Headphones buying guide (2010)

If you're looking to improve the audio coming from your iPod, iPhone, iPad, or Mac, a new set of headphones is probably the most rewarding upgrade you can make. However, the variety of styles and options is wider than ever—and the opportunities for in-person testing even fewer. To help you find the perfect set of headphones, here's the 2010 edition of my yearly buying guide: what to look (and listen) for, descriptions of the different types, and specific recommendations.

Whichever model you choose, don't forget to protect your hearing.

What to look for when shopping

Unlike with computer and iPod speakers, headphones don't differ much on features—you plug them in, put the earpieces on (or in) your ears, and listen. (One exception, covered below, relates to headset functionality.) For the most part, the main differences between models are sound quality and type. I cover the different types of headphones below, but first, here are a few things to keep in mind when shopping.

Specs and sound quality: As I've noted in my annual speakers buying guide, you should generally ignore manufacturers' specifications—especially frequency-response numbers. There's no standard testing methodology for headphone frequency response, and many vendors exaggerate their specs for marketing reasons. And even if specs were accurate, they wouldn't tell you much about how a particular set of headphones actually sounds.

Instead of reading specs, use your ears. (If you can't audition a product in person, read reviews from a source you trust.) As with speakers, a quality set of headphones reproduces audio with good balance between the treble (upper), midrange, and bass (lower) frequencies, producing full, rich sound while preserving detail. However, because of their especially small drivers (speakers), headphones present a unique challenge when it comes to bass response: Unlike huge speaker woofers that you can not only hear, but feel, the drivers in most headphones can't reproduce the visceral impact of low bass—you may be able to hear the lowest frequencies, but, chances are, you won't be able to feel them.

I point out this bass issue because some vendors design their headphones to emphasize bass "kick"—in part to stand out from other headphones in the store, and in part because some people really want that visceral impact. But such headphones often become fatiguing to listen to over time. If you're interested in accurate audio reproduction, be careful not to be wowed by emphasized bass. (The same goes for exaggerated treble detail.) The best approach is to audition a set of headphones for several hours—or, even better, several days—with a variety of music. If the headphones still sound great at the end, there's a good chance they'll satisfy you over the long run.

Headset functionality and inline control modules: Several years ago, thanks to the popularity of the iPhone, a number of companies started making headphones with a remote/microphone module on the cable, much like the inline remote on the iPhone's stock earbuds. At the minimum, the remote features a multi-function button for controlling media playback; making, taking, and ending phone calls; and taking advantage of iOS's Voice Control feature. Newer models include two additional buttons for adjusting volume. The module's microphone can be used to talk on the phone, make voice recordings, and give Voice Control commands.

Since the original iPhone's debut, Apple has standardized on the special headphone jack required to support these features. You can now use inline-remote headphones with every iPhone, as well as the iPad, the iPod touch, recent non-touch iPods, and recent Macs. This has led to even more headphone models with an inline remote/mic module. This is good news for Apple-owning headphone buyers, as it gives you many more products to choose from without having to give up the convenience of the remote and microphone.

Fit/comfort: Unlike most consumer-electronics devices, you actually wear headphones. So how well a set of headphones fits you—your head, your ears, and even your ear canals—plays a significant role in your long-term satisfaction (or lack thereof). I include a few comfort-related tips below, when describing the different types of headphones, but reading about a particular style is no substitute for actually giving a product a test drive (or a test run, as the case may be). If at all possible, try to find a local retailer that carries the model(s) you're considering, so you can actually audition the headphones on your own head and ears.

Where to buy: Sadly, fewer and fewer brick-and-mortar retailers carry quality headphones, and even fewer actually let you try the products in the store—especially if you're talking about in-ear-canal headphones. This makes it difficult to audition the sound and fit of headphones before you buy them. The solution, if you will, is to buy from a retailer with a generous return policy, so if you're unhappy with the way a set of headphones fits or sounds once you get it home, you can return it. This goes for both local and online retailers. For example, Internet headphone retailer HeadRoom carries a huge assortment of great headphones and offers a 30-day, no-questions-asked return guarantee—even on in-ear-canal models.

Headphone styles: There are literally thousands of headphone models out there, varying dramatically in style, audio quality, features, and price. But nearly all of them fall into one of several main types: earbuds, in-ear-canal, canalbuds, lightweight, full-size, noise-canceling, or wireless. Below are brief descriptions of each of these types, along with a few of my recommendations at various prices. I've noted which models include an Apple-style inline remote/microphone module. (Prices listed are MSRP; you can find many of these models at significantly lower prices.)

Earbuds

Earbuds, the type of headphones included with every iPod and iPhone, sit loosely in your outer ears. Although earbuds don't produce outstanding sound, they're compact and relatively inexpensive. Apple's stock 'buds are actually decent as earbuds go; you're not going to get a big upgrade in sound quality by simply replacing them with a different model. Still, there are a few alternatives out there that provide modest improvements if you're looking for a new set.

Recommendations:

In-Ear-Canal Headphones

These headphones, also known as canalphones, use silicone or foam eartips that fit snugly—and fairly deep—in your ear canals. Like earplugs, they block most external noise, so they're great for travel and noisy environments. They're also capable of producing stunning audio quality. On the other hand, some people find canalphones to be uncomfortable, and the best ones come with an equally stunning price tag. (For more information, check out our primer on in-ear-canal headphones.)

If you decide to spend the big bucks on a set of high-end canalphones, I enthusiastically recommend going all-in and getting custom eartips—tips custom-made for your particular ears. The process requires an audiologist visit to get impressions taken of your ears, but the benefits include substantially better comfort. (On some models, you may gain better noise isolation and better sound quality, as well.) Many canalphone vendors offer custom eartips for around $150 plus audiologist fees; Etymotic Research currently offers them for $100 (including fees) as part of the company's Custom-Fit program. A step above custom eartips are in-ear monitors, which place the actual headphone circuitry in larger, custom-made earpieces.

Recommendations:

Canalbuds

Canalbuds, which occupy a middle ground between earbuds and in-ear-canal models, have become quite popular over the past decade. Compared to canalphones, canalbuds generally use smaller eartips that sit just inside the ends of your ear canals instead of deep inside them. Good canalbuds easily best earbuds in terms of audio performance and noise isolation, but fall short of good canalphones in those areas. On the other hand, canalbuds tend to be more comfortable than true canalphones because they don't sit so deep and don't fit so tightly; they're also usually less expensive. (See our in-ear-canal-headphone primer, linked above, for more information.)

Recommendations:

Lightweight Headphones

These portable and (usually) reasonably priced headphones use larger drivers than earbuds and canalphones, and their similarly larger earpieces rest against the outside of the ears. Some lightweight headphones have a thin headband that goes over or behind the head; others use a small clip on each earpiece that slips over the ear—earclip-style headphones are often ideal for exercising. Many of these models also fold up for easier traveling. Although most lightweight headphones produce mediocre sound, there are a number of standouts.

Recommendations:

Full-Size Headphones

If you don't mind some extra bulk, good full-size headphones, which often fully surround your ears, sound better than good lightweight models. Many are also more comfortable, thanks to generous padding and ergonomic designs. One comfort-related issue to watch out for, however: If you've got a large head, some full-size headphones can fit uncomfortably tight—be sure to try before you buy (or, again, make sure the vendor will let you return them if necessary).

Full-size headphones fall into two categories: closed and open. Closed models block out some degree of external noise, while open models, which some people prefer sonically, let in more external noise and let out more audio. Note that to reach their potential, many full-size models (open or closed) require more juice than the headphone jack on an iOS device or a computer can provide. My recommendations work well with the low-power headphone jacks on these sources.

Recommendations:

Noise-Canceling Headphones

If you're not a fan of in-ear 'phones, but you want something that can filter out external noise such as airplane engines, train rumblings, or the hum of a crowd, consider investing in a good set of noise-canceling headphones. These headphones—which come in both lightweight and full-size models, with the latter offering better noise isolation—sample outside sound and then pipe in an inverse audio signal to "cancel out" a good deal of monotonous noise. (For more on the technology and its limitations, see my review of noise-canceling models from a few years back.) Although they don't usually sound as good as comparably priced in-ear headphones, noise-canceling models are easier to put on and take off, and they still let you hear what's going on around you.

Recommendations:

Bluetooth Stereo Headphones

If you think being tethered to your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac is a drag—or, for the gym rats, an equipment-snagging hazard—consider going wireless. While there are wireless headphones on the market that use radio-frequency and infrared technology, your best bet, in terms of convenience and portability, is Bluetooth. You can stream audio to stereo Bluetooth (A2DP) headphones from the iPad; the iPhone 3G, 3GS, and 4; the second-generation and later iPod touch; and any recent Mac. You can also use Bluetooth headphones with other iPod models by purchasing a dock-connector Bluetooth transmitter, which are offered by a number of companies. Most stereo Bluetooth headphones also double as headsets, letting you seamlessly switch between music and voice features. And when running iOS 4 or later, the iPad, iPhone 3GS and 4, and third-generation and later iPod touch models let you control music playback using Play/Pause, Back, and Forward buttons on the Bluetooth headphones themselves. (The recommendations here all include such playback controls.)

Recommendations:

(This is the 2010 version of our headphones buying guide. You can view the 2009 version here.)

Dan Frakes is a Macworld senior editor.

This story, "Headphones buying guide (2010)" was originally published by Macworld.

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