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Headphone buying guide: Which headphones for whom?

TechHeadphone buying guide: Which headphones for whom?

Bluetooth headphones: wireless on the move with over-ear, on-ear and in-ear headphones
Noise-cancelling: Technology for quiet moments
Headsets: Calls and video conferences made easy
Listening at a high level: HiFi headphones
What criteria should I look for when buying headphones?
The development of the first headphones, at that time simple constructions consisting of two mono speakers and a headband, dates back to the end of the 19th century. Once used as military technology, the invention evolved into a portable companion that is now an indispensable part of our everyday lives. Whether listening to the latest hits from Spotify and Tidal, hosting Zoom meetings, listening to podcasts or audiobooks, or pumping out driving beats during sports: the use of headphones has never been as versatile as it is today.

But the differences within the headphone segment are just as diverse as the areas of application. Small in-ear headphones meet large over-ears. Some are operated via Bluetooth, others need a suitable jack connection. Should noise-cancelling be on board? Or would you prefer hi-fi headphones without a lot of bells and whistles? Especially for someone who is buying headphones for the first time, it can be difficult to understand the differences and specifications. With our big headphone guide, we want to make it easier for you to find the right model – and get you enjoying music faster.

Bluetooth headphones: Over-ear, on-ear and in-ear for wireless travel
Are you looking for a portable companion and tired of the annoying tangle of cables? Then Bluetooth headphones could be interesting for you. As the name suggests, the headphones are connected to your device via Bluetooth. Especially for mobile use, for example on the train, the wireless version is often much more comfortable. However, not all Bluetooth headphones are the same. The models differ not only in terms of the Bluetooth version, but also in the support of Bluetooth codecs. In addition, the headphones offer different designs. There are over-ear and on-ear headphones as well as in-ear headphones. You can read about the differences here.

Over-ear headphones
Over-ear headphones are clearly the biggest sound behemoths among headphones. Unlike on-ear headphones, they enclose the entire ear and, due to their generous design, offer space for equally large drivers. This makes them the best of all headphone types at reproducing sound across the entire frequency spectrum – from bass to fine treble. At the same time, over-ear headphones are also best at portraying the soundscape of the songs in question. The way the ear cushions wrap around the entire ear helps direct sound waves into the ear canal.

Headphone reviews

The Bose QC45 offer excellent noise cancelling and a very good fit.
In addition, over-ear headphones are usually very comfortable to wear and have a better battery life than smaller models. But just as the size of over-ears offers many advantages, it also has disadvantages: they take up much more space in your pocket than in-ear headphones, for example. In addition, some models are quite clunky and heavy, and the design and size do not appeal to everyone.

Over time, we have tested many over-ear headphones. We particularly liked the Sony WH-1000XM4, the Apple AirPods Max and the Bose QuietComfort 45. You can find more high-quality Bluetooth models in the following list.

On-ear headphones
Another popular type of headphones are on-ear headphones. Unlike over-ears, they sit directly on your ears. Good candidates for Bluetooth-powered on-ear models include the Bowers & Wilkins PX5 or the Marshall Major IV. But what other differences are there besides the fit on the ears?

The Bowers & Wilkins PX5 on-ear headphones offer good ANC and a finely tuned sound.
On-ear headphones are great for those who want the benefits of over-ear headphones but don’t want the extra weight of large ear cushions. Just like over-ear headphones, the design still offers enough space for large drivers, and in terms of sound, some models perform on par with the larger models. Powerful rechargeable batteries can also be accommodated well in the housing, depending on the dimensions of the headphones. However, a good isolation capacity as with over-ear headphones is difficult to achieve with on-ear headphones. Due to the somewhat airier fit, considerably more ambient noise gets through to you than with circumaural models. And although on-ear headphones are easier to wear and smaller in size, they are still quite bulky compared to in-ear headphones.

In-ear headphones
In-ear headphones are small companions that sit in the ear itself, unlike their larger counterparts. They are characterised by their compact design and usually very low weight (usually between five and seven grams per earpiece). Although there are also a few wired in-ear headphones, the wireless variant via Bluetooth connection, also called true wireless headphones, has displaced almost all other models. Unlike over-ear or on-ear headphones, the small earphones are not charged via a cable, but in a charging case. The charging case itself is usually charged via USB-C, and many new models also support wireless charging via QI.

The AirPods Pro are the highest-quality True Wireless headphones from Apple. Unlike the normal AirPods, they offer noise cancelling.
The main advantage of in-ear headphones is definitely their size: they fit easily into your (trouser) pocket and are perfect for use on the go. In terms of shielding, some models also deliver good results. Memory foam or silicone earplugs in particular provide a good passive seal against ambient noise. Of course, there are also some models that are additionally equipped with noise cancelling. We will look at what this means in detail later.

The compact design has many advantages, but poses great challenges for the engineers during development. Accurate audio reproduction in particular is difficult to achieve because of the small drivers. In addition, many headphones have a much weaker battery life than on-ear or over-ear headphones. Many models can last between four and six hours, while some candidates are somewhat more enduring and can last up to twelve hours.

One advantage of in-ear headphones is their price – at least in some cases. Many models on the market are affordable and range between 50 and 100 euros. But there are also some headphones that cost well over 200 euros and even almost 400 euros. Here, the models differ in terms of workmanship, sound, runtimes, control options, microphones and other features such as noise cancelling or a control app. The Sony WF-1000XM4, the AirPods Pro (for Apple users) and the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro (for Android users) performed particularly well in our numerous tests.

The extra portion of motivation: sports headphones
Just like listening to podcasts in bed at night, headphones are also used for sports and provide you with the beats you need to reach new athletic heights. Because of their slim size and wireless connection, true-wireless in-ear headphones are particularly suitable for this purpose. A particular challenge here is the fit and wearing comfort. The headphones must sit securely and comfortably in the ear and withstand even hectic movements. To ensure a good fit, many manufacturers use additional earpieces, such as the Bose Sport Earbuds. Another feature of sports headphones is the IP rating. This indicates the extent to which the headphones are protected against water, sweat and dust. If you plan to use the headphones outside in the rain, you should buy in-ear headphones with the appropriate protection class. Good companions for your next workout are, for example, the JBL Reflect Flow or the Beats Powerbeats Pro.

Noise cancelling: technology for quiet moments
Turn on the music, say goodbye to ambient noise: that’s the credo behind active noise cancelling, often abbreviated to ANC. While passive noise cancelling prevents outside sound from entering your ear simply by the design of the headphones, ANC describes a special technology for cancelling out ambient noise. Without going into too much depth, ANC works as follows: Microphones on the headphones pick up outside noise and pass it on to the processor, which analyses the noise. A counter-sound (anti-sound) is then generated that cancels out the ambient noise. Due to their design, over-ear headphones shield ambient noise well “by nature” – with the corresponding noise-cancelling technology, some models like the Sony WH-1000XM4 realise music reproduction that is reduced to sound and free of annoying noise.

The Sony WH-1000XM4 is one of the headphones with the best ANC on the market.
As mentioned above, the space limitations of in-ear headphones make it difficult to combine all the technological features. For example, there are many models that have ANC but are inefficient at blocking out ambient noise. But of course there are also in-ear headphones that really have ANC. The Bowers & Wilkins PI7, the Sony WF-1000XM4 (not to be confused with the Sony WH-1000XMX4) or the Apple AirPods Pro are powerful companions that will turn any train journey into pure music enjoyment.

Headsets: calls and video conferencing made easy
In the past, there was only one goal in developing headphones: to create the best possible sound. Today, this is still one of the most important aspects, but in times of home offices, virtual meetings and mobile working, microphone quality in particular is a much sought-after feature. Headsets with an external boom microphone perform best, but there are also many good headphones that will put you in the best position for the next conference call. Good candidates with good microphone performance include the Bose Headphones 700, the Apple AirPods Max and the Sony WH-1000XM4, which have already been mentioned several times.

The Apple AirPods Max convinces with top-class microphone quality.
But in-ear headphones like the Jabra Elite 85t also ensure clean and clearly understandable phone calls. If you’re planning to use your next pair of headphones (also) for work, multi-pairing might be an important keyword for you. With multi-pairing, you can connect several devices to your headphones via Bluetooth at the same time and save yourself the hassle of pairing and unpairing. For example, you can listen to music on your laptop and easily switch to your smartphone when a call comes in.

Listening at a high level: hi-fi headphones
For those looking for the best sound experience, there’s also the (classic) hi-fi headphones. They are typically connected via cable and have a 6.3 mm jack connection. You will find this connection primarily on amplifiers or record players. However, many manufacturers also include a 3.6 mm adapter to enable connection to mobile devices such as smartphones, small DACs or laptops. The price range extends from entry-level models starting at around 150 euros to high-end headphones costing more than 6,000 euros.

Closed vs. open
The basic distinction is the type of construction: there are closed and open headphones. Closed headphones are characterised by the fact that they are completely closed to the outside. These include, for example, the Philips Fidelio X3, the Beyerdynamic T5, the Sennheiser HD 820 or the Bluetooth headphones mentioned above (over-ear and on-ear headphones). The advantages of closed headphones are that they protect the internal technical components and do not allow sound to escape. This means you can listen to your favourite playlist at full volume on the train without worrying about annoying the people sitting next to you. The disadvantage of closed headphones is the feeling of space: compared to open headphones, the spatiality seems much narrower.

As open headphones, the Sennheiser HD 660S are only suitable for quiet environments without “fellow listeners”.
One disadvantage is another advantage: with open headphones, the typical advantages and disadvantages are exactly reversed. Open headphones are, as the name suggests, open. This means that they are not closed to the outside and the drivers are exposed. Because the sound can expand outwards, open headphones generate a more spacious, airy sound. However, this has the disadvantage that not only is a lot of ambient noise audible, but the music being played is also audible to others. Thus, open headphones are best suited for quiet environments. Proven and well-known models in the field of open headphones are, for example, the Grado SR80x, the Sennheiser HD660 or the DT1990 Pro by Beyerdynamic.

What criteria should I look for when buying headphones?
As you can see, choosing the right headphones is not easy and the variety of different types and models can quickly overwhelm you. To make sure you find the right candidate for your ears, you should think about a few things beforehand. We’ll show you what to look for before you buy.

Purpose and construction
One of the most important aspects is definitely the question of intended use: What do you want to use your headphones for? Depending on the application, there are features you should look for. For example, if you are looking for new headphones for sports, you should look for a corresponding IP classification, which describes the degree of protection against water. Comfort and fit are also important criteria.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for headphones with which you can also make intelligible calls, you should look for good microphones. Then there is the general question of fit and design. Do you want discreet and small earphones that you can take everywhere? Or do you not care about size and are looking for headphones that hug your ear? You should think carefully about whether a pair of in-ear headphones, an over-ear headphone or an on-ear headphone is the right choice for you.

Bluetooth vs. cable
Bluetooth or cable? An important point. Many headphones are now connected via Bluetooth. This not only makes you more mobile, but also means you don’t have to carry an annoying cable around with you all the time. However, this also has its downsides: Depending on the codec, the audio quality is significantly worse than with wired headphones.

The Bose Headphones 700 can be connected via Bluetooth as well as via cable.
With wireless headphones, battery life also plays a major role. If you intend to buy over-ear or on-ear headphones, the question is not quite as relevant. Both designs offer enough space for powerful and long-lasting batteries. Many models offer at least 18 hours of playtime on a single charge. But if you’re sympathetic to in-ear headphones, that aspect becomes more important. The capacity varies between four and twelve hours, and the runtime is often noticeably reduced when ANC is switched on.

Many headphones also offer a quick-charge function. As a rule, the headphones can be charged within 10-15 minutes for playing times varying between one and three hours.

App: Updates and settings for in-ear headphones
Meanwhile, almost all manufacturers of wireless headphones provide special apps, some of which offer many useful functions. One of the most important functions is the possibility to install updates and the latest firmware. Depending on which device you want to use the headphones with, you should pay attention to the compatibility with the operating system. If you want to buy Apple AirPods Pro or the new AirPods 3, for example, it only makes sense if you also have an iOS-compatible device. Otherwise you won’t be able to install any updates. The same goes for Google’s Pixel Buds: the app is only available for Android and Pixel users, all others are left empty-handed.

Most apps can also do more than just updates. The variety of functions includes equalisers, search functions and customisation options for the controls.

Budget: What do I want to spend on my headphones?
Of course, the question of budget is also relevant to the decision. It’s best to think about how much you want to spend and what you expect from your headphones. Good headphones are available in all price ranges, but what matters are the features. Do you want really good ANC? Do you want the headphones to look good? Is a comprehensive app important to you? The combination of all the factors mentioned in this guide will lead you to your perfect setup. The HIFI.DE editorial team has conducted a large number of headphone tests, and you can find our top recommendations in the HIFI.DE best lists included in the respective chapters above – so you are well positioned for your search for the right model.

So, do you already know which headphones you want to buy? Are you more of a team in-ear or over-ear? Let us know and write it in the comments!

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