Sound advice will be music to your ears
Headphones: a late adopters' guide
We used to think of them as mere accessories to our phones, iPods or Walkman players. Today, headphones have moved centre stage to become tech objects in their own right. But what's the difference between them? In the final instalment of our 10-part Digital DIY series, Adrian Weckler offers a plain English guide to choosing the best audio companion
How much do I need to spend to get headphones that are decent?
You will get perfectly serviceable headphones for as little as €25 (with models such as Sennheiser's HD201). With each additional €30 or €40 you spend, you get upgrades in design, fashion, technical ability or a combination of all three. For example, leather (which makes overhead cans more comfortable to wear) only really kicks in at around €80. After €100, you also start getting accessories like carry cases as well as neat, foldable designs. Music snobs may argue about it, but when you pay anything over €300 or €400 for headphones, you're really only chasing the last 20pc of audio quality. And the big money spend is not even confined to the cans - some will pay over €1,000 per metre just for the cabling (yes, really).
Do wireless headphones cost more than ordinary ones and are they worth getting?
They generally cost a little more (about €50, although you'll find models from brands like Philips start at €35) more than standard wired headphones but can be very useful. The main advantage to wireless headphones, which work by connecting to your phone, tablet or laptop over Bluetooth, is that you don't have a cable catching in zips, pockets and other sartorial extrusions.
The other handy attribute is that they generally include small microphones so you can use them to make and take calls in a 'hands free' fashion. Absolute purists avoid Bluetooth headphones because the 'resolution' of the audio quality doesn't quite match that of cabled connections. But most people won't notice a real difference and wireless sets' usefulness generally overrides such considerations. Most big brands make them.
Do I need to recharge wireless headphones?
Yes. Most have an internal battery built in that will last around 10 hours. They typically charge using a smartphone-friendly (Android) MicroUSB charger.
I'd like good quality headphones but don't want to look like a DJ or a rapper when walking around. Are there any decent ones that aren't huge?
Yes. There are entire ranges of smaller, less pronounced headphones that are mostly characterised as 'on ear' models. These are designed to be more discreet than the larger variants. Sony and Sennheiser are very strong in this category with models that cost between €80 and €200. Bear in mind that many people find on-ear models a bit of a compromise when it comes to audio quality. Because the ear pads sit on top of your lobes rather than around them, the speakers tend to be a little further away from your ear and the audio 'leaks'.
Which are better for sound quality, headphones or earphones?
High quality audio listening is dominated by headphones. There are some good in-ear models from most big manufacturers. But just like quality camera optics, raw physics comes into it with audio prowess. Good sound generally needs a little space to travel and reverberate, leaving overhead models sitting supreme.
What are 'noise cancelling' headphones and do I need them?
'Noise cancelling' headphones are quite a clever technical achievement. They actually do cut out external noise around you, whether that's people yammering on a bus or a plane's engines. They do this via a battery-powered gadget in the headphones which inverts the frequencies of outside sound. This dampens the effect to your ears. There is a little bit of a compromise on music quality compared to some top headphones, but it's worth it if you're constantly in a noisy environment and are looking for peace. There are lots of sets to choose from, from budget JVC models to Sennheiser to high-end Bose and Beats. Because of the extra technical chicanery going on, noise-cancelling headphones tend to be around €50 more expensive than equivalent non-noise cancelling models.
What's the best brand for reliable, good quality headphones?
Walk into any shop and you'll see dozens of headphone brands. In this reviewer's experience, Sennheiser and Sony make decent models at a range of prices. Bose is another good brand, although there's little from them for under €300. At the budget end, Philips are fine. Beats are competent but you're paying for the fashion rather than the sound.
I can never get those 'bud' earphones to fit because they keep falling out. Do I just have weird ears?
No. This is one of the most common complaints about ear buds and in-ear models. But it's often because the pair you're wearing is a cheap set that you got free with a phone. Most decent models now come with varying rubber fittings that let you fit them according to the dimensions of your own ear canal.
My kids are asking for Beats, but they're too expensive. Is there anything like them that doesn't cost as much?
This is a tricky one as you're dealing with issues of fashion and peer review here as much as technical accomplishment. Marshall and Skullcandy are two decent brands that do well with youth fashion and there are plenty available for under €150. Sol Republic and Monster Adidas are two other brands to look at.
How careful do I need to be with headphones? Do they break easily?
In-ear headphones tend to be fairly robust. But if you sit on a pair of overhead models, you'll be lucky if something doesn't go a little wonky. Several parts are vulnerable to bending or snapping, including the ear pieces and cable connections. They're even a little at risk when squished in a bag. So they need to be treated with care.
What can I do to make sure my headphones don't blare for everyone on the bus to hear?
This is mostly a problem when headphones don't fit your ears or are perched too 'high' on your ears. When this happens, the sound leaks out requiring you to turn the volume up to get (what you think is) the right audio level. What you're really doing is turning your headphones into mini-loudspeakers. The best way to avoid this is to make sure your headphones fit your ears properly. This is best achieved by either getting a model that fits right over your ear or an in-ear model that is snug.
Which headphones work best with iPhones?
Some headphones or earphones come with buttons on their connecting cable that can operate a phone's controls. Typically, this includes some combination of play/pause, forward/back or volume up or down. Headphones that are optimised to work with iPhones generally have a symbol or sticker to say as much on the box. This is a feature most pronounced on budget to medium-priced headphones or earphones.
What happens if I want to use them to listen to a home stereo?
Most headphones you will buy in a shop like Harvey Norman or PC World come with 3.5mm cable designed to work with phones. (Even TVs now default to these smaller headphone connections.) For those who want to use their cans with home hifi systems, you'll need either a stereo plug adapter (which costs from €1.50 upwards) or a separate table. Those who are really into their music will opt for the latter solution as cabling is considered important at the higher end of audio quality.
Which types of headphones are recommended to cause least damage to my hearing?
There is a theory that headphones are 'safer' than earphones when it comes to damaging your hearing. But that is based mainly on the notion that earphones let in more external noise than headphones, thereby encouraging you to turn the volume up (which causes the damage).
Most studies show that, left on the same volume, there is little difference in effect on hearing safety between the two formats. In general, exposing your ears to anything over 80 decibels for a prolonged period of time is considered dangerous to your hearing. To put this into perspective, 80 decibels is around three quarters of most phones' volume levels. This is why many phones now have 'green' and 'red' indicators when adjusting the volume.
Listen up: Buyers' guide to the best headphones
Top of the pile
Oppo PM-3 Headphones
(€499 from hifihut.ie)
If you're looking for the best audio performance from a set of headphones for under €500, this is the best we've come across. These are 'planar magnetic' headphones, a flavour that only usually comes at about twice the price. Without getting too technical, they're simply better than most 'dynamic' headphones you'll get at this level. In the case of the PM-3s, it's beautifully subtle, lifelike audio that is really satisfying. The headphones are also pretty comfortable, with the sort of leather padding you'd expect on a headset at this price level. They don't have any active noise-cancelling technology, but are quite insulated from outside noise because of the cup design. The PM-3s are optimised for mobile use, with a choice of iPhone or Android cables, as well as a regular cable and an adaptor for home stereos. The cans' cups fold flat for transportation in their own nicely styled protective case.
(€299 from Harvey Norman)
Elegance or tech power? Sennheiser has opted for the former with its Momentum range. The larger variant (there is an on-ear model also) eschews wireless and noise-cancelling functionality to keep the headphones light and aesthetically graceful. Because they're not wireless, they don't need to compress audio, either. The result is very high overall quality of sound. The headphones have slightly padded leather headbands and a small widget on the cable that can control iPhones, iPods or iPads (there's a microphone there too so you can make or take calls).
Sony h.ear MDR100
(€199 from Harvey Norman)
The rise of 'high resolution' audio is starting to become a thing in headphones. Sony was an early adopter here and is now starting to add the feature to more affordable models. Such is the case with these new h.ear MDR100 headphones. At first glance, it's fairly clear that these cans are designed to appeal to youthful types, with bright colours that stand out. But under the hood, they also support high resolution audio. To hear this additional quality - 24-bit versus a CD's 16-bit standard - you have to be connected to a device or a streaming service that also supports it. Tidal, for example, is a high resolution service (for those willing to pay €20 per month). Otherwise, these headphones have a few nice additional touches. They support any type of smartphone with inline controls and they fold up quite neatly for transportation. They're also pretty comfortable.
Lindy 50X Earphones
(€59 from Amazon.co.uk)
The main feature of note from these earphones is a twistable 'dynamic' bass control that allows you to add a little more bass to the sound. It does this by opening up a little more space in earphones' small chamber when you twiddle the barrel on the earphones. I liked this: it resulted in a small but appreciable difference. The earphones come with a few different earbud sizes that you can fit according to your own aural canal dimensions. They also come with a nice little carry case and a one-button control on the cable that allows you to pause and resume music.
Philips 5500 Wireless Headphones
(€35 from PC World)
Philips' ultra-budget headphones show just how much the price has fallen for audio devices with Bluetooth built in. The 5500s won't win any awards for high resolution audio but still sound pretty good, especially for their price bracket. Like most wireless Bluetooth headphones, these connect to any phone, tablet or laptop wirelessly. They also have a microphone on board which lets you make or take calls. And the cans even partially fold up, letting you easily chuck them in a bag to take around.