Whether it's your favourite podcast on the way to work, the tunes that let you tune out when travelling, or music that gets your heart pumping when you exercise – a quality set of headphones is an essential accessory. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you're shopping for the best pair to suit your needs:
Find the right fit
When it comes to your ears, there are a few different ways that headphones can deliver the sounds you're craving.
Over-ear These are a larger style of headphone, where the ear cup completely encompasses your ear. They can be quite big and heavy, but for some people the fit reduces "ear fatigue" (discomfort that can occur after long listening periods, it's a real thing) and offers a more immersive listening experience.
On-ear This is a smaller style of ear cup that sits on your ear. These are lighter than an over-ear and usually easier to stash in a bag. Some people can find the pressure of the cups to be painful during a long listening session.
In-ear Also known as earbuds, these are easily slipped into a pocket and unobtrusive to wear. Most models are designed for use with mobile phones and will have a mic for taking calls and even volume controls.
Bluetooth headphones have been popular for a while now, but with Apple taking the bold step of killing off the headphone jack they might just become essential for iPhone users.
A wireless connection gives you freedom of movement, and on many models you'll be able to control music and calls all without ever touching your phone.
The downside is the battery: these are long-life products, but when the battery is over so is the music. Luckily, most have a headphone cable as an accessory – great if you've remembered to bring it (and your device actually has a headphone jack!)
As any seasoned traveller will tell you, noise-cancelling headphones can make all the difference on a long-haul flight. Noise-cancelling works by blocking out ambient noise to make sounds clearer. With constant background noise, such as what you get on a plane, noise cancelling works extremely well, although it's not quite as effective with random sounds such as speech or other external music.
You might see the terms “active” or “passive” when it comes to noise-cancelling.
Active means that the headphones sample the external sound and produce an opposing sound wave to cancel it out. Passive means they are physically blocking sound the with density of the cup design. More on that below...
Closed- versus open- options
“Closed" and “open” design refers to the back of the earcup.
A closed-ear design is meant to lock the sound in – you might also see it referred to as passive noise-cancelling or noise-isolating. All the models listed above are examples of closed-ear headphones.
When it comes to earbuds, they're a closed design by nature, unless you've got a bad fit which you'll know because they'll be falling out on a regular basis!
It's worth noting that some of the higher-end closed-cup designs, especially any with Bluetooth connectivity, have a feature that uses the built-in mic to help you hear what's going on around you.
An open-ear design means more sound can come in – you're able to be better aware of your surroundings. This can be great for sport headphones, for example, letting you hear that truck before you decide to run across the road. But you also get sound leakage out – it's not the most public transport friendly system.
For the road runners and the gym junkies, quality headphones can be the difference between a mediocre workout and a new personal best. Sporting headphones are usually in-ear and Bluetooth – in-ear offer a better fit when you're moving around and the Bluetooth means you can have your phone in a bag or armband.
If you can, make sure you're getting sport headphones that are sweat proof – they'll last a longer and stay cleaner as well.