How To Buy Headphones

Offering a more intimate music-listening experience that can open up a new sonic perspective on your favourite records, there’s no shortage of headphones on the market. Paul Rigby offers some essential pointers and buying guidelines…

Offering a more intimate music-listening experience that can open up a new sonic perspective on your favourite records, there’s no shortage of headphones on the market. Paul Rigby offers some essential pointers and buying guidelines…
How To Buy Headphones

Headphones are, on the face of it, simple to buy and use. You remove them from their box, plug ’em in and you’re off. No set up, no tweaking, no calibration and no screwdrivers or Allen keys. Easy, eh? Well, yes. And also, no.

The problem with headphones is that many people who buy them have little idea, in fact, what it is they are buying. This is because, in terms of hi-fi equipment, headphones are probably the only pieces of audiophile gear that has not only successfully broken through to the lifestyle arena with force, but has been completely accepted and utilised by non-hi-fi users.

The problem with applying this purchase philosophy to headphones is that the chosen products will always give you a noise: many purchases will provide a decent playback, but few will ever achieve your ideal sound.

So let’s talk about headphones. Not earphones, headphones. The things that actually sit on your head, not the bits of metal or plastic that are overly intimate with your ear canal. During this round-up, I’m also going to ignore noise cancellation. I’m here to talk about getting the best-quality sound possible. Noise-cancellation headphones offer the same sound quality for those who’ve ever rocked out in a padded cell.

How To Buy Headphones
Got Your Back

There are a couple of basic engineering principles to think about when you think about buying a pair of headphones. Both relate to the shape of the chassis or, more specifically, the left and right bits of the headphones known to 60s radio DJs as ‘cans’. Firstly, are the headphones closed- or open-backed? You can literally see the difference between the two. Open-backed headphones will have holes, open veins or some other trendy-looking cuts or slices into the outside of the can itself. Closed-backed headphones remove these openings. The can will be sealed completely.  

If you look around the internet, you’ll read a lot of rot that allies closed- or open-backed headphones with noise cancellation. Open- and closed-backed headphone designs have been around a lot longer than any de rigueur noise-cancellation label. Back then, noise cancellation was turning your TV off. Yes, with closed backed headphones, there is a small measure of noise cancellation, a secondary bonus effect which means that, if you’re sitting next to someone with open-backed headphones, you will more than likely hear the music quite clearly and loudly and, if you then sit next to someone wearing closed-backed headphones, you won’t. Don’t think that closed-backed headphones provide an effective noise-cancelling solution, though. They don’t.

The point of open-backed headphones is to add air and space into the soundstage, providing a naturalistic sound with dynamic reach and fragility to the treble. Closed backs enhance the bass response, preventing any lower frequencies from leaving and adding, to all intents and purposes, a sort of loudness EQ effect to the soundstage which boosts bass, but also restricts the mids and treble. It’s a personal sound-preference thing.

On or Over?

On a similar basis, some headphone cans and their pads sit on the ear; others enclose completely (or go ‘over’) the ear. Again, the point of this is tonal. The over-the-ear design will trap many of the frequencies swimming around your lug ’ole, which can enhance the lower frequencies, giving you more mass and strength to the bass and, in theory, deepening it.

On the other side of the coin, on-the-ear designs allow frequencies to leave the ear, which means those frequencies are free to roam and won’t bump into each other. The midrange details should be enhanced, but the bass will not be as strong or as hefty. It’s another personal sound-preference thing.

How To Buy Headphones
The Generation Game

How the sound itself is generated can be a major factor in both the final sound envelope, and also the price. There are a few esoteric approaches, plus others aimed squarely at earphones that I will ignore for now. Most value-for-money (and quite a few high-end) headphones will rely on a tried-and-trusted suite of headphone-driver technologies, called the dynamic driver. Apart from providing a quality speaker at a relatively low price, they’re also effective in terms of producing firm bass frequencies.

More expensive to buy – because they are harder to produce – are planar magnetic drivers. Providing a diaphragm sandwiched between magnets, the resultant electromagnetic field does a sonic tango with the magnets to produce sound. Much harder to produce (or, rather, to produce well), electrostatic technologies are terribly difficult to design well. It’s tough to design and produce full-scale electrostatic speakers, never mind miniaturising the technology and stuffing it into a pair of speakers…especially as you’re playing around with thin electrically charged diaphragms, conductive plates and special amplifiers.


Terminations are our focus here – those plugs at the end of the cable that are always ignored, yet oh-so-critical to the final sound quality from headphones. Let’s say you have a top-quality pair of headphones with a full-sized 6.35mm plug and you want to plug it into a headphone amplifier, for example, that has only a mini-3.5mm socket. What do you do? You reach for a converter plug,  don’t you? The moment you attach the converter, you lower the sound quality of the headphones, no matter what the quality of the headphones or the amp. I’ve done extensive tests and there is a sonic difference. You can hear it more through better-quality kit, I grant you, but the differences are there.

So, please try to match the sockets with the headphone plugs when buying. Some headphones, though, will arrive with two different cables offering both types of connectors. If so, you’re sorted.

Wired or Wireless?

A quick and simple one, this. Generally, wired offers superior sound quality, design innovation and, often, extra comfort and lighter weight. Wireless? Mobility. That’s what it’s good at.

That’s the point. Nothing else.