Buying your shiny and brand new headphones/earphones seems like an easy job right? It seems like walking into a store and choosing which one sounds the best really all you need to consider when you need to buy headphones/earphones.
Well, there’s more to that and this guide should definitely help to sort out some geeky important stuff and gimmicks while making your purchase. We believe that this article might be the best way possible to understand nerdy information in the most simplified form. This guide should be helpful in answering these questions and can be useful when you need to buy your headphones/earphones :
- What are the different types of headphones?
- Closed Back vs Open Back Headphones?
- What are Lows, Mids and Highs?
- What are different Audio File Types? Which one is best?
- Lossy vs Lossless Audio Compression.
- What is the best Music Streaming Platform? Spotify vs Apple Music?
- How to understand the specifications of the headphones?
- Can Headphone Jack output be different?
- What are the different Bluetooth versions?
- How to check Bluetooth Codecs compatibility on phone.
- What are different Bluetooth Codecs? Which one is the best?
Types of Headphones/Earphones:
First of all, if you’re in the market for headphones/earphones, the market is flooded with a variety of form factors. Each has its own pros and cons which we are going to be discussing. They are of different sizes and interfaces that you need to know when you buy your headphones/earphones. They’re pretty straight forward and easy to comprehend. Let’s start with:
The in-ear form factor is probably the most popular in the audio segment. They are usually affordable and often comes free as an accessory with new phones. Moreover, if you’re looking for good in-ear earphones that will not break the bank but still provides excellent sound quality for the price, you can check this updated list of earphones in 2019 under 20(USD) or3000(PKR).
- Convenient and lightweight for carrying around due to their small size.
- Almost no interference with glasses, hats, and hairstyles.
- Most Headphones/Earphones have a microphone, really convenient for casual voice and video calls.
- Noise isolation is really impressive as they cover the ears holes entirely.
- Wires can be annoying unless you’re using Wireless Headphones/Earphones.
- Sound quality is not a strong suit because they have pretty small drivers to reproduce a wide range of frequencies. Often mitigated by adding multiple drivers but On-Ear Headphones/Earphones still takes the crown.
The on-ear form factor sits right on top of the ears in contrast to in-ear style headphones/earphones. They are usually closed-back headphones/earphones but some are open-back too.
- Easier to carry than Over-Ear headphones/earphones as they are relatively compact. Most offers foldable design for easy transport.
- Sound Quality improvements over in-ear headphones as drivers are larger in size
- They have really average noise isolation which can be a pro and con depending upon the user. They can be useful for someone who wants to listen to music and still wants to be a bit aware of surroundings.
- They have Inferior sound quality in contrast to full-sized Over-Ear headphones/earphones. They have smaller drivers and have generally inferior bass and treble response.
- Leaks sound a lot which can be annoying for other people.
Also knows as Full-Sized or Circumaural headphones/earphones. They are the biggest type of headphones and covers all over ears. They are usually considered for home use rather than public use except for ANC headphones.
- They are effective in blocking external noises and seals in perfectly.
- They have bigger drivers than the aforementioned form factors. Consequently, they produce the most detailed sound quality over other form factors.
- They can potentially interfere with glasses, hairstyles, and earrings.
- Ears can get warm after a long session of usage.
- Harder to carry around as they’re generally bigger. But, Foldable designs are really convenient.
- In contrast, they require powerful DAC(Digital to Analog Convertor) and sometimes volume is really low on mobile phones and laptops.
Finally Bluetooth, they are probably the most preferred audio solutions as manufacturers are really against the idea of headphone jacks. Jack will be missed. Furthermore, the wireless headphones/earphones can be any of the aforementioned form factors. It seems like true wireless earbuds are all the rage these days.
- Not to mention, no wires and really convenient.
- Easier to carry around, specifically TWS earphones with almost no wires and a small charging case.
- Audio Quality is usually inferior to wired audio solutions.
- To improve sound quality, both device and earphones need to support a particular codec. Not to mention, the support has been drastically improved.
- Latency issues in music playback and gaming.
- The battery needs to be recharged, unlike wired headphones/earphones.
Active Noise Cancellation Headphones/Earphones: (ANC)
They are really popular and suitable for travelers and public use. They provide the convenience of reducing volume and ear fatigue by canceling out the external noises.
- Ideal for airplanes and places with consistent noise levels.
- Noise cancellation really helps in increasing volume by blocking out external noise.
- Some ANC headphones/earphones sound very different when ANC is turned on.
- Due to their closed-back nature, they are not the most balanced sounding solution for audiophiles.
- Some people feel the nausea effect with ANC turned on.
- They need to be recharged as ANC feature requires battery power.
USB-C and Lightning Headphones/Earphones:
They aren’t very popular but still exist in this competitive market of headphones/earphones. As more and more devices are disregarding the importance of headphone jack. Manufacturers are trying to adopt this situation by providing USB-C and Lightning Connector powered headphones/earphones.
- They have integrated DAC to compensate for the inferior DAC of your smartphone with less noise.
- They are not powered by batteries unlike wireless audio and can support features like ANC.
- Consumes a bit more power from the phone than traditional 3.5mm wired headphones/earphones.
- They can be relatively expensive and harder to find.
They are the type of headphones/earphones based on the driver configuration. Drivers are not enclosed inside earcups. They are exposed to air outside and sounds natural.
- The sound quality can be really impressive. The soundstage(the ability of a headphone to produce spatial sound) is really wide.
- Ideal for home and studio purposes.
- They leak a lot of sounds.
- Bad for public usage.
Types of headphones/earphones based on the driver configuration. Drivers are enclosed in earcups. The sound bounces around to escape and finally into the ears. Generally, most headphones/earphones are closed-back.
- Usually tighter bass response due to closed nature.
- Better noise isolation and less sound leakage.
- Great for public listening.
- Relatively narrower soundstage.
- Sound isn’t as detailed as open-back headphones/earphones.
The frequency range sounds like a lot but its pretty simple to understand. First of all, the sound spectrum is distributed in terms of Low Frequencies, Mids Frequencies, High Frequencies, and Low Frequencies. They are reproduced by earphones to make sounds that we hear either as a song or voices in a podcast. They are really important to understand when you buy new headphones/earphones. Let’s discuss first the easiest one to identify that is Low Frequencies.
They are the easiest part of the sound spectrum to discern. You’ve probably heard the bass and deep sounds in a song. The boom and punch in a drop beat of EDM track are all the low-frequency sounds.
Certainly, the common misconception related to good sound quality is how good the bass is of headphones/earphones? It’s a pretty subjective conversation and cannot be the universal indication of good sound quality. Hence, bass matters but not like what Meghan Trainor says in her song.
In contrast, Lows are relatively opposite sounding to highs. That includes treble, high pitch, and bright sounds. The details and definition produced by headphones/earphones are usually related to how good the highs are.
Therefore, you might ask that making the highs sound as bright as possible is the way to go to get the maximum definition and detailed sound right? It sure is but it can cause harsh sounds that may cause fatigue and suppress other frequencies of sound.
Hence, headphones/earphones are tuned in a way that they don’t sound harsh while still providing details to those plate sounds or acoustic guitar in your favorite track. The violin, flute, guitar, plates, and some female vocals are some noteworthy examples of the high-frequency sounds.
In contrast, this part gets a bit hairy to identify as it is centered around both lows and highs of the sound spectrum. Furthermore, if you’ve come to understand both highs and lows, it gets easier to understand mids. The rule of thumb is what is not low and high-frequency sound is probably mid-frequency sounds.
Certainly, some of you guys might be geeking out of information related to further lower, upper and sub frequencies distribution. Above all, we want to Keep it Simple Stupid and explaining them defeats the purpose of simplifying the concepts.
A few examples of these sounds are violins, piano, most vocals, cello, oboe. They neither sounds harsh and pitchy neither bassy and drums. This part is pretty easy to overlook but it is a very important part of the sound spectrum.
Another thing you need to consider for improving your music listening experience is to understand different audio file formats. They are not necessarily the tip to buy certain headphones/earphones but are really helpful in exploring the true potential of audio devices. You may be wondering it’s all MP3 files, download it from your favorite source and call it a day right? Certainly, there’s more to that if you’re into improving your sound quality drastically.
The audio file is compressed in size from the studio sample to preserve space. The less important frequencies that are barely audible or don’t have a significant effect on the overall song are clipped off from the original sample. Based on the aggressiveness of the compression algorithm, there are two types of compressions for audio file formats:
- Lossy Compression
- Lossless Compression
Lossy Compression File Formats:
MP3 and AAC are there for a while and still one of the most popular audio file formats but they have lossy compression. Lossy Compression is really effective in tuning down the size of the files but at the cost of reduced sound fidelity.
There are a lot of Lossy audio file formats but the ones we are going to discuss are popular ones like MP3, AAC. Their Bitrates ranges from 128-320Kbps. But, we recommend using an audio file format with Lossless Compression.
Lossless Compression File Formats:
Some of the common Lossless formats are FLAC, ALAC(By Apple). They are really effective in providing the best sound quality but they are generally larger in size. Their Bitrate ranges from 576-3000Kbps depending upon the bit depth(usually 16bit).
Well, its a bit of nerdy stuff but all you need to consider is to prefer FLAC/ALAC over standard MP3s and AAC, if you have the choice to get your hands on either of the formats. If your phone has a decent amount of storage then they’re worth it in every single aspect.
Music Streaming Services:
Seems like you might be wondering why we need to understand all these file formats when you can just use Spotify and Apple Music to stream and listen to your favorite music. Streaming music is a really convenient platform but it doesn’t provide the highest fidelity music.
Even though they provide good enough sound quality for regular listeners but audiophiles and even big music fans can really notice that missing detail in the background vocals and the suppressed details in the song. Well if you are a regular listener, you may not skip this part and can still do some workarounds to get better sound fidelity from online streaming service. Again, this is not necessarily a tip to buy headphones/earphones. But, these recommendations can be really helpful in improving sound quality when you buy a new pair of headphones/earphones.
As you are all certainly aware of Spotify, a really popular online streaming platform. It uses Spotify’s proprietary file format OGG. The Automatic(By Default) setting dynamically changes the sound quality of music depending upon the speed of your internet connection. But the user has control to force the sound quality to the best one.
The High Preset is the best preset for normal users which supports 160kbps bitrate. For Spotify Premium users, they can choose Very High Preset which supports a maximum of 320kbps bitrate. We definitely recommend using this preset for maximum audio fidelity if you have Spotify’s Premium subscription.
A similar online streaming platform made by Apple. It uses Apple’s proprietary file format AAC as mentioned earlier. The bitrate switches between 256-320kbps depending upon the song. Similarly, It dynamically changes to lower bitrates if the internet connection is not stable just like Spotify.
Apple Music generally gives better sound quality on Apple devices but supports other platforms like Android and Windows. The audio quality of both are pretty similar but Apple Music takes the lead with better sound output even if the bitrate gets lower and sounds richer with deeper bass.
Headphones/Earphones Specifications Jargons:
Have you ever wondered about the specification written on the box of earphones/headphones? They seem like a really big deal and nerd numbers. They are really important to understand when you buy a new pair of headphones/earphones. But we will try to explain difficult ones and what do they really mean in the easiest way possible.
|Driver Unit:||The size of Earphones/Headphones drivers that produce sounds. Bigger drivers produce better and full-bodied sound.|
|Magnet Type:||Neodymium drivers are the way to go. They are generally the most used material for headphones/earphones drivers.|
|Frequency Response:||The range of the sound spectrum(lows, mids, highs). The lower value indicating bass response and the higher value indicating treble response e.g 20(bass)-23000(treble)Hz. Higher values don’t always relate to better sound quality.|
|Nominal Impedance:||Impedance relates to how much power does a headphone/earphones really need to drive them. Lower impedance rating audio peripherals(most earphones/headphones) can easily be driven by most equipment. Higher impedance rating audio peripherals(high-end earphones/headphones) require powerful equipment to drive.|
|Sensitivity:||Sensitivity is the efficiency of a driver to convert electrical signals to sound signals. It usually ranges from 90-110db/mW. Unlike Impedance, Higher value results in a louder output without using less power from the source. Lower sensitivity value peripherals require more power from the source and are relatively quieter than higher sensitivity peripherals.|
|Max. Input Capability:||A rating indicating how much power the driver can take before it gets burst. Not really important unless you’re a professional audiophile driving headphones/earphones on heavy equipment or a DJ.|
|No of Drivers:||The earphones/headphones supporting multiple drivers ranging from dual to even deca drivers solution. The idea is to divide the frequency spectrum across multiple drivers to eliminate the limitations (limited frequency response, distortion at loud volumes etc.) of single driver earphones. Multiple drivers headphones/earphones are generally better sounding but doens’t always translate to better sound quality due to poor implementation.|
Headphone Jack Output:
It’s not necessarily a tip to buy headphones/earphones but really helpful in improving the music experience. Have you ever wondered the sound from wired earphones plugged into a phone is different from a laptop or desktop and even from other phones plugged into their headphone jack? Well, some manufacturers have already ditched the good old headphone jack but if you use the dongle solution for analog (headphone jack) output, this debate is still very relevant.
All headphone jacks are not made the same and have different kinds of outputs. In phones usually, the headphone jack depends upon the DAC(Hardware responsible for Digital to Analog Conversion) of the SOC (Processing Chip) of the phone, that’s why most high-end phones have better DAC and output then midrange and low-end devices.
But that’s not true for all phones, the better tuning and software implementation of mid-range phones can sometimes outperform high-end devices. We found gsmarena audio reviews to be a noteworthy and reliable source for getting a decent idea about headphone jack output.
As far as the best is concerned, we found the LGs Quad DAC solution to be the most effective in providing the best audio experience. Their recent G and V series phones feature a dedicated DAC solution instead of using integrated ones from SOC. They provide louder and better output than conventional headphone jack solutions.
Most DACs provide up to 24bit output(with the latest high-end phones providing up to 32bit audio output). Most dongles solutions provide up to 16bit output with a few ones providing full 24bit output like Razer Phone 2.
Above all, most of the people have already switched to wireless audio as more and more manufacturers are departing from the good old headphone jack solution. This platform is really important to get an understanding before you buy a new pair of headphones/earphones It’s reliable and provides the best sound output. In contrast to wired audio, things get a little bit more complicated when you switch to the Bluetooth audio. First of all, most of the people might be wondering it’s just connecting and playing the music. Why there has to be a complication regarding Bluetooth? Well, It’s not unless you really care about improving the audio experience over Bluetooth. Furthermore, codecs play an important role in providing connectivity and transmitting data from one device to another.
Most headphones/earphones usually support SBC/AAC codecs by default. These protocols are good enough for providing basic connectivity and entry-level sound output. But due to their mediocre sound quality and latency problem specifically with SBC. Therefore, some vendors have introduced their own Codecs solutions to resolve these issues(Kind of). They’re definitely not perfect and only selected headphones/earphones are compatible with these codecs. For compatibility, both device and the headphones/earphones need to support that particular codec to take advantage of the superior sound quality.
These days support for these codecs has improved significantly in the last few years even with cheaper headphones/earphones supporting some of these codecs. Let’s discuss all the important aspects of Bluetooth Audio one by one.
First of all, recent devices and headphones/earphones are mostly compatible with the latest Bluetooth 5.0. Its range, speed and power requirements are all superior to older Bluetooth 4.2. Some older devices specifically the ones older than 2017 had usually BT(4.2). It’s not bad and still works absolutely perfect but BT(5.0) has some aforementioned advantages.
Just make sure to buy BT(5.0) compatible headphones/earphones. In order to check your phone’s Bluetooth version, you can go to GSMArena to check the exact version of your specific device.
Checking support for available Codecs on the phone:
Android 8.0(Oreo) added proper support for Bluetooth Audio Codecs. It provided a menu in developer options to forcibly choose the desired codec. If you’ve been using a device that’s not more than 4 years old than it should most likely support all the popular codecs.
Here are a few tips to check the compatibility of your device and will help in making the decision to buy headphones/earphones:
- First, you need to make sure the Developer Options of your android device are turned on. If not turned on then follow these easy steps, Otherwise jump straight to point # 2.
- Open Settings app
- Choose About Phone, its usually at the bottom of the list.
- Again scroll to the bottom (usually at the bottom) and tap the build number at least 7 times.
- Now Developer Options should be visible in your Settings App menu.
- Open Developer Options.
- Go to the Networking area of the menu.
- Finally, you can select the Bluetooth Audio Codec option and it will display all the available codecs supported on your device.
Furthermore, Apple devices only support AAC codec and there are no available codec options to select. It is a bummer as Apple is one of the first manufacturers that got rid of the headphone jack and with no advanced Bluetooth codec support.
The fact that AAC provides superior sound quality to MP3s still cannot mask the importance of Higher Resolution Audio Codecs support on Apple Devices.
That’s a lot to take, right? Let’s take an air gasp and we are going to explain a few popular codecs you need to look for when you buy your headphones/earphones. Above all, we are going to explain only the popular codecs to keep this as simple as possible. First one:
It is usually supported by every Bluetooth Headphones/Earphones. It supports up to 320kbps bitrate(a standard High-Quality MP3). But, It uses an aggressive Lossy Compression algorithm that results in mediocre sound output. Again, not the best in terms of sound quality but supports the widest range of Bluetooth devices.
Another Lossy Compression file and codec that generally provides superior quality over SBC. AAC file format is supported by many platforms like Youtube, Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo Gaming Consoles and Apple seems to be the biggest advocate of this file format and codec. Even Apple Music uses AAC files.
Usually, the bitrate is capped at 250kbps The AAC generally provides better sound quality than MP3 for the same bitrate. It has better compatibility with Apple Devices and seems to provide inconsistent sound quality and power-hungry codec on Android Devices.
Recently most headphones/earphones are adapting Qualcomm’s aptX codec. It’s not as widely supported as SBC/AAC but even budget audio peripherals are starting to adapt and support this codec. It aims to provide superior sound quality due to better transfer speeds and efficient compression algorithm.
It’s also a Lossy Compression but preserves much more detail as compared to SBC. It supports up to 352kbps bitrate. It also claims to provide much lower latency for tasks like gaming. If you’re a gamer, better buy an aptX enabled headphones/earphones.
A codec based on aptX but aims to provide high-resolution audio. It also performs Lossy Compression. and supports up to 576kbps bitrate. The aptX surpasses CD-Quality(16-bit) audio and supports up to 24bit audio.
It seems a relatively nice improvement over standard aptX and much better than the SBC codec. It is supported on relatively expensive headphones/earphones and such peripherals are relatively harder to find as compared to standard aptX. We strongly recommend looking for aptX HD when you buy your next Bluetooth headphones/earphones.
Finally, the LDAC was introduced by Sony. It claims to achieve the highest bitrate of any other codec. The bitrate is variable ranging from 330kbps,660kbps, and 990kbps. The quality at 330kbps feels worse than both SBC and aptX and it is the default preset(Best Effort) by most phones.
660kbps is a sweet spot between audio and connection quality. Likewise, you can tinker with in Developer Options and then can select LDAC to the highest bitrate forcibly.
- We choose wired open-back headphones/earphones for the best sound quality.
- We recommend using file types with Lossless Compression, FLAC and ALAC. They are relatively harder to find but really worth the effort.
- We recommend using Spotify for Android Devices and Apple Music for Apple Devices for the best audio experience.
- Headphone jack output varies for almost every single device. You can search forums like XDA, Reddit and GSMArena for getting details of your particular device.
- Wired Audio is still superior in audio quality over Wireless Audio.
- For Wired Audio, there is no need to understand and mess with codecs for best sound fidelity.
- Bluetooth 5.0 is widely supported in both recent phones and headphones/earphones.
- Consequently, aptX codec takes the leads with the best balance between sound quality and latency. The compression algorithm is relatively consistent with other codecs solutions. With aptX HD being a strong recommendation from our side.