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How to buy headphones and what to look for

You listen to most of your music through headphones, so let us help you choose your next pair wisely

I bet that these days you listen to more music than you ever have before. I also bet that almost all of your music is listened to via headphonesAll of which means that choosing your next pair is a pretty big deal.

But while on the face of it headphones are pretty simple things, there’s huge variety in designs, sizes and technology, and that can make the decision far trickier than you might imagine.

But fear not – we’ve got the expertise and experience to help you focus your search on precisely the right headphones for your tastes and needs. Follow this guide and you’ll be rocking out like never before in no time.

1) In, on or over?

1) In, on or over?

This is the most fundamental question you’ll need to answer when you begin your quest for a new set of headphones.

In-ears are obviously the most portable and convenient, but some people just don’t like jamming things into their ears. On-ears can blend portability and comfort quite nicely, and can even look quite stylish. Over-ears tend to be more designed for home use – they can sound amazing thanks to bigger drivers, but they’re also less portable and often have an ‘open’ design, which means everyone else on the bus will hear that Little Mix song you’re listening to.

2) Noise cancellation vs isolation

2) Noise cancellation vs isolation

Poisoning the air around you with Little Mix is definitely a bad thing, but for some people allowing their music to be tainted by the sounds of the real world is just as bad. If you’re one of those people, you want to be looking at getting a pair of headphones that offer noise isolation or noise cancellation.

The noise isolation is just a physical barrier that blocks sound, so most in-ears do it as well as some on-ears. Noise cancellation requires outside noise to be actively monitored and cancelled out with opposite frequencies. It’s more technical and therefore generally more expensive, and it’s better with constant, consistent sounds such as a plane’s engine than with things like voices.

3) Cutting the cables

Good: It moves tech on

Wires are so last decade, aren’t they? Particularly with headphones, where they’re so reviled that most phones don’t even have a headphone socket. Luckily, there are loads of good wireless headphones out there now, almost all of which use Bluetooth to stream audio from your phone, tablet or laptop and into your ears.

But while these can feel as liberating as a nudist beach, there are also some downsides. They need to be powered, for a start, so if they’re not charged when you leave the house you might have to go without music for the journey to work. And strictly speaking, wireless headphones don’t sound as good as those with wires, although most listeners are unlikely to notice.

4) Feel the fitness

4) Feel the fitness

Thought that all a pair of headphones did was play your music? Think again. Besides also often having controls for your tunes and a mic for calls, there are lots of extra features appearing, most of which are at this point geared towards fitness.

Some sports headphones, for example, monitor your heart rate via your ears and provides audio coaching while you train. But if you’re buying headphones for running, you might want to consider a pair that doesn’t block outside noise – dodging traffic tends to be significantly easier when you can actually hear it.

5) The game is afoot

5) The game is afoot

Buy a good pair of headphones for music and they’ll do a great job of your portable Netflixing, too, but if you want to level-up your gaming you’re best off with a dedicated gaming headset that at the very least allows you to control the mix of game audio and multiplayer chatter.

Some options, such as the PlayStation Platinum Wireless Headset, go much further, adding surround sound and custom sound setups for specific games. Most gaming headsets can also be used with your phone, although many have the sort of garish design that you might want to think twice about wearing outside the house.

Profile image of Tom Parsons Tom Parsons Contributor, Stuff.tv


Tom is a nerd. A gaming nerd, a home cinema nerd, a hi-fi nerd and a car nerd. And a bit of a bike nerd, and phone nerd, and computer nerd. Let's call the whole thing off and just go with all-round nerd. In the past he's been an audio book actor, a games tester, a chocolate salesman and a teacher in Japan. Then he joined What Hi-Fi? as a reviewer back in 2007 and moved to Stuff as Reviews Editor in 2011. After a five-year stint on Stuff he rejoined the What Hi-Fi? team where he currently rules the reviews team with a candy floss fist.

Areas of expertise

All things AV and hi-fi, gaming, cars, craft beer, wine, loading a dishwasher

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