Choosing the Right Headphones or Headset: A Buyers’ Guide
If you Google “choosing the right headphones” or “choosing the right headset,” you’ll get a lot of lists of choices. “The Top 12 Headphones of 2021,” “The Best Wireless Headsets,” and on and on.
The problem with those articles is they’re inherently biased. The author is going to send you to the headphones and headsets that make him/her the most money or the ones that their company sells. Even the Amazon affiliate pages will only choose from Amazon offerings, not the entire world of personal audio devices.
This blog helps you make the right choice for your needs, even if you don’t buy from us. Understanding the factors in making a good decision will help you choose exactly what works for you, not what the author chooses out of millions of possibilities.
In this blog, we’ll look at headphones vs headsets, wired vs wireless, what is Bluetooth, separate microphones, and more. Our goal is to help you understand the technology so you can make the right choice for your needs.
Let’s jump right in.
Headphones vs Headset
While these terms are often used interchangeably, they are, in fact, two separate designs that serve different purposes.
What are headphones?
Headphones are small speakers that you wear on your head or ears to listen to audio files. Some are large, round speakers attached by an over-the-head headband. Others, earbuds, are tiny speakers that are inserted into the ear and operate wirelessly. Any designs can be wired (have a wire that plugs into an audio device) or wireless (uses radio-based technology to pick and play sound).
While headphones might have a microphone attached, it’s not usually visible; it’s not the headphone’s primary function.
Headphones are used for listening to audio files, like music, movies, television, etc.
Whether you choose earbuds or headphones will depend on what features you need and where you’ll be using them. Earbuds are great for on the go or when you don’t want to have something large on your head. If sound quality or noise reduction is important, you’ll want full-size headphones.
What is a headset?
A headset is one or two speakers attached to an obvious microphone. They are used primarily for phone calls and video conferencing.
A headset replaces the need to hold a telephone to one’s ear or have to shout at a tiny computer microphone.
Headsets come in both wired and wireless versions, the advantages and disadvantages of which we’ll look at in a moment.
One popular use for headsets is when gaming. With cooperative gaming, a team of players will work together remotely. Each has a headset on that allows them to hear their teammates and the games, as well as a microphone so they can communicate with others. Usually, these headsets have two large speakers over the ears so that the player’s experience is immersive.
Many headsets have only one speaker. They’re designed for business purposes. This design allows the wearer to hear the room around them as well as whomever is on the phone. One sees this design most frequently on people working in call centers or doing phone sales, though anyone who spends a great deal of time on the phone could use them to set their hands free.
Choosing between headphones and headsets
The choice between headphones and headsets has to do with what you’re going to use them for. Headphones will be just for listening. While many headphones have microphones built in, they’re not designed for all day use.
A headset is for business or gaming. The microphone is used constantly by the wearer.
Wireless or Wired
Deciding wired or wireless is another major consideration. While this again is a matter of how you’re going to use the device, there are also some quality considerations.
Wireless Headphones and Headsets
Wireless headphones and headsets have the primary advantage of being convenient. There are no wires to chain you to an audio device so you can walk around, not get entangled, and multitask. They’re perfect for exercising, cleaning the house, or being able to get up and move around whenever you want.
The primary disadvantage to wireless technology is that the sound quality is not as good as wired. While wireless technology is light years better than it was, it’s still not as good for truly high-quality audio.
For phone calls, casual listening, and watching television, wireless is fine for most people.
Over ear, on ear, or in ear
There are three major styles for headphones and headsets, particularly wireless ones: on ear, over ear, and in ear.
Over ear headphones
This is the traditional design. The headphones sit outside the ear and ear canal. There’s a headband over the top that holds the two speakers together. There are some designs that have the strap go around the back of the head, depending on what’s more comfortable. The speakers are usually surrounded by foam circles that press against the skin to cut off outside sounds.
On ear headphones
These headphones have speakers that sit on the ear. They aren’t large enough to cover the entire external ear. For those of us who are old enough, the original version of this was the headphones that came with the Sony Walkman. The sound quality is usually good, but ambient sound can get in.
In ear headphones
This style, usually called earbuds, sits inside the ear canal. This type is increasingly wireless for comfort. Many earbuds block out sounds by sitting tightly in the ear canal, preventing ambient noise from getting in.
Which style to choose
The style you choose is very much up to you and what’s comfortable. For situations where you want the best sound quality, over the ear headphones are the preferred. Otherwise, you can use whatever works best for you.
These styles are available in wired or wireless, so again it becomes a choice: What fits your lifestyle and your comfort best?
Sidebar: What is Bluetooth?
We all have dozens of Bluetooth devices in our homes these days, but most of us don’t know how it really works. Bluetooth technology connects our phones to our headsets, our speakers to our TVs, and lots of other devices to each other.
Bluetooth is a wireless, electromagnetic connectivity that allows devices to transfer data between each other. It operates in the 2.4 GHz ISM spectrum band (2400 to 2483.5 MHz).
Bluetooth does more than just transfer data; it also maintains security by “frequency hopping.” The Bluetooth devices change frequencies hundreds of times per second, making it impossible for the stream to be interrupted and stolen by a hacker. This is in contrast to, for example, a radio station that broadcasts only one frequency. It doesn't change so your radio can keep picking up the broadcast and converting it to sound.
The analogy to frequency hopping on your radio would be if your radio and the radio station jumped up and down the dial randomly. Only your two devices know where they’re going to be any time, so no one else could listen to the radio.
Bluetooth only has a range of about 30 feet (ca. 9 m), so it’s designed for personal use or very local use. This way there can be millions of Bluetooth devices without everyone interrupting each other.
Bluetooth is a private company. While we think of Bluetooth as a universal technology, in reality, is a proprietary system that’s updated and improved by the Bluetooth company.
Wired Headphones and Headsets
Wired headphones and headsets offer superior sound quality. Also, since they’re powered by the device they’re plugged into, there are no batteries to run on, so no chance of running out of power in the middle of something. This is ideal for office situations where someone might be on the phone for 10 hours a day. Running out of power could stop business in its tracks.
The obvious disadvantage to wired headphones is mobility. The cord is only a certain length. While you can get cord extensions, you’re still wired to something.
For those of us with animals and small children, wired headphones and headsets can be an extra hassle. Cats and dogs love to chew on the wires, and small children often fall or get entangled in them.
Choosing Wireless or Wired
If you’re going to need to move around a lot, such as exercising or walking around, wireless is the obvious choice. If you’re going to be in one spot, wired will work well.
For sound quality, wired is still much better, although Bluetooth is catching up. For listening to music, getting really into the online battle, or making recordings, wired will give you more range, depth of sound, and detailed sounds.
If you need something that you can use all day without needing to recharge it, then you need wired headphones or headsets.
If you're buying a headset to talk to on the phone or on video conferences, you need to make sure that the set you buy sounds good to the other person. Do a sound check with someone to see if the microphone sounds tinny, if it picks up too much ambient sound, if it sounds far away, or if it’s substandard in any other ways.
If you’re buying several headsets for an office, it's helpful to buy all one model. That allows everyone to know how to use the headset. Some headsets let you answer the phone by touching the side. Others use a button. Having the same headset everywhere means that everyone can answer the phones as they ring.
Headphones for Children
It might seem a little counterintuitive, but children, over the age of two or three, should be given wired headphones. There are several reasons for this:
Reasons children should get wired headphones
- They lose things. The wire makes it easier for them to pull the headphones up from the car floor or under a bed if they’re attached to a device.
- They’re much easier to use. If a child is watching something in the car and the Bluetooth connection is lost, you can’t exactly talk them through reconnecting it.
- Wired headphones won’t get swallowed. Wireless earbuds are tiny. They fit perfectly in little mouths. The headphones are much less likely to become a choking hazard.
- They are much easier to repair. While it’s not really all that vogue to repair your own electronics, you can usually fix a wired set of headphones in a few minutes if the cord gets cut or chewed through. Wireless devices are discarded when they break down.
- Your child will never be without power. As long as the device they’re using has power, they’ll be able to hear everything. The screaming will be terrifying if there’s still 20 minutes in the movie and the headphones die just as the princess is saving the prince.
Look for headphones made from non-toxic materials. Some plastics, although fine to touch, can leach chemicals when they get put in a mouth. Find headphones that won’t leach chemicals and are kid-safe.
What is noise reduction/noise cancelling?
Although these terms are used interchangeably, they are different technologies.
Noise reduction relates to designs that block noises from coming. In over the ear headphones, this is usually thick foam. For earbuds, it will be a design that allows for the bud to be pressed firmly into the ear.
Noise cancelling uses technology to counter ambient song. The headphones will “hear” a sound and then create a sound that cancels out the sound waves.
Very often, these two technologies are found in the same headphones.
As we said, these two terms are used interchangeably, but make sure you know what you’re buying when you get it. “Noise reducing” headphones might just have a nice design; noise cancelling has a tiny computer to help reduce noise.
When do you need a separate microphone?
We should start with the fact that you can get microphones that are wired or wireless. You can choose a microphone that is a simple, inexpensive device that sits on your desk or a professional microphone for recording audio tracks or podcasting.
So when do you need a separate microphone? When the quality of your audio needs to be bumped up or you only have headphones and not a headset for video conferences phone calls. Some of us have great headphones that we love. Rather than trading them in, we can buy a microphone that sits on the desk for those occasions we need one.
If you’re doing recordings, you will want to get a high-quality desktop microphone. It will give you deeper sounds and allow you to record small sounds better.
The Least You Need to Know
The most important factor in all this information is that whether you choose wireless or wired, headphones, headsets, or microphones, it’s a matter of preference.
If you need or want to be mobile, choose a wireless sound system?
If you’re in one place or you can risk running out of power, try a wired system?
If sound quality is a major concern, choose wired devices. They can handle the range and power you need.
For children, wired headphones are usually the best idea. They’re harder to lose and don’t need to be recharged. They also can’t be swallowed by baby brothers and sisters.
No matter what type of device you choose, you need to purchase from a reputable retailer. The support you get for your device will make all the difference. If it arrives defective or breaks in a month, you don't want to have to argue with someone in a big box store that really knows nothing about the items they sell. Stick with specialists, especially if this is a purchase that will improve your life or make work easier.
The world of personal sound devices is evolving faster than ever. In the last 30 years, we’ve gone from big, clunky headphones to wireless earbuds that can disappear in the ear canal. We’re excited to see what innovations we’ll see in the next 30 years.