Ever tried to make it through an entire day with a single set of headphones? If you have, you probably experienced some inconveniences.
For starters, headphones that are great for listening to music at the office might not fit easily into your messenger bag. Or maybe your favorite pair of “at-home” headphones leaks too much noise outside the ear cups. You might be getting looks from other passengers on the bus – or from your boss.
That’s why it makes sense to keep different types of headphones on hand. The right headphones for your immediate context might not be the same ones that you were wearing a few hours ago. The good news is that there are only three types of headphones you really need. Let’s take a look at what each type has to offer and identify the features you should keep in mind when making a selection.
1. Headphones for travel and commuting
Small, portable, tangle-free cables: These are the things you should look for in a good set of travel headphones.
Whether you’re waiting patiently for the bus or hurtling through the sky at 35,000 feet, you need headphones that pack up easily and shelter you from ambient noise (while also preventing those around you from your music). For longer trips, they should also be comfortable enough for hours of listening.
Specifically, your travel and commuting headphones should offer:
In-ear headphones are a good option here. So are on-ear or over-ear models that fold up or come with their own carrying case. Basically, you need headphones that don’t take up much space in your backpack or luggage. They should be easy to pack without having to “make room” by rearranging your other belongings.
Noise-isolating or noise-canceling features
There are actually two types of “noise-cancelling” headphones. The first contains special circuitry that keeps ambient sounds from infiltrating your music. These are known as active noise-cancelling headphones. The other type uses passive noise-canceling or “noise-isolating” features to block ambient sounds. These headphones don’t contain special electronics, but they are designed to form a tight seal around or inside your ears. For either type, there are several high-quality options to choose from.
Comfortable ear tips
If you go the in-ear route, be sure to choose headphones that are comfortable enough to leave in your ears for long periods of time. Many in-ear headphones come with a variety of ear tips that you can switch out – everything from round to conical ear tips – and that are made from different materials. In particular, be on the lookout for in-ear headphones with Comply memory foam ear tips. These ear tips are optimized for comfort and mold to the inside of your ear, forming an ultra-tight seal.
Woven or tangle-free cable
Wrestling with knotted headphone cables is not fun. The best travel headphones, whether in-ear or otherwise, will come with a thicker cable that doesn’t tangle easily or a cable that’s surrounded by woven fabric. That way, you won’t have to fish your Chapstick out of your headphones when you get to the office.
Travel headphones should be easy to drive with a smartphone, tablet, or another portable device. Most in-ear and/or noise-isolating headphones work fine in this regard and won’t require a headphone amplifier to reach a listenable volume.
Volume control and a microphone
Unplugging your headphones, switching apps, and lifting your phone to your ear is not a convenient way to take a call. That’s why it’s a good idea to select headphones with a cable-mounted volume control mechanism and microphone. When you get a call, answering it will require minimal effort on your part.
Reduced cable noise
Have you ever used in-ear headphones with annoying microphonics – the rustling noise you get when the cable moves around? Compared to older in-ear headphones, many modern models do a good job of reducing cable noise. Still, you have to know what to look for. For instance, the Audiofly AF120 includes a twisted Audioflex cable with a moldable section that wraps over the top of your ears, virtually eliminating the possibility of cable noise.
When you choose headphones with all of these features, you’ll have everything you need for non-stop listening during your travels. You’ll also minimize the hassles involved with packing your headphones, unpacking them, and taking calls on the go.
What you won’t have, though, are the perfect headphones for workplace listening or creative exercises. Thankfully, there’s another set of cans for that.
2. Headphones for the workplace
Maybe you’re writing emails. Or maybe you’re crunching numbers. If you’re so fortunate, maybe you’re creating something beautiful on your computer or at your desk. Whatever the case, you need a set of headphones that helps you tune out the world and focus on your work.
You need a set of workplace headphones – quality workplace headphones with great sound.
Portability isn’t a major factor since these headphones will live on your desk or inside a drawer. Instead, you’re going for over-ear or on-ear headphones designed for maximum comfort. In particular, you should be on the lookout for:
Ear pads are one of the first things people think about when it comes to headphone comfort, but they aren’t the only comfort-related feature that should concern you. To be sure, ear pads are important. Many of the best audio equipment makers use sheepskin ear pads in their headphones, and it really makes a difference! But you should pay attention to adjustability, too. Can you adjust the headphones to fit your head without causing discomfort during long sessions? Not all headphones fit everyone the same way, so try to determine how well a given set of headphones will feel after a long listening session.
Replaceable ear pads
You’re going to wear these headphones often and for several hours at a stretch. Over time, you might need to replace the ear pads. Are they replaceable, or will you have to buy new headphones? It’s a good idea to check before selecting a pair.
Unless you work at home, you’re probably in a room with other people around. To avoid sound leaks that can be heard across your office, it’s a good idea to choose closed-back headphones for use in the workplace. If you’re used to open-back headphones and worry that a closed-back model might get stuffy, fear not! Many new closed-back designs offer great air circulation without leaking sound.
Here comes your boss. Better take off your headphones, right? If you’ve got a mute button, you won’t have to. Just tap the button on the housing, and you’re set. A mute button certainly isn’t a requirement for your workplace headphones, but it sure is convenient.
3. Headphones for at-home listening
You’re home and it’s time to put on some music. As much as you’d love to turn up the volume, your significant other just isn’t having it. Your options are to choose music both of you can enjoy (an almost impossible request), or not listen to anything.
This is when you need some headphones for at-home listening.
Whether you’re kicking back to enjoy a little sonic solitude or just need some background sound while you read or work on a crossword puzzle, it’s good to keep a pair of go-to, at-home headphones on hand. Since you mainly use these at home, a closed-back design probably isn’t needed. Instead, you should select a pair that offers:
Open-back design with soundstage experience
When you don’t need noise-canceling or noise-isolating features and a little sound leakage isn’t the end of the world, open-back is the way to go. Quality open-back headphones can give you a true soundstage experience where your music feels bigger, wider, and deeper – like it’s coming from all around you. At the office, this isn’t feasible because others might hear your music. But at home, the soundstage is yours to enjoy.
Planar magnetic driver
This isn’t a requirement, but it’s definitely a plus. Headphones with a planar magnetic driver use a different kind of diaphragm and contain larger magnets. The result is less distortion and all-around clearer sound, although they tend to be heavier than headphones with a dynamic driver. The added weight makes them less than ideal as travel/commuting headphones, but they’re fantastic for at-home listening!
All the attributes of comfortable closed-back headphones hold true here as well. An open-back design will usually offer plenty of air circulation, so you won’t have to worry about sweaty ear pads during long sessions.
You can also add a headphone amplifier for improved overall audio resolution and access to more nuances of the recording, especially low-level sounds. There’s a good chance you’ll hear things in your music you’ve never heard before.
Of course, you don’t have to keep your at-home headphones at home. You’re free to bring them anywhere you want – even on long trips if you just insist on taking your soundstage along on your next vacation.
The point is that it’s a good idea to have headphones that complement the experience of your listening room or the audio equipment in your living room. With a pair of high quality, open-back headphones, you’ll be able to experience music the way your favorite artists intended, even when the other occupants of your home need quiet time.
You’ll also complete your travel/workplace/at-home headphones triad. Wherever you are and whatever the circumstances, there will be a way to enjoy your favorite music.
And with high-quality headphones, it will always sound great.