How to choose the right pair of headphones

How to choose the right pair of headphones

It’s easy to assume headphones aren’t as important an investment as a new amp or a pair of speakers, that scrolling through a few online deals and skimming a couple of reviews ought to suffice in your quest for new cans.

Sure, you won’t spend as long searching for a pair of £15 in-ears as you might if you were splashing out a grand, but leaving it to chance is a fool’s game.

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Budget day

First, you’ll need to set your budget –and this should probably take longer than a momentary glance at your bank balance. You can begin by using the primary component in your system to guide you.

If you’re streaming lo-res files through your phone, for example, there’s no point in chucking heaps of cash at a pair of headphones that at best will be underworked, and are quite likely to shine a light on all the deficiencies in your source. Likewise, don’t expect a pair of entry-level cans to contour faithfully the talents of your extensive and expansive home system.

Which leads us to the type of headphones you want to buy. As you’ll already know, they come in three main types: in-ear, on-ear and over-ear. The choice comes down largely to preference - there are plenty of over-ear cans light and tidy enough to wear on your morning commute, and opting for in-ears does not necessarily mean a drop in sound quality.

For a decent pair of in-ears, we'd recommend the Beyerdynamic Byron (£50), Klipsch R6i II (£90) or, if your budget allows, the AKG N40 (£249).

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Think about where you’ll be using them. If they’re solely for home use, do they need to be discreet to the outside world? If sound leakage isn’t an issue, picking on- or over-ears with open backs could deliver a more expansive sound.

Here, why not consider the AKG K92 (£30)? For a higher-end option, the Grado SR325e (£300) may also be worth a look, as well as the Beyerdynamic T1 (£800) if your system is up to it.

Or, if you want to block out the world, there are throngs of great-sounding noise-cancelling headphones (including many with Bluetooth) that will counteract the hum of an aeroplane engine, such as the AKG N60NC Wireless (£200) and Sony WH-1000XM3 (£330). Cans such as the B&W P5 Wireless (£230) are wireless but don't have noise-cancelling.

There's also the budding emergence of true wireless in-ears (those that don't have wires connecting the two buds) such as the Sony WF-1000X (£149) that offer even more wireless freedom.

Most of these work via Bluetooth, and are rising in popularity thanks to smartphone brands who've ditched the trusty 3.5mm audio input. If you'll be listening to music on your smartphone a lot, that could well dictate which headphones route - wired or wireless - you take.

Also note you’ll be spending considerably more for wireless headphones to match the performance of their corded equivalent.

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Sitting comfortably

It’s now time to consider comfort. When you’re trying out a pair of headphones, try to think not only about how they sound, but how they feel: do your ears get really warm after half an hour, or does the inadequately padded band give you a headache?

If you’re going to wear them every day, there’s little point in torturing yourself. Try one of our recommended pairs of on-ears, such as the AKG Y50 (£50) (pictured above) instead.

At the more expensive end of the scale, consider the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Over-ears (£170) which we've described as, "portable, desirable and blessed with brilliant sound."

Sound is king, of course, but aesthetics must also be considered. You should want to plug your headphones in and listen as soon as you cast your eye upon them. Sports-car red may make a pair stand out in the shop, but will you feel self-conscious wearing them when walking into the office?

Conversely, are you less likely to be enthused about your music if your cans look like they were designed by a funeral director? Find the middle ground between fashion accessory and sartorial embarrassment.

A healthy dose of nihilism is often a great way of safeguarding against future woe and inevitable disappointment, but you probably shouldn’t live entirely in the now during this particular journey.

If you’re planning to upgrade your system over time, either with different sources or a standalone headphone amp or DAC, the headphones you’re purchasing now should ideally have the sonic stretch to reveal those improvements.

Or, more immediately pertinent, are there replaceable parts such as pads, tips or cables, for comfort or in case of damage? It’s always worth a little forethought.

MORE: Best on-ear headphones

Shop around

The easiest way to trial a wide range of headphones in one go is by going to 'a shop' (basically, a tangible version of the internet). You’ll go in better informed and with a more streamlined shortlist by reading our reviews, of course, but always be open to alternatives.

A good dealer knows his products, and might stock something better suited to your needs you’d not yet considered. Remember, the dealer is there to help you, but you’re the one spending money so you should be driving the sale.

As such, you should test with the music you’d usually listen to. You’ll know better how it ought to sound, and be able to make a more informed judgement of what you’re hearing. Take in a few CDs, records or your personal music player, and the dealer should be only too happy to let you play them.

It’s important, too, that you’re testing your potential buy with the gear you’ll be pairing it with at home or out and about. There’s no point choosing a pair of headphones based upon components you won’t be using – they’re likely to sound entirely different when you get them home.

If you suspect the shop won’t stock your gear, take it in with you – it will be worth the hassle once you’ve made the correct decision.

MORE: How to build the perfect hi-fi system

As with most hi-fi equipment, headphones need to be run in. Sound changes over time as the components bed in (usually around 24 hours of continuous play will do the trick, but sometimes it can take longer), so make sure the pair you’re testing in store has had sufficient play.

Finally, as we often stress, don’t make your pick in a dealership then go home and scour for better deals online. In all likelihood, you won’t be saving much anyway.

If a dealer has helped you with a purchase, not only do they deserve the sale but you’ll want to keep that relationship strong for the next time you walk through the door.

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Shop online

If you don’t have easy access or enough time to visit a dealership, the internet can be an ideal place to shop.

Many of the same rules apply: use our reviews to guide your search and be open to any alternatives you may happen upon. There are some great deals available, especially on older models.

Above all else, however, don’t buy anything you’ve not heard for yourself. Even if you’re struggling for a local dealership, find a nearby hi-fi show or ask your mates if you can try their headphones.

Reviews will help guide you away from absolute tripe, but regardless of how descriptive the article reviews are merely an aid. You’ll never know exactly how a product sounds until you’re using it yourself. Otherwise you may as well just pick a name from a hat.

If ever you’ve seen the television programme Rogue Traders, you’ll know not everybody plays fair - and it’s not only plumbers stealing your bone china. There are plenty of undesirables online as well.

Always make sure you’re buying from a trusted source (if you’re unsure, our online reviews are linked to a number of trustworthy retailers who stock the product) or else you could be left with knock-off gear with no chance of a return for the sake of a tenner. Essentially, stay vigilant, just as you would when buying anything else from the web. Oh, and don't forget to check out our best headphones deals page for some superb bargains.

MORE: How to avoid buying fake headphones

Running start

Unlike a lot of hi-fi equipment, there isn’t a great deal of work to be done when finally you get your headphones home. You needn’t worry about positioning, stands or cables as with speakers, but don’t forget our earlier point about running-in.

Lift your headphones straight from the box and plug in, and you run the risk of mighty disappointment. Leave them running in overnight (we do this with every pair we test) and you’ll hear the sound that was the reason you bought them in the first place.


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