By taking stock of your specific goals, this headphone buying guide can narrow your options so you can experience sound the way it was meant to be heard.
High-quality headphones used to be reserved exclusively for sound studios and famous musicians, but as innovations have blossomed, the rest of us now have access to some seriously impressive technologies, offering extreme sound precision. What was once affordable to only the ultra elite is now within reach of the average American. Movies can inspire greatness in our lives, music can push us to new heights when running, audiobooks can get us to the next professional level, and sound is the key ingredient in each of these scenarios. We all have memories from our lives that are attached to sound – we may have listened to the Beatles with our parents in the living room on old mono stereo speakers, but have you heard that same remastered album through modern headphones?
There are deep, rich sounds and instruments used that you probably never heard through those old speakers. For example, did you know that “Drive My Car” had cowbell throughout the song!? Today, headphones are a huge part of our lives. It has become common, especially with the rise of remote work, to wear headphones nearly all day, and the diversity in uses have also dramatically diversified, so drugstore sets simply won’t cut it anymore.
We offer a carefully curated collection of headphones ranging from the popular Focal Sphear S In-Ear Headphones for daily use, all the way to the drool-worthy T+A – Solitaire P Headphones for the serious audiophile. Here at Grid HiFi, we refuse to sell junk products like Beats (you know they got busted adding junk metal to a $16 product to make it feel like a premium product, right?). To avoid falling for a trick like that, let’s talk about the 6 tips to know before you commit to your next purchase, so you can learn what to look for when buying headphones:
Tip 1: Narrow your choices by considering how you’ll use the headphones
What should you look for when buying headphones? Let’s be honest – there is a ridiculously huge difference between popping in headphones for a run, compared to hosting a team call via video at work, listening for shots around the corners while playing Halo, tuning out fellow passengers while on a crowded plane, creating new music in a home studio, watching an action movie at home and hoping for that surround sound feel, or just vibing while listening to music on a relaxing weekend. The range of use is diverse, and each use is distinct, so you may actually need more than one set, but the goal here is to be honest with yourself about how you’ll be using your headphones. Most people start their search based on either a random recommendation from the internet or friend, or a selection is made based on aesthetics, both of which are helpful, but most certainly not the first step when selecting the type of headphones to consider.
Tip 2: Size matters, friends!
Not to be crass, but size really does matter when it comes to headphones. Because you now have your primary use in mind, the next step is to consider the size that works best for you. You can choose from wired headphones or wireless headphones, but even that doesn’t narrow it down enough given the array of options, so let’s dig in deeper:
- The smallest option is true wireless earbuds which is a set that has no cord and no connecting wire to each other. Each earbud is independent. Increasingly, these are primarily for use in the field as a companion for your smartphone, especially now that most phones have nixed the headphone jack. Battery life varies widely on these (or any) wireless headphones, so check the specs for these models which are typically charged in their case. The sound quality isn’t superior, but the convenience of portability is.
- Another type is wireless headphones that come with a wire that connects the two in-ear buds. These Bluetooth headphones allow mobility, instead of requiring a wire to a headphone jack, and the range of modern Bluetooth averages 30 feet so you don’t have to wear your connected device. That said, this style is popular for athletic use and some can even monitor ambient sound so you can listen to music yet also hear your surroundings while running in a public place, for example.
- In-ear headphones are a staple for the workforce, offering easy muting and sound control, and are very popular for Zoom calls and even a growing number of podcasters. This type of headphone creates a seal which can limit exposure to external noise. They’re great for those that are back in an office or a coworking space. Ear canal tips are typically included with this style, so you can achieve the perfect fit with different tips.In-ear and wireless headphones are perfect for instances of convenience, but can come at the cost of lower sound quality and discomfort over time compared to on-ear or over-ear headphones. For anyone needing higher function, the following two options are the standard:
- On-ear headphones don’t press on your head, they press your ears instead, so this is a popular option for gamers who want to avoid heat or any other discomfort during streaming a multi-hour campaign. This style is beloved by people seeking flatter audio, as it de-emphasizes the low end thump and is known for accuracy of sound. To break it down further, this style has two subcategories:- Open back headphones have openings in the ear cups covered by a mesh or fabric to offer clear audio, a more natural feel, breathability, and they allow in more external sound. In this style, air can travel through the ear cup through the back of the speaker driver. The downside is that they also bleed noise, so people around you might also hear your audio which can be obnoxious in public. – Closed back headphones have sealed ear cups to keep in the audio, muffle ambient noise, and enhance the bass response. If you want to have an immersive experience, this is the better option, and because it essentially seals to your head, you don’t have the noise leakage that you do with open back headphones. It’s more polite to use a closed back headphone set in a workplace, especially when you’re thumpin’ some Fat Pat throwbacks, so Susan from Accounting doesn’t complain. Again.
- Over-ear headphones also come in open back and closed back, and are known to be the most serious of all headphones. No sound studio lacks over-ear headphones, and that’s because they have massive drivers that marry quality bass and a high frequency response. In other words, it’s the best sound experience you can have, which is ideal for a home theater and critical to a music creator. The only drawbacks are weight and cost. They cost more than your in-ear headphones do, and they can be heavier, so it can get warm after several hours, but you simply cannot beat the sound quality.
Tip 3: Do you really need noise canceling headphones? Really?
Some people make the mistake of searching specifically for noise canceling headphones, not knowing that technology has made this a standard in most styles of headphones today. It is also a feature that can hinder sound quality in some models. Further, there are different types of noise canceling features:
- Passive noise canceling, also known as noise isolation, uses a physical barrier to eliminate noise. In-ear, foam squeezes to make a seal, and over-ear uses acoustic padding to create a seal to block out noise.
- Active noise canceling has a microphone to listen to the sounds around you and create an opposing sound wave in the headphones to eliminate that noise, even when they’re at high decibels.
- Adaptive noise cancellation is newer, and uses an algorithm to detect noise in your environment, and uses negative noise to cancel the positive, even taking into account leakage from the glasses you’re wearing, your ear shape, and so forth.
If you’re in a corporate office and simply want to appreciate your music, unbothered by your surroundings, some simple passive noise cancellation will do the trick. Living near a construction zone and competing in a gaming competition is a nightmare, so active noise canceling features are extremely helpful in this instance.
Maybe you’re trying to listen to an audiobook while working on the farm or in a factory, where sounds can be extremely loud but also chaotic and ranging in frequency – adaptive noise cancellation is called for. But if you’re running outdoors, noise cancellation can actually create danger since you can’t hear your surroundings. And again, in all cases, noise cancellation does impact the sound quality, so if that is a concern of yours, consider a pair that naturally and physically blocks noise instead. Not all scenarios call for all types of noise cancellation technologies, so take this into account. For when it is possible, it can truly make a world of difference and help you to balance the demand of the external world with what is going on inside of your headphones.
Tip 4: Should I care about going “balanced”?
If you’ve spent time listening to folks on Instagram or TikTok talk about headphones, you’ve surely heard some DJ or musician raving about getting “balanced” headphones. “You’ve gotta go balanced, bro,” they say. What does that even mean!? They can’t typically explain it to you, but we can. This gets into the weeds of the technical build of the headphones, but to be concise, it refers to the quality of circuits used, and how the headset was manufactured. There are single-ended circuit builds, then there are those that are known as true balanced headphones. The latter uses four wires across the positive signal and the negative signal so they all pick up the same amount of noise and there is no voltage difference between the two channels (positive and negative). There are benefits, and we’re happy to show you the difference, but this isn’t the single most important factor to anyone buying headphones. Even professionals. It is a technical spec that some seek out and we’re here for that, but it is also something you’ll hear folks use as a buzzword on social media and they don’t always know what it means.
Tip 5: Consider how delicate your headphones are
Back in the day, when you bought headphones from the gas station, you knew they were going to break. It was a matter of when, not if. Fast forward to today, and while cheap headphones are still flooding the market, nothing we sell in our showroom is in that category. Many come with protective cases now, and high quality stands are available so they can be protected any time they’re not in use. The reason some headphones are prone to breakage is cheap parts and poor construction, typically designed so a teen looks cool on the school bus, not so an adult can experience high quality sound. They’re glued or snapped together, and the parts used are cheap and shabby. We assure you that nothing is in that category at Grind HiFi, so you don’t have to worry about poor quality products.
Tip 6: There are ultra specific technical questions you can ask us
If there is something extremely random that you’ve learned about that is a priority to you, we’re going to be able to answer your questions and guide you in the right direction, without judgment. Whether you heard about something cool on social media and don’t know what it means, or you’re a third generation musician and know exactly what you want, we’re here to make sure you are getting the most modern options on the market. It’s kind of an unfair hack, but you can basically have a vague idea of what you want, walk in to our showroom, and not have to have years of expertise to buy a set of headphones – we already know all of the tiniest details. Looking for a specific type of sound control, maybe touch sensor? Want your set to be NFC? Want to know the frequency response during active operation versus bluetooth operation? Do you gravitate toward planar magnetic headphones? Want to know the ideal storage temperature for a specific set? Which headphones are best for classical music and which are best for EDM? Just ask us! You don’t have to fall into the rabbit hole and end up with analysis paralysis to buy headphones. It can get extremely technical if you’re into nerding out about that stuff, and we’re happy to nerd out with you, or we can keep it simple for you. Either way, use us as your shortcut.
Buying headphones should be fun
As noted, if you want to come nerd out about every technical spec under the sun, our team is ready and excited to do that with you. Or if buying headphones feels overwhelming and you want us to hold your hand, our showroom is set up for that, and we’d welcome you to visit.
Dick Clark once said that music is the soundtrack of your life. The sounds you choose (be they music, audiobooks, or movies) are that soundtrack, and we’re honored to help you enjoy the best possible sound. People use headphones everywhere today, from the gym to the office to the home theater, and thankfully, the options have finally caught up to the diversity of how we now utilize them as tools.