Getting started - Headphone guide
At home, almost any good headphones will do. They can allow you to enjoy a late-night movie without disturbing your sleeping spouse or listen to music while the kids run amok in the background.
Portable headphones let you take the show on the road. If you'll be using an iPod or portable DVD player in a crowded plane, consider a noise-canceling model that can reduce unwanted ambient noise.
The physical design of some headphones models helps to block outside noise. That's true of closed, over-the-ear headphones, as well as insert-style earphones that to inside the ear canal, forming a seal against outside sounds, much like an earplug. Active noise-canceling models use battery-powered electronic circuitry that can reduce extraneous noises to various degrees. Use this headphone guide to find the right pair for you.
Types of headphones
The type of headphones you buy depends mostly on your lifestyle and somewhat on your budget. Some people buy different types of headphones for different uses, such as a pair to wear while exercising and another for listening to high-fidelity music. Here are the types of headphones to consider.
These headphones are usually larger models that look like earmuffs, with earpieces connected by a headband. Most are corded, with wires that run from 3 feet to 8 feet long so they can be connected to an audio source such as a receiver or TV. Some can be folded for storage and come with carrying pouches. There are also battery-powered wireless models that pick up radio frequency or infrared transmissions from a base unit that connects to an audio source. Typical price: $20 to $200.
Home/studio headphones come in a few basic designs:
Also called circumaural, these models cup your ears, sealing in sound and muffling ambient noise. But they might also block out some things that you want to hear, such as a doorbell or a child's cry,
These headphones have openings in the ear cups. You'll be able to hear more external sounds but sounds can also escape, perhaps enough to keep someone nearby awake.
Also called supra-aural, these types of headphones are generally lighter than over-the-ears models and don't press on the sides of your head--they press upon the ears. Many wearers find them more comfortable for long listening sessions, but they can allow more ambient sound to enter. On-ear headphones, like over-the-ear, also come in open and closed versions. Most of these models use an adjustable strap that fits over, or behind, your head to hold them in place. (The behind-the-head models are sometimes called "street style.") Some can be folded for storage and come with carrying pouches.
Available in a variety of styles, all are lightweight, small, and may be foldable so they can be tucked away in a pocket or purse when not in use. Typical price: $25 to $150. They come in a variety of styles:
These earphones are inserted into the ear canal, forming a seal that can help keep out extraneous sounds. Many come with additional earpieces (canal tips) of varying sizes to ensure a proper, comfortable fit.
Hanging over-ear models
Active noise-reduction headphones are a good choice for anyone who doesn't want to be disturbed by outside noise.
Ear buds (intra-concha)
These are the familiar type that typically comes with iPods and other portable audio players.
Also called supra-concha, these models are a good choice when you'll be engaged in a strenuous activity or exercise. The phones are supported by a bracket that passes around the back of the head, and generally radiate sound forward toward the ear canal rather than sideways directly into the ear canal.
Headphones for smart phones
Designed for use with smart phones such as the iPhone and BlackBerry and Android phones, these headphones have a microphone and small controls on the cord that let you connect and disconnect phone calls. They can also control basic music player functions such as play and pause. So if you're listening to music and your phone rings, you can press a control on the cord and answer the call without taking the phone out of your pocket or purse. You can get the same capabilities with the headset that comes with the phone, but these replacement headphones might offer better sound quality that is more-suited to music. Note that these headphones offer full functionality only with specific phone models, so be sure a given model will work with your phone. These headphones come in various styles, as described above, and some use noise-canceling technology.
Wireless models, once rare, are now increasingly common, and typically use RF, infrared (IR), or Bluetooth wireless technologies. Most home models have a battery-powered headset and an AC-powered transmitter that connects to your audio or video gear. RF models can transmit signals through walls and floors, enabling you to use the headphones in other rooms or even outside. But they are also subject to interference from other devices, such as cordless phones and microwave ovens, that operate on the same frequencies (often 900MHz or 2.4GHz). Several RF technologies are used, including: FM (analog) or digital spread spectrum. Typical price: $100 to $400.
Wireless headphones that use infrared technology, much like a TV remote, require a direct line of sight to the transmitter. Bluetooth is a type of digital spread-spectrum technology, and the typical model has an operating range of about 30 feet within the home.
Portable wireless headphones generally use Bluetooth to connect to smart phones, such as an iPhone or BlackBerry, or Bluetooth-enabled portable media media players, such as a second-generation iPod Touch. Bluetooth technology used in headphones (and other hi-fi audio uses) should employ the A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile) or "advanced audio" feature, rather than the narrow-band voice-quality mode used for wireless cell phone headsets. Typical price: $300 to $500.
Active noise-reduction headphones
Noise-canceling headphones are a good choice for anyone who doesn't want to be disturbed by outside noise. Any headphones with a closed design that fit tightly over your ears or inside the ear canal will block some noise by creating a seal. This is called passive noise reduction. Closed design over-the-ear and insert-style earphones tend to block more noise than do open design, on-ear, and ear-bud-style headphones. Models with active noise-canceling technology go a step further. These battery-powered headphones use tiny microphones to monitor noise frequencies, and then produce those same frequencies out of phase in an effort to cancel them. Typical price: $90 to $200 for home-studio models; $40 to $400 for portables.
We've found that the effectiveness of noise-reduction technology can range from very good to poor. In general, we found the most effective noise reduction in models that combined passive noise blocking with active noise cancellation. Some models let you turn off noise reduction; these will work without batteries. Others work only with noise canceling activated, and thus they can't be used for listening to music if the batteries die. And in some cases, you can use the noise-canceling feature even when you're not listening to music, simply to reduce outside noise.
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