The best headphones will block out external sounds at the same time as providing great reception. More importantly, personal headphones will protect your immediate neighbours from hearing intrusive and unwelcome sound.
Headphones come included with many audio devices, including mobile phones and MP3 players. They are usually cheap and cheerful and if you are going to be spending a significant amount of time hooked up to entertainment, you will require a better set of personal headphones.
The first thing to consider is what you want your headphones to do. There are two types of headphones: wired headphones and wireless headphones. The latter are very popular as they don't need to be connected via a cable. They receive signals through radio waves or infrared waves which are encoded using a transmission link such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
Earbud headphones are the smallest headphones available and are most commonly provided with iPods and mobile phones. They are lightweight and easy to carry. However, the sound quality can be poor in cheaper models.
In-earphones are also available with sound-isolating properties. These headphones are also known as earbuds or noise-cancelling headphones. They are an improvement on the basic earphone as they come with a rubberised ear seal, which, whilst still having the convenience of being lightweight and easy to carry, effectively insulates the ear from extraneous sound of up to -20dB.
Skullcandy, a company founded in 2003, specialises in the design and manufacture of headphones, earphones and general audio-orientated products for users on the move. Skullcandy have researched the market and created cutting-edge technology to provide great sound to accompany the most extreme sports, including motocross and snowboarding. With amplified subwoofer speakers, you can immerse yourself in your favourite tracks. Skullcandy has also developed a range of headphones for use by DJs and gamers.
All earphones should be treated with care when used in conjunction with road-based sports as the all-round sound produced these devices can completely block out external sound. This can be dangerous in traffic.
Wireless headphones hold the advantage of enabling you to move around, within the range of the signal. You can walk from room to room, prepare the evening meal, do the ironing, exercise in your home gym and still not miss an episode of your favourite radio programme. Wireless headphones are also great for listening to music late at night or for engaging in after-dark entertainment on your game console.
There are two types of wireless headphones: closed back and open back. As the name suggests, closed back headphones provide better sound isolation. These headphones are a good choice for those with hearing impairments which are especially apparent in noisy environments. Open back headphones provide a more natural reproduction of sound as the earphones don’t reflect the sound back into the ear, as can happen with closed back headphones.
Cable headphones have been largely overtaken by wireless technology but they remain a good choice for watching TV, particularly for those who are hard of hearing. Wired headphones are also cheaper than the higher-tech models, and require less setting up.
So you've looked at the options and now you have to decide on the features you desire in your headphones.
If you are looking for something to accompany you on your marathon training run, then in-earphones are the obvious choice. However, an open back model will allow you some external sound which is safer.
For listening whilst using public transport, sealed in-earphones are a better choice, both for you, the listener, and your fellow travellers. Some noise-cancelling headphones create anti-noise, which averts the external noise whilst not eliminating it entirely. This may seem less favourable however, these headphones don't tire the ears, and the better quality ones enable the listener to hear more detail in the sound. On long flights, they're highly successful at eliminating engine noise with less fatigue on the ears.
For the ultimate listening experience, you may wish to consider headphones with surround sound. Surround sound headphones provide your listening experience with a 'concert-hall' feel.
The latest headphone technology is Bluetooth which transmits the signal between the headphones and a Wi-fi dongle plugged into the source - usually an iPod. The advantage of this is that there are no dangling cords from pockets or handbags - it's about as cordless as you can get.
Noise-cancelling technology, which blocks out unwanted sounds, is improving year on year and several new models of noise-cancelling headphones have been launched this year. The latest innovation is the built-in 'talk' facility which enables the wearer to hold a conversation with someone in the same room, without having to remove the headphones. On some models the headphones can be linked up to a smartphone to enable you to take phone calls. This noise-protective system is also becoming available in some earbud models.
A three-level noise blocker is built-in to the more expensive models. This effectively blocks out various sound levels. One mode will block low density noise such as that deriving from trains and buses, a second level blocks higher noise such as that deriving from air-conditioning systems while the top level mode will block aircraft noise. This is a great innovation as the wearer can adjust the sound blocking levels to suit the environment they happen to be in.
Headphones for gaming benefit from several new innovations, one of the best being the built-in microphone which enables you to hear yourself talking while playing. It also lets you know how you sound to others when singing along to your favourite tracks!
Sound and Quality
If you are an avid music listener, the sound quality of cheap headphones will leave a great deal to be desired, and even the very best basic controls will soon make you want to upgrade to either earphones or the larger, higher quality headphones. The sound reproduction on earbud headphones can become a little dull, but if you still prefer the neatness and portability of small earphones, the in-ear type will provide you with better sound quality.
To receive good sound, you will require headphones of a good fit. If the ear piece sits loosely in the ear, you still won’t receive pure sound, regardless of the quality of the sound reproduction. Good quality in-earphones will block out the majority of extraneous sound, but again the earphones must be positioned properly. Take the time to fit your new headphones into the ear canal. Pulling the earlobe down as you put them in is a good method, but do be gentle. You've only got one set of ears and you will need them to last!
The type of music you are going to listen to on your headphones should guide you in your search for the perfect headphones. If you are a heavy metal aficionado, then you're going to want a set of headphones with great bass. If you love classical music then you will need your headphones to meet different criteria so, if possible, try out a few pairs at your local music or electronics store.
Bear in mind that very loud bass can damage the ears, so choose both the sound capacity and the fit of your headphones very carefully. It's amazing how ears differ in their size and shape and it is essential to consider comfort in addition to the quality of sound reproduction.
As with all things, when it comes to headphones, you tend to get what you pay for. Cheap headphones or in-earphones are often short on a really good fit. A big complaint from consumers who have bought cheap in-earphones is the annoying habit they have of falling out of the ears.
Headphones for gaming need special consideration. As they are worn for long periods, they should be well padded, and have good bass for a true to life gaming experience. Some headphones can be multi-purpose, and have a separate music mode which can be switched on for ordinary listening. This alleviates the need for two sets of expensive headphones.
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