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Saturday 4 February 2017

Headphones or Earphones, How to Choose?

Image result for headphones on stand

Hi everyone!

This week I have seen a lot of people go out and pick up headphones and earphones in the sales. Many of you have bought certain headphones due to having a percentage knocked off of the retail price, we all love a barging, but we need to know if it is actually going to benefit us. It’s nice to pick up some new cans now and then, but you need to make sure you what to look for when buying anything audio related.

When I have spoken to some of you about the gear you bought, a solid 90% have not been happy with the purchases you have made, which is upsetting.

This post I am going to write is about how to choose headphones. I hope you all find this informative and take on board everything to look for when it comes to buying audio listening devices!

Please bare in mind you should never mix or master music while wearing headphones, so if you are choosing to buy either for that purpose and want advice you will not find this blog post helpful. The purpose of headphones is to listen and enjoy music, not for professional uses in the studio.

First thing’s first, you need to choose what you want to listen to your music on, headphones or earphones?

Earphones are perfect for intimate listening and they are compact enough to slip inside your pocket without being damaged. Most earphones that you buy come with pouches so they wont get ruined when being carried, if you buy a set always make sure you check if they have a pouch and extra bud sizes. One of the things that I love about earphones is that they sit comfortably in the ears and allow you to change the bud size for maximum comfort.

I have seen many people stick with the medium bud size because they can’t be bothered to experiment with the large or small sizes. What you need to realise is that even though they are sized to fit in your ears properly each size bud changes the sound. Earphones are like clothes, if it doesn’t fit properly you change the size, you don’t keep it just in case you grow or shrink into it. So, make sure you are rocking the right bud. Experiment with the sizes and listen to your own ears, if the music changes with the bud, pick what one sounds the best to you because when it does that’s the right fit.

I’m not going to list you off trusted brands that are experienced in providing audio quality because the list will not end. If you have a budget for anything then you have to void out the expenses you are not able to afford. If you’re an audiophile and money is no object then try out a set of oBravo’s EAMT-1 in-ear headphones. They retail at £3,600, but why not? (there is a reason for the price tag, if you want to dive down into the reasons have a search). If you’re into the tech then you will always experiment with earphones and headphones to compare audio quality. I know I have.

Serious note now, you do not have to pay thousands for a set of earphones. You just need to make sure you know what you want them for, and if you actually want them instead of headphones.

Headphones feed my soul with happiness when it comes to sound playback. With earphones they are what they say on the tin, in-ear. The sound is directed due to placement of the bud whereas headphones will cover over your whole ear curvature and give you a full playback of sound. With headphones you have the choice to have full ear coverage with the over-ears or you can have a set of on-ears. Personally I find on-ears irritable and I don’t get much out of them sound wise. I want a full ear of sound, not half and I want comfort when I’m listening.

Both earphones and headphones give you intimate sound listening but it comes down to productivity. Headphones are there and cannot be hidden or put away easy, whereas earphones can. However, do you want a full sound that headphones can provide with the quality of sound playback or do you want a direct sound that is in-ear for your own isolation with earphones? There is no right or wrong choice here for listening, its just what applies to you personally, so make sure you know what you want for comfort and purpose. Once chosen, you move onto the specifications.

Expensive headphones/earphones can be made with higher quality materials and the engineering for the whole product can be intense but it does not necessary mean the sound quality is improved.

I have never looked at the price tag when buying any headphones or earphones because as humans our brain triggers an improper insight to what we believe to be better. You can pick up headphones for £50 and they are better than a pair for £80. It’s the same with earphones costing £120 or £1500. If you have a budget that’s okay, just know what kind of budget you can reach and read the specifications. If you have the knowledge on what to look for and you chose that rather than a brand name, you’ll find a perfect set of headphones/earphones in your price range.

When I started my music technology course at college I didn’t have a clue what I was really looking for when they told me to get some headphones. I knew brands that were trustworthy but I didn’t know specifically what frequency I needed to be between or if I needed to have a lot of money to find a really good pair. I spent half an hour testing out headphones in various stores not looking at a budget, I wanted to trust my ears, after all they were going to really choose for me. I fell in love with a set of Sony MDR – XB500 headphones. They had equal amount of everything I needed and the frequency response was ideal. To me, a newbie in the world of music I felt they were perfect. They set me back £40 six years ago and to this day I still use them, they are perfect.

I have a lot of headphones and earphones, I carry spares with me a lot of the time just in case I misplace any or break them. I have headphones hanging everywhere in my house for all styles of music and sound experimentation. A lot of music professionals judge me on having various headphones for different genres. They believe that if you’re going to listen to music it should be on monitors only. Even though I am a sound engineer, I like to enjoy music now and then when I take time away from creating or mixing. I said in a previous blog post that I find it hard to enjoy music now because I tear it apart so much. When you’re trained that way you become a robot and think that it’s the only option you have because that is your profession and what you’re programed to do. I like to find moments where I can sit and enjoying music through cans like I did when I was a kid, it makes me enjoy music again the old fashioned way.

I have never paid thousands for headphones or earphones. I just listen and read the specifications and work from there. I have spent £15 of earphones and bought five pairs of them because they are good enough to use with my iPod, smartphone or tablet. I have bought earphones that have cost £730 and are perfect for listening to MP3/WAV audio quality when I am converting final mix’s to see if anything is missing for that purpose. I may only use these for 30 seconds a time but they fulfil the need I bought them for.

You’ve picked your headphones or earphones, you’ve got your price range or an idea of what you are looking for sound wise, this is when you get a little bit more tech minded. You want to see what the sound isolation is like. Earphones have a better sound isolation because they are sealing your ear canal, the sound is directed one way and nothing is coming out. Headphones that are over-ear cup your ears and seal in the sound that way. Sometimes when you place them over your ears you can feel suction when you feel it you know they are in place and can feel the remaining pocket of air in the space left between your ear canal and the speaker your being cushioned from. Headphones have two extra points worth noting down, make sure you know if they are open-backed or closed-backed. The difference between the two are pretty obvious, closed headphones isolate noise better and sound like the music is in your head whereas opened provide a natural sound and are not as distorted, you’re aware of your environment around you.

As a test of knowledge, if you are in close proximity of someone with headphones on and you can hear their music, they have open-backed headphones. If you can’t hear anything, they have close-backed headphones.

Next thing to find out is the frequency range. If you have no idea about sound and the science behind it you would have completely ignored the box and the specifications. This is how you determine if you’ll get the right sound response for your money. If you go out and buy Beats by Dre for £300 and not look at the specification you have bought the brand without looking at what’s really inside the box. A wider frequency range means you can hear more from the music. Those sub drops in your Drum and Bass/Dubstep tracks will be lost without a good frequency range. The same goes for breakdowns in Metal/Death Metal/Rock etc. You’ve got your Dancehall but it doesn’t sound the same as it does when you play it through a sound system, why? Because your new headphones don’t respond well and lack the frequency range.

Frequency ranges such as 10Hz to 25,000Hz will be recommended a lot. Anything within that range is fine. As humans we can hear sounds at frequency from 20Hz to 20kHz but the sounds best heard for us are from 2,000Hz to 5,000Hz because that is where human speech is centred around. Normally on the back of any packaging you will have a graph showing you the frequency respond curve, where the line is it will indicate what your headphones either focus towards or what they are balanced with. Lets say if the low end is higher on the graph there will be more bass. So your music will be pushed in that direction when you listen to it. Most graphs on budget headphones/earphones will have a U curve in the centre, this means that the mid-range is cut out. This is a problem especially if you want to listen to sound seriously as layers of the sound will not be there for you to analyse. If you have flat response headphones these are ideal of listening to music layers because they do not favour a specific frequency range. 

Want to test out your headphone frequency?

Example; listen to The Ghost Inside – Between The Lines

When the song is at 1:10, continue listening until the base drop. If your body shakes at the reaction of the sub you have heard a masterpiece and audibly rewarded yourself with some great headphones. 

While were here with the frequency check I want to get you to all understand impedance and how it works with headphones. A lot of headphones with low impedance require power to send high audio levels, so low impedance headphones work well with equipment that has a weak amplification. These are your smartphones, MP3 players and iPods etc. I mention this because it comes down to volume control, you will need to turn up the volume a little bit more than you would on headphones without a low impedance. This isn’t a major factor when hunting down the right headphones or earphones but if you really want to get a set that can analyse music for learning purposes then just have a look and see what is mentioned about the impedance.

Technology is incredible but it can also make us go a little bit crazy now and then. When I first learnt about wireless headphones I did go out and get myself a few pairs. No wires? No cables being tangled? Heart eyes for days!! However, they are not the greatest choice if you are going to dedicate your life to sound listening. Most I have bought or tested have a background hiss or a dynamic compression that makes the sound you’re listening to flat. I also have had interference from smartphones and Bluetooth devices while listening. These are not to be trusted for tough music analysing but they are perfect for the gym or sport activities and ease of listening when traveling.

Another thing to remember, if you have bought your headphones/earphones, unboxed them and plugged them in to play your music through make sure you know what you’re playing. If you listen to MP3’s your music is going to sound awful in general let alone through headphones. If you’re sticking to WAV quality then you will have no problems, especially if that’s what you always listen to. MP3’s compress music to a smaller file so buying expensive headphones is going to be a complete waste of time when it comes to listening.

It’s like having an artist with terrible recorded audio wanting a professional mix, there is only so much us sound engineers can do with an awful recording. If the sound at source is good from the start, you have the chance to improve it or perfect it on it’s edges. This is the same with headphones/earphones and monitors, if it sounds perfect then the playback will be with the right sound output device.

Another thing, if you still are unsure about purchasing yourself some cans, check out some audiophile forums for ratings and research it, us junkies have tried and tested so much gear you wouldn’t believe it even if we showed you. We will give you trusted knowledge but also be truthful about what is better even if it is cheaper than what you might have your eye on, we don’t work for commission. There is nothing worse than going into a store like Currys and them have no idea what you have just asked.

You are the person who is going to be listening to your music through whatever you buy. If they audibly sound great in comparison to others you have actually tested then trust your judgement. If a pair of headphones for £40 sound better than the ones for £500, go and get the cheaper pair. If they are going to last and are build well, you will be just fine. Just don’t go out and buy any headphones or earphones without testing out the quality of them first or reading up on what they can do with what you give them musically.

Please also think of health and safety with your ears. When listening with headphones and earphones make sure you have the volume down as soon as you are plugged in and ready to play and do not have them too loud. Also remember to take breaks when listening to music, you should not have headphones or earphones on or in for a long period of time. Over the years our ears get damaged due to neglect with sound listening and environmental noise. We will lose part of our frequency ranges as we age so just take care as best you can to not cause harm or permanent damage.

Basic knowledge is key to anything but being safe with sound and acknowledging the necessary components of audio playback becomes more vital than you realise, especially when listening to sound becomes personal. It should always be done right.

I hope you have enjoyed reading and learnt a little bit more about music technology.

All my love, 


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