Finding sonic bliss with right headphones

Dollar for dollar, headphones are the best way to listen to music. They pack more sonic wallop than even the most face-meltingly amazing loudspeaker system, and they do it for a lot less money.

Think about it: A truly magnificent home-speaker system can cost well into the tens of thousands of dollars. A screaming set of headphones? A few hundred bucks, tops – and those in the Really Quite Good category can cost less than $100 (Rs 5,300).

And yet most people go along and listen to music on whatever headphones or earbuds came with their audio player. For not a lot of money you can make a real and lasting improvement to the music you hear when you’re on your own. What follows is not an exhaustive test of headphones, because what sounds good to one person may be just plain terrible to another. Instead, use the information below to find your own sonic bliss.

The good brands

There are dozens of headphone makers. If you’re beginning a search, consider models from these manufacturers: AKG, Audio-Technica, Beyerdynamic, Etymotic, Grado, Klipsch, Dr. Dre and Sennheiser. Are there other makers of good headphones? Sure, but even though furious debates rage on in audiophile circles, these are the names that keep coming up.

Know your headphone types

“Earbuds” are those earphones that likely came with your phone or music player. Replacements can be bought for as little as $5 (Rs 265) and often top out at around $30 (Rs 1,590). Earbuds sit somewhat in your ear, but not all the way in. They are usually a single piece of plastic, maybe with some softer rubber permanently attached. These are the coach class of headphones; they’ll get you there, but nobody raves about them.

“In-ear earphones” are a step up. These models consist of a hard part, which contains the mechanics and electronics, and a very soft, pliable earpiece that goes well into your ear, plugging up the canal and forming a seal. In-ear earphones can be amazing – and also costly.

Just remember two things about in-ear earphones. They do form a nearly soundproof seal, so you won’t hear much, like, say, a fire truck rapidly approaching a crosswalk, and that seal is entirely dependent on little rubber or polyurethane earpieces, which have an annoying tendency to pop off and roll down a storm drain when you pull the earphones out of your pocket.

“On-the-ear” headphones start to get you into more serious territory. These models don’t fully enclose the ear, but sit on top of the outer ear; if you think of foam-covered, Walkman-era headphones, you’ve got a correct, if outdated, image in mind.

On-ear headphones can have either an open or closed back. Open-backed headphones allow air to circulate, which is more comfortable. They also can help give the impression that sound is coming from around you, as opposed to emanating from your corpus callosum, which is a characteristic of closed-back and in-ear headphones.

“Over-the-ear” headphones are large domes that fully sit around and over your ear. They are bulky, often expensive (you can spend $40 or Rs 2,121, or nearly $2,000 or Rs 1,06,054), hard to travel with, primarily meant for listening at home and – when they are good – completely amazing. Over-the-ear models can also be closed- or open-backed.

Understand noise cancelling

A subcategory of headphones provides noise-cancelling (NC) features. Noise-cancelling headphones can be active or passive, but wearing them won’t turn the world into a silent movie: Some noise will get through. What will be eliminated is lower-frequency ambient noise, like the constant thrum in an airplane’s cabin. This means you can listen to your selected audio at a lower volume, saving your ears.

Passive noise cancellation isn’t very sophisticated – sealing off your ear canal or covering your whole ear are the most common methods – but it is fairly effective. What’s fancier is active NC, in which the headphones detect ambient noise and emit a sound wave that cancels out the humming/buzzing you would otherwise hear.

Noise-cancelling headphones are good for certain situations, but they aren’t necessary for everyday use and most people can do without them. They can also run from about $70 (Rs 3,712) to a few hundred dollars. Bose is a big name in the active-NC world, but also consider the brands mentioned above, many of which offer active NC headphones in earbud, on-the-ear and over-the-ear models.

Find the right pair for you

Determining which kind of headphones to get is something only you can figure out. Some people, for example, prefer the portability that a pair of earbuds provide – just roll them up and stick them in your pocket. Other people can’t stand the idea of little rubber plugs sticking in their ears.

You won’t know your own preference until you try headphones out in person. Go to a store and try out a few different models. It may be more revealing if you’re listening to some obsessively engineered track that creates an unparalleled soundscape, but even if your favourite song is “Jump” by Kriss Kross, it’s better to judge equipment with a song you know than something provided by the store.

Using your reference song, you can then determine which style and model of headphone sounds best. Pay no attention to the specs. It doesn’t matter what it says on the side of the box; if it sounds good to you, then it sounds good.

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