You have a lot of options when choosing the right pair of headphones. When there are so many different styles, sizes, and features—how do you know which ones will be perfect for you? In this buying guide, we make it easy for you to narrow down your choices based on your needs.
When you want to buy earphones or headphones, the easiest way to get to a decision is to start with simple choices like wired or wireless, then work your way up to the unique features you’ll find on different sets of headphones.
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Choosing the right headphones for your lifestyle
When making your decision about the right headphones for you, one of the first things you should do is determine what will be their primary use.
Are you using them on the bus or the train? Do you need an ultra-small set to pack into an airplane carry-on? Will you be using them to work out each day, running, swimming, or with a personal trainer? How you plan to use your headphones most often will help you determine the best choice.
Headphones for sports and fitness
For sports, fitness, and activities, truly wireless in-ear or earbud-style headphones are almost always the best choice. There are no wires to get tangled in the fitness equipment, and you can usually get a good tight seal to block out all those unwanted gym sounds. Afraid of them falling out of your ears during kickboxing or crosstraining? No problem. Just opt for a pair of semi-wireless headphones for a bit of added security.
Headphones to make and take calls
At the office, you likely need to be alert to your coworkers and your boss. That’s why choosing a pair of headphones with ambient listening mode, a feature that enables you to hear the sounds around you while wearing your headphones will be helpful. However, some workplaces are noisy, so if you need to focus on your work without distraction, select a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Depending on your workplace and its flexibility, you may be able to get away with a larger on-ear pair, but if you need to be more discrete, opt for a pair of in-ear models.
Having a pair of headphones for talking on the phone is also a good idea for the workplace. There are several options that are on-ear or in-ear, and they have software designed to enhance audio during calls or your voice when you’re speaking.
Headphones for travel
The kind of headphones you’ll want for travel will be dictated by how heavy or light you can pack. If you’re an ultralight business traveller, you might have a little extra room for a pair of high-end over-ear headphones. If you tend to always pack heavy, get the smallest pair of truly wireless in-ear headphones that you can afford. Truly wireless headphones are best for shorter jaunts and commutes on public transit as there are no wires to get caught up in or fuss with.
Headphones for home entertainment
If you have a high-end home theatre system or brand-new 4K TV you’d like to take advantage of without waking the kids, you’ll want a pair of headphones for watching TV. A great pair of over-ear headphones made by a top-quality manufacturer is a good choice and will get plenty of use. If you’re a gamer, you may prefer wired versions in order to avoid any potential audio lag or sync issues.
Headphones for audiophiles
If you’re an audiophile, only the best and highest quality headphones will do. Sony, Bose, and Sennheiser are a few of the brands that make top-quality headphones, and audiophiles will appreciate features found on more premium models such as High Resolution Audio support and greater frequency response (the range of bass, mids and treble) that can be found on premium headphones.
High-end headphones also may support higher impedance, allowing more power to flow through them and higher volumes to be supported.
Headphones for kids
When buying headphones for kids, you’ll find a lot of different options. There are character headphones where your child can pick their favourite cartoon or pop culture character, and there is headphone technology designed just for kids.
The most popular kid’s headphones are those that have volume caps to limit how loud the headphones can be so as not to damage young ears. Kids’ headphones are often more colourful, more fun, and can be more durable than some adult headphones. They also may offer more padding and noise cancelling features.
Wired and wireless headphones and earbuds
There are quite a few different types of headphones and earbuds, whether wired or wireless, you can choose from. A set of wired headphones will keep you connected to your smartphone or other devices via a cord you plug into your phone or another device. A set of wireless headphones connects to your device via Bluetooth to give you complete freedom to move around. Here’s a look at the different kinds, some of the main features, and what activity they work best for.
How to choose wired headphones
Wired headphones have several advantages over wireless headphones. They never need to be recharged as they connect to your smartphone or device using an AUX jack. They’re often less expensive than wireless headphones, and some of the higher-end wired headphones offer you better sound quality because sound can travel to your ear cups via a cable instead of being transferred via Bluetooth.
Wired headphones can also have a few downsides. The cable can often get tangled, twisted or caught up in things when you’re using them. Wired headphones also aren’t always compatible with some newer smartphones as they have eliminated the AUX jack, so you might need an adapter to connect them.
If you like being physically connected to your device, your budget is lower, or you want reliable wired sound quality, there are a lot of great wired options out there.
Features to look for on wired sets
Wired headphones have great features that offer the best sound quality possible. Some models have unique motor, diaphragm, and coil technology to reduce audio distortion and improve playback. You’ll find wired headphones with upgraded cables made from copper or other material that will improve audio transfer from your device. They are also designed to be comfortable, with padded headbands and flat ear cups to make them easy to wear.
You’ll find wired headphones from brands like Sony, Bose, JBL, Sennheiser, HyperX and more.
Activities that best suit wired headphones
Audiophiles or people who enjoy the best sound quality will almost always opt for wired headphones. The higher-end models give you state-of-the-art sound quality because you can connect directly to the smartphone, record player, or receiver playing your music. Wired headphones are also a good choice for anyone who doesn’t want to worry about recharging their headphones at all.
How to choose wireless headphones
There are two kinds of wireless headphones—truly wireless and semi-wireless.
Wireless vs semi-wireless headphones
Semi-wireless headphones, also referred to as simply “wireless,” usually have a cable connecting one earbud to the other. They do not require a connector cable to get audio from your smartphone or tablet.
One of the biggest benefits of semi-wireless headphones is a longer-lasting battery. Some also have larger audio drivers that are hidden inside the cables or controls on the cables. Semi-wireless headphones are often less expensive than truly wireless versions, and they may perform better in terms of connectivity. Semi-wireless headphones are also usually slightly smaller in size and weight than their truly wireless cousins.
Recharging is easy and usually just requires connecting the headphones to a cable for a quick battery charge.
How to choose truly wireless headphones
Truly wireless headphones have no wires connecting them to each other at all, and they don’t have wires connecting to your device. They offer the ultimate in cord-free freedom and they can operate individually or in stereo. A truly wireless headphone is usually very small and highly portable, and has a charging case that can provide extra hours of battery and is an easy and safe way to store them.
Features of truly wireless headphones
Some of the best features of truly wireless headphones are Bluetooth for easy streaming from your phone or another Bluetooth device. Some also have a built-in microphone so you can use a voice assistant or take calls.
Many types of truly wireless headphones offer some form of noise cancellation including active noise cancellation, adaptive noise cancellation, and sound isolating models. You’ll find affordable to high-end models are available from different brands including Apple, JBL, Belkin, Skullcandy, Samsung, Jabra, and Bose. You can read up on this type of headphone by checking out the truly wireless headphone buying guide.
Activities that best suit truly wireless headphones
On-ear truly wireless headphones are the most popular choice for children because they are comfortable to wear and don’t require a cable to plug in. They are also a great choice for watching TV as they offer immersive sound quality without you needing to plug a cable into your TV.
Choosing earbuds and in-ear headphones
Earbuds, also called in-ear headphones, are the smallest headphones you’ll find. They are designed to fit either in your ear concha, the cup outside your ear canal, or in your ear canal.
Benefits of earbuds
There are several benefits to earbuds or in-ear headphones. They can be quite inexpensive so there is a style for every budget. And because they fit in your ear, they can block out a lot of external noise. The fit seals off part of your ear canal from outside sounds, so you get less ambient sound bleed-through.
Many in-ear headphones include a variety of ear tips, fins, and wings. This allows you to get a precise and customized fit. The addition of extra ear tips can have the added advantage of giving you a better sound experience as there’s no outside noise to distract you. When the ear tips wear out or become soiled, you have the advantage of easily being able to swap them out.
Features to look for in earbuds
The latest earbuds offer features including noise cancellation and quick charging. Some models can give you 24 hours of playback without needing to charge, and you can use the included carrying case to keep them at full battery power. Some types are also sweat, water, and dust-resistant so you can wear them while working out.
Many earbuds have a built-in microphone so you can take calls or use a voice assistant, and you’ll also find types with a compatible app so you can adjust the sound quality or download updates. You can choose from different brands including Sony, Beats by Dr.Dre, Bose, and Soundcore.
Activities that best suit earbuds
Earbuds are a great choice for students who want to block out the world while studying or commuting, and they are the perfect gym accessory if you are working out on a regular basis.
On-ear and over-ear headphones
As the name suggests, on-ear headphones sit directly on the ear itself. They are similar to over-ear models, but a pair of on-ear headphones are slightly smaller.
This style of headphones are ideal for people who find in-ear models uncomfortable. Because they are a bit smaller than an over-ear headphone, on-ear headphones can also be ideal for travellers or people needing headphones that will pack down to a more compact size.
Over-ear headphones tend to be the largest headphones available, and they provide outstanding audio quality. The size allows for more extensive hardware to be incorporated into the design.
Over-ear headphones are extremely comfortable for many listeners because they don’t invade your ear canal or press on the outside of your ear. The ear cups have soft padding and are generally wrapped in ultra-smooth fabric or leather. This style of headphones is great for commuters who want to block out the world at the end of a long day.
One of the most popular types of over-ear headphones are gaming headphones. They have features designed to bring gaming audio to life including specialty speaker drivers and surround sound enhancements for low distortion. Most gaming headphones have built-in microphones so you can chat while you play, and some models have RGB illumination so they light up in the dark.
How do I know which headphones will fit?
Headphone fit is a very personal choice. Some people love a huge over-ear, all-encompassing fit, while others prefer a slimmer, in-ear design. There are a lot of choices in both styles, so you have a lot of different options once you decide which type you’d like.
Headphone features to look for
There are almost as many features available in headphones as there are types, styles, and manufacturers. To choose the best pair for you, you’ll want to brush up on headphones terms and technology.
Noise-cancelling vs. Noise isolation
Noise-cancelling and noise isolation sound the same, but they are two different types of technology.
Noise isolation works as a physical barrier against outside sounds, and it feels as though you have a layer of padding over your over-ear or on-ear headphones. This style of headphones gives you a tight seal on an earbud model, and that also provides noise isolation.
A pair of noise-cancelling headphones actively listen to the environment around you and create sound waves inside the ear cup that cancel out any outside noise. This is all done digitally and automatically, so all you need to do is turn the feature on or off when you need it.
Ambient or Adaptive mode
A feature that is sometimes related to noise-cancelling is something called Ambient Mode, Adaptive mode, or ‘external listening’. This technology allows you to bring those outside sounds into your headphones so that you can be aware of your surroundings. This feature is most useful for people who might be walking in busy or high-traffic areas, or for someone that may need to stay alert to the arrival of guests, customers, or the boss.
Water-resistant headphones are great when you’re caught in the rain while commuting or running. They are designed with IPX technology and have a rating for how dust and water-resistant they are. Water-resistant headphones are also often sweat-resistant, making them a great choice for all athletic pursuits.
Some headphones are specially made for use by swimmers. If that’s what you’re hoping to use them for, make sure you choose a pair that are rated safe to be underwater for extended periods of time. You’ll want to choose a minimum of an IPX7 rating, and for continuous submersion in water, you’ll want an IPX9-rated headphone.
Most new headphones today come up with some type of voice assistant built-in. Depending on the manufacturer, this could be Apple’s Siri, Samsung’s Bixby, Google Assistant, or Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa.
Having access to technology that connects with a digital voice assistant can be quite useful. You can make adjustments to your music, dial phone numbers, control volume, or set reminders to yourself all without the need to pull out your phone. They can also do calculations and conversions, share the weather forecast, and answer almost any question you have.
Bone conduction headphones
Bone conduction headphones are a futuristic-sounding technology that’s actually quite simple. Bone conduction lets you hear sound by channelling vibrations or sound waves through the bones of your face, like your jaw or cheekbones. The sound doesn’t actually go into your ear canal but instead sends the audio directly into your inner ear. It’s a very subtle process, and it can create a richer listening experience, particularly for those who don’t like traditional headphones sitting on or in their ears.
Audio smart glasses
Audio smart glasses are some of the most popular types of bone conduction headphones. You can wear audio smart glasses just like any pair of glasses or sunglasses and listen to your favourite playlists without having to put on a pair of headphones or earbuds. They have controls on the arm so it’s easy to switch up your music or take a call.
Heart rate monitoring technology in headphones
Heart rate monitoring is a technology that is increasingly being built into sports or athletic headphones. Most often, this feature is only available on in-ear models because the device needs to be in direct contact with your skin to take your pulse. When using this feature, the headphones or the digital voice assistant can usually provide your heart rate verbally in your ear during your workout, again eliminating the need to pull out your phone during an intense workout.
Microphones and on-ear controls
Most headphones today have built-in microphones. Whether it’s to allow you to make and receive phone calls, or to summon your personal digital assistant, a microphone is almost always a must. You’ll find microphones on all types of headphones, whether they are wired or wireless. The quality of built-in microphones has also increased dramatically in just the last few years.
Controls are also vastly improved in headphones today, and touch controls are increasingly common. You’ll find controls on the earphones themselves, such as touchpad volume on over-ear models, or the ability to push and hold a button on the side of an earbud to summon Google Assistant.
Bottom line when choosing the perfect headphones
Now that you know all about the different types of headphones, here are three tips to keep in mind as you begin shopping for your new headphones:
- Assess how you’ll use headphones
- Decide if you want wired or wireless
- Choose three must-have features or technology
Armed with the answers to these questions, you’ll see you’ve narrowed down your choices significantly and you’ll be able to sift through all of the great options in headphones more easily.
Take the next step
There are many styles of headphones for every activity and need. Use this guide to shop the perfect pair for you. Check out all the headphones available at Best Buy.