How to Choose Headphones and Earphones

Headphones and Earphones Buying Guide

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What do you look for in headphones and earphones? While there are many models to choose from, your planned use should help greatly to narrow your choices.

Sound quality, of course, is important to everybody; but for some, big bass is a must where others prefer open, full-range reproduction that emphasizes overall accuracy. Other factors include isolation, comfort, weight, portability, and fit, which we’ll discuss below.

Do you need headphones or earphones to plug into a portable player of some kind for casual listening? Or are you looking for a set of studio-worthy reference headphones for monitoring recordings? The following discussion of the different types of headphones and earphones and their applications will give you the basic knowledge you need to choose the right model for your purpose.

Table of Contents

Headphone and earphone specifications, what do they mean?
Headphones vs. earphones/earbuds—what’s right for you?
Sweetened vs. flat frequency response
Types of headphones
What to look for

Headphone and earphone specifications, what do they mean?

The best way to evaluate headphones is by listening to them. Listen to some acoustic guitar or piano music—you’ll easily hear the difference between good and not so good. But two headphones that sound very different often will have similar specs.

Probably the easiest and most useful spec is the price. In general, quality and performance are strongly related to the price tag. Driver size is an important spec, especially if you want big bass. Typically, the larger the driver, the greater its ability to reproduce bass frequencies. Specs such as frequency range, sensitivity, etc., may be helpful to knowledgeable buyers deciding between high-end studio headphones, but not especially helpful for a less knowledgeable buyer choosing among lower-end headphones. A more helpful way of choosing among types, models, and brands is to read both online professional reviews as well as the customer reviews on our website.

Headphones vs. earphones/earbuds—what’s right for you?

Generally speaking, higher-end headphones are necessary for critical pro-audio work such as recording and mixing. That said, there are many mid-priced headphones that offer performance to meet the needs of musicians with home studios and modest budgets.

Earphones, also often called earbuds or in-ear headphones, are typically included with portable mp3 players. They’re often replaced by consumers with better quality models that provide improved sound and comfort.

Consumer-grade earbuds shouldn’t be confused with pro-quality in-ear headphones and earbuds designed for applications like monitoring live performances and other critical listening uses.

Shure SE215 Earphones

Shure SE215 Microdriver Earphones produce highly detailed sound with enhanced bass response.

To help you sort through the many possibilities, we conveniently categorize headphones and earphones/earbuds by these two basic applications.

Sweetened vs. flat frequency response

When you listen to the same material through different headphones, you’ll hear differences that are due in part to "sweetening." Sweetening refers to the EQing of the headphones to make the music sound better. In open-backed headphones and many earbuds, for instance, the bass frequencies may be emphasized to counter the natural leakage of bass through the open back or ear canal.

Most general-listening, consumer headphones are sweetened in some way. There are two common sweetening modes: Free Field (FF) and Defined Field (DF). The first simulates an open listening environment without reflection, and the latter simulates an enclosed listening environment such as a room. For critical listening such as monitoring a mix, you don’t want any sweetening at all, but rather a flat frequency response that lets you compare and set levels precisely.

Types of Headphones

Circumaural: This type of headphone can be closed or open-backed. The term circumaural refers to how it cups your ear. Circumaural models are sometimes referred to as “over the ear headphones” Their padding encircles the ear and forms a seal. These headphones are usually comfortable, and closed-back models provide isolation from external sounds and keep the headphone sounds from leaking out. A circumaural design is a good choice for recording applications and for DJs who need to monitor music in loud environments.

Shure SRH-440 Headphones

Shure SRH440 Studio Headphones have a closed-back, circumaural design for excellent isolation.

Supra-aural: Headphones of this design are similar to circumaural headphones, except that instead of encircling the ear, they rest on it. Usually these headphones are lighter and therefore more comfortable. But since they do not seal as well as circumaural headphones, they don’t isolate sounds as well.

Open air: Also referred to as open-back headphones, they can be either circumaural or supra-aural, but the back of each earpiece is open, allowing sound to escape freely in both directions. Because they are non-isolating, they are not a good choice for recording studio applications. If used by a singer, for example, the headphone sound can leak and be picked up by the microphone influencing the final recording. Their positive quality is an open, airy sound that isn’t fatiguing to the ears, which makes them a good choice for general listening.

Semi-open: This type of headphone, as the name suggests, falls between a fully open design and a closed-back design. While some sound leakage can occur, there is less than with an open-back design. Semi-open headphones usually offer a realistic stereo field, low distortion, and extended low-frequency response. They are often used for recording where there are no open microphones to pick up sound leaking from them.

Closed or sealed: This type offers the greatest sound isolation. The backs of the earpieces are completely closed, which, along with an effective seal around the ear, prevents sound from passing in either direction. This design is especially good for monitoring in loud environments, and for use in recording because they keep sound from leaking out and being picked up by microphones. They also tend to have strong bass response, so DJs mixing dance music prefer them. On the downside, they can cause ear fatigue when used for extended periods.

Studio headphone packages: Equipping a home or project studio with enough headphones to record a full band can involve a considerable investment. In most cases a headphone amplifier will also be needed to amplify and distribute the mix signal to each musician. Working with pro audio headphone manufacturers, Musician’s Friend has assembled a collection of headphone packages that bundle multiple headphones with a headphone amplifier. These packages offer significant savings compared to the cost of the individual components.

Westone UM1 In-Ear Monitors

Though some use WESTONE UM1 In-Ear Monitors with their portable players, they’re great for onstage monitoring, too.

Portable headphones: These are the open-air, lightweight, headphones usually equipped with foam earpads and used with portable players. Often the ones that come with players are cheap and you may want to replace them with better quality headphones of a similar kind. They are light which makes them ideal for active use, and the better ones can sound fantastic. Because they allow you to hear external sounds such as that runaway garbage truck bearing down on you, they are suited for use when hearing what's going on around you is important.

Earbuds: Earbud headphones offer the ultimate in portability and light weight. They fit into the ear and form a seal that isolates the sound so that only you hear it. Better-quality earbud-type headphones offer excellent sound quality, which is remarkable considering their small drivers. However, bass response can be weak in some designs, especially those that fit your ear canal poorly. A few models have interchangeable tips to provide a better fit in the ear canal.

Noise-canceling headphones and earbuds: As many commuters know, listening to music while traveling by car, train, or airplane is made difficult by the general level of background noise. For critical listeners, this can be frustrating because it blurs the nuances of the music. Noise-canceling headphones are designed to remove the background noise. They do this by means of phase-canceling technology. Some models incorporate Bluetooth technology for cable-free convenience plus connectivity with computers and smartphones.

Wireless headphones: The advantage of having no cable is obvious: you’re free to roam as you listen. They operate on three basic types of technology: infrared, RF, and various digital technologies including Bluetooth. Infrared models have a shorter reception distance and require line-of-sight orientation to the base unit transmitter. They also typically offer the lowest signal quality. RF models transmit further and will work through walls, but noise and sound quality can be issues. Digital wireless converts signals to a digitally encoded signal, then the headphones convert it back to analog. This type is more noise-free than infrared and RF, but more expensive. They also require power for the transmitter and battery power for the headphones.

DJ headphones: There are quite a number of headphones intended for DJ use. These are usually circumaural closed-back headphones designed for isolation. Many are standard two-cup headphones, but DJs also use single-sided headphones with just one cup. This allows them to hear their mix and the room simultaneously. Typically DJ headphones are louder so they can be heard over high ambient sound levels. Many have rotating earcups for comfort and detachable, replaceable cords. Generally DJ headphones are built ruggedly to handle the wear and tear of heavy use and travel.

Check out our DJ Headphone Buying Guide.

What to Look For

Fit and comfort

Comfort is important. Any headphone will feel fine worn briefly, but when worn for long periods, many become uncomfortable. Wear the headphones for at least 20 minutes before deciding about comfort. The larger the ear cups the better when selecting closed-back, circumaural headphones. For headphones that rest on your ear, smaller is better, and fabric padding or leather can soften the pressure.

Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Headphones

Sennheiser HD 280 PRO Headphones are closed-back, blocking loud external noises while keeping sound from leaking out.

Weight is a factor in long-term comfort—in most cases lighter headphones are more comfortable. For long listening periods, the super-light portable headphones with foam pads are ideal.

The headband also influences comfort. Most headphones have an over-the-head style headband, but behind-the-neck styles are also available. Earbuds dispense with the band entirely, so are more comfortable in that regard. Whatever the type of headband, you want it to be adjustable. Another feature for enhancing comfort is the rotating cup, especially on over-the-ear phones. You can adjust them to your head to reduce leakage and increase comfort.


Usually portability isn’t an issue—for listening during physical activity, get the lightweight portables designed for that purpose. For traditional stationary studio work, heavier closed-back circumaurals are usually used. These days, however, laptop computers and compact interfaces have made on-location recording more popular. This application requires closed-back, sealed-cup headphones that are bulkier. Fold-up designs are more portable and protect the headphones in transit. It’s wise to have some sort of case for your recording headphones if they are to travel.


You want your headphones to last. Unfortunately, durability often equates with heavier weight. Light headphones can be sat on or snapped in half more easily. You just have to be careful with them and put them in a protective case when they’re not on your head. If they are fold-ups, check out the hinges for sturdiness. Are the cables substantial or thin and delicate? If you are buying higher-priced headphones, find out if replacement parts are available. It’s a lot cheaper to replace a cable or the ear pads than to replace an entire set.


Be sure the cable is long enough for your situation. But avoid an exceptionally long cable if possible because it can negatively affect sound quality by lowering volume and introducing noise, as well as becoming more easily tangled. A better-quality pair of headphones will likely have a shielded cable which minimizes noise. If you buy headphones with too short a cable, you can always add an extension, but be careful to get an extension cable of equal quality to the cable from the headphone. You should also add the length you want with a single cable rather than two shorter ones, as multiple connections can degrade the signal.

Another consideration is single-sided versus double-sided cables. Single-sided designs have internal circuitry to carry the signals to the appropriate ear pieces. Most consider one-sided designs preferable, as the double-sided type can become easily tangled.


Like most things in life, when it comes to choosing the right headphones, earphones, or earbuds, you get what you pay for. Although some specs can be helpful, things like frequency response numbers can be deceptive. There is no substitute for listening critically and carefully. Considering how you plan to use your new headphones is also critical in pinpointing the right model.

We want you to be pleased with your headphones or earphones purchase, and offer a generous, no-hassle return policy so you can order with confidence.

If you’re still unsure what headphones or earphones to buy, we invite you call to one of our friendly and knowledgeable Gear Heads at (877) 880-5907.

Tags: Recording Headphones


# Rohith 2016-06-23 01:30
I want to buy headphones for the sole purpose of listening and enjoying music. Are studio monitoring headphones appropriate for doing this?
# Tammy 2015-12-30 18:49
Great info! I want to get a present for my friend who is a student in music school. He has to practice listening skill on EarMaster everyday on top of all others, please help me find a perfect type of professional headphone for him.

# Hakeem 2015-12-28 09:35
Hello! Thanks for this helpfull article. I was wondering about your thoughts on the quality of House of Marley. I'm very interested in the 'Liberate XL with bluetooth' for €149,- . It looks great, and the sound on my previous House of Marley earbuds (for 49,-) was amazing. They lasted for 5 years now without any trouble, their bass was really strong (something I prefer) and I didn't have the feeling that the higher tones were pressed away because of it. I'm kind of grasping in the dark, I have 150,- to spend, good experiences with House of Marley, bad experiences with JBL (70/80,- earbuds); but everybody advices me to look into bigger brands like Bose and Pioneer etc.
# Stuart 2015-12-27 21:59
I'm planing to do some home recording. Just vocals, guitar, and piano. Does frequency response matter for that? Also, would you suggest closed back or semi-open for this? I don't really know anything about mixing so I don't plan on too much of that.
# ragnellx 2015-12-02 12:49
so what do you guys think of the Sony MDR-7506? I've got a pair of those that I like to use and was curious on if thats something I should look at upgrading at some point or if they should last me a decent span of time
# arpit 2015-08-20 05:44
How about sony MDR EX110LP
and wat would u prefer over this...if any?
# Jared 2015-11-11 15:35
Hello Arpit!

When it comes to in-ears, I would strongly suggest either the Shure SE215's or the Westone UM pro 10's. In the music industry, I would definitely suggest not buying a set of earphones below $100. Don't [blocked]et that top in-ear monitor brands like Shure and Westone do not skimp on quality, and you will get your money's worth in both of these brands. The Shure SE215's are some of the most popular in-ears in the market. Westone is a little more boutique, but they have won countless awards on their in-ear technology, and they are also known throughout the pro industry because of their ability to make custom in-ear monitors. Both models are comfortable, and they crank. The Westone's fit a little more snug so they won't fall out and can't be pulled out. I hope this helps!
# Nate 2015-06-29 06:24
Hey Im using audio-technica ATH-CKS55X and was wondering is this version is good compared to others... I find the quality great and bass great but its old and im looking for better quality and bass... Im a fan of audio technica and was hoping if there was something better than the one im using... But if there isnt, im okay with other brands...The price does not matter though... Im just looking for EXTREMELY good quality and very good bass.... thanks!!! ;)
# Jared 2015-07-28 15:17
Hey Nate! If you like Audio-Technica, I would suggest the ATHM50x. It is a great headphone at a decently affordable price. It is a great set of mixing headphones with a nice fat punchy bass; not too much but not too little. It also manages to give you the bass you want without spilling far into the low mid frequencies which tend to muddy up the sound. They have nice flat mids and great highs without being too bright and tinny. If these don't work for you, can you always try out a nice set of V-Moda M100's for some great accentuated low-end bass, a great look, and a comfortable fit.
# Peter 2015-04-18 09:39
Recommending Beats by Dr Dre?
You can't possibly be serious.
# Kyle 2015-06-03 14:18
I would never! Check those DT-770s though.
# gordon 2015-03-16 17:59
Is it a joke !?!

The beats by Dr Dre .... Please don't waste your money !
# Kyle 2015-06-03 14:18
We removed those, the DT770s are a far better choice for comfort and monitoring. Thank you!
# scott karch 2014-10-24 11:27
Looking for earbuds for IEM system
# Cindy 2014-09-05 08:59
Can you tell me if ear buds work with Blue Tooth in someones car? I am not interested in using the large head phones as it is more for personal use.
# Kyle 2015-06-03 14:14
Hi Cindy! You would need bluetooth specific earbuds to accomplish this.
# Sunita 2014-03-27 05:20
Super post. I've been thinking about this topic. I like the point types of headphones Congratulations on being so consistently interesting. Yes while buying headphones fit & comfort with durability should be checked.
# sloggoth 2014-03-19 20:34
Direct Sound ex29 is a good deal. I use it for mixing and sound is very good for the price.

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