Buying Guide to Headphones

Nowadays, everyone’s snatching up those little white headphones. And yeah, while they might look stylish, they’re hardly a sound for sore ears. It’s tough to explain to someone who’s never looked beyond the included headphones, but buying a better set of than those that came in the box can make all the difference to those who want the best listening experience possible. Even if the player has incredible output, the headphones are where the sound comes to you. Take it this way: if the greatest storyteller in the world is speaking on one end of a microphone, it doesn’t matter how good their story is if there’s loud hiss, feedback, and pops on the other end.

The point is simple: go spend a little dough on your phones, and it’ll sound like you have a brand new music player. But before you go rushing out to buy that shiny new set of miniature speakers, here are a few things to consider about your purchase.

Type of Headphone. This question used to be more important than it’s becoming. Traditionally, just about any studio technician would tell you flat out that a pair of over-the-ear headphones with padding to block out background noise was the only way to go. And while those types of headphones (we’ll call them “cans”âÂ?¦you know, like soup cans) are still hands down the best way to go, more stylish and competitive options are coming to fruition, including earbuds. Earbuds, or in-ear headphones, have been made popular with Nintendo and – more recently – the white iPod ‘buds. Companies once involved in making on-stage in-ear monitors for musicians are now making high-end consumer models for personal use, and they sound phenomenal. Again, while a good set of cans will generally be the way to go, a pair of stylish earbuds can keep you on the cutting edge while your music sounds stellar.

Durability. This is a big deal, especially if you’re considering shelling out a few hundred dollars for a new set of cans. Many studio techs keep their phones for years, and some may always bring their own to a session, depending on their superstition and their trust in the session studios equipment. The point is, these headphones should and may be the last set you buy for a long time. So make sure they’re made well enough and with strong enough materials for you to get your time out of them before they fall apart.

Sound. Now to the good stuff. This is the reason you’re buying a big bad set of cans, right? This is the most crucially important feature to consider when getting ready to make your next headphone purchase. While reviews and word-of-mouth are both alright to base your opinions on, the only way you’ll really know which kind of cans you’re looking for is by listening.

The set of pricey headphones you pick up really depends on your own taste in sound. The type of music you listen to can help give you an idea. For example, a lot of studio techs use the idea of “flat response” as a good starting line for their headphone purchases. Flat response means that sounds from the lows to the mids to the highs all sound relatively even; that is, no one pitch group sounds any louder than the others. With flat response speakers or headphones, everything comes out evenly, and little will get drowned out by excessively loud lows or otherwise. Of course, some listeners prefer more bass in their listening experience, and there are models to suit their needs, as well. If you’re not one of these listeners, however, looking for a set with “flat response” is a good way to get a great-sounding set of cans.

Extras. While headphones are still only headphones, there are a few features that you’ll want to consider when mulling over your next set. Many companies are now touting their wireless headphones, with some even sporting Bluetooth connectivity. Others are specially designated as “noise canceling,” and at the higher price points most brands pretty much deliver on that promise. Some companies also deliver specialty services for their headphone sets, and will lengthen cables and add additional cosmetic features to your cans for a price. Warranties are also a consideration, and if you have a reason to fear for their safety, you might look into a good one for your set of high-end phones.

Price. After taking a look at everything you want in a new set of headphones, it’s time to pare your list of goodies down to the ones that you can reasonably afford. High-quality headphones can range anywhere between fifty and several thousand dollars. While the sound industry is definitely a “get what you pay for” kind of business, there are some companies and models that give you a little more than your money’s worth, so it definitely pays to shop around.

While much of your listening experience relies on your sound source, it’s nothing short of amazing what a quality set of headphones will do for your music. Especially for those with discerning ears, those out-of-box headphones are murder on good sound, and even those off-the-shelf models are usually just copies of the included phones with a few less problems. Stepping up, though, is the key to taking your listening experience to the next level, and if you’re ready to take your music to a whole new plane of sound, top-shelf headphones will get you there faster than you can say “waveform.”

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