Types of headphones

This report deals with wired headphones. ConsumerSearch has a separate report on wireless headphones (such as you'd use in a home theater) and earphones, which are more suitable for the gym and more discreet and lightweight for on-the-go listening.

Full-size headphones come in three major types:

  • Circumaural, over-the-ear, closed (sometimes called closed-air or closed-back): These headphones cup the ears and create a seal, minimizing the amount of sound that escapes from the headphones or enters from other sources around you.
  • Circumaural, over-the-ear, open (also called open-air or open-back): Open headphones don't press as firmly to your head, allowing more sound in and out. It's easier to hear outside sounds with open-back headphones. Some feel these offer a more natural sound than closed headphones, but you may annoy people near you because there will be some sound leakage.
  • Supra-aural, on-the-ear: This type of headphone is smaller and lies flat on the ears. Unlike closed sets, it lets ambient sound in and out but not as much as open sets. This type of headphone is lighter than other types.

Reviews say there's nothing wrong with the slight sound leakage of open-air headphones unless you're in an environment where those around you may be disturbed. If that isn't a factor, open-air or on-the-ear headphones are better because they won't hurt your ears or produce listening fatigue as readily as headphones that shoot audio signals directly into your ear canal. Also, important outside sounds -- such as horns honking if you use the headphones outside, or co-workers' speech when you're sitting at your desk -- won't go unnoticed.

Closed-air headphones trap sound better and circulate it around your ears to produce clean, isolated sound, but experts urge caution when using anything in public situations that blocks outside noises. These types of headphones are mostly suitable when you want to watch a DVD or blast music late at night while others in your household are asleep.

Experts say noise-canceling headphones also work to prevent ear damage, because you don't constantly need to increase music volume to drown out ambient noise. Some manufacturers add noise-canceling technology to open-air or on-the-ear headphones. Be aware that active noise-canceling headphones need batteries for noise canceling to work, and many models, like the Bose QuietComfort series, won't work at all if your battery dies.

Before you buy headphones

While reviews can point you in the right direction, experts say that, if at all possible, you should audition a pair of headphones before you buy them. Factors like comfort and fit are entirely subjective, all say. "Reading a review isn't a substitute for listening because individual listening traits are, well, individual," says Gene Pitts, owner of the magazine The Audiophile Voice and a more than 40-year veteran of evaluating audio.

Other than a test drive, reviews say to consider the following when shopping for headphones:

  • The best headphones sound good to your ears. While reviewers might not like headphones with too much bass, some people might prefer that. Keep in mind that too-heavy bass can cause ear fatigue. Headphone style also affects sound quality and comfort.
  • The kind of music you listen to should influence the type of headphones you buy. Heavy electronic or drum-and-bass music, for example, sounds best with headphones that offer a deep bass range, while headphones with a wider treble range shine with material such as classical flute medleys. The headphones discussed in this report are strong in the midrange or generally good overall; you may have to check an audiophile site for advice about other models. (See the Useful Links and Our Sources sections for websites worth visiting.)
  • The best headphone designs are lightweight, adjustable and comfortable. Cushions are key here: Foam used in pads can be as rough as sandpaper or as smooth and soft as fabric.
  • Headphones can take a lot of abuse, so be sure to look for sturdy materials and solid construction. Some brands use cheaper materials to keep costs down, but you'll end up replacing the set and having to spend more in the long run. Some manufacturers are making cords detachable on higher-end models; this way, if the cord is yanked, it won't damage the headphones.
  • Electronic noise-canceling technology is more effective for low-frequency tones (like an airplane engine) than for higher tones, such as a crying baby. Reviews say in-ear earphones (such as the ones covered in our report on earphones) are better than noise-canceling full-size headphones at passively blocking the full range of ambient sounds.

Although many audiophiles naturally want to hear more of their music and less of the world outside, safety experts insist it's a bad idea to wear headphones while biking or running in traffic. That's because headphones can make you less aware of your surroundings and less likely to hear warnings such as horns or sirens. They can also make you vulnerable to danger because you might not hear approaching steps.

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