Years ago, headphones used to be an item that we only used at home, when we stayed up late, listening to our LP collection. These days, with the latest generation of headphones and requirements to use them, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to style and functionality.
There are many things to consider before making your purchase, such as how you intend to use your headphones. Will it be for music, gaming or during your workout and where do you plan to do your listening? At home or on the go?
With the selection of headphones available today and their individual benefits listed below, you’ll find it easier to make the choice that best suits your needs.
Earbuds – Also Known as In-ear headphones
Ear bud headphones are small in size and are worn directly outside the ear canal, without fully sealing your ear.
These are generally the most popular type of headphones, as they are small, lightweight and can easily be transported, plus they are normally relatively cheap. Ear bud headphones are often provided for free with portable audio players, such as the Apple iPod.
Ear bud headphones are not particularly efficient. The fact that ear bud headphones fit loosely outside the ear canal means that some of the audio you are listening too gets lost and leaks to the outside world. In addition, sounds from the outside world also make it into your ear and competes with the signal from your audio player.
Due to their limitations ear bud headphones are not able to deliver the same dynamic range that a sound isolating earphone is able to offer for a given volume level. As such, you’ll generally need to increase the volume to hear the audio clearly, which increases the risk of damage to your hearing and often causes distortion in the audio reproduction.
- Pros: Ultra compact and lightweight; can provide moderate to excellent isolation from external noise; little to no interference with earrings, glasses, hats or hairstyles.
- Cons: Sound quality and bass response often not comparable to those of full-size models; can cause discomfort over periods of extended use; some models are difficult to insert and remove; the idea of putting foreign objects in the ear is counterintuitive and uncomfortable for many people; dual-cable design means more possibilities for tangled wires.
Sound Isolating Earphones
Also known as : Ear Canal Headphones or In Ear Monitors
These earphones are placed into the ear canal and effectively seal your ear with their small rubberised ear-tip sleeve. They are small, lightweight and very portable.
Sound isolating earphones are not to be confused with ear bud headphones that sit loosely in your outer ear. The major advantage of sound isolating headphones is that they keep the audio inside your ear and the noise outside – they isolate your ear from the outside world by upto minus 20dB. This means you can be sitting on a train, bus or aeroplane with very little distraction.
The in ear monitor earphone was originally developed for musicians to protect their hearing whilst being able to listen to the rest of the band at a sane volume level.
Many people use sound isolating earphones while exercising, but some comment that they can hear any impact on the body as a dull thud inside their ear. This can also occur if the earphone lead is knocked. This is caused by the fact that the sound isolating material over the tip is transmitting the sound more directly to the ear drum.
- Pros: Portable and lightweight;Isolate any other sound that could potentially distract from what you are listening to; Have incredible clarity
- Cons: Hear thud while exercising; isolated from outside world so could be dangerous if out and about
Wireless headphones have the obvious advantage that you are no longer restricted by cables attaching the headphones to the audio source. You have the freedom to walk, run or jump around listening to your music or playing computer games with no restrictions on your movement.
The trade-off for all the freedom of movement is that wireless headphones generally don’t sound quite as good as equivalently priced wired headphones.
The audio gets processed by electronics in the base unit, gets transmitted via radio signal (or in some cases infra-red) and then is converted back to an audio signal by the headset. All this processing adds extra noise to the audio signal. For example if you compare a pair of Sennheiser RS140 wireless headphones against a pair of similarly priced Sennheiser HD595 wired headphones there is a noticeable difference in audio quality. You may even be able to detect a background hiss with the wireless pair during quiet passages of music.
- Pros: You can listen to music wherever you are around the home or office
- Cons: No the best quality sounds and can sometimes background noise
Noise Cancelling Headphones
Noise cancelling headphones reduce the perceived noise from outside with the clever use of small microphones located inside the earpiece and active electronics within the headset. The basic principle is that the noise signal for the outside world is inverted and then summed with the signal from the audio source. The result is that the ambient noise from outside is effectively cancelled out, which lets you enjoy your music.
Noise cancelling headphones are particularly effective with reducing low frequencies (i.e. bass and lower midrange). If the noise is a constant drone it is all the better. For example they work very well at cancelling out the constant low down booming noise created inside an aircraft cabin by jet engines or the roar from fans in a computer room, but will not work so well at reducing the noise of a child screaming in the seat next to you on the train to work in the morning.
The first commercially available noise cancelling headphones are widely regarded to have been offered by Bose, but manufacturers such as Sennheiser and Panasonic now have a broad range of competing products. This type of headphone has become increasingly popular with the help of large marketing campaigns by these companies.
The active electronics inside a noise cancelling headphone set require power (i.e. batteries) to run in noise cancelling mode. Some models allow you to continue listening in ‘passive’ mode.
- Pros: Good for flying to eliminate noise
- Cons: Not as good at reducing environmental noise as sound isolating earphones
Open Back Headphones – Also Known as Vented Headphones
Open back headphones (sometimes referred to as vented) are designed to allow sound out through the back of the earcup. This design gives a character to the sound that is often described as having an open soundstage, or natural. One reason for this is that there are less reflections than a closed back (or sealed) design.
Open back headphones are often regarded as providing a more accurate sound than the closed back variety. The best audiophile grade earphones are normally open back. For example Sennheiser’s HD650 headphones are open back.
A disadvantage of the open back design is that the sound is able to leak out and people nearby can hear the sound made by the earphone speakers. This means open back headphones are not normally suitable for use in public places or where the sound made by the headphones can be distracting to people nearby, e.g. in an office.
The open back earcup also allows ambient sound leak in to the listener’s ear. This lack of isolation from external noise means open back headphones are not suitable for listening in noisy environments.
- Pros: High fidelity for home listening
- Cons: Sound can leak and be heard by people nearby, so not suitable for public places
Closed Back Headphones – Also Known as Sealed Headphones
Closed back (or sealed) headphones are designed to reduce the effect of external noise on your listening and also to keep the noise made by the headphone drivers from leaking out and disturbing people around you.
Typical applications for the closed back headphone design are DJ and studio monitoring. Closed back headphones are also useful in situations where the listener needs to prevent noise leakage, for example in an office or travelling.
A full size closed back design (often called circumaural) seals the ears from external noise with semi air tight earcups that enclose the ear, which gives excellent isolation from outside noise. A smaller ear pad closed design that sits on top of the ear will often sound more like traditional open back headphones because the sound can leak in and out.
The trade-off for the benefits of isolation from external noise with the close back design is that the ear cups reflect and resonate the sound made by the headphone drivers. The reflection of sound waves can cause closed back headphones to sound ‘boxy’ and enclosed (especially on cheaper models), although headphone manufacturers choose the materials on the back of ear cups to reduce this. In contrast a good set of open back headphones is often described as having a wide soundstage and offering a more natural sound.
- Pros: Minimal noise leakage;Excellent isolation from outside noise;Good range of sound and quality
- Cons: Can sound a bit boxy
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