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How to buy the right headphones

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Headphones

Need some new kit for your jog, commute or simple listening pleasure? Thomas Kibwe runs through the best options at every price right now

Technology, like time, marches on. Headphones have never sounded better, though they’ve frankly never been more complicated to buy, either.

Once upon a time, all that mattered when it came to buying a new pair to listen to your music was how much you had to spend. Now you have to consider where you want to listen, what you want to listen on, and even what else you plan on doing at the same time.

Will these headphones stay in your ears while you’re running? Will they break if you try to swim with them? Will they even work with the phone in your pocket? None of these things are a given, so you have to shop carefully to find a pair of earphones that are the right fit for you. Here’s our guide to help you choose, whatever your needs.

For… the traveller
Sony WH-1000XM3 | RRP US$348

What they are:
Powerful over-ear headphones with incredible noise-cancelling technology. They’re wireless, too, so you can cut the cord hassle while you zone out to your favourite tunes (but there’s still a socket for a wire if you prefer).

Why they’re good:
For a noisy journey or work environment, there really is no better way to shut out the outside world. Turn on the noise-cancelling, and all you can hear is your music (and, with 30 hours of battery life, you won’t run out even during a long-haul flight). Sony hasn’t skimped on the acoustics, either: frequency reproduction up to 40kHz means it can handle heavy, bassy beats and high notes with equal aplomb. As an added bonus, it works with Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant voice control software, if you’re running either of them on your phone.

The downsides:
Really, only the price. Top-quality noise cancelling doesn’t come cheap, but aside from that, these are one of the best pairs of headphones you can buy now, in any price category.

For… the gamer
Turtle Beach Elite Pro 2 Gaming Headset + SuperAmp | RRP US$249.95

What they are:
Super-comfortable over-ear headphones with a microphone especially designed for multiplayer gaming on PC and video game consoles.

Why they’re good:
If you like playing team games, you’ll know how important communication is. These beautifully designed headphones with booming 50mm drivers let you do just that, with an impressive microphone so you can bark commands clearly. The clever SuperAmp gizmo, meanwhile, connects to your smartphone via Bluetooth so you can adjust all sorts of settings on the fly (toggle on the ability to take calls from your phone while you play, for instance, or flick between sound [EQ] settings).

The downsides:
The price, of course – these cost as much as some video game consoles. The bulky, slightly garish design also means you might not want to plug these into your phone for a day out.

For… the iPhone owner
Apple AirPods Pro | RRP US$249

What they are:
Tiny, completely wireless earphones that connect wirelessly to all your Apple devices – and, new to this generation, they even squeeze in noise-cancelling tech so you can drown out the crying baby two rows back. Try not to lose them!

Why they’re good:
If you own a recent iPhone, you’ll know how irritating Apple’s proprietary Lightning port is – none of your old headphones with a standard 3.5mm plug will connect to it. Apple’s solution? Cut the cords entirely. Pair the AirPods Pro to your iPhone and you can listen to music without ever untangling another cord in your bag, and even control tracks or activate Apple’s voice assistant software Siri with a simple squeeze. They’re perfect for joggers or people heavily invested in Apple’s ecosystem, but the impressively effective noise cancelling also means these are seriously worth considering for a commute.

The downsides:
There’s the price, of course. Sound quality isn’t perfect, even by wireless headphone standards – nothing this small is going to sound incredible. Questions also remain around their battery life – the batteries of previous models have inevitably degraded with time, and it would be surprising if these don’t suffer from the same issue. But these issues don’t change the fact that there’s really nothing else quite like them on the market.

For… the audiophile
Sennheiser HD 820 | RRP US$2,295

What they are:
The premium of premium, expertly engineered over-ear headphones, made with curved glass and supplied with three different cables to fit whatever sound source you could possibly need.

Why they’re good:
So many headphones today are built with another purpose – to listen while you swim, while you talk, while you work. If you just want to sit at home and listen to your favourite album, though, the HD 820s are what you need. They handle low frequencies in a way that makes listening privately for hours on end a joy, and the glass and metal structure looks as smart as it feels comfortable. These are reference class – good enough for a sound studio or professional work – but because these are closed-back headphones, which keep most of the sound sealed in, you can still use these in a communal setting – an office, say – without annoying everyone. The best of both worlds.

The downsides:
That would be the four digit price tag. Make no mistake, these are not headphones to be streaming music on Spotify from over your mobile reception. You need a serious sound source – think vinyl or lossless digital audio files – and a good amp or digital to audio converter (DAC) to make the most of all the tech inside the HD 820s. Otherwise you’re paying for kit you’re just not using.

For… the athlete
Bose SoundSport Wireless | RRP US$129

What they are:
Bluetooth headphones so you can listen to music without cables getting in the way of your workout, however tough.

Why they’re good:
Not as small as Apple’s AirPods, so you won’t lose them, but not so big that they’ll cause any discomfort while you’re marathon training or lifting weights in the gym. These sweat-resistant wireless headphones connect to your phone via Bluetooth to stream music while you exercise. Great sound combined with smart design and, most importantly, buds that absolutely won’t fall out of your ears while you run. And if you do need to pause to talk, a simple press of the inline remote button lets you jump into a call or skip a track.

The downsides:
A truly practical pair of workout headphones needs to be wireless, which does mean you’ll need to charge them up every now and again – they need their own power source. In this respect, the SoundSport Wireless battery life (five to six hours) could have been better – but then they are very small.

For… those on a budget
RHA MA390 | RRP US$29.95

What they are:
Earphones on a pittance, designed to replace the absolutely atrocious pair that probably came bundled with your phone.

Why they’re good:
Buying cheap headphones is often a lottery – even with big brands, you’re never quite sure what you’ll get. Luckily, these are the winning ticket. At under US$30, they won’t break the bank, they work with both iPhones and Android smartphones, and their aluminium casing adds a touch of polish seldom seen in this price bracket. Sound quality is impressive, too, excelling particularly in bassy music – heavy beats and hip hop come to life.

The downsides:
Look, you buy cheap, you buy compromise, and there are just a couple here you’ll have to make. You can’t change volume with the remote, for one, but the main issue is that sound quality isn’t as warm as you’ll get with pricier models or with comforting over-ear models with large drivers. But for the price? We still say they’re a great option.

Audio tech: terms to know:

• Bluetooth
The wireless technology standard to pair headphones and smartphones without cords. Expect some loss of sound quality.

• 3.5mm port
The standard headphone socket long used by most portable music devices and smartphones.

• Lightning port
Apple’s special port for plugging in chargers and headphones on all current iPhones and iPads. Convenient if you’re happy using Apple headphones or wireless earphones; otherwise, a headache if using your own, requiring you to use an adapter.

• USB-C port
Some new Android smartphones use this new connection in place of the old 3.5mm port. Likely to become the future standard for all headphone connections.

• In-ear
Earphones that fit inside your ears – the smaller type that come with most phones, ideally suited for exercise and taking phone calls.

• Over-ear
Headphones that go over rather than in your ears, with a band connecting them over the top. Much more comfortable and immersive, and capable of delivering much higher sound quality – but often more expensive, too.

• Open-back
Headphones that don’t seal the sound inside your ear entirely. They typically produce a more natural, authentic sound – but people around you will hear it, too.

• Closed-back
Headphones that seal in the sound, ideal for commuting.

• Noise-cancelling
Headphones that use clever tech to listen to and block the noise around you. The result? Near perfect silence, even on a plane or train.

What you listen to counts
For audio purists, headphones are only half the story. What you’re playing on them, and where the files come from, matters greatly. For all the convenience offered by music-streaming services such as Spotify, by default these will usually offer ‘compressed’ music, which reduces quality to save file space. If you want quality over convenience, the new Amazon Music HD service delivers ‘lossless’ (read: CD quality) music with a monthly subscription.

Phone compatibility
Many headphones now come with an inline remote so you can use them to chat on the phone. Do be aware, though, that this support varies: many compatible with Android smartphones are compatible with Apple iPhone models, but not all. Any iPhone released in the past few years will have a Lightning port instead of the standard 3.5mm headphone jack seen in most portable music players since the Sony Walkman era. You can use an adapter if your headphones offer only the latter output, but it’s unsightly, fiddly and a pain to always remember one of these. Shop ahead and make sure to ask what’s needed.

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