Part 3: Headphones and Earphones

On our topic of the human voice in audio product design, the most abundant choices exist within the realm of headphones and earphones (ear buds). The current popularity of smartphones and portable media devices has increased the demand for personal listening accommodations. Headphone manufacturers have answered the call from the market and now there are thousands of different shapes, sizes, colors and performance marks to choose from. One of the issues with the overwhelming number of options to choose from is trying to find the set that is just right for you.

The biggest thing to remember when shopping for headphones or earphones is that you are not just shopping for sound; you are also shopping for comfort. You don’t just listen to headphones but you also wear them. A good combination of sound and comfort performance can make for an extremely enjoyable experience. Keep in mind what activity you will be participating in when listening to headphones or earphones; this will guide you toward designs suited for your application. 

In the below $200 price range, many of the products on the market are designed for a variety of different listening experiences so be mindful about how you want to use them. Do you want a set of headphones/earphones to listen to while you are physically active? Do you plan on listening to these headphones/earphones for long periods of time? What device will you be listening to with these headphones/earphones? These are just a few questions that can help direct you toward the perfect set of headphones/earphones for you.

1.      On-Ear Designs also called: Supra-Aural (sits on your ears): Quality and Comfort are a big consideration because they sit on your ears and light weight designs are recommended. If available from the manufacturer, review the Frequency Response Curve. For radio use, look for a product that does not have large spikes in higher frequencies; the higher frequency response may amplify static that exist in the signal that would otherwise be subtle. 

On-Ear designs are not recommended for use while being physically active and can become uncomfortable after long durations of listening. 

Larger designs tend to have better sound due to larger drivers. If you will be listening carefully and sound reproduction accuracy is a factor, go with a larger design. If you just want something so you can be casually listening while walking for example, go with a smaller design. Larger designs will also have better sound isolation.

Pricing: There are great On-Ear headphones on the market that are less than $100 and have amazing sonic performance. The most comfortable and sonically pleasing models tend to be in the $50+ range. 

Recommendations: If you cannot try a set before purchasing, I would recommend reading customers reviews about the product. If you are sensitive to comfort, gravitate towards designs that address comfort issues. If you are an AM/FM listener, some, not all, of the less expensive models have a tendency to be bass heavy. This attribute can make radio voices boomy or muddy. If you spend many hours listening to AM/FM with headphones, high fidelity models with flatter responses are recommended but they tend to be the priciest. If you are rough with headphones or want to purchase headphones for someone who tends to be rough with them, don’t spend a lot of money. Also, look for models with detachable cords; the cords are what usually experience the most wear and if they can be replaced, you will not have to replace the whole product. 

2.      Over-The-Ear also called: Circumaural (surrounds the ear): Design features are a big factor because they completely cover the ear, poorly designed products can cause you ears to fatigue or heat up. Of course, your physiology has a lot to do with how long you can wear them. Some people are more sensitive than others. If you need the best sound isolation and do not want those around you to hear what you are listening to, then Closed Back over-the-ear headphones are recommended. Closed Back designs allow the listener to fully immerse themselves into the audio whether it is talk radio, music, movies or games. Open Back designs tend to have higher fidelity but are not sound isolated so this style is only recommended for listening in quiet locations. Circumaural headphones are also recommended for listening for long durations, recording and if you have high fidelity needs. I would not recommend them when being physically active, and for children or adults who tend to turn the volume up too loud. These headphones are usually capable of very high volumes which can damage your hearing and do considerable damage to a young person’s developing ear.  

Pricing: Typically, the acoustical differences between a $100 set and a $200 set are small between the more well-known manufacturers. However, the design comforts can be drastically different. Depending on what you need as far as comfort, you can get an extraordinary sounding set for around $100-$200. 

3.      Earphones (ear buds): Earbuds are recommended for those who can’t stand ear cups and headbands (headphones) but don’t mind things in the ears. They are great for traveling because they can easily fit in your pocket and if you’re physically active. If you’re a smartphone user, your smartphone most likely came with a set of earbuds with an attached microphone so you can listen to music and answer phones without taking your ear buds out. Higher end models are great to for musicians that need them for stage monitoring while providing ear protections. Ear buds are small and light and will most likely not break if you drop them a short distance unlike headphones whose bulky design is more susceptible to drops, impacts and crushing. 

Selecting Ear buds that are just right for you is difficult. Everyone’s ears are different and our canals are all different sizes. There are two main types of ear buds, the first are the kind that sit just outside the ear canal. This design is not as secure as the insert style and they have a tendency to fall out of the ear during physical activity, but they are great for people who want ear buds but have sensitive ear canals, wax build up, or medical conditions related to the ear. The second types of ear buds are the ones that are inserted into the ear canal. This style fits securely therefore making them ideal when doing any kind of physical activity. 

A good set of earbuds will come with multiple sized inserts. This will allow you to find the size that fits your ears the best. A cable clip, so you can clip the cord to your shirt, is a must. This also helps reduce vibrations, from the cord hitting or rubbing your body, and turning into audible sounds in your ears. 

Sound: There is a large variance in sound performance from product to product. Customer reviews can be extremely helpful. Many products have exaggerated bass responses which may or may not be wanted. Reading professional/customer reviews can help identify whether or not a particular product has this attribute. The products design and how it is inserted and sits in your ear canal will have drastic effects on the sound you hear. For instance, having the ear bud pushed in too far or barely inserted into the ear canal will change the sound. In-canal styles tend to have really good sound isolation. A combination of good sound isolation, proper seating in the ear canal, and great audio performance, can make for a full, audio immersion experience. 

Warning: sound isolation combined with high volume levels can make some individuals feel disoriented. Additionally, the above combination can leave an individual unaware of their surroundings; caution is advised. 

Earbuds are not Recommended for young children. Sound isolation models can leave individuals unaware of their surroundings. The insert design, in particular, is not recommended. These ear buds are usually capable of very high volumes which can damage your hearing and do considerable damage to a young person’s developing ear. 

Pricing: $30-$60 can get you an excellent pair. This range usually has a good blend of comfort and performance. Ear buds priced below $20 work great if you just need something to listen to and aren’t particularly picky about comfort or sound quality. However, some products in this range can have surprising performance and comfort. More expensive models can be found on sale in this range often. In the $60-$200 range, use caution. Sonically, many of the $30-60 ranged product perform just as well. Models above $100 tend to be more focused toward sound isolation and very fine tuned audio performance. These are recommended to musicians for monitoring or live sound board operators. 

Everyone has different taste in sound, comfort and performance. I cannot express to you enough how helpful reviews can be in finding that perfect set of headphones/earphones. Also, an opinion from a trusted source, whether it be a professional, friend or company, can help steer you toward the right directions. In summing up the above tips, price does not determine the good from bad. 

I hope you have found this series helpful. There are so many audio products out on the market, it is easy to get lost when trying to decide what to buy. Knowing what you want from a sound system, big or small, will lead you to the perfect system…for you! If you ever have any questions, please email us. We are more than happy to answer your questions.