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Headphones buying guide

The features you need to know when choosing headphones.

Over-ear, in-ear, on-ear: Over-ear headphones have larger ear pads that surround the ears without lying directly on them. On-ear headphones are a bit smaller and placed directly outside the ears. In-ear are small headphones that are placed directly in the ear and are primarily intended for use with mobile phones.

Open or closed: Open headphones offer a bit more airflow and provide an even, more dynamic sound than closed headphones with closed sides. However, open headphones let in more sounds from the surroundings and allow everyone around you to hear exactly what you are listening to. Closed headphones provide a more enclosed sound but are better at keeping the outside noise out.

Noise reduction: Active noise reduction is a technique for blocking unwanted noise from the surroundings. The headphones create sounds that disturb the sound waves from the outside so they never reach your ears. Noise reduction may in some cases cause the user to feel a certain discomfort. Try them out in a shop before buying to see how you are affected.

Wireless or wired: Wireless headphones use built-in batteries and Bluetooth connectivity to an audio source and are often used in combination with noise reduction. They often produce poorer audio quality compared to wired headphones, but in return, no external headphone amplifier is required, as it’s already built into the headphones. Some models can switch between wireless and wired usage.

Light or heavy to power: All headphones have some resistance to the electricity flowing through them. The higher the resistance, or impediance, the higher the power demand to deliver high audio levels. High-impediance headphones may need a headphone amplifier to work well. Low-impediance headphones often work well without an additional amplifier.

Microphone: With a microphone, you can use the headphones for calls or games when you need to communicate with others. Most in-ear headphones have built-in microphones, as they are often intended for use with a mobile phone, while over and in-ear headphones often lack this feature as they are designed for music only.

Stereo or surround: Music-only headphones use only two audio channels for the left or right pad respectively. Headphones for gaming use many more channels so that you can hear what direction the sound comes from, for example from the front or from the side. Some models use simulated surround sound that tricks the ears to believe that the sound comes from a specific point, others have multiple speaker elements placed in the pads for a more accurate sound image.

Bluetooth Codec: For the best possible audio quality, the wireless headphones should support techniques like aptX, aptX HD and LDAC. They are decoders that reduce quality losses between the source and the headphones. This makes the sound quality better, but also increases the demands of the music you play on, for example, the phone. Keep in mind that even the sound source, such as the mobile phone, must support the same encoder for it to work.

Bluetooth version: Newer headphones often have a later bluetooth version. It’s recommended to choose at least Bluetooth 4.0 or later. All versions are back compatible with older versions. If your mobile phone only supports bluetooth 3.0, new headphones with bluetooth 5.0 can be used without problems. The difference is that you cannot use newer technologies for lower power consumption, longer range and higher data rates.

Battery: Don’t forget to check the battery life if you choose wireless headphones. Some models only last a few hours of listening, while more exclusive headphones can handle 30 hours of use. Some models can switch between wireless and wired usage, handy if the battery is low and you want to continue using the headphones anyway.