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Here’s What to Look (and Listen!) for When Buying Wired Headphones

There’s a make and model out there for every music lover.

OK, we know you’re asking yourself the question, so we’ll ask it for you: In a world of wireless, why wired?

Simple: Because it sounds better. Wireless is great, particularly when it comes to convenience, but the fact of the matter is that even the most glorious audio loses some of its sheen when it is transmitted via radio waves instead of physical cabling. If you doubt that, try a simple experiment: Make a connection between the headphone output of your smartphone and the input to your car’s audio system (if there’s no obvious jack on the dashboard, it will likely be hidden inside the center console), then compare the sound of your favorite song with the same song over Bluetooth®. The difference is subtle, but audible.

There’s another advantage wired headphones have: They don’t need batteries, so there’s no chance of them conking out in the middle of a jog around the corner or a serious listening session at home.

So if you’re a serious music lover — or you’re buying a gift for someone who is — then wired is the way to go. Here’s what you should be looking (and listening) for when shopping for a new pair of headphones.

Comfort

For most audio- or music-related products, sound quality is the most important factor. But when it comes to headphones, comfort can be even more important, for one simple reason: If they don’t feel comfortable, you won’t want to use them very often.

So, if at all possible, try on the headphones before you buy them. But even before you do that, familiarize yourself with the three basic types of headphones out there.

Different headphone types

1. In-ear. The most common variety is the earphone, which is sometimes referred to as an ear-bud or in-ear “headphone” (even though it technically isn’t a headphone, since it doesn’t fit over the head). Semantics aside, these have a lot to offer since they are extremely lightweight and compact, and are often quite inexpensive. On the downside, these models are rarely able to deliver as much bass as other kinds of headphones, and, depending upon their specific design, can be less than stellar when it comes to sound isolation (more about this shortly). In terms of comfort, they’re not for everyone — particularly people with very small or very large ear canals, who may find them falling out easily. If you are going to go for this variety, try to pick a model that comes with multiple ear tips. The Yamaha EPH-M200, for example, includes five ear tips of differing size for a near-custom fit.

Yamaha EPH-M200 earphones.

2. On-ear. These types of headphones have cushions that sit around the outer ear, as opposed to enclosing the entire ear. (See #3 below.) Many people find these models — particularly those with adjustable headbands — to be the most comfortable when listening for extended periods. On-ear headphones are sometimes also described in terms of being “open back” or “closed back.” This refers to whether the back of the earcups are open or sealed, with “closed back” models offering better noise isolation and a more forceful sound. The Yamaha PRO 300 closed back on-ear headphone is an excellent choice in this category, combining sonic clarity, comfort and portability in a compact folding design.

Yamaha PRO 300 on-ear headphones.

3. Over-ear. For the maximum in sound quality and isolation, you may want to consider a professional-level over-ear headphone, which, as its name implies, fully encloses the ear. These types of headphones envelope the ear with soft cushions, but you want to be careful to try before you buy because if they are too heavy, tight or restricting, it can be uncomfortable to wear them for long periods of time. Yamaha HPH-MT series professional studio monitor headphones all utilize an over-ear design with large low-resistance cushions and three-dimensional arm pivot construction to alleviate fatigue. Best of all, they deliver extraordinarily accurate sound with deep, rich bass and precise stereo imaging, making them perfect for the audiophile or home recordist.

Yamaha HPH-MT8 over-ear headphones.

Sound Quality

Before you consider this factor, understand how subjective it is: What sounds good to one person may sound just “meh” to someone else. That’s why it can be really helpful to pay a visit to a couple of “brick-and-mortar” stores as you do your shopping, especially if they have demo headphones on display. Select a few in your price range and connect them to your smartphone, then play some of your favorite music. (If you’re buying the headphones as a gift, bring along some of the recipient’s favorites, or at least a few songs in a genre you know they like.)

Listen closely and pay special attention to the overall balance. Are you hearing the song as you know it, or are the headphones coloring things, bringing out certain aspects you may have never heard before? That can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending upon what they are doing and your personal taste. Things to avoid: obvious distortion, or a sound that’s too boomy or overly bright. Any of those sonic symptoms will quickly lead to listener fatigue. The goal is to purchase headphones that will be used often, not ones that will end up on a shelf.

Sensitivity

This is kind of a geek term, but it’s an important one. Sensitivity (sometimes called efficiency) is a measurement of the relative amount of loudness a set of headphones produces in response to a given amount of input power. In plain English, the higher the sensitivity, the louder the headphones will be at any given volume setting; the lower the sensitivity, the softer they will be. You can find a headphone’s sensitivity/efficiency rating in the specs, presented as “dB/mW” (decibels per milliwatt) or “dB/V” (decibels per volt).

It may seem like you should buy the headphones that will sound the loudest (since louder almost always sounds better to our ears), but the downside is that it’s easier to overload and distort those models, especially if they’re connected to powerful amplifiers like the ones used in home theater systems. If you know that the headphones you’re buying will be used mostly on airplanes or with portable listening devices like smartphones — systems that typically have low-power amplifiers — go for ones with a relatively high sensitivity (100 dB/mW or higher). Otherwise, you might want to compromise with a model that displays lower sensitivity since it will deliver good sound in a wider range of listening environments.

Noise Isolation

Trying to listen to music in a noisy environment like on an airplane, or at the beach? It’s at times like that when you can really appreciate the noise isolation characteristics of your headphones. This is one factor that ties in closely with the design type: in-ear models may provide little isolation, while over-ear models excel at it. On-ear models will vary depending upon their physical construction, so this is something else to listen for if you are able to evaluate different headphones in a store.

By the way, noise isolation is a two-way street: The more outside environment you can hear, the more your neighbors can hear your music, albeit a tinny rendition of it. That’s something to consider if you’re planning on using your new headphones in the office, or if the person you’re gifting them to won’t want to be subjecting their fellow cubicle-dwellers to suffer through afternoons of annoyingly shrill (though low-level) thrash metal.

It’s also worth mentioning that noise isolation is not the same as noise cancellation. So-called “noise-cancelling” headphones require batteries and have embedded microphones that take in ambient noise, then create an inverse sound wave to (somewhat) cancel out the external sound. They do so, however, at the expense of sonic quality and really only work well for constant low frequencies, with significantly less effectiveness at mid-range frequencies and above. For that reason, they’re handy on airplanes since they reduce engine noise… though they will have little or no effect on the sound of the crying baby in the seat behind you.

Attachability / Portability

Here are a few other features to look for as you shop:

Detachable cable. It would be a shame to have to discard your brand-new purchase in a couple of years just because the cable got frayed, so look for a model that comes with a detachable cable — a component that can be replaced easily and inexpensively.

Inline controls and/or microphone. Some headphones, such as the Yamaha PRO 400, incorporate a microphone and/or controls on the cable that allow you to remotely adjust the volume, play/pause playback or even answer calls on a connected smartphone. All good things to have for the user on the go!

Adapters. Portable listening devices such as smartphones come with 1/8″ headphone inputs, while AV receivers and home audio system amplifiers more commonly offer 1/4″ inputs, so it’s helpful if your headphones come with an adapter that will allow their use either way. Yes, you always can buy these kinds of adapters online (or from any electronics retailer), but why not save yourself a few bucks?

Carrying case. It’s a bonus if a custom case is included, especially if you’ll be taking your headphones on trips, to the office, or to the beach. This will help protect your investment for years to come.

The Yamaha PRO 400 comes with a case, dual detachable cords with inline controls, and a 1/4″ gold-plated adapter.

 

For more information about Yamaha portable headphones, click here.

For more information about Yamaha professional studio monitor headphones, click here.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

The team at Yamaha is dedicated to helping music lovers create, perform, listen to and learn about music.

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