The following headphones buying guide contains information to make you headphone savvy before you buy.
Estimated reading time: 15 minutes
Table of contents
- Price is not an Indicator!
- First: What stats are vital?
- Frequency Range
- What are decibels, and why are they important?
- Total Harmonic Distortion (THD)
- Weighted Harmonic Distortion (WHD)
- Before We Move On, Let’s Sum Up.
- Very Important, a word about the quality of your music source.
- Active Noise Canceling
- Wired vs. Wireless
- A Word About Battery Life and Charging
- Headphone Styles
- Bone Conduction
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Price is not an Indicator!
We use price as a shorthand way to assess the value of things we buy; this is a well-known psychological phenomenon. What we want to know is, “am I getting a good product at a good price?” The price alone doesn’t tell you that it’s possible to get a good set of headphones at a low cost. Or, get a crappy one for a lot of money. Let’s break down how to get both quality and value for your money.
First: What stats are vital?
Since we aren’t using price as our indicator, what will we use to evaluate headphones? Many companies throw all kinds of stats and numbers to convince you that you’re getting a good deal.
To sort this out, we need a little info first. For example, computer monitors, many will tell you how many millions of colors they can display. Ordinary people can only distinguish about 14 million different colors. So would a monitor that shows 1 billion colors be worth the extra money? No, what’s the point of paying for more colors than you can’t see. Hearing works the same way.
If you google the frequency range of human hearing, you see that it goes from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (20 kHz). Just like the monitor, though, that’s not the whole story. Young people under 25 have better hearing in the high range than the over 25 crowd. As we age, we lose the higher frequency range of our hearing. The older group generally starts losing those high notes over 12kHz. By the time we are in our 60s, most people show hearing loss above 12kHz. Most young people can hear 15-16 kHz easily. You can check it out for yourself at Ultrasonic Ringtones.
So the question is, why should I pay a ton of money for a headphone that puts out sound I can’t hear? You shouldn’t. Now there is a caveat, you can feel sound outside what you can listen to in certain situations, but do you want to pay $$$$ for something you can’t hear.
I’m still able to hear 15.8 kHz at my age (60), but as an audio engineer, I’ve always been protective of my hearing. I still have a bit of loss above 12kHz. Your mileage may vary.
What are decibels, and why are they important?
Decibels are the way we measure sound that we can hear. For example 40dB (decibels) is a quiet library, normal conversation 60dB, concert 110dB, jet taking off 120dB. From the example, it would seem that a concert is much louder than twice the dB of normal conversation, and it is. The dB measurement is called a logarithmic scale, don’t panic. It’s not that complicated.
We need to know that the difference between 20dB and 30dB is NOT 10dB but 100dB. To put it another way, a sound of 100dB is 90dB louder than a sound of 10dB, which is a billion times more intense and 2×2×2×2×2×2×2×2×2 = 29 or roughly 500 times louder.
Why is this important? In the next paragraph, we’ll see that this difference comes into play when talking about distortion.
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD)
This criterion is quite essential. We’ve all heard speakers distorting when we turn up the volume too high. That’s distortion due to sending more power than a speaker can handle. THD is different, and it’s the amount of distortion present in the system all the time. If you want to get highly technical, check out the Wikipedia definition of Total Harmonic Distortion. For our purposes, all we need to know is the higher the number, the more distortion present in the system that you can hear. It’s not possible to remove THD. We want it to be low enough so that it doesn’t interfere with our listening enjoyment.
You’ll see headphones listing THD in terms of 0.1%, 0.01%, or 0.001%. The rough difference between each of these is -20dB. Each decimal point is roughly 20dB lower than the previous level. -40dB is better than -20dB, and of course, -60dB would be the best. If you listen to music at 80dB and have a headphone with a 0.001% THD, the distortion is roughly -60db lower than your music. You’ll be unable to hear any distortion. This analysis is not a complete explanation, but it gives us a way to compare different headphones and how well they will reproduce music and voices.
Weighted Harmonic Distortion (WHD)
Weighted Harmonic Distortion is a slightly more practical measurement of THD. It gives a weighted preference for the frequencies that make up the vital part of the audio spectrum. Not at much weight is given to the ultra lows and highs. Priority goes to the middle and high ranges. Most of the voice and music are in these two ranges. WHD gives us a more useful number to evaluate how headphones perform in the real world.
Before We Move On, Let’s Sum Up.
We should be looking for headphones with a good spread of frequency range 20Hz – 20kHz, but we don’t need to get up to 40kHz to have a good set of headphones. Low THD in the 0.01% range is also essential. Too much distortion, and it’s a distraction from your enjoyment. So far, so good.
Very Important, a word about the quality of your music source.
You can have the best headphones in the world, but if your music source isn’t of comparable quality, it really won’t mean much, think watching an old standard VCR movie on a high definition screen. There are a variety of methods that compress most of our current music. Comparison of the different formats is beyond the scope of this article, but the takeaway is important. Remember we talked about headphones that reproduce sounds above human hearing (i.e., expensive)? What is even funnier is that many of today’s music’s compression formats remove all sounds outside human hearing.
So you bought a set of headphones that goes up to 40kHz (humans max out at 20kHz), and you are going to listen to music that, when compressed, removes sounds above 20kHz. You just paid big bucks to have a set of headphones that can reproduce all the sounds from 20kHz to 40kHz. But all of those sounds above 20kHz have been removed from the music that you bought, whoops. You got suckered into spending money for something you can’t hear. If you are working with live music rather than purchased compressed music, that’s a different story.
You can purchase some originally produced music that is uncompressed and contains all the sounds. But it takes up quite a bit more storage (up to 10 times) and is generally more expensive.
Soundstage refers to how close the headphones come to simulating how we hear things in the real world. When you listen to sounds that come from behind you, you can instinctually tell the sound’s direction.
Headphones attempt to recreate this type of experience. Movies do this by putting speakers all around the room. Different headphone styles will affect this, as well as software and your sound source. In gaming, this can be a significant feature. You want to know when someone is creeping up on you from behind before they shoot you in the back.
Active Noise Canceling
Active Noise Canceling (ANC) is a recent development. It’s a tiny bit technical, but it’s pretty easy to understand. There is a mic on the outside of the headphones, and it takes in the sounds from the outside. ANC treats sound kind of like math. We know that if we take 5 and add it to -5, we end up with 0. The positive and the negative cancel each other out. We can do this with sound as well. The external mics take the sound and make it a negative, pipe it into the headphone, and voila, the outside noise disappears, almost like magic. The generated negative version of the outside noise cancels the real noise when mixed. It’s not perfect but can create a much quieter listening environment.
Ok, we have all the info we need to evaluate different headphones, so let’s apply what we have learned.
Wired vs. Wireless
Everyone understands the main difference here; one plugs in, and the other doesn’t. If your source (phone, computer, music player) doesn’t have a plugin, you are stuck with wireless. Wireless generally now means Bluetooth, a short-range wireless signal that’s built into almost all devices today. Some gaming headsets use Wi-Fi, which has more range. My Arctis 7 Wi-Fi gaming headset has a range of 50 to 60 feet, where my headsets that use Bluetooth start dropping out at about 10-15 feet. There is a greater range in the new Bluetooth 5.0 standard, and we’ll get the benefit once all our devices are 5.0; for now, it generally means you can’t leave your phone in the house and listen to music outside in your yard.
A Word About Battery Life and Charging
Battery life is pretty basic. How long will the battery last before I need a recharge? My Arctis 7 boasts an impressive 24 hours of battery life, a big deal for long gaming sessions. Battery life is always an important factor in choosing a wireless device.
So Let’s take what we just learned and apply it to each type of headphones. Over-Ear is just like they sound; they fit completely over your ears and rest on your head. A headband connects the ear-cups and supports the weight. The ear-cups generally have cushions that rest around the ears. There are two basic types open back and closed back. The open back is just that. It’s not entirely sealed and allows hearing of outside sounds, and someone sitting next to you will hear your music. The closed-back type reduces the amount of sound you can hear from the outside, providing a quieter listening environment. If you are looking for more listening privacy, choose the closed back for better room noise reduction.
For this example, let’s use the Arctis 7 Wi-Fi gaming headset (see full review).
SteelSeries Arctis 7 - Lossless Wireless Gaming Headset with DTS Headphone: X v2.0 Surround - for PC and PlayStation 4 - Black
11 used from $140.00
First, the frequency range is 20-20kHz, which is right where we want it. The second is THD; here is where the Arctis 7 does stumble a bit. The THD listed is less than 3% (2.99% ?), which is not good. Here’s where the WHD differs. If we focus on the important parts of the spectrum, the Arctis 7 has as much better 0.270% WHD than if we look at the entire range. What does this tell us, mainly that the ultra lows and highs are where most distortion lives. Cranking up the base will cause more distortion than if you leave it flat.
As I mentioned above, we should be looking at something more around 0.01% for high-quality headphones, so this one is not too bad, probably not noticeable to most people. So, where does that leave us with this choice? Here’s where things can get a bit more complicated. Artics 7 is a gaming headset and includes a built-in mic, and we need to consider that. The mic adds a new wrinkle. Also, this headset is battery-powered with a battery life of around 24 hours of continuous use. So we have less than desirable distortion, but we have some other factors that we can weigh in deciding.
I’ve been using this headset for more than a year, and although the THD is not great, the sound is not bad, it’s not studio quality, but it is usable. This headset has two separate audio channels, one game/music and the other for chat channels. Different controls are on the headset for each channel. Here’s where balancing the good and bad of each headphone comes into play. Ok sound quality, good battery life, Wi-Fi connection for extended walking range. Could you get better headphones and use a separate mic for less? Depending on your needs, you could. But juggling a mic and headphones might not be for you.
Arctis does have a higher-end model, and let’s look at that briefly to see what an extra $175 will get you. The Arctis Pro model has a frequency range of 10-40kHz. Remember, we can’t hear above 20kHz, so that’s not worth any extra. The THD is less than 1%, hardly the 0.01% that we would like to see. On the other hand, as in the Arctis 7, the WHD is better than the listed of less than 1% at 0.316%.
Notice that the WHD is not as good as the Arctis 7. The mic seems to have the same basic stats, not a significant improvement. The pro model has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth both, a nice feature that enhances its usability. The pro model has a replaceable battery (10 hours use time), so you can swap it with a fresh, fully charged one (charges in the base) while you use the other.
So how does the Arctis 7 stack up? It has lots of positive reviews online and some negative as well. The sound is just ok, and it has a decent mic and good battery life. The Wi-Fi gives you some range to get up and walk around. If you’re an audiophile and want to use this to listen to music, skip the Arctis 7 as you won’t be satisfied with the audio. If you not as picky, then this might be a decent usable gaming headphone for you.
Rather than over the ear, this style sits on top of your ears. Some people find this type uncomfortable for extended listening. The padding is vital for this type of headphone as well as the weight. Heavy headphones or cheap padding can cause ear discomfort, a significant problem. No matter how good the sound, you won’t be happy if it’s not comfortable. You won’t get as good bass from an on-ear as you can over-ear, so if you are really into bass, over-ear can be a better choice for you. You tend to get a bit more room noise on the on-ear style, but it’s generally not a deal-breaker.
One of the significant differences with on-ear is the entire ear is not engaged like an over-ear design. The over-ear design makes the sound seem to be inside your head rather than coming from outside. This in-head sound has to do with how our ears work rather than a design problem. Since it sits on the ear itself, you lose some of the directionality that can be important for gaming. On-ear has one other drawback due to the design. When the headphone moves, even if it just a bit, it can change how you hear the music. Over-ear doesn’t tend to move much, but the on-ear can move easier and affect the quality of the sound you perceive.
The Jabra has a typical frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz, which is good enough. The weighted harmonic distortion (WHD) is 0.175%. Not as good as it could be but not out of line for this type and cost of headphones. The default settings have a slight bump to the base. If you like it a bit more on the base side, you’ll probably like it right out of the box. Like many of this type, the design includes a mic for phone and video conference. And the mic is pretty good at reproducing warm normal-sounding vocals. The soundstage (see above) is only average, but that tends to be a limitation of the style. Over the ear generally have a better soundstage, so most of the best gaming headsets are over the ear style.
Earbuds are probably the most common of the headphone types. In the past, many cellphones came with wired earbuds. Now, of course, most cellphones don’t. With the headphone jack’s demise, it’s more common to have wireless Bluetooth headphones, but you generally have to purchase them separately. They range from very inexpensive (under $10) to very expensive (Shure KSE1500 normally retails for $2,999). One advantage of earbuds is that they don’t mess up your hair! Simple and easy to use, and are easy to carry in your pocket.
Like many headphone products now, the companies aren’t forthcoming about the specs – they want you to buy them on emotion (and reviews) rather than on comparable features and performance. Testing is generally the best way to get an idea of how well they perform in the real world and provides an objective comparison of different products.
These are relatively small when it comes to headphones. They feature a normal frequency response, the weighted harmonic distortion (WHD) is 0.214%. Not bad, when properly fitted, they have decent isolation from outside noise and feature a good bass response. They feature Active Noise Cancelling, which is great for noisy environments, and the Airpods Pro version is good at this. Batter life is limited to around 4 hours, but I still find that fantastic when you consider how tiny these are. You’ll need to charge them up by putting them in the case to charge. There are extra charges in the case, again a nice feature.
The mic could use improvement, it’s not that great, but some of that is how far it is from your mouth. The closer the mic is to the sound, the better it will perform. Since the Airpods are almost inside your ear, it’s not surprising that the mic would have trouble. One of the exciting things Apple adds is what is called a transparency mode. In other words, you can switch it, so it works kind of like a hearing aid. You’ll be able to hear what’s going on around you, which is a great feature.
These are not as common, and they transmit sound bypassing your eardrum and use the inner ear to get the sound into your brain. One significant advantage of this type is they leave your ears wholly uncovered. You can still enjoy great-sounding music and be able to hear everything around you. There are even models that you can use while swimming, although a word of caution. Many headphones will say things like water-resistant, sweat-proof, and even waterproof, but if you read the fine print on the ad, it will generally tell you “not for use in swimming.”
Bone Conduction Headphones for Swimming, IP68 Waterproof Open-Ear 8GB MP3 Music Player Wireless Sport Earphones product card
Bond Conduction headphones are a different animal, which is quite difficult to test since it uses a different method of getting the music to your brain. So our standard evaluation techniques don’t help much. If you think bone conduction is for you, the only real way to evaluate it giving it a try. One great feature that this company included is an mp3 player in their design. If your going to swim with a headphone, how are you going to listen to music if your phone is outside the pool, Bluetooth is generally short-range, allowing you to put your music on the headphone frees you from being close to the phone.
If you have questions please let us know.