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Types of Headphones: A Buying Guide

BY: Editors | Aug 28, 2017


Stereo headphones have come a long way since their invention nearly 60 years ago. They now sport many features specifically designed to enhance the listening experience during different activities—whether you use them to fuel workouts, pass time during flights, or engage in conference calls while on-the-go. But with so much variety, choosing the right pair can be difficult. So as you shop different types of headphones, consider the factors below to help determine which are the best headphones for you.

3 Types of Headphones

1. In-Ear and Earbuds

Small headphones that nestle inside your ear


  • Lighter and easier to pack than other headphone types
  • Features like ear clips and water-resistant housing make them great for workouts or outdoor runs
  • Can use different-sized silicone or rubber tips to ensure a comfortable fit
  • Some ear tips can help block outside sound

Sample Products

2. On-Ear

Rest atop your ears rather than totally enclosing them


  • Larger size means they can house larger, more powerful drivers
  • Don't totally surround your ears, making them good for staying aware of your surroundings
  • Good compromise between sound quality and portability

Sample Products

3. Over-Ear

Traditional headband between two cups that totally surround your ears; also known as "full-sized"


  • Best overall sound quality; large size can fit drivers capable of more rumbling bass, and physical design helps reduce outside noise
  • Send sound through the curves of your ear's exterior, which helps with identifying directionality and understanding speech
  • Padded ear cups and headbands are comfortable to wear for extended periods

Sample Products

8 Headphone Features to Look For

1. Bluetooth

Headphones with Bluetooth capability can connect to other Bluetooth-enabled devices and play their audio without needing to be wired to them with a cable. This means you'll be able to listen to playlists on your iPhone without taking it out of your backpack or listen to an audiobook on the tablet that's in your bedroom while you're doing dishes in the kitchen.

Sample Product: POM Gear Sound-Pro Bluetooth 4.1 Wireless Over-the-Ear Headphones (from $14.99)

2. Folding Design

Many over- and on-ear headphones feature frames that collapse in on themselves, making it easy to pack them away without worrying about the headband getting bent or tied into a knot.

Sample Product: Foldable Streamlined Bluetooth Wireless Stereo Headset ($21.99)

3. Surround Sound

There are two types of surround-sound headphones—virtual and true. With virtual surround sound, the usual two-speaker headphone setup (one in each ear) is used, but the device reads and transmits the source audio so that it sounds like it's coming from multiple directions. True surround-sound headphones, on the other hand, will feature robust, multispeaker setups. Think of a home-theater speaker system, but shrunk down inside each ear cup. The source audio is then transmitted through each mini speaker, sending sound from multiple angles.

Sample Product: 7.1 Surround Sound Ultra Lightweight Stereo Gaming Hi-Fi Headphone (from $49.99)

4. Flat Cable

Pulling your MP3 player out of your bag and spending time untangling a mess of wire isn't fun. Lots of headphones today are made with cables that are flat and, unlike their tube-shaped counterparts, aren't as susceptible to knotting up when stored.

Sample Product: mPulse Workout Noise-Isolating Earphones with Mic (from $6.99)

5. Detachable Cables

If your headphone cable catches an edge or snag while you're moving, the subsequent tug can be damaging to the cable's functionality. When too much pressure is applied to a detachable cable, the cable pulls safely away. So you won't have to worry about the cord's inner workings breaking if it's pulled too tightly.

6. Inline Mics and Remotes

Many headphones—in all form factors—come with small remote controls built into their cables or on their housing. These let you adjust volume and skip tracks, and if they also include a built-in microphone, they'll let you answer and conduct phone calls.

Sample Product: Sony Fashion EX Series Earbuds with Inline Mic (from $9.99)

7. Water Resistant

As their names suggest, water-resistant headphones are able to shrug off some water from penetrating their housing. Typically, headphones labeled as water resistant will stand up to small splashes, sweat, or rain droplets.

Sample Product: Photive HyperBeats BTE5 Water-Resistant Bluetooth Earbuds (from $14.99)

8. Waterproof

Headphones labeled as waterproof can usually withstand total immersion in water. Be careful when shopping around and seeing this term used, though; just because a product is described as waterproof doesn't mean it'll remain functional in any aquatic condition or at any depth.

Sample Product: Motorola Moto Surround Wireless HD Waterproof Earbuds (from $24.99)

Noise-Isolating vs. Noise-Canceling Headphones

Though they sound similar, noise isolation and noise cancellation are actually a bit different. Noise isolation headphones use physical barriers, like ear cups that surround the entire ear or earbud tips that create a seal in the ear, to block outside sound.

You can think of noise cancellation as noise isolation's more technically savvy cousin. Noise cancellation uses built-in microphones to create inverse sound waves of ambient noise that are then sent through the speakers. The effect is that the outside noise is virtually canceled out.

Headphone Technical Specs Explained

If you can't decide between similar models, knowing a little more about the tech inside each one can help you make your choice a bit easier.

Feature Description
Drivers Essentially, the pieces that generate the sound in each speaker. They're measured in millimeters (mm), and generally—though not exclusively—the bigger the number, the higher the sound quality.
Frequency Represents the headphones' ability to reproduce sound at the low end of the sound range (bass, represented by the first number) and the high end (treble, which is the second number). The audible frequency range is roughly 20Hz–20,000Hz, so numbers outside that frame are likely a manufacturer inflating a product's specs or marketing toward dogs.
Impedance Tells you how much electrical resistance the headphones give. Most low-impedance headphones should be used with low-impedance sources, like smartphones and MP3 players, since they don't require a heavy dose of power from their source to achieve clear sound. Headphones with an impedance of 50–60 ohms or higher are better off paired with heavy-duty sources, such as DJ and sound-room equipment.
Sensitivity Measures in decibels (dB) how efficiently your headphones transfer your audio source's electrical signals into audible, acoustic signals. This can help tell you how loud the headphones will be at a given voltage from the source.


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