Finding the right pair of headphones for your specific needs and wants can seem like an overwhelming endeavor. Here is a headphone buying guide that will help. It can seem that way unless you know what style, brand, and price range would fit your plans for listening.
There is a wide range of options that mostly revolve around what you plan on listening to. Where you plan on using them is also a super important area to pay close attention to. If you want a pair exclusively for gaming, watching movies on a laptop, streaming wireless media from your TV, or trying to make your music sound as close to the live experience as possible – there are specific models for each.
While there are some headphones that can work for a wide range of purposes, if you want to get the most out of your entertainment, it’s best to whittle your list down to a few specific models within a certain area. Keep reading our Headphone Buying Guide to learn what features are the most important before buying a new pair of cans!
Here are a few of the most important factors to consider that will ultimately determine whether or not you enjoy your new pair:
- Sound quality
- Build design
- Wireless vs. wired
- Open back vs. closed back
- In-ear vs. IEM
- On-ear vs. Over-ear
There is a lot of subjectivity when it comes to which brand makes the best audio gear. Some people will tell you that the most expensive models always sound the best. Others will try to sell you on extra add-ons that really might not be necessary. Overall, there’s something for everyone to choose from. Let’s get started!
Headphone Buying Guide
What Are The Different Styles?
- Circumaural (aka Over-Ear)
- Supra-aural (aka On-Ear)
- Closed Back
- Open Back
- In-Ear (aka Earbuds)
- In-Ear Monitors (aka IEMs)
- Gaming Headsets
First, let’s take a look at circumaural (aka over/around-ear) headphones!
Circumaural Headphones – (aka Over-Ear)
Circumaural headphones are oftentimes the most comfortable style to wear. If you’re someone who likes listening to music (or mixing/mastering) for hours on end you’ll probably prefer this style.
They usually feature a comfortable ear cup with plush padding. Many ‘phones of this style offer replacement ear padding, in case the included pads are too big or small. The prices for this style can range anywhere from about $20 all the way to $1000 and more.
Best Uses For Circumaural/Over-ear:
- Watching movies
- Mixing/mastering music
- Recording music
- At-home listening
- Wherever you want to block out noise and just hear your music/media
You’ll be able to see some of the additional benefits of using circumaural headphones after reading our review of the Beats Studio Wireless.
Supra-Aural Headphones – (aka On-Ear)
Supra-aural (on-ear) headphones do exactly what the name suggests. They’ll have the same comfortable ear padding, but instead of covering your ears entirely, they only partially cover your ears.
Although some supra-aural ‘phones (like the Beyerdynamic DT 1350) are as comfortable as over-ears, the pressure and weight start to take its toll after more than a few hours. I personally like to take breaks (even during marathon sessions) no matter how comfortable the headphones are. It’s healthy to let your ears breathe and rest until you punish them again with loud, beautiful-sounding music.
Best Uses For Supra-aural/On-ear:
- On-the-go listening (due to their compact size)
- At-home listening
- Running, lifting, other exercises at the gym
Next, let’s take a closer look at the benefits and most popular uses for closed-backa ‘phones.
Closed Back Headphones (Can be Cirumaural or Supra-aural)
Closed back is the technical term for headphones that are more commonly used by the masses. The ear cups are closed and usually designed to either cancel or isolate outside noise.
Best Uses For Closed Back:
- Anywhere you want to only hear your music
- Louder, more-crowded areas
Click here to see some of the best examples of closed back cans that provide above-average noise isolation.
Open Back Headphones (Can be Cirumaural or Supra-aural)
Open back headphones feature an open-air design that serves a few different purposes. It’s designed this way to allow for a lighter ‘phone build as well as an airy soundscape.
Most of the time, they’re designed to more-accurately mimic the live concert experience. A lot of audiophiles prefer this design due to its low distortion sound and driver types. Open-back headphones tend to be more expensive and appeal to a specific listener.
Best Uses For Open Back:
- True-to-life sonic experience
- Accurate sound reproduction (for truly hi-res listening)
Here’s a full and in-depth explanation of the main differences between open back vs. closed back headphones.
In-Ear Headphones (aka Earbuds/Earphones)
In-ear headphones (earbuds) are the type of headphones usually included when you purchase a new smartphone. They do exactly what their name entails – fit directly inside your ear. Some people have trouble finding a pair that stays in their ear securely.
Most pairs of in-ears will come with multiple sizes or ear sleeves for this exact reason. Not all ears were made equally so you can experiment and even use a different size for each ear. The Best Wireless Earbuds For Working Out here are a great example of the convenience that in-ear ‘phones have to offer. Since they’re way more compact than other types, they’re perfect for working out or carrying with you.
Best Uses For In-ear/Earbuds:
- Working out
- Discreet listening
- Ultra-compact on-the-go listening
In-Ear Monitors (aka IEMs)
In-ear monitors (IEMs for short) are also another common choice for many audiophiles. They utilize noise-isolation due to their in-ear canal design to make sure you only hear what you’re playing from your device.
It’s also a common choice for musicians to use on stage. Since they stay securely in place and use noise isolation, they’re a great choice for performing live while listening to a backing track or metronome.
Best Uses For In-Ear Monitors/IEMs:
- Live performances
- Audiophile listening
- Clean, non-distorted music listening
Use this link to see a full description about IEMs and who they’d work best for – and why.
Gaming headsets are a popular choice for casual gamers, YouTube streamers, and people who stream games live through services like Twitch. They always include some sort of microphone that could be detachable, built-in, or retractable.
Many of these headsets have a sound signature that’s dialed in specifically for hearing small details. Some of them also have noise-cancellation features for their mics. If you’re playing a game and chatting live, you don’t want the background noise to mix with your voice.
Best Uses For Gaming Headsets:
- More-immersive gaming (especially with live chat)
- Streaming live on YouTube, Twitch, etc.
Here are the Top 10 Best Xbox One Headsets list that you can take a look at to see more examples.
You’re Ready To Navigate The Sea of Options
Now you know what each type of headphone does and why you might need a pair of supra-aural or circumaural headphones. You’ve learned about how a specific type of headphone will help you get the best use out of them. With that in mind, you can match their purpose with your plans for listening and make a more educated decision.
I recommend that you bookmark this page to revisit when you’re ready to make your choice. You can scroll through our headphone buying guide as many times as you need to. Once you pinpoint which style will fit your exact listening needs – you’ll know what to look for and what to avoid.
I hope this has been helpful in assisting you along the way. The world of audio can seem overwhelming and it’s nice to have a guide that will help you find the perfect fit for you and your ears.
Thanks for stopping by to learn about the different types of headphones! Feel free to leave a comment or ask a question below, I’m always interested in hearing your feedback.
Sonic Elevation: Ride The Waves.