The irony hasn't been lost on the internet that, once upon a time, our portable music players were huge and the headphones were tiny and now the players are miniscule and headphones are enormous!
As with our clothes, many like their technology to be a fashion statement and right now that means walking round with huge (both physically and financially) 'Beats - by Dr Dre' branded headphones.
If you're under 25 and lead by fashion and researching buying a pair of headphones, read no further - it's Beats all the way and, if money is tighter, then Skull Candy won't see you alienated from your friends.
For everyone else, I'd urge a little more thought, because Beats really are nothing special and can easily be bettered for sound quality. The trouble is, there is a lot of choice out there and a lot of geeky terminology to negotiate. How to choose without having to learn a new language? Sounds like a job for Dependent on Gadgets!
Where will you use them?
For a keen music fan, it may be that you will have to consider buying more than one pair of headphones, as no one model will suit every situation. For example, to enjoy music whilst at the gym, out for a run or even a swim, there are versions designed to stay comfortable and in place whilst the rest of your body is put through its paces. Generally in-ear designs work best here. They act like ear-plugs, keeping other noise out and shorter, lighter cables allow you to wear your music player out of the way on an arm band or attached to clothing.
These ear buds are good to commute with too, again for their background-noise insulating properties and also because they pack up small in your pocket when you're not using them.
Some people find these types a bit uncomfortable at first, but after a short adjustment period they are capable of great sound and many come with different sized buds for you to choose a pair with a good fit. Take a look at the Sennheiser CX175 In-Ear Headphones which are an excellent example, showing you don't need to spend a fortune either.
At the other end of the scale, for those who wish to enjoy their music from the comfort of the sofa or at their desk, over-the-ear headphones provide the 'biggest' sound since they physically are much bigger than little ear-bud drivers. You get the advantage of comfort that lasts hour after hour whilst enjoying the best sound quality available from headphones. You wouldn't want to go for a run in them though.
Of course there are always those people who don't want to shove something in their ear-hole and neither do they want to clamp two massive speakers to the side of their head. For those difficult types, there is a whole range of on-ear sets which try to bring the sound quality of the full-sized versions and some of the portability of the in-ear ones. These are the jack of all trades and certainly represent a sensible choice for those not looking to amass too many pairs. I fell in love with the Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear headphones, which whilst not cheap, really are fantastically well engineered and the sound is much bigger than you would expect.
Features and Technical Terms
So once you've decided which form is most appropriate for your needs, it's time to prepare yourself for the onslaught of confusing jargon the local HIFI shop may throw at you. Fortunately, whilst there is a whole world of nuance to get to grips with for the geeks, the casual fan can get by with a few simple tips.
Noise-cancelling headphones are available in all styles. The way they work is that a microphone listens to the outside world and the headphones fire opposing soundwaves at the more constant noises, cancelling them out, so all you hear (in theory) is your music. These are great for travelling. The drone of aeroplanes and trains in particular can be cut right out and help you find a sense of privacy and space in an often crowed and uncomfortable environment. They also mean you don't have to turn the volume up so high, which will help you avoid the risk of tinnitus.
Sometimes, the cable between your headphones and the music player can be a pain. Wireless headphones are the solution and various technologies exist to replace the cable with thin air. The cheapest and most common is bluetooth-stereo, sometimes referred to as A2DP (catchy!). This is a great technology for listeners on the go with their music on a smartphone, but listen carefully and you do find the sound won't have the detail that you get from traditional cable. This is because it's being compressed and processed - but it's a worthy trade in some situations.
Go up to the full sized headphones and bluetooth is less common. Some use RF, effectively a short distance FM radio signal, which can sound okay. Pay a little more and companies like Sennheiser and Bose have their own propriatory wireless technologies that sound really good. If you need wireless, these go some way to solving the problem. However, if it's not essential, cable is still best and your money can be invested in sound quality rather than snazzy features.
Open-Back Vs Closed Back
When I was doing my own research, I fell in love with a range by Grado. These headphones sounded unlike any of the other full sized headphones I'd tried. The reason was because they are open back, which means the sound is not 'locked in' when directed at your head. It's free to head in all directions, leading to a wider, more natural experience, almost as if the band were live in front of you (rather than in your brain, like other headphones). This is great and if you plan to enjoy music alone in your living room. Give open-backed headphones a try, they're amazing. However, if you share a space with others whilst enjoying your tunes, I'm afraid they will be too as the sound leaks everywhere. My office colleagues will be glad I opted for closed-back, where the sound is kept in and leakage is minimal.
With impedance, we're stepping into a technical land were full understanding can require matchsticks for the eyelids as you learn. The impedance of headphones is bascially a measure of how much electrical voltage and current is required to drive them and give you, the listener, acceptable volume. Typically, you need low impedance headphones for mobile devices like MP3 players and smartphones (which don't take much to drive) and higher impedance models for quality HIFI amplifers. These days many common or garden HIFIs use low impedance outputs anyway, simply due to that being where the demand is. Pretty much all portable headphones will suit your home stereo and your MP3 player, but if you're looking for HIFI headphones, it's worth checking the range on offer and picking appropriately.
How to Judge Sound Quality
Audiophiles, those engaged in the passionate persuit of pure audio bliss can argue until the batteries run out over what makes sound 'good quality'. The majority of us these days have ditched the CD and download or stream mp3 music from iTunes and Spotify. An audiophile will generally have already walked away in disgust, so I'm not sure it's necessarily worth asking them.
In my experience, testing lots of headphones before buying is a must. Comparison is what it's all about. Some brands are geared toward heavy bass and that's where the fashion is right now too. The Beats range, Skull Candy and so on are all tuned for thumping bass and they can be quite exhilarating to listen to if you have a love of electronic music like Dub-Step. What these headphones are missing though is detail. When you hear the bass described as 'muddy' that means that whilst there is plenty of it, it's only really the thud that's coming through. Not an accurate representation of the notes being played. Bass like this tends to overwhelm the mid-range, which is where most of the vocals are and they too can be drowned out.
Sometimes you'll hear about 'reference class' headphones. These are designed to be rather like the ones used in the recording studios, where the sound engineers want to hear exactly what is being recorded with as much accuracy as possible. Reference headphones balance the sound in such a way that everything should come through in great detail, but some find this a little cold sounding for long periods of listening.
The most popular brands of headphones outside of the trendy stuff are made by the likes of Sony and Sennhesier. These companies have a long background of audio equipment manufacturing and consistantly turn out great quality headphones across the whole price range. Sennheiser's Momentums are regarded by many as the best headphones you can get under £300, but if your budget is closer to the £50 mark, you'll still be able to buy a pair that your tunes will just flow beautfully out of. These manufactuerers both make their headphones sound a little 'warm' simply because most people like their sound that way. Warm headphones tend to have slightly less treble emphasis (reference headphones sound 'bright' by comparison), which can make for a more comfortable, perhaps cosy, sound. Try them all out and see what fits.
So What Did You Buy?
Good question. I knew I wanted a pair that would only be used either at my desk or at home on the sofa. They didn't need to be too portable, so size wasn't a problem, but I would be using them with colleagues around me, so that ruled out open-back models. Wireless and noise-cancelling weren't essential, so as cool as they sounded, I decided I would rather the money go into the engineering, which also ruled out all the celebrity backed stuff, where the emphasis was on fashion. I was searching for close-back full sized headphones.
After a long search, I found myself drawn to the Sennheiser Momentums, but at £250 odd (I'd budgeted £150 max), I needed to be sure they really were the best before I laid down that kind of money. Certainly the build quality, sound and comfort where right up there and I knew I wasn't far off from punching in the pin-number and justifying the dent in bank balance later. That was until my headphone-hording best friend insisted I try the AKG K550. AKG Acoustics are not necessarily massively well known here, but the US owned company has a long award-winning history of making recording equipment, but has been boosting its headphone offering to consumers since the MP3 player made portable music a mass market phenomenon. They've taken the sector by storm and really have brought the competition to the likes of Sennheiser. These AKGs are big headphones, and I rather worry that they give my head a sort of tech-Princess-Leia vibe, but the sound quality is simply amazing.
They're reference class headphones, so the sound is more trebly than the Sennheisers, but the bass balance is perfect and there is so much detail across the sound, no matter what you're listening to, that it's rather like a broadstage, where every instrument has it's own space to be heard.
Expert reviews suggest that they're the closest you'll get to an open-back sound from a closed-back headphone and I'm inclined to agree.
Since I got them, I can't stop listening to them and it's brought new joy to some tracks as I pick up detail I've simply never heard before. Oh and at about £125 at places like Amazon, they're as good as the Momentums, but you could pick up a stack of new albums to enjoy with them before you've spent the same money. Happy hunting, make sure you give these a try.