When it’s time to move beyond flimsy, disposable earbuds and search for the perfect earphones—either earbuds or headphones, finding the right one for you out of hundreds to choose from can be a real challenge. It depends on how you’re going to be using them, and what you’re listening to.
If you’re going to be listening to low bitrate streams at work or highly compressed MP3s through your phone, you can have the best quality speakers in your earphones, but if the source is low quality, they will still sound the same as the cheapest earbuds out there. But if you’re listening to high quality streams, CDs, records or lossless files through a speaker setup with a good amp, you need a good pair. Ideally, headphones that cover the ear are the better choice because they can damp out outside sounds and the greater speaker area can give you a better field of sound. That said, there are some extremely good earbuds out there, and they keep getting better.
Earbuds or headphones?
If you are using them at work or on a commute, headphones are a better choice because the cups cover your ears and block out other noises. The visibility of the cups lets others know that you are listening, and don’t want to be distracted. You can also find headphones with noise cancellation features to create a calm environment—especially useful in a chatty open plan office, when you need to concentrate, or for focus when studying.
Earbuds are best if you’re using them for exercise, and the weight of headphones can be awkward (and the cups can get sweaty). They are also good for travel or carrying from place to place, since they can be tucked away easily and don’t take up much space (but make sure to wrap and store them correctly to protect them from breaking—see our articles on.
Wired or wireless?
If you hate earbud cables that fray and break, or getting the cord of your headphones caught on things as you go about your day, wireless headphones may seem ideal. However, if you forget to charge them, you can be caught out without music unless your wireless earphones also have wires that can be plugged in to your music source.
Wired sets have a more reliable connection than wireless, though this varies between models and brands, and is improving with each new generation of wireless technology.
At the moment, wireless are still more expensive than wired earphones, but as the technology improves, the connections are getting better, and the prices are coming down.
Design and comfort
You want your headphones to look good as well as sound good, so they need to suit your personal style, whether that is colourful and futuristic or sleek and classic. If you’re not an audiophile, style may be the driving factor behind your purchase. Other design considerations to consider are checking that the connections to the headphones and earbuds, and to the jacks, are sturdy. If there are earbud covers or removable parts, do they come off easily, and can they get lost? Are headphone pads made of a cheap material that will crack and flake?
Try them on for comfort, if you can, or read reviews online. Some earbuds have a bad reputation for falling out of users’ ears while they are running or exercising, and some headphones slide off users’ heads, clamp tightly on the ears, or sit heavily across the top of the skull. It’s important for headphones to sound good, but ideally, they should be so comfortable that all you notice when you wear them is whatever you are listening to.
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