right for you. 

It gets better. Later, we will discuss additional features and see if they are worth the money.

types of headphones

Over-Ear Headphones

Comfort: Over-Ear headphones are the most comfortable option out there. 

These headphones are made to be used at home, at the studio, or at work. Oversized cushions on over-ear headphones will protect your ears from getting sore.

Sound quality: A larger set of headphones comes with larger drivers. In comparison to in-ears, over-ear headphones drivers are significantly larger. 

History teaches us that the best-sounding headphones are made in this style. 

Higher-end over-ear headphones will likely have tight, deep bass and clean, smooth highs.

Wide frequency range: Because of the largest drivers in the among headphones, they offer the broadest range of frequencies and the widest sound stage. Any true audiophile has to have one pair of these.

Portability: Although some are made foldable, they are large and not meant to be carried around. Ensure your pair has good padding on the headband and comfortable pads on the ear cups.

Weight: Avoid over-ear models for any of you who like light headphones. 

I am not saying they are uncomfortable, but due to their size, you really feel like you wear a helmet on your head (with some models).

Who it’s for?

Over ear headphones are made for studio musicians and audiophiles for work at home or at the office. 

Since they are massive, it’s hard to imagine having them by your side at all times, but they are perfect for indoor use. 

If you appreciate good audio quality and need headphones for indoor use, you can’t get better than over the ears.

Open Back vs Closed Back Headphones

Closed-back headphones provide much better sound isolation. Since they have closed back, they prevent the sound from going away, so most of the music stays in your ears.

Open-back headphones offer worse sound isolation and keep less music inside the cups. However, they have two pros. 

One, they offer a wider sound stage, and two, the sound is more open, like you listen to music on a pair of high-quality speakers.

How to wear over ear headphones?

Most over ear headphones have an adjustable headband. It’s all about finding the right balance. 

If the headband is too tight, you will get better isolation; if it’s too loose, you’ll get more comfort. Look for something in between.

on ear headphones

On-ear headphones

Comfort – On ears are light and comfortable option for everyday use. These are the most comfortable type of headphones since they are not as heavy as over-ears and are more pleasant to wear than in ears.

Audio quality – Similar to over-ear headphones, they use large drivers, much larger than in ears. 

So, for the same price, they offer a better sound than in ears but not as good as over-ears (in most cases).

“In between” solution – These are the best headphones for everyday use in your office or home. Unfortunately, you’ll still not be happy with portability. 

However, if over ears are too large and in ear monitors are not comfortable enough, it’s the best “bridge” solution.

Isolation – Not often used by musicians exactly because of the bad isolation. 

Since they don’t go either over the ear or inside the ear, they provide a poor experience in terms of passive sound isolation.

Who it’s for?

On-ear headphones are designed for people who want a lightweight and portable listening solution that is less isolating than over-ear headphones but still provides good sound quality. 

They are suitable for a wide range of activities, including listening to music, watching movies, and taking phone calls.

How to wear on ear headphones comfortably?

Adjust the headband, and make sure it is tight enough. You can even slightly bend the headband towards the inside, but please be careful.

What is better over ear or on ear headphones?

Over-ear headphones offer better sound isolation and sound, while on ear headphones are lighter and better for everyday use. 

Although on-ears are easier to wear, over-ear headphones are more comfortable if they have a soft headband.

headphones buying guide

In-ear headphones

Portability – In ear headphones are the most popular type due to their portability. 

In ear, earbuds, earphones, or however you wanna call them, are the smallest and the most compact model that is easy to transport, which is exactly why they are so popular.

Sound Isolation: Since they go into the ear canal, they are the best type of headphones for blocking outside movies and providing isolation of up to 90% with some models. 

Because of their possibility to block the noise coming from outside, in ears are highly popular among musicians where blocking the stage noise is big of a deal.

Comfort: It takes time to get used to, but some people never do. It’s a highly unpleasant feeling to have something stuck in your ear. 

That’s why many people dislike in ears. However, commercial in ears made for everyday use tend to be much lighter and with smaller sleeves than the ones musicians use.

Sound – They have much smaller drivers than over and on ear headphones, so in theory they should have “worse” sound. My experience however says differently. 

After many years of using professional in ear monitors, I am still blown away by the sound every time I put them.

Unfortunately, they are less open sounding than big headphones, that’s for sure.

Who it’s for?

IEMs are a popular choice for people who are always on the go and professional musicians. 

They are also often used for sports and other physical activities, as they are lightweight and stay in place well. 

In-ear headphones can be a good choice for people who want a compact and portable listening solution that can be easily carried in a pocket or purse.

What do in-ear monitors sound like?

They block around 70%-80% of sound from outside, so you get complete silence. 

When you play the music, the feeling is like you are listening to it alone in the room, even if you are in a crowded space. 

In terms of sound, professional in ears sound more “raw” than commercial earbuds.

How to use earphones without damaging ears?

It would be best if you were not afraid of using earphones. As with any other headphones, you should listen at a low volume. 

One more thing, do not push it too hard into the ear canal to prevent any damage. Also, remove them as often as you can to allow airflow.

 

Bone conduction headphones

Hard to fall off – Due to this feature, they are great for athletes. If you are into sports, consider using bone conduction headphones before in ears.

Comfort: They are light and comfortable. 

Here is the deal: if over ears are not compact or too big for you and in ears are uncomfortable, bone-conduction headphones are the best alternative you can find.

Hear the environment – This can be both pros and cons. For musicians, it’s a terrible idea, but this type of headphones is designed for people on the move. 

You’ll be able to hear the environment while jogging.

Sound quality: Although they use highly advanced technology, bone conduction headphones do not have sound quality that can compete with over ear or even in ear headphones.

Vibrations: If you listen to music at a higher volume, you may feel uncomfortable vibration in your ear temple.

Price: They have the price that doesn’t match the sound quality as expected. 

Here is the kicker: every new technology comes at a higher price but not necessarily with the certain improvement of the most important features like sound.

Who it’s for?

They are designed for people who have hearing impairments or who are unable to wear traditional headphones due to ear problems or injuries. 

Bone conduction headphones can also be a good choice for people who want to be aware of their surroundings while listening to music or other audio content, as they allow some ambient noise to pass through. 

They are often used by people who are engaged in outdoor activities, such as running or cycling, as they do not obstruct the ear canal and allow the user to hear traffic and other sounds.

How do bone conduction headphones work?

While with regular headphones, sounds travel from your outer ear, through the ear canal, to an inner ear. 

With bone conduction headphones, the sound goes through the skull directly to the inner ear.

How to wear bone conduction headphones?

It’s very straightforward, bone conductors are shaped to sit perfectly above your temple bones, and their position is the same every time.

Chapter 4

Considering Additional Features

In this chapter, we’ll gonna talk about all the additional features you might consider.

  • Wired or Wireless
  • Bluetooth or Wireless
  • With or without noise cancelation
  • With or without a microphone
  • Waterproof or not
headphone types

Wired vs Wireless Headphones – Which are better?

They both have pros and cons. Having a wire can be annoying sometimes, while not having it means you have to charge the battery, which is equally annoying.

Since more and more devices stopped supporting a 3.5 mm jack switching to a wireless set of headphones might be a good idea.

Pro tip: Add a few extra bucks for the model with longer battery life.

If we compare two sets that cost the same, the wired set will almost always sound better. 

Why is that?

Here’s the deal: manufacturers need to decrease the size of drivers to squeeze in Bluetooth hardware, and Bluetooth hardware also adds to the manufacturing cost.

Wired vs wireless audio – Wired, aka analog signal, is still better, but the difference in sound quality is indistinguishable most of the time.

What’s the bottom line?

Wired – slightly better sound, no charging but maybe nowhere to plug in (soon).

Wireless – freedom without cable, slightly worst sound ( with some models), charging once in a couple of days (with $150+ models).

Bluetooth vs. Wireless Headphones: What’s the Difference?

All Bluetooth headphones are wireless. However, not all wireless headphones use Bluetooth technology.

Bluetooth headphones use Bluetooth technology, while wireless use different technologies like infrared, radio waves, internal memory, and KleerNet to connect.

In theory, headphones that use these “wireless technologies” instead of Bluetooth can get a better sound quality. 

Bluetooth headphones use SBC compression, so the audio quality may be worse (unnoticeably). 

What is the difference between noise canceling and active noise Cancelling?

All headphones offer some level of “passive” noise isolation. In simple words, headphones physically block noises without using any technology.

With active noise cancelation, outside noises are blocked with the help of technology. 

Active noise canceling headphones use microphones to detect sounds from inside and outside. 

Then the chipset inside inverts the soundwaves, and they get “neutralized” on their way to ear.

Are Active noise canceling headphones worth it?

If you use over ears or on ear headphones and they don’t block as much noise as you would like to, then YES.

If in-ears are uncomfortable to you, then YES.

While noise cancelling headphones tend to block noise better than regular over ears, that is not the case if we compare them with in ears. 

Specifically, I am talking about ear monitors that use memory foam sleeves as the one Shure makes. 

These sleeves will block as much noise as any noise cancellation headphones, and they come at a much lower price.

Do headphones have a built in microphone?

Some do some don’t. Consider this feature if you plan to use headphones for meetings, phone calls, etc. 

Want to know the best part?

The built-in microphone has become standard with most Bluetooth headphones, and it doesn’t increase the price noticeably.

Is there a waterproof headphone?

Yes, there is. Most models are bone conduction headphones while there are in ears as well.

Chapter 5

Research and compare different brands

It’s time to narrow the search and choose the brand.

Nowadays, premium brands offer budget headphones, but there are some new brands that you should consider as well.

In the end, the decision is yours, but here is some information you might find useful.

guide to buying wireless headphones

Best brands for on and over ear headphones:

  • Bose
  • Sony
  • Sennheiser
  • Audio Tehnica
  • Beyerdynamic
  • Beats

Best brands for commercial in ears:

  • Apple
  • JBL
  • AUG
  • Skullcandy
  • Jabra
  • Bose
  • Sony

Best brands for professional in ear monitors for musicians:

  • Shure
  • Audio-Technica
  • Sennheiser
  • Westone audio
  • 64 Audio
  • Noble Audio Prestige Kahn

Best brands for custom molded in ear monitors:

  • 64 Audio
  • Ultimate Ears
  • Noble Audio
  • Westone
  • Empire ears

Best brands for bone conduction headphones:

  • AfterShokz
  • Bonefish
  • Open Ear
  • Zungle
  • Afterglow

Chapter 6

Reviews/Purchase/Test/Return

In this last chapter, I aim to remind you of a few things.

I hope everything goes well; if not, it’s essential to know what to do and what is the next step.

Headphones usually come at medium to high prices, so I prepared something for you to lower all the risks.

Here are some pro tips that might help you while buying headphones.

what to look for when buying headphones

Tip #1 – Read Reviews

Read reviews from other customers and do additional research to ensure you are making an informed decision. 

Every brand sometimes fails, so you want to avoid the model that is not worth the money.

Tip #2 – Buy safe

Purchase the headphones from a reputable retailer or directly from the manufacturer. 

Be aware of scammers; the internet is flooded with websites, stores, FB and IG pages selling stuff. They run ads, scam a few people, and then disappear, so keep your eyes open.

Tip #3 – Test

Test your new headphones to ensure they meet your expectations and provide expected good sound quality. Anything can happen on the way to you. 

Factory or delivery company can have fails. The quicker you return headphones that don’t work as they are supposed to, the better.

Tip #4 – Know the Warranty before purchase

If necessary, take advantage of the warranty or return policy for any issues or dissatisfaction with your purchase. 

Usually, all headphones come with a 1 to 3 years warranty. Ensure you are familiar with the warranty period before making the purchase.

Wrap up

Congrats, you reached the end. By now, you should be ready to make a purchase decision.

Let’s summarise, we discussed everything you should consider before buying headphones. We talked about the budget and what to expect for your money.

In chapters 3 and 4, we discussed various types of headphones and the additional features.

Chapter 5 covered all the brands that should be on your radar. Finally, in chapter 6, we went over 4 tips essential to do before purchase.

I hope you find this article helpful, if YES please spread the word.

Cheers!

Denis Loncaric

Denis Loncaric

My name is Denis. I am a drummer, percussionist, music enthusiast, and blogger. Drums have been my passion for 15 years now. My idea is to write about the things I like and I am interested in. I want to share my drum passion with fellow musicians who walk, talk, and breathe drums.

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