There was a time when the home entertainment system ruled the way we experience media, with monstrous subwoofers and towers, surround systems, and tangles of AV and coaxial cables. But today, the whole world lives in our pockets, and we pipe it all in through our ears.
With 91 percent of Americans owning cell phones and 55 percent owning smartphones, it’s clear that mobile devices dominate how we experience information and entertainment, whether that’s music, news, video, audiobooks or podcasts. So how you get that audio to your ears has never been a more important decision, making a real impact on how your enjoyment, your peace of mind, your comfort and even appearance. And yet, in contrast to most personal electronics, many people struggle to grasp just what makes a good set of headphones. So often, consumers just chug along with their default pair, or worse, churn through crappy replacements as they get mangled or just never sound quite right.
For me, finding the right set of headphones has been an ongoing saga, often confusing and disappointing. But it doesn't have to be that way. I've compiled everything I've learned in my combined years of near-constant headphone use, and tireless research on what makes a good set of headphones. The good news is, there are a lot of options out there, and you don’t have to drop a fortune to get a high-quality pair. Here’s what to look for.
1. The Right Design
The most important thing to consider when looking for an affordable pair of headphones is how you plan to use them. There are hundreds of different models of headphones out there, and chances are, every one has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Above all the factors you’ll be weighing is whether a product suits your specific needs. For example, there are great sets of DJ headphones out there with incredible sound, but they might not be a good fit for your kind of music. Whether you plan to use them in public, in private, on the go, at a desk, all of this should guide your decision. Once you have that in mind, there are a few main categories of basic design that headphones fall into:
Earbuds: This is your pretty standard pair you’ll get with a lot of mobile devices. These are sometimes called intra-concha headphones, meaning they rest in the bowl of the ear without plugging into the ear canal. The sound quality is generally considered not great, and usually inferior to in-ear headphones or full-size sets, particularly when it comes to bass. For many people, these are perfectly fine. Inexpensive, portable, and if you have trouble with in-ear headphones, these tend to be more comfortable.
In-Ear Headphones: Sometimes called intra-canal, these are the same as earbuds, but they have soft rubber tips that insert into your ear canal, forming a seal. For many people, this is the preferred design for a few reasons. For one, they are very portable and convenient, but they also retain great sound. Even inexpensive models can deliver bass much deeper than standard earbuds or even some larger over-ear versions. They also keep the sound from escaping your ears, providing privacy in public settings, and the seal keeps out unwanted ambient sounds. For an affordable, multi-purpose pair of headphones, these are usually the way to go. The downsides are that some people find plugging them into the ear canal uncomfortable, or have a hard time finding the right fit. They also tend to come loose during athletic activity, so some models have plastic clips that wrap around the outside of the ear to keep them in place.
On-Ear Headphones: Also called supra-aural, ear pads, or full-sized supra-aural headphones (this stuff can get super geeky), these go over the top of the head with padded speakers that press against the outside of the ears. The defining feature is that they don’t cover the entire ear, and tend to be smaller and more portable than other full-sized setups. These can be all over the place in terms of quality and price. Generally speaking, they do tend to let out and let in some sound, so may not be ideal for a setting like an airplane, where you want to be more isolated.
Over-Ear Headphones: Also called full-size, circumaural, earcups or stereo headphones. This design is perfect for plugging into a turntable, dimming the lights and enjoying your favorite mood-altering substance. They completely cover the ear. Downsides are that they are not very portable or practical for many settings. The priciest of audiophile headphones tend to be this design, but that doesn’t mean all over-ear headphones have superior sound.
Open vs. Closed? Open means the cups have vents to let some outside sound in. Many believe this actually makes for more natural and realistic sound quality. Closed headphones keep the music in and other sound out, great for certain uses, but inconvenient and sometimes muddy in sound quality.
Noise-Cancelling? Usually, this refers to active noise-cancelling, which is a largely unnecessary technology that mutes outside noise by pumping in backdrop sound that counteracts it. This is very pricey, requires separate batteries, and actually worsens the sound quality. Different from noise isolation or passive noise cancellation, which just means outside sound is kept out by the design of the speakers.
Wireless? Wireless headphones have come a long way, and can be convenient for uses like gaming or making phone calls, but again, sound quality won’t be as good.
2. The Right Price
This is the part that baffles many consumers, and for good reason. Headphones range from $5 to $5,000 (seriously), and who’s to say what the right price is? Do you get what you pay for? Yes and no. If you buy a pair for under 10 bucks, they almost certainly won’t sound very good, that much is true. And audio geeks will tell you that if you are a real connoisseur, a high-end pair playing vinyl will provide a whole new listening experience that you can’t get if you don’t shell out. But there’s a ton of in between, and all along the spectrum, price most certainly does not always indicate quality. And "affordable headphones" really depends on your budget.
There are other factors at play, quality aside. For example, think of the kind of media you listen to. If you’re using standard quality mp3 files over a smartphone, it can only sound so good, regardless of the headphones. That quality is pretty solid, and to be honest, in 90 percent of the settings you’ll be in, it’s as good as you need it to be and then some. Also, if you use them on the go, like most of us do, there’s the sad reality of loss or theft to consider.
The fact is, if you decide up front how much you’re willing to spend and use that as a guide, you’ll be able to find a great set of headphones, and the chances are very good they’ll be even better than some more expensive models. My sweet spot is around $25-$50. In that range, I know I can find quality sound, but I won’t feel like an ass taking them on the screeching subway or leaving them behind on an airplane.
3. Quality Sound
Sound is what we’re all here for right? It’s important. If you’re like me, these little guys will be painting your soundscape for the majority of your waking life, so you better make sure they don’t sound awful. But then again, consider the factors in the first two sections—what you need them for and what you are listening to. Then decide what kind of sound you need.
For starters, the industry will often pummel consumers with numbers and specs that seem meaningless. Well, here’s a little secret—they are somewhat meaningless. But here’s what they do mean so your sound geek friends can’t try to make feel like a noob.
Frequency Response: This specification describes the range in which the speakers can reproduce sound, from highs down to deep bass lows. But a really good range doesn’t guarantee good sound for a number of technical reasons. They just rarely can execute what the numbers promise. A good and common range 20-20,000Hz has potential to get you all the highs and lows you need.
Total Harmonic Distortion: When the tiny speaker can’t move fast enough for high volumes, the sound can distort. The higher the THD, the more likely the distortion. Most reputable headphones are below 1 percent, and beyond that the numbers are just not that important.
Impedance: Lower impedance means it takes less power to get it to high volume. Roughly, higher quality headphones have higher impedance as a byproduct, so they require more power. Some headphones have such high impedance, they need external amplifiers. Unless you’re intending to buy an amp, most of the time this won’t matter. Most MP3 players can easily power headphones with impedance up to around 100 ohms.
Ok, now that we have all that junk out of the way, what does matter? Beyond these loose numbers you want to see in the specs, it’s really all about how it sounds to you. I know that seems like a copout, but it’s true. You gotta plug in and listen. I recommend listening to acoustic guitar music, older classical recordings, or sounds from those white noise apps that recreate the ocean or crickets. If it sounds, well, like it’s supposed to sound, most music will sound good too.
If bass is important to you, it might be necessary to go up to a bigger set. But in-ear headphones these days with decent stats can generate great bass at a pretty reasonable price.
If you’re shopping online and can’t give a listen, look for some of these basic numbers, and check out reviews. Ignore the trolls and the snobs, look for broad strokes. Read what the overall bulk of people say, and then the details of what individuals like or dislike (e.g., couldn't handle bass, distortion even at low volume, etc).
The advice here is similar to sound, in that it’s quite subjective. Our parents were right—we are all special snowflakes, at least in the ear department. For some people, ear buds won’t sit right in the bowl of the ear. For others, the standard in-ear tips won’t stick in the ear canal and different sizes are needed. Some people’s ears stick out a bit (like me) so over-ear headphones start to hurt.
The only way to tell for certain what’s best is to wear the headphones for no fewer than 10 minutes at once. That said, if you have experience with various designs, the comfort level will translate somewhat. If you’ve never tried in-ear headphones, I suggest buying an affordable pair to see how you like the overall experience, if you’re planning to drop some serious money on them eventually.
There are some general things to watch out for. The bigger pairs, especially the closed over-ear kind, tend to get irritating after a while. They can get heavy, and after not too long can really warm up inside the cups. For long periods of time, or while commuting or traveling, the smaller sets are usually a better choice.
This goes right back to the first point of knowing your intended use. If these are going to work with you everyday, a big set is probably not a great idea. I personally don’t want anything I can’t put in my pocket, because I use my headphones pretty much everywhere I go and don’t always want to take my murse (man-purse). That said, I have a pair of on-ear full-size headphones that usually stay at my desk for when I need to drill down on some work. And earbuds with a long cord are a must too - so it can easily fit in my pocket when I'm walking around.
Another important thing to consider is how easily the cords tangle up. Some pairs have that nice soft, rubbery cord material that at first seems so flexible and easy to move around. That’s until you first put it in your pocket and later take it out to find something resembling a chewed up piece of bubble gum. Just remember, you’re going to spend a lot of time with these little guys, make sure it’s something you can work with. Check out our article on keeping your Tweedz Headphones tangle free.
There are some personal electronics that seem to become obsolete the day you open up the box. Rejoice, for headphones are not that kind of tech. The technology behind a good set of affordable headphones, in terms of quality, won’t be significantly changing even in a few years. That means if you find a pair that is well-crafted and made to last, you can hang on to it for quite a while. This goes back to the softer rubbery stuff that over time can peel away (or attract pets, have you heard that Tweedz might be pet proof headphones?).
Simplicity is also a big factor in headphone durability. I had a pricey pair of over-ear headphones that could have lasted for years beyond the day when the delicate plastic hinges that let the speakers dangle snapped on me.
On that same note, a warranty is extremely valuable. Not only does it back you up if you get a defective pair, it shows that the manufacturer has some confidence and that it’s not meant to be a disposable product.
Last but not least, there’s no shame in wanting to look good, or at the very least wanting to appreciate the style of one of your most-used possessions. It might be tempting to buy something thinking that appearance is superficial and shouldn't matter, only to find it in gathering dust in a drawer weeks later because it looks so lame.
These days, headphones are as much of an accessory as a pair of glasses or shoes. We wear them everywhere, and designers and brand names are seizing on this fact. I’d encourage you to not put too much stock in a celebrity endorsement or logo. Instead go with a pair that you find easy on the eyes and fits your style. That's why Tweedz Headphones were designed with a vintage braided style.