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Buying Headphones in 2017: Pros and Cons of Every Type

If you're in the market for new headphones, the range of options available to you is much greater than it was just a few years ago.

Headphones go beyond earbuds and on-ear cups, and can now track your heart rate, project tunes and audio around you, and even immerse you in directional 3D soundscapes. They can even send tunes to your eardrums through your jawbone.

Here's our guide to everything you need to know about headphones.

Earbuds

Pros: Often come with devices
Cons: Some become knotted easily; Slightly invasive

One of the more popular forms of headphones, earbuds often come packed with smartphones. Often known for their tangled balls of cords, buds offer portability above all else. Some earbuds even offer adjustable fitting options by packing in three different sizes of tips for small, medium and large canals.

To see your options, check out our roundup of the best cheap earbuds. For the best experience, check out companies such as Comply that sell high-end tips offering a softer material, snugger fit and better passive noise isolation.

The one unavoidable downside of earbuds is that not everyone wants tiny plugs inside their ears. Earbuds can also lead to a general pain and discomfort for users whose ears are too small or aren't shaped in the same way as the tips require for fitting.

MORE: Best Earbuds for Fitness, Running and Sports

On-Ear Headphones

Pros: More accurate sound than earbuds offer; Noninvasive
Cons: Tight headphone fit can become uncomfortable over time

If you have slightly more room in your bag, on-ear headphones may be a great option because they often allow you to hear a wider sound space than earbuds provide. They accomplish this by placing a wider speaker near your ear, rather than snaking a smaller speaker into your canal.

Another benefit of on-ear headphones is that many sets have comfortable, cushy padding. If you've never tried it, there's a lot to be said for enjoying your tunes with two small pillows resting on the sides of your face.

But on-ear headphones aren't as effective when they're not sitting directly on your ear. And as plush as the ear cushions are, some wearers don't like the typically tight on-ear fit needed to maintain the optimal listening position.

MORE: 14 Cheap Headphones Ranked Best to Worst

Over-Ear Headphones

Pros: Spacious soundstage, Comfortable fit that’s great for longer listening sessions
Cons: Large and unwieldy  

Over-ear headphones take the comfortable padding of on-ear headphones and provide a better fit, positioning themselves over the entirety of your ears. Because these are larger headsets, their more spacious casings allow for larger drivers, which result in more accurate audio.

One downside of larger headphones, however, is that they take up more room, meaning there’s less room on your head, and in your bag, for other things.

Active Noise Cancelling Headphones

Pros: Intelligently block-out background noise
Cons: Require charging; Can be pricey

Whether for blocking out the engine roar on a cross-country flight or muting chatty people during your commute, frequent fliers and others love the power of active noise-cancelling headphones. They feature microphones that detect ambient noise and create a noise-cancelling signal in the earpieces that is 180-degrees out of wave with the detected noise, effectively shutting it out.

In addition to being more expensive, one downside of noise-cancelling headphones is that their microphones and circuitry need power, so you’ll have to charge these babies every so often.

MORE: Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones and Earbuds

Passive Noise Cancelling Headphones

Pros: Hampers noise without requiring battery power
Cons: Tighter fits may increase discomfort

Passive noise cancelling headphones attempt to block outside noise by simply cutting off the exposure your ear canals have to your environment. On- and over-ear headphones achieve this effect via a tight seal between the ear cups and your head. Earbuds deliver the effect with deeper-fitting or custom-made earbuds, meaning you won't have to charge them.

Unfortunately, by creating a potentially tight fit inside your ear canal, you may be opening yourself up to an uncomfortable experience. Our advice: Try them on before you buy them if you can, and check out user reviews on Amazon and elsewhere.

Sports Headphones

Pros: Stay attached to active bodies
Cons: Not for people with glasses

Sports headphones such as the Sennheiser CX 686G Sports In-Ear Headphones are made for runners and other athletes who move enough to risk dislodging their earbuds. These headphones hook around the lobe or fit against a ridge inside it. Sports headphones often use sweat-resistant and anti-microbial materials to keep the elements in your sweat from destroying them.

Some sports headphones, such as the SMS Audio Biosport Earbuds, include biometric scanning for discerning your heart rate. Wireless sports headphones, such as the Samsung Gear IconX, give you further freedom to move as you please If you wear glasses, though, think before you buy a pair of the hooked buds, as the two will rub against each other, creating another chance for accidental detachment.

MORE: Best Earbuds for Fitness, Running and Sports

Truly Wireless Earphones

Pros: Ultimate convenience
Cons: Easy to lose; Awkward interfaces

One of the smallest options available, truly wireless earphones are tiny buds that sit in your ear canals and communicate with your phone over Bluetooth. Apple's AirPods are the best-known truly wireless earphones, but there are plenty of non-Apple choices. The upcoming Here One by Doppler Labs takes wireless earbuds even further, allowing for intelligent filtering of the audio around you.

Bragi's The Headphone provides longer battery life, but the on-bud buttons require you to push the earphones further into your ear. The AirPods aren't perfect, either;telling Siri to raise and lower volume one increment at a time can get exasperating.

MORE: 10 Best Apple AirPods Alternatives

Open Headphones

Pros: Wider soundstage, More-natural-sounding audio; Don't block out your surroundings
Cons: You're sharing your tunes with those around you; Environmental sound mixes into your audio

These headphones, which are often on the expensive side, use an open-back design that doesn't seal in the audio from the drivers. Open-back headphones are preferred by some for their wider soundstage that sounds "more natural" and happening around you, rather than getting piped into your ears.

The downside, as you might expect, is that open-back headphones leak audio to everyone around you. As such, these headphones are better suited for private home usage than for galavanting outdoors.

Closed Headphones

Pros: Private listening sessions; Outside noise can't enter
Cons: Sound is sent directionally at your ears, rather than existing in an ambient way

Most headphones are built with a closed-back design, which keeps your music private, as long as you've fitted them to your ears properly and the volume isn't abundantly loud. Unlike their open-backed counterparts, closed-backed headphones can block out some ambient noise, thanks to passive noise cancelling.

The downside of this design is that you won’t get the sweet, natural sound quality that open-back headphones offer.

3D Audio

Pros: Immersive, directional sound
Cons: Limited 3D content available

Great headphones aim to provide sound that surrounds your ears, but 3D headphones, such as the forthcoming Ossic X, provide something better. While wearing them during a VR demo, I could track objects moving around me just by listening. When I listened to a favorite song mastered for 3D audio, it sounded as though I were in the room with the artists and I were hearing the truest version for the first time.

Because this is a new technology, the biggest downside is the limited amount of content available. But when you find some, the experience is second to none.

Wearable Speakers

Pros: Great for VR and at-home scenarios
Cons: Nobody wants you to use them in public

When are headphones not on your head? When they're wearable speakers that provide ambient audio, such as the JBL Soundgear, a horseshoe-shaped device you wear around your neck. The benefit of these devices can be heard while you’re playing virtual-reality games, as you're enhancing your own environment with audio, rather than adding headphones to your head, which is already weighed down by a headset. Also, they're great for carrying music with you at home, such as when you're doing backyard chores or going for a jog.

Wearable speakers become a problem only when you use them outside your home. Nobody wants to hear your music as you're walking down the street.

Bone Conduction

Pros: They don't encumber your ears
Cons: Sound quality still leaves a lot to be desired

Imagine this: headphones that don't even go into your ears. Bone-conduction headphones send signals through the bones in your skull to be received by your eardrums. So what’s the point of these, beyond being a cool new toy? Well, these headphones let you enjoy your music without blocking ambient sound.

As cool as the idea of bone-conduction headphones is, there are still a few bugs to work out. The biggest problem lies in the audio quality, which has yet to match that of its traditional brethren.

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  • ssddx
    many things stated in the article are mis-stated and i'm worried the article does more harm in confusing readers than good. not everything written is false, although quite a bit certainly is, but even if it is correct its written in a confusing way that is not easily understood.

    a few general points...

    1. the list of headphone form factors is not accurate and is misleading. some categories you list are instead general properties that can apply to any headphone while others are subtypes and in some cases subtypes are not broken down.

    2. open and closed is not a headphone form factor. this can apply to any headphone form factor. also being open or closed does guarantee an effect on sound quality although it does often have an impact on soundstage, bass and clarity but not always in a bad way.

    3. headphone size does not affect how accurate or how good sounding they are. in fact, some iems have better noise isolation, bass levels and sound quality than headphones double their price while being easier to drive.

    4. soundstage does not depend on headphone size. headphone design, earcup size, pad depth, open vs closed and other factors affect this. also bigger soundstage does not always mean better sound quality or experience.

    5. passive noise cancellation is a feature of closed designs, not a form factor or type. yes, some may be more isolating than others.

    6. 3d is more of a subtype. any can use virtual surround to get an effect though many do not have it built in. likewise there may be a limit on any true multi-driver headphones but the possibility exists for both on ear or over ear to use this technology.

    i could write more, but if you would like a better list henry, send me a pm over on TH.
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  • henrytcasey
    This guide is not meant to be read as a list of form factors, but of differentiating features of headphones, as in a glossary. Nowhere in it does it suggest that a pair of headphones can only include one of the listed characteristics.
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