Choosing the right pair of headphones can be intimidating. After all, with so much choice out there and so many different styles, sizes and features, how do you know which ones will be perfect for you?

Learn which ones are right for you in Best Buy’s headphone buying guide.

Wired vs. Wireless headphones

One of the first choices you’ll make is to purchase a wired set of headphones, or to go wireless.

All about Wired headphones

Wired headphones have several advantages; they never need to be recharged, as they simply connect to your smartphone or device using an AUX jack. They’re often less expensive too.

But wired headphones also have their downsides. Since they come with a cable, it can often get tangled, twisted or caught up in things like the seat arm on a plane, for example. Wired headphones also aren’t ideal with some newer smartphones that have eliminated the AUX jack, since you’ll need an adapter to connect them.

But if you don’t mind being physically connected to your device and your budget is lower, there’s still many great wired options out there.

All about Wireless headphones

There are two kinds of wireless headphones: truly wireless and what you might call semi-wireless.

Wireless or semi-wireless headphones?

Semi-wireless headphones, also referred to as simply “wireless,” usually have a cable connecting one ear bud to the other. They do not, however, require a connector cable to get audio from your smartphone or tablet.

The benefits of semi-wireless headphones (brands like Skullcandy, Jabra and even Fitbit are good picks in this category) is that they sometimes have longer lasting batteries, and may have larger audio drivers, since these can be hidden inside the cables or controls within the cables. Semi-wireless headphones are often less expensive than truly wireless versions, and some people think they perform better in terms of connectivity. Semi wireless headphones are often slightly smaller in size and weight than their truly wireless cousins.

Recharging usually requires connecting the headphones to a cable for recharging; another small accessory to keep track of.

What are truly wireless headphones?

Truly wireless headphones have no wires whatsoever connecting them to each other, or to your device. They offer the ultimate in cord-free freedom. They can operate individually or in stereo, and they’re usually super small and highly portable, and most often have a charging case that comes with them (examples of this include Sony, Bose, Jabra, Apple) which can hold additional charges, vastly expanding battery life on the go.

Headphone Fit & styles

Headphone fit is a very personal choice. Where some people love a huge over-ear, all encompassing fit, others prefer a slimmer, in-ear design. There are the choices you’ll make when it comes to fit.

Earbuds & in-ear headphones

Earbuds or in-ear headphones are the smallest headphones you’ll find. That’s precisely because they are designed to fit either in your ear concha (the cup outside your ear canal), or into your ear canal.

There are several benefits to earbuds or in-ear headphones. For starters, they can be quite inexpensive (though truly wireless versions of these will be pricier). They also have the advantage of blocking out a good deal of external noise. Because they seal off part of your ear canal from outside sounds, you will get less sound bleed-through.

Many in-ear headphones also come with a variety of ear tips, fins, and wings. This allows you to get a precise and customized fit. This can have the added advantage of giving your a better sound experience, since there’s no outside noise to distract you.

Also, when the ear tips wear out or become soiled, you have the advantage of easily being able to swap them out.

On-ear headphones

As as the name suggests, on-ear headphones sit directly on the ear itself. They are similar to over ear models, but smaller. This style of headphones are ideal for people who find in-ear models uncomfortable. Because they are a bit smaller than over-ears, on-ear headphones can also be ideal for travelers or people needing headphones that will pack down to a more compact size. Beats by Dre makes a great pair of on-ear headphones that fold down to about half their size, and Monster has some excellent options too.

Over-ear headphones

Over-ear headphones tend to be the largest headphones out there, and quite often they provide outstanding audio quality. This is due in part to the ability to include much more extensive hardware into the design.

Over-ear headphones can also be extraordinarily comfortable for many listeners, since they don’t invade your ear canal, and they aren’t pressing on the outside of your ear either, and often come with soft padding and ultra smooth fabric or leather wrapping on the ear cup. These are also great for commuters who want to block out the world at the end of along day.

What features should I look for in headphones?

There are almost as many features available in headphones as there are types, styles, and manufacturers. We’ll take a look at some of the most popular and most useful here.

Noise canceling & Noise isolation

Noise canceling and noise isolation are two very different things. Noise isolation is the act of creating a physical barrier against outside sounds; think a thick layer of padding on over-ear or on-ear headphones. Similarly, a tight seal on an earbud model can also provide noise isolation.

Noise canceling is something different altogether. With this feature, the brains built into certain pairs of headphones will actively listen to the environment around you, then create sound waves inside the ear cup that in effect cancel out the outside noise so you never hear it. This is all done digitally and automatically, so you don’t need to worry about it; all you need to do is turn the feature on or off in headphones where it is available.

Ambient Mode

A feature that is sometimes related to noise canceling is something called Ambient Mode or ‘external listening’. This feature 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

Generally speaking, having water resistant headphones is a great feature. It comes in handy in several ways, whether you find yourself caught in the rain while commuting or running. Water resistant headphones are also often sweat resistant, making them a great choice for those athletic pursuits.

Some headphones are specially made for use by swimmers. If that’s what you’re hoping to use them for, make sure they’re rated for being underwater for extended periods of time.

Voice assistants

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, the Google Assistant, or Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa.

Having the ability to connect with a digital voice assistant can be quite handy. 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. Of course they can also do calculations and conversions, share the weather forecast, an answer almost any question you have, just by asking.

Bone conduction headphones

Bone conduction headphones are a futuristic-sounding technology that’s actually quite simple. Bone conduction lets you to hear sound by channelling vibrations or sound waves through the bones of your face, like your jaw or cheek bones. The sound doesn’t actually go into your ear canal, instead these headphones send audio directly into your inner ear. Sound painful? It’s not; it’s all very subtle and can create a richer listening experience, particularly for those who don’t like traditional headphones sitting on or in their ears.

Heart rate monitoring

Heart rate monitoring is a feature that is increasingly being built into sport or athletic headphones. Most often, this feature is only available on in the ear models, since 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 controls

Most headphones today contain a microphone. 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 today. You’ll find microphones on headphones whether they’re wired or wireless. The quality of built in microphones has also increased dramatically in even 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.

mother's day - bose quietcomfort 35 ii noise cancelling headphones

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. That’s because there’s 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 some kickboxing or crosstraining? No problem? Just opt for a pair of semi wireless headphones for a bit of added security.

Headphones for work

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.

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 ultra light business traveler, 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. Similarly, truly wireless headphones are best for shorter jaunts and commutes on public transit, since there are no wires to get caught up in or to fuss with. In-ear models have the ability to disguise the fact that you’re listening to anything, while on-ear or over-ear models can send a very clear message; “don’t talk to me”.

Headphones for home entertainment

At home, you’re probably a lot less worried about what people think. And here, you may have a high-end home theater system or brand-new 4K TV you like to take advantage of without waking the kids. For home entertainment use like watching TV or gaming, a great pair of over-ear headphones made by a top-quality manufacturer are a good choice and will get plenty of use. Some gamers tend to prefer wired versions in order to avoid any potential audio lag or sync issues.

Headphones for audiophiles

Sony. Bose. Sennheiser. Just a few of the high-end brands coveted by audiophiles.

Those who love their audio and for whom only the best and highest quality will do, need top quality headphones with meticulous attention to detail. Audiophiles will also appreciate features found on more premium models, such as High Resolution Audio support, and a 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, resist the temptation to buy the cheapest ones. There’s now headphone technology out there just for kids; in particular technology that lets you cap the volume levels 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 additional comforts.

Bottom line on choosing the perfect headphones

Finally, bear these three tips in mind as you begin shopping for your new headphones:

  • First: assess how you’ll use headphones primarily
  • Decide if you want wired or wireless
  • Choose three features you think you can’t live without.

Armed with the answers to those questions, you’ll see you’ve narrowed down your choices significantly, and you’ll better be able to sift through the possibilities.

Take the next step

Listen to your music, your way. There are many styles of headphones so find the ones that are perfect for you.

Check out all the headphone options at Best Buy.

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