Headphone Buyer's Guide
While many of us enjoy the power and experience of listening to our music through powerful loudspeakers, there is something to be said for the use of headphones in the pursuit of ultimate musical fidelity.
Headphones are the most direct way to pipe directly into your ears what the recording artists and professionals intended. When you use headphones to listen to music, you are not subject to the same degree of acoustic coloring you would hear from the speaker cabinet and the room within which you are sitting.
In my opinion a good set of headphones provides a more pure audio experience than any speakers could, and you’ll hear detail in the audio that is simply inaudible otherwise.
The Price of Admission
One of the things that makes life really hard when it comes to getting good headphones is that the market is now flooded with overpriced, but mediocre, headphones. Lifestyle headphones that go for ludicrous prices are all the rage thanks to the endorsement of certain music personalities that I won’t mention here.
The best strategy is not to let the price of a pair of headphones guide you when it comes to figuring out their quality. Some of the best headphones have a price tag that is surprisingly reasonable.
Fit and Finish
Headphones are also a fashion statement and so many models cater as much (or more) to their looks as to their sound. Be wary of overly flashy headphones, even if expensive. If the product materials for a specific model of headphones spends more time discussing how fashionable they are than their actual sound specifications, you should probably steer clear of them.
That’s not to say that the looks of the headphones should not factor into your decision, just that you should make sure that sound and build quality are good enough so that you don’t have a bad experience. Since the idea is to use these at home where no one is going to see you wearing them and you won’t be looking at them most of the time you use them, the looks seem a bit secondary.
Speaking of quality, what should you look for in the sound specs?
The Sound of (Good) Music
There are a couple of key specifications that you have to look at when buying your headphones. Don’t worry too much about the fine technical details, we can boil the most important specs down to just three numbers.
The first is the impedance. The impedance of headphones (or speakers for that matter) is a measurement of how much power a pair of headphones require in order to achieve a good volume. The lower the impedance of the headphones, the less power it needs to achieve good listening volumes.
Most headphones are low impedance, which equates to 25 ohms or less. High impedance headphones are generally used in a professional setting with powerful audio equipment. This is because high-impedance headphones are much less likely to suffer an overload blowout. Low impedance headphones are good for low-power amplification such as from line-level outputs or from amplifiers specifically designed for headphones.
Unless you are planning to connect your headphones to a very powerful amplifier, just go with sub-25 ohm units.
If two sets of headphones both quote their total harmonic distortion, the one with the lower number will sound better. But these days most headphones say “under 1%”, which makes comparisons basically impossible. It also means that you’ll be hard-pressed to hear a difference, so unless the percentage is higher you don’t have to pay much attention to this.
The last one is rather important – frequency response. It’s especially the lower ranges that interest us, since most headphones struggle to achieve really low frequencies. Unfortunately, many headphone makers exaggerate the low frequencies a bit and so if you are deciding between two headphones, the size of the drivers may be a better predictor of bass range. Generally larger speakers can achieve lower notes.
We Can Build It
The last issue is build-quality. Headphones, even ones you leave at home and never shove in a bag, receive a surprising amount of abuse. They get twisted, stretched, rubbed against, pulled on, and just generally handled more than most personal possessions. So you will want to pay attention to the quality of the materials, stitching, headband, and cord. Many headphones can sound wonderful but have cord breakages, cup failures, or other quality problems. Look for long-term user reports and also good build materials like metal parts for the moving components. If you choose wisely, your headphones may last many years without the need to buy new ones.