Zit Seng's Blog

A Singaporean's technology and lifestyle blog

In Search of the Best Headphones (Part 1)

If you spend a lot of time listening to music, or if you care a lot about how your music sounds, you’ll appreciate a good set of headphones. The right headphone can enhance your listening experience not just because they produce better sound, but also because they are comfortable to wear and fits in with your lifestyle. There are so many types and styles of headphones, and some of you might feel a little lost trying to decide what suits you. Fret not, this post will shed some light on the choices available, the pros and cons, and how you can find something that suits you.

Before we go on, let me clarify that I cannot tell you what is the best headphone. In fact, no one else can, apart from yourself. That’s because it’s something personal. You’ve got to try the headphones yourself and decide what you like most. So, if you thought from the title of this post that you’re going to find the answer to the best headphone, I’m sorry to disappoint.

What Types are There?

First up, let’s talk about the types of headphones. Usually, when we talk about headphones, we’re referring to full-sized headphones, or circumaural headphones, or over-the-ear cans. These are the kinds that fit around and cup over your ears. Circumaural headphones are large and as a result, tend to be heavy. Some people may also find them not very portable compared with other alternatives. The upside is that these headphones provide better seal against outside noise because they completely cover the ears. They often also deliver better sound quality.

Another very similar headphone type is the supra-aural headphone, or on-the-ear headphones.These headphones sit on the ears. These headphones tend to be slightly smaller and lighter. They are just a little more portable than full-sized headphones, although not significantly so. They also don’t seal against outside noise as well as the full-sized headphones. The AKG Q460 pictured above is an example of this type of headphones.

The main objection to the conventional headphones is the portability (the lack thereof). You can’t fold them up and put them into a little pouch the size of your palms. You almost certainly need to be carrying a bag around if you want to bring these headphones out. I personally don’t fancy cans myself.

So, to meet the portability demands, we have earphones, or earbuds. These are the type commonly bundled with music players, mobile phones, and other electronic gadgets. Earbud earphones sit in the outer ear. They are small, very light, and definitely very portable, particularly since they do away with the headbands used in full-sized headphones. Earbud earphones provide almost no noise isolation. In fact, not only can the wearer hear outside sounds, sometimes others near the wearer can also hear the music played in the earbud earphones. Earbud earphones are prone to drop out from the ears, although there are models designed for sporting uses that will stay in place much better (possibly at the cost of some discomfort).

In-ear headphones, also called in-ear monitors (IEM), are like the earbud earphones, except that they fit into the ear canal itself, of course, with some parts still sitting in the outer ear. They are also small, light and very portable. IEMs usually offer good noise isolation, because they seal off the ear canal. IEMs don’t fall off easily since they are stuck into your ear canal. The challenge, however, is that some people may have trouble getting a good fit. But if you do get a good fit, IEMs are very comfortable.

There are two types of IEMs: universals and customs. Universal IEMs come with various sizes of sleeves or foam tips that fit onto the tip of the earpieces, which then goes into your ear canal. Sleeves are usually made from rubberized or silicone material. I prefer the foam tips. You squeeze the foam into a tiny stick, push the earpiece into your ear canal, then the foam expands to fill out the space in your ear canal, providing the best seal and comfort. The AKG Q350 pictured above is an example of a universal in-ear monitor.

Custom IEMs, on the other hand, are customized earpieces designed specifically to fit your ear. Customs tend to be expensive because they have to be individually made from your ear moulds. They are very comfortable, because, well, they are made just for your ears. Noise isolation is also pretty good since, again, they are made to fit your ear canals.

What’s Important to You?

So, while learning about the different types of headphones, you’ve already heard about a number of important characteristics. Factors like portability, noise isolation, comfort, and more. You probably can start thinking about what are the things that matter to you.

If you listen to music while on public commute, good isolation might be important to you. Isolation not only gets rid of distracting environmental noise, but makes sure that your music does not get marred or drowned out by the disturbances. Also quite importantly, you will be less likely to push up the sound volume to overcome the environmental noise, and thus protect your eardrums from excessive loudness!

If you do sports, cans probably won’t work for you. Earbuds are better, provided they are designed with sporting use in mind, because otherwise they would be prone to falling out. For some people, though, earbuds might become uncomfortable after wearing for prolonged periods.

In a quiet office, noise isolation might not be desirable. You would miss phone calls, or not hear colleagues calling out to you. Too much isolation will also be a bad thing if you need to be aware of your environment. For example, you want to hear a vehicle sounding its horn if you’re walking along or crossing a road. Noise isolation is nice, but it’s not suitable everywhere.

Full-sized circumaural headphones are probably more comfortable than supra-aural headphones for prolonged wear. Some people, however, may find them too clunky. They may be more suited to be left at home (or wherever your favourite listening spot is) rather than being carried about routinely.

How, and where, do you listen to your music?

Stay Tuned!

There are so many more things that we need to look at. What are drivers, and do the numbers matter? How about technical specifications? More importantly, how do you evaluate sound quality? I’ll also tell you more about IEMs, since they are my favourite headphone type.

Stay tuned for more!

This post was originally written as part of my participation in Omy.sg’s K3003 / The Sound of Luxury blog. I’m now reposting some of those posts, with some minor edits, on my own blog.

In Search of the Best Headphones: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

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