How to Purchase Headphones

by David Lipscomb

Headphones are a rapidly-expanding category, with more options in design and high sound quality spanning an enormous range of prices, from a few dollars into the thousands. Avid music and movie watchers, along with heavy users of portable devices, need to consider all of the features available to them to maximize the personal audio experience.

Decide what your primary mode of listening is when you use headphones. For example, headphones devoted to surround sound often incorporate multiple small drivers, mimicking virtual speaker locations. If you use headphones primarily while performing chores, solid wireless performance will top your list of must-haves. Forming a list of listening habits prior to shopping can reduce your time online or in stores.

Speed up your process by researching online and finding the headphones locally. Many local shops give you the opportunity to audition the cans first to decide if they fit your sound quality and comfort requirements.

Listen for clean, balanced sound while auditioning. Emphasized bass, treble or midrange may be exciting initially, but will probably prove fatiguing over time. Different content is mixed in different ways. Headphones emphasizing one part of the music with one song might sound great, while becoming overbearing or annoying on another.

Look for inline microphone or volume-adjustment compatibility on your headphones while auditioning. Gamers may want a place to plug in a microphone for communicating with teammates during an online gaming session. If you mainly listen to music from your smartphone, an inline microphone lets you hold a phone conversation while wearing the headset. Volume controls let you fine-tune sound levels without touching a remote control or your music device.

Pay attention to the plug on the end of the headphone cord. A larger fixed plug might indicate a a set that are designed for higher headphone-jack voltages that might not be present on your small, portable device. Remember that you can always add an adapter to convert a small jack to a larger one. Look at the impedance ratings of the unit. Impedance below 32 Ohms is ideal for portable units.

Evaluate your everyday listening environment. If you primarily listen during a train or bus commute, you may want to choose noise-isolation units that block most outside sounds. Conversely, if you run or bike on the streets you will want a set that allows you to hear your surroundings for maximum safety. Open-back designs allow some outside sound in, while closed-back units might block up to 30 decibels of outside noise.

Shop for earbuds with adjustable or replaceable inserts to custom-fit your ear canal. Some designs offer a clip that sits over your ear, holding them in place during activity that might otherwise jar them loose.


  • Supra-aural headphones sit on top of your ears, while circumaural units cup around them.


  • Using headphones at high volume levels is dangerous to your hearing. It takes very little time at levels at or above 90 decibels to create permanent hearing loss.

About the Author

David Lipscomb is a professional writer and public relations practitioner. Lipscomb brings more than a decade of experience in the consumer electronics and advertising industries. Lipscomb holds a degree in public relations from Webster University.

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