WHETHER YOU’RE A smartphone addict or a
home audio fan, a good pair of headphones
is a must-have. Here are three essential elements to consider when choosing your next pair.
Wired or wireless?
Wireless headphones have long been the
goal of gadget-makers in all kinds of technologies, but they have traditionally o;ered sound
quality that’s far inferior to their wired counterparts. That’s changing, though.
Discerning audiophiles will still be able to
tell the difference in sound quality between
wireless and wired headphones, but Bluetooth’s
bad reputation is outdated.
New technologies, such as the aptX™ audio
codec, a technology that enables a device to
send sound at full bandwidth, reproduce near-CD-quality audio over a Bluetooth connection.
And the last few iterations of the technology—
we’re now at the fourth version, so make sure
any headphones you buy support that—have
made giant leaps when it comes to reproducing
Lose the noise
Using headphones is by definition a personal experience—you have speakers wrapped
around or placed inside your ears—so the last
thing you want when you’ve entered this solitary experience is noise from the outside world.
However, simply turning up the music to drown
out external sound is bad for your hearing.
Instead, it’s worth investigating how headphones deal with external noise.
The most high-tech solution is noise cancellation. Headphones with this technology feature
an external microphone which measures the
frequency of external sounds. The headphones
then produce a sound that is 180 degrees out of
phase with the external sound wave, which has
the e;ect of cancelling the noise.
Noise-cancelling headphones work best to
cancel consistent sounds, like the rumble of an
aeroplane. And in that context it’s an impressive
feature. The inner circuitry required makes for
some pretty pricey products, but frequent ;yers
or people who have constant exposure to external sounds should de;nitely consider a pair.
Noise-isolation headphones offer a less
expensive alternative. These tend to take the
form of in-ear headphones and work by completely sealing the ear off from the outside
world. They take a number of shapes, and usually o;er a selection of di;erently sized tips, so
you can choose the one you ;nd most comfortable. Their e;ectiveness depends on how well
they seal your ears, but they are a relatively simple solution to the problem of external noise.
Design and shape
Headphones come in a range of shapes and
sizes, and choosing comes down to what you
want to use them for. In-ear headphones are
generally the most cost-e;ective. Prices range
from next to nothing to hundreds of pounds,
but the high-end models tend to be packed with
electronics that translate to great sound quality.
It’s one of those purchases where you really do
get what you pay for.
Gym-goers and runners will probably not
want to use anything other than an in-ear pair,
but for more stationary use you might prefer an
over-ear or on-ear headphone. However, some
people ;nd noise-isolating in-ear headphones
uncomfortable to wear over long periods.
If you fancy a bit more luxury and you
don’t mind wearing something a bit more conspicuous, a set of over-ear cans (large headphones that completely cover your ears) could
be for you. Musicians and people who work with
audio demand this larger design because it gives
a more realistic audio experience. In-ear headphones bypass the part of your ear that ascertains directional cues; a set of high-end over-ear
cans, on the other hand, can make you feel as if
the orchestra you’re listening to is in the room
On-ear headphones are a little smaller than
cans. That makes them more portable than cans
and more comfortable than in-ears. They’ve
grown in popularity with the growth of wireless
headphones: wireless in-ear headphones can be
easy to misplace or drop.
Watch out for sound leakage, though. On- ear
headphones can be more open to the outside
world, so people around you may get an earful of
your music, whether they like it or not. C
Andy Penfold is a London-based freelance technology
writer whose work has
appeared in Macworld, Q,
The Big Issue and many
other national publications.
Penfold will answer selected
questions in this column.
He regrets that unpublished
questions cannot be
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