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:
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.
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:
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.