Choose the Right Headphones for You

By Geoffrey Morrison

There has never before been the variety, and quality, of headphones available as there are right now. For every budget and style, there are great sounding headphones. The rampant enthusiasm in the audiophile community for this new golden age is spreading to the mainstream. Here are a few terms and basics to know as you consider what to buy.

“Over-ear” Headphones

These are the big earmuff-style headphones. As their name implies, they go over your ear. They tend to be fairly heavy, but the ones that totally surround the ear tend to be quite comfortable for extended listening because most ears don’t like being touched for long. Their sound quality can be spectacular.

“On-ear” Headphones

These are smaller than over-ear, and rest on the ear (think early Walkman headphones, although today’s on-ear headphones are much better and more comfortable). They generally don’t sound as good as over-ear and some listeners may find the ear-contact to be annoying, but they’re very compact and portable-great for traveling.

 “In-ear” Headphones

These small headphones fit snugly in your ear canal. Fit is paramount with in-ear headphones; in fact some brands offer custom molded earpieces specifically for your ears. Without a good seal, sound quality, noise-blocking and comfort will suffer. The very best examples on in-ear phones sound fantastic but the low cost variety are usually not very good sounding. Well-fitting in-ears make great traveling headphones, as they naturally seal out external sounds (like your gabby row-mate) and are so light and small (but they’re also easy to lose).


Technically a different category than in-ears, though many people include them in that group. These designs rest on the cup of your ear, but don’t go into the ear canal. Apple’s Earpods are this variety. They are small, light and inexpensive but provide poor noise isolation.

Noise Cancelling

Some headphones offer active noise cancelling circuitry. These battery-powered headphones can electronically reduce the low frequency sounds around you. Noise cancelling technology has little effect on midrange and high frequencies so voices and crying babies will still be audible, but the best noise cancelling headphones will drop airplane noise to not much more than a quiet conversation. Many audiophiles believe that all noise-cancelling circuits compromise sound quality and eschew them in favor of in-ear designs.

Noise Isolating

Passive noise isolating headphones use their size, fit, and design to reduce ambient noise. Most headphones do this to some extent, but some are made to do it better than others. The best noise cancelling headphones will reduce airplane noise better than noise isolating, but for an in-head quiet, some in-ear noise isolating headphones can work wonders.    

Since fit and comfort are vital, it’s worth spending as much time as possible with any headphone you might be interested in. With in-ear headphones, try different tips if you can (almost all come with multiple tip options).


While there are excellent headphones at every price point, spending a bit more almost always gets you better sound. It’s not perfectly linear, the best $200 headphone doesn’t sound twice as good as the best $100 headphone, but there are significant improvements. Whenever possible listen to a variety of headphones with familiar music before you buy.

With any luck (and some research), with a well-chosen headphone your music will sound better than you’ve ever heard it. How cool would that be?