Headphone technology has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. And for the technology available to consumers, we have Beats by Dre to thank. With the release of their headphones in 2008 which were endorsed by figures like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, they quickly popularised high-quality consumer headphones, creating a market driven by audio innovation. Now when we want to browse the headphone range, we have a diversity of brands, designs, specifications and types of headphones to choose from.
So, what should you consider when making a purchase? You can roughly divide headphones by price. There are budget headphones for under £100, mid-range roughly between £100 and £250, high-range roughly between £250 and £400 and, for true audiophiles, there are even models above that. The more you pay for the more you get in terms of equalisation, controls, battery life, noise cancelling, quality of build and, of course, sound quality.
There are also a number of features to look out for. Noise cancelling technology can make a huge difference, allowing you to eliminate outside distractions and completely focus on the sound. It’s important to distinguish between passive and active noise cancelling – passive noise cancelling is when the body of the headphone physically blocks sound from entering your ear canal, in the same way that earplugs do. Active noise cancelling plays ambient noise, which is picked up by a microphone, in phase-reversed form which cancels out environmental noise but leaves the intended sound unaffected. It’s easy to test, simply put on some noise-cancelling headphones with this feature, like Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones and switch them on. You’ll instantly notice the cancellation of low level, constant noise such as vehicle engines and office chatter.
Another big feature to consider is Bluetooth, which allows headphones to wirelessly connect to mobile devices. Bluetooth headphones save you from having to deal with tangled wires and the risk of knocking them out your ears, making them perfect for the exercising, traveling and even just sitting at your desk. As well as wireless headphones, there are wireless earphones which are more discreet like Apple's Airpods and wireless in-ear headphones that are focused on sports and exercise. Aftershokz have gone one step further for sports performance with their bone conduction headphones, which allow you to keep your ears free and stay aware of your environment when you’re running, biking or driving.
One important consideration when buying headphones, is your preference for on-ear, or over-ear headphones. There are three main factors – comfort, size and noise cancellation. Whereas over-ears encompass the whole ear and don’t apply much tension, on-ears rest on the ears and apply pressure to stay stable, increasing the chance of soreness and aching over long periods of time. On the other hand, this means that on-ear headphones are more compact and easier to store and carry than over-ears. In terms of passive noise cancellation, over-ear headphones come out ahead as on-ears have smaller cups and do not completely seal the ear. It is important to note that there is no inherent difference in sound quality, which is dependent on the specs and quality of the headphones, rather than the type.
Another area where headphones are commonplace is in gaming and gaming headsets have become key products for many hardware manufacturers, such as Turtle Beach, HyperX, Logitech, RAZER and more. This is largely because of both the importance of communication and clear sound queues in online gaming, and the importance of high-quality, immersive experience.