How Do I Choose the Best Headphones for Me?

For all of the innovations in design over the last 100 years since their invention, headphones are, at their core, a fairly simple idea. You want to listen to music, but you don’t want everyone around you to have to listen to it too. You take some speakers, strap them to your head, and point them directly at your ears. Now you can listen to music with a little bit more privacy.

Over the years there have been many innovations in headphone design, but when it comes down to it, there are two primary designs: the classic headphones, with a strap that holds the speakers, and earphones, where you stick the speaker inside of your ear. Within those two categories, there are many different ways of designing the chassis, speakers (typically called “drivers” in the headphone world) and other components to create a variety of unique listening experiences.

Over-Ear Headphones

Over-ear and on-ear headphones are the original design. On-ear headphones rest the drivers directly on your ear, while over-ear headphones have small “cups” that cover the ear that rest on your head. Over-ear headphones tend to be more comfortable for longer listening sessions and provide better sound isolation than on-ear headphones. We’ll mostly talk about over-ear headphones, since the vast majority of modern headphones use the over-ear design.

over-ear headphones

Over-ear headphones are generally as close as you can get in portable audio to the feeling of listening to music with traditional speakers. The disadvantage being that, while bigger headphones can produce a bigger sound, they can feel heavy, or that can just end up being a lot louder to people around you, than earphones. Within over-ear headphones, you have two main designs: open-back and closed-back.

Open-Back Headphones

Open-back headphones strap the speaker to your head, and then don’t do much else. There’s little consideration for noise isolation or bleed, and little concern for keeping outside sounds out, but they can create a huge, open sound, and are generally considered to be the gold standard for how headphones can sound.

Pros:

  • Best overall sound quality

Cons:

  • Very little sound isolation going both ways: people around you can hear your music, and you can hear outside noises
  • Some models will require additional equipment (DAC/Amp) to get the most out of them
Steve’s Open-Back Headphone Picks

Endgame: Meze Empyrean, HiFiMAN Susvara

Midrange: HiFiMAN Arya, Audeze LCD-2

Budget: Audeze LCD-1, HiFiMAN Sundara 

Closed-Back Headphones

Close-back headphones take the open-back design, but add some additional isolation. This means that you get a big sound, more privacy in your listening, and very little outside noise gets in. Closed-back headphones also have a reputation for powerful bass. The disadvantage is that because all the sound gets closed in, it can sometimes become congested, and they are often more “fatiguing” to listen to since they don’t breathe the same way that open-back headphones do.

Pros:

  • Great noise isolation
  • Some high-end models have sound quality that matches open-back headphones

Cons:

  • More muddiness and congestion, and a smaller soundstage than open-back
  • Some models will require additional equipment (DAC/Amp) to get the most out of them
Steve’s Closed-Back Headphone Picks
 

Endgame: Focal Stellia 

Midrange: Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2, Audeze LCD-2 Closed

Budget: Meze Audio 99 Classics

Earphones

Unlike headphones, which rest on your head, earphones are designed to be positioned inside of your ears. Most audiophile earphones are in-ear monitors (IEMs) which use soft ear tips to rest inside the ear canal.

Campire Audio IEMs

IEMs originally rose to prominence among musicians, as they provided a better monitoring option for musicians performing live (and an easier time for the sound engineers controlling the audio environment) than just having more speakers on stage. While virtually every other type of headphone basically just points a speaker at your ear, IEMs typically have the drivers play into a miniaturized acoustic chamber which helps shape the sound as it is delivered inside your ear. IEMs also frequently feature a small array of millimeter sized drivers – some have larger arrays, like the 64 Audio U18t which has 18 drivers per side – which work together to deliver a huge sound in a tiny space. Their size, comfort, and ability to precisely deliver music directly into your ear canal with excellent sound isolation, has made them a top pick for audiophiles.

Pros:

  • Small form factor
  • Excellent portability
  • Excellent noise isolation

Cons:

  • Some people may find it difficult to get a comfortable fit, or find longer listening sessions uncomfortable
  • Dollar for dollar, open-back over-ear headphones typically offer better sound quality than IEMs

Steve’s Earphone Picks

Endgame: Noble Sultan, Empire Ears Legend X

Midrange: Campfire Audio Andromeda, Empire Ears Valkyrie

Budget: oBravo Cupid, Meze Audio Rai Solo

Custom Fit IEMs

Most IEMs sold are "universal fit" which are intended to have a neutral shape that will fit most ears. Because fit is one of the most important aspects of getting the most out of IEMs, and everyone’s ears are different, most IEM manufacturers provide options for custom fit IEMs. You can get custom ear moldings from an audiologist which is turned into a set of IEMs perfectly molded to the size and shape of your ears. Getting a custom fit can alleviate the comfort issues that some listeners experience with IEMs. You can choose from a wide range of options with custom fit available.

Pros:

  • Offers the best fit possible for a better seal and improved comfort
  • The better seal will enhance the sound quality of the IEMs

Cons:

  • Typically more expensive than universal fit
  • Since they're specifically molded to your ears, they may be difficult to resell
  • The shape of your ear changes about every five years, so you may need to have new molds – and new IEMs – made periodically

What’s the best headphone for your listening environment?

Home

Open-back

Travel

Closed-back, IEMs

Workplace

Closed-back, IEMs

Exercise

IEMs