Headphones: Let's Get Personal

December 9, 2013 | Comments

It's easy to take for granted how big a role personal entertainment plays in our lives. When we're on the go we enjoy music and movie/TV sound through earbuds connected to our smartphones, iPods and tablets. At home (and increasingly on the go) many of us use headphones to listen to music and watch TV without disturbing others.

After plodding along for decades, headphones have become one of the hottest categories in consumer electronics today. It's hard to miss the advertising and celebrity endorsements: Audio brands big and small, old and new offer headphones at prices ranging from throwaway earbuds to audiophile models that retail for thousands of dollars.

But not all headphones are created equal. If sound quality is a priority for you, and especially if you're plugged into a source that's generating better-than-smartphone sound, you want to be sure you're getting the most out of your personal technology. Here's a breakdown of some of the choices you'll find in today's headphone marketplace.

Classic Headphones

Although headphones date back more than 100 years, they didn't really come into their own until the late 1950s. Full-size headphones fall into one of the two main categories: over the ear (aka circumaural) or on the ear (aka supra-aural). Both types are a great choice for home listening and come in a variety of styles (from old school classic to cutting-edge chic) and colors (from standard black to hot pink).

Over-ear headphones are the bulkier and more soundproof than on-ear models. Bulky because the earcup encircles your ear; soundproof because the cup blocks out ambient sounds, which means they're not a wise choice for use outdoors — especially in settings where you need to be aware of your surroundings.

On-ear models, while still somewhat bulky, are lighter and let in more ambient sound because the earcup rests on top of your ear. If you must have full-size headphones while on the go, on-ear is the way to go. People get into enough trouble texting while walking; throw in sound isolation and the potential consequences can be life-threatening.

With both types of headphones, the earcups that house the tiny drivers that produce sound will be either open-back or closed-back, letting more or less sound in (and out), so choose accordingly and pay close attention to comfort and fit.

Stick It in Your Ear

Earphones that sit in the opening of the ear were popularized for use with portable transistor radios in the 1960s (back in those days, there was one earphone and you listened in mono). Then along came the iPod with its iconic (and now ubiquitous) white earbuds. In addition to being small and lightweight, many earbuds have convenient in-line controls so you don't have to reach into your pocket and fumble with your phone or music player.

There's also a high-end subset of earbuds that actually sit in your ear canal, creating an earplug-like seal. Often referred to as in-ear monitors, they are consumer versions of the earphones professional musicians use during live performances and can take some getting used to. Some of these models can even be custom-fitted to your individual ear canal, and the better the fit, the better the bass response you'll perceive.

Cutting the Cord

As with just about everything else in electronics today, headphones are going wireless. Not having to deal with wires is a beautiful thing, especially in the case of Bluetooth-enabled earbuds. Our best advice is to try before you buy, because performance (operating range, sound quality, interference) will vary based on the wireless protocol used, the design of the buds, and how/where you use them.

Travel Companion

Noise-canceling headphones and earbuds, which use sophisticated circuitry to effectively cancel out offensive noises — like the deep roar of a jet engine or rumble of a train or subway — are well worth considering if you're a regular business traveler. They won't completely eliminate outside noise, but they will make music listening more enjoyable — and you won't have to turn up the volume as much.

To learn more about home and personal entertainment options, consult a CEDIA professional. Click here for a list of CEDIA-member home technology professionals in your area.