Headphone Buying Guide

Quality headphones can greatly improve your experience when listening to music, either from a portable device such as an MP3 player or a high-powered audio system like a home Hi-Fi. This article explains the different types of headphones and features to look for to get the most out of your audio equipment. 

What Are The Different Types Of Headphones?

Some of the basic types of headphones include:

  • Earbuds – The headphones that are provided with any portable device, such as an MP3 player, are earbuds (also known as “earphones”). These are lightweight, portable headphones that sit inside the ear. They are plugged into the device via a cord that splits into left and right channels. These typically have the poorest sound reproduction, but are fine for use with MP3 players; MP3 format is a compressed format, so some aspects of the original sound are lost anyway. They are best for use while walking or commuting.
  • Canalphones – These earphones are similar to earbuds, but are designed with special rubber buds to allow them to be inserted further into the ear canal, rather than sitting just inside the opening to the ear. When inserted, canalphones form an airtight seal at the ear canal opening, effectively blocking out external noise. The advantage of this type of headphones is that outside noise, such as that experienced on public transport, is muted. This allows you to listen to music at a lower volume, reducing the potential for hearing damage. This technique of blocking noise is known as “noise isolation”.
  • Over-The-Ear – Also known as “ear-cup” headphones, heavier over-the-ear headphones are best for use with sound equipment such as home theatre systems. Over-the-ear headphones are designed for well-defined sound reproduction, and will have good response to bass (lower frequency) and treble (higher frequency). These are good for watching movies and for people who want to get the most out of their music.
  • Sports or Active – These are lightweight headphones that are joined by a band or strap that typically goes around the back of the neck. The band will be designed so that it sits comfortably over the tops of your ears. Sports headphones are often over-the-ear headphones, but are also available with in-ear designs. Due to the neck band, they are held more securely in place than traditional in-ear headphones. Most sports headphones do not include noise-cancelling technology and are prone to “leak” sound. They are best for wearing while jogging or exercising at the gym.


What Do I Look For In Headphones?

The most important thing when considering a pair of headphones is comfort. Ask yourself the following questions:

For in-ear headphones:

  • How much time will I spend with these headphones in my ears?
  • Would I be comfortable using these headphones for a long time?

For over-the-ear headphones:

  • Is there an adjustable strap or band to fit different head sizes?
  • Do the headphones include padding to soften the impact on my ears?
  • Will the headphones interfere with my apparel, such as earrings or headwear?


  • Cord length – Headphones will list the length of the cord on the packaging. The standard headphone length ranges from 1.5 metres to 1.8 metres. This cord length is enough for a person of average height to remain slightly more than arm’s length away from the source while retaining some slack in the cable. If the length is shorter than this, or if you are above average height, you might need to consider a longer cord to avoid the headphones slipping from your ears or becoming unplugged from the source.
  • Volume control – Some headphones come with volume control built in. Often this will be integrated as part of the cable, although larger headphone models will have volume control built into the ear-cups. This is useful if it is less convenient to access the volume control on the music source.
  • Wired vs. wireless – Some home theatre-design headphones are wireless. These headphones use radio or infra-red signals to send sound wirelessly to the headphones from a base station plugged into the music source. These are useful if you want to listen to music through headphones but want to move about your house. They are generally heavier – as the headphones themselves require batteries to power them – and are also more expensive than wired headphones.


What Is Noise-Cancelling?

Some headphones are equipped with ‘noise-cancelling’ technology, which is designed to reduce – or “neutralise” – the drone of external noise. This is achieved through the use of a small microphone built into the headphones, which picks up noise from outside. It then produces a noise of an opposing frequency inside the headphones, effectively “cancelling” the external noise, which is reduced without affecting the sound being produced by the headphones, in most cases, music. Noise-cancelling headphones are best for reducing larger volumes of continuous outside noise (e.g. engine noise on a plane). They are less effective at cancelling noise where the frequency and volume are constantly changing, such as on a train or in an office environment. In these situations, noise isolation is more effective as it simply blocks outside noise. However, most noise-cancelling headphones also have noise isolation. Due to the extra features, noise-cancelling headphones are generally more expensive than headphones without this technology.


Will Using Headphones Damage My Hearing?

Using headphones is not dangerous; however, it is advisable to use caution when listening to music in any form. Start listening at a low volume setting and then slowly adjust upwards until you find a level that is comfortable for you. Do not try to “drown out” outside noise by increasing the volume; this can lead to permanent hearing damage. If you are likely to be listening to your headphones in noisy places, it is worth thinking about noise-cancelling or noise-isolating headphones.

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