How to pick the right headphones -- for you

The Audiophiliac gives headphone buyers a lot to think about.

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Audio-Technica

Headphone buyers have never had it so good, but the range of choices between in-, on-, over- the-ear, noise-canceling, noise-isolating, and wireless models can be overwhelming. What's the best one for you? Let's look at what's what with headphones.

First question is, do you want the smallest possible headphones? In-ear models are the obvious choice, and you can choose from earbuds, universal-fit in-ear canal types, and those that have been custom-molded to your ears. Earbuds rest on the outer concha ridge of the ear, located in the center of your outer ear. In-ear, aka ear-canal headphones, are placed inside the ear canal, sealing the listener off from environmental noise. Custom-molded designs, fitted by an audiologist, are even better noise blockers.

Bose makes some of the better earbuds; Etymotic, HiFiMan, Klipsch, NuForce, and Shure universal-fit in-ears are recommended, and 1964 Ears, Ultimate Ears, and Jerry Harvey Audio are leaders in the custom-molded category.

Some people don't like sticking headphones inside their ears, so they should consider the smaller on-ear designs from Koss, V-Moda, and Bowers & Wilkins. On-ear headphones provide only moderate noise isolation.

Larger, over-the-ear headphones tend to sound better and are more comfortable than on-ear headphones. Open-back models from AKG, Grado, and Sennheiser produce the most spacious stereo imaging -- it's less stuck inside your head than what you get from closed-back on- or over-the-ear headphones. The biggest downside to open-back designs is they don't block outside noise; closed-back models do, but don't sound as open.

For those of you craving maximum noise hushing I recommend the Bose QuietComfort15 noise-canceling headphones. Just be aware that most noise-canceling models forfeit sound quality, compared with top-rated in-ears and closed-back, over-the-ear headphones. Some folks are sensitive to the sound "pressure" noise-canceling waves put on their eardrums, and find NC headphones uncomfortable to wear for extended periods of time. Me, I prefer custom-molded in-ear headphones for use on the noisy NYC subway, but you might require noise-canceling headphones for the quietest ride.

Buyers who prioritize bass will find maximum bliss with full-size headphones from Beats, Sol Republic, and V-Moda, or for a more audiophile-oriented sound experience with maximum bass, try Audeze and HiFiMan planar magnetic headphones.

Bluetooth headphones tend to sacrifice sound quality relative to what you get, dollar for dollar, from wired headphones. Remember too that the music goes silent when the battery dies.

Comfort is, or should be, a major concern for any headphone buyer. If possible make the effort to try a pair on before you buy, and listen for at least 10 minutes. What feels reasonably comfortable for a minute might turn unbearable after a few tunes. If you can't try 'em on, make sure you can return the headphones if they hurt your ears after a while.

Of course price always plays a role in the selection process, but great headphones are available for everyone's budget.

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About the author

Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Home Theater, Inner Fidelity, Tone Audio, and Stereophile.

 

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