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Headphones Buying Guide

by Staff Writer

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Man wearing over the ear headphones

So, you're checking out new headphones. This is a great plan. These audio accessories are part of making your music personal and portable. Headphones let you enjoy music and videos on your audio components -- like a radio, CD player, cell phone or MP3 player. At the same time, you're able to block out distractions, which is ideal for cutting out sounds on the bus or engine noise on a plane. This buying guide will describe the various types of headphones available and help you figure out how to choose headphones that closely match your audio system and your listening habits.

Buying Headphones:

  1. Consider what you plan on using your headphones for. If you want an immersive but private home theater experience, you may want some large over-the-ear headphones to listen to audio from movies and TV shows while you relax in your favorite easy chair. Noise-cancelling headphones are also great for use with portable DVD players on a long flight or road trip. For portable audio equipment, like MP3 players and CD players, you'll probably want lightweight headphones or earbuds. For long road trips, wireless headphones are a convenient choice (until it's your turn to drive of course).

  2. Don't sacrifice quality for price. Use the same standards for headphones as you use with any other audio components, and then match your new headphones to your existing components. Overstock.com audio buying guides can help you know what to look for when it comes to audio components and terminology.

  3. Check the specifications. For example, headphones and audio components use different connectors, so make sure your new headphones' plug fits the jack for your stereo or portable MP3 player. The quarter-inch (6.33-mm) plug is still the professional audio standard and may be found in some home stereo equipment. The 3.5-mm (0.125-inch) plug is the more common size and is used on computer headphones, studio headphones and noise-canceling headphones. Small, 2.5-mm (0.1-inch) headphones are typically used in cell phones and other small devices. Of course, if you have a great pair of headphones that don't fit your audio equipment, you can always find an adapter. Also, the gold plating on your headphones isn't ostentation; gold makes a better electrical connection than other headphone materials, so this is a premium choice worth your consideration.

  4. Compare dynamic and static drivers. All speakers use drivers, which are essentially the speaker's vocal cords. Two driver types are common in headphones:



    • Dynamic: A cone-shaped diaphragm connected to a voice coil is generally the more affordable option. They range in quality from cheap, low-fidelity sound to high-end speaker drivers. The sound quality usually depends on the cone-material for the diaphragm.

    • Electrostatic: A thin sheet of stretched foil replaces the cone voice-coil. These headsets provide superior sound reproduction, especially in higher frequencies, with very low distortion. Electrostatic speakers tend to be more expensive than dynamic speakers.

  5. Be comfortable. Ask your friends if you can test-drive their headsets. Try several different headphone types. You don't want to be stuck with a pair of headphones that hurt your ears or make them overheat. Look for accessories that can make for more comfortable listening, like silicone pads for earphones. Interchangeable pads can help you adjust the earphones to fit your ears comfortably, and you can easily replace the pads instead of the headphones altogether.

Tips from Overstock.com:

  1. Store your headphones carefully. When you roll up your headset's audio cables, roll carefully. All wires have a natural twist; if you wrap your headphone wires incorrectly or too tightly, you can kink or damage them.

  2. Clean your earbuds. Periodically, use a cotton swab and rubbing alcohol to clean your earbuds. This will keep oils and wax from your skin from building up and compromising sound quality.

  3. Keep them off the ground. Almost all earbud headphones have Y-straps, which connect straight from your iPod or MP3 player to your ears. Neck strap headphones have a strap that rests on the neck, attached to the earbuds. If your earbuds fall out, they just drop to your shoulders instead of to the ground.

  4. Use headphones with quality devices. Your headphones are only as good as the audio source they're plugged into. Quality MP3 players and iPods are portable and can hold hours of music and video in stunning digital quality.

  5. Headphones enhance video, too. Make time fly on those long flights and road trips with some good headphones and a portable DVD player. If you're watching with someone else, get an A/V cable splitter adapter that allows you to plug in two pairs of headphones at once.

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