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What to know before buying headphones

Shopping for headphones but confused by all your options? You don’t have to be a technology guru to figure it all out, but knowing a few terms will help in deciding what is best for you.

Woman listening to music on headphones

When it comes to purchasing new headphones, there are so many options to choose from that it can be hard to make the right choice. By understanding the basics, you can more easily determine the shape, size and type of headphones that will be most comfortable for you and provide good sound quality.


We’ve all gotten a pair of these headphones with a smartphone or a portable music player. The freebies that come with your purchase are usually not the best quality. However, you can spend a little more ($30-$50 range) and get a pair with decent sound. Most people find this type of headphone comfortable and unobtrusive, but if you have small ears, they may start to hurt after wearing them for any extended length of time. Because earbuds don’t generally seal the ear canal, they are not completely noise canceling.

In ear

In-ear headphones fit just as their name would have you believe: in the ear. Because they fit snugly in the ear canal, these headphones provide much better noise canceling than earbuds. Some types fit much deeper into the ear providing even more noise blocking. To help get the best fit, in-ear types usually come with several different sizes of changeable eartips. Depending on the sound quality you’re looking for, in-ear headphones range greatly in price from $50-$1000 and up.

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Earpad (on the ear)

Think old-school Walkman headphones here. Earpad headphones usually have foam pads that rest on your ear connected by an adjustable headband. Since these don’t fit in your ear, the noise-canceling aspect is lacking, but technology has gotten better and some types do isolate some outside sounds. These are definitely the most wallet-friendly choice, starting around $20.

Full size (over the ear)

This is definitely the choice for the serious audiophile but is also one of the priciest. While you can find full-size headphones with a budget-friendly price tag, chances are the sound quality is not very good. Top quality full-size headphones can run up to thousands of dollars. These fit completely over your ear with full-size earcups and provide stereo sound but are best used in conjunction with an amplifier for optimal results. Keep in mind that if the headphones are open-back, sound comes out of them almost like a speaker, making these a bad choice for libraries or airplanes.

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