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The patient and serious man’s guide to picking the perfect headphones

Wired or wireless? On-ear or over-ear? We spell it out. Plus our recommendations on what cancels noise best and what everyone will love
Anton Chua | Mar 24 2019

Choosing the right pair of headphones is going to be one of the most daunting tasks in your consumer electronics career. While you can walk into an appliance store and check out TVs on glorious display, or look up sample images of cameras or benchmarks in computer hardware, there’s absolutely no replacement for listening to all your candidate headphones.

That’s why many people tend to just look at the best brands out there and pick whatever’s in their price range. Sure, that’s a safe bet, but there’s a chance you might miss out on what you’re looking for.

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In today’s tech article, I’ll walk you through some of the important choices you’ll come across when buying headphones, and explain what they mean. I’ll also provide a few recommendations.

Keep in mind that I’m talking about headphones today, not earphones or IEMs. Those are a separate beast entirely, and I’ll explore those in a future article.


On-Ear vs Over-Ear

Most headphones come in two styles: On-ear and over-ear. This refers to the way the headphones’ cups are positioned on your ear, and each style has its own strengths and weaknesses.

With on-ear headphones, the cups are sitting right on your ears, held together by the tension produced by the headband.  

On-ear headphones are smaller than over-ear headphones, and many of them can be folded up for easy storage. They’re also lighter, which means that they’re not a literal pain in the neck to wear for long periods of time.

Photograph from Beats

Some people find on-ear headphones to be more comfortable because of the light weight, and because they don’t warm up so much and get sweaty over time. That said, the feeling of your ears being rubbed against might not be so pleasant.

Over-ear headphones, on the other hand, are bigger and heavier than on-ear, as the cups are much larger and press against your temples and below your ears, not touching them. Over-ear headphones have bigger drivers, which can make for better sound quality, and the cups also isolate your ears more effectively from outside noise.

While over-ear headphones are heavier, they’re typically thought to be more comfortable because of the way they hang on one’s head.


Open-back vs Closed-back

Open-back and closed-back refer to how headphones’ cups are designed to deal with outside sound. It’s a very difficult difference to describe without actually having heard a direct comparison between the two—but there are some explicit pros and cons involved.

The main subjective difference that you’ll find between the two has to do with the “soundstage,” a concept that refers to the feel of the virtual space that headphones create around your head. Headphones with a larger soundstage feel like the sound is coming from a more expansive space, like a concert hall, which is perceived as better sound quality. A smaller soundstage might feel more cramped, with less separation between instruments and sound frequencies.

Photograph from Shure

Most headphones have a closed-back design, which is to say that the cups form a seal around your ears and don’t let outside noise in. This is great for listening to music pretty much everywhere outside your home, as the din of traffic or conversation will be silenced.

However, closed-back headphones also oftentimes have a smaller soundstage due to the sound echoing within the headphone cups. This doesn’t necessarily translate to lower-quality sound, of course, and many closed-back headphones can still offer massive-feeling soundstages.

Open-back headphones on the other hand have little holes on the cups that allow outside noise in. This “opens up” the soundstage and makes everything feel wide and expansive. High-quality open-back headphones are incredible and have to truly be heard to be believed. One iconic open-back manufacturer is Grado Labs who makes some of the best-sounding midrange to high-end headphones on the market.

Of course, by allowing ambient noise in, open-back headphones also lack the noise isolation of closed-back products, which makes them a bad choice for listening outdoors.


Wired vs Wireless

The battle between wired and wireless has long been one of convenience vs sound quality. But modern wireless technologies sound much better than ever, so the question is getting harder to answer.

Wired headphones use 3.5mm (or less commonly, 6.35mm) headphone connectors to connect to a jack on a media player. Oftentimes this is the best possible sound quality you can achieve, and you can even improve sound quality by adding a headphone amp or a DAC between your headphones and your device.

That said, wired headphones aren’t always as simple as plug-and-play. Certain higher-end headphones have high impedance ratings, which means that the average phone won’t be able to drive them and will only output very low volumes. They’ll need headphone amps to do the job.

Photograph from Sony

On top of this, more and more devices are losing the 3.5mm jack. You might need a USB-C dongle for them, or a Bluetooth adapter.

Meanwhile, wireless has been making great strides in the field of quality, thanks to codecs like aptX HD and LDAC. These allow your phone to send higher-quality signals to wireless headphones, and since most of us listen to compressed audio anyway such as MP3s or Spotify streams, it’s practically impossible to tell the difference.

Of course, you’ll need a pair of headphones and a device that supports these codecs in the first place. Otherwise you’ll settle for the default A2DP codec, which can sound pretty bad.

Wireless headphones are also limited by their battery life—which is getting longer and longer, with many headphones offering 30-40 hour battery ratings (but it’s still something to charge at the end of the day!). It would be a good idea to choose a pair of headphones with a wired mode to get the best of both worlds.


Here are my top picks: 

1. Best Cheap Wireless – Avantree Audition Pro

Photograph from Amazon

These wireless headphones feature support for aptX Low Latency, which means that if you have a supported device, they get rid of the lag between sound and video, so no more lip-sync issues while watching movies, and better gaming performance. They also pack up to 40 hours of battery life, and even have a passive wired mode that doesn’t need any battery.


2. Best Active Noise Canceling Headphones - Sony WH-1000XM3

Photograph from Sony

Sony’s active noise-canceling solution goes up against Bose’s legendary QuietComfort 35 II, and passes the test with flying colors. Not only do they sound great, they also sound the same when noise-canceling is turned on, unlike many other models which lose a bit of sound quality when the feature is active.


3. Entry-Level Open-Back Choice – Grado SR60E

Photograph from Grado Labs

If you want to hear the open-back difference, get your journey started with the excellent Grado SR60E. Long hailed as one of the best entry-level/midrange headphones, the SR60E applies Grado’s signature sound quality and open-back design for a great intro to massive soundstages.


4. Best Reliable Choice That Anyone Would Love – Audio-Technica ATH-M50x

Photograph from Amazon

The ATH-M50 series by Audio-Technica never fails to make it to “best headphones” lists across the Internet. The M50x upholds this tradition with tremendous sound quality that would satisfy casual listeners and professional sound engineers alike. They’re also portable thanks to a great folding design and detachable cables.