How to Find the Right Pair of Headphones

Headphone buying guide rotator

Buying the perfect pair of headphones—or at least one that fits your lifestyle—seems like it should be a real no brainer. That is, until you actually hit the store or go online to buy them. What used to be a simple pickup is now a head-scratching gauntlet of features and styles. To help you drill down through the hundreds of options you’ll find at your local electronics store (and the thousands available online), David Carnoy, executive editor at CNET suggests wrapping your head around these five standard features.

Headphone Form

Not all headphones fit every head. You need determine which styles work best on your dome. Some of the most common options are closed back (covers the entire ear), open back (doesn’t cover the entire ear), and ear buds. You’ll want to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of each form, and always try on a sample pair to determine what’s most comfortable for you, says Carnoy.

Closed Back (Covers the whole ear)
Pros: Louder, offer larger sound, and earcups seal in sound.
Con’s: Large size can be difficult to carry around, and sealed ear cups lock in heat, leading to sweaty ears.

Open Back (Does not cover the whole ear)
Pros: Keep your ears cool, let you hear what’s going on around you if you’re working in an office.
Con’s: They leak noise, so everyone around you can hear what you’re listening to.

Pros: Portable, can seal out noise, lightweight, generally more affordable.
Con’s: Sound quality may not be as high as other models, two wires means more tangling.


Headphones built with some metal are usually more durable, and if something feels like it’s cheaply built, it usually is. It’s best to handle the product you’re buying before you invest in it,  but if you’re dead set on purchasing online, Carnoy suggests combing through reviews on both Amazon and eBay, as well as websites like CNET. “You have to be careful because there is some counterfeiting with the more prevalent models,” Carnoy adds. If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Make sure you’re buying from a reputable seller who has a history of satisfied customers.  

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“What I liken [headphones] to is a road bike,” says Carnoy. “You can get a perfectly good road bike for $1,200, but then if you buy a $3,000 road bike you’ll get that extra [oomph].” In audio terms, the numbers are a little lower—Carnoy says you can find a great pair of headphones for around $50, but you’ll notice a small difference between a $50 pair and a $500 pair. It’s imperative that you take the time to actually listen to what you’re purchasing, though. Once you’ve narrowed your choices down to three or four selections, buy them, try them out for a week, and then return the ones that don’t make the cut (make sure you check the store’s return policy). It’ll ensure that you get exactly what you’re looking for.


Bass heavy headphones are perfect for hip-hop, rap and techno music, while treble heavy versions compliment rock music, and mid-range is a good fit for vocals and acoustics. You also have to ensure what you’re wearing isn’t terribly uncomfortable. “With headphones, it’s always going to be about a balance of comfort and performance,” says Carnoy.


Select closed options offer noise-cancelling technology, which creates a sound wave that neutralizes a percentage of the ambient noise around you. “Some models will actually mention the [percentage of ambient noise they cancel],” says Carnoy. These models are great for long flights, or any type of commuting. If you’re in the office and on a computer for most of your day, opt for a wireless option so you can move around without being tethered to your computer. And if you’re looking to conduct business on the go, choose models with in-line microphones so you can answer phone calls with the push of a button.

Still stuck? Check out the 6 Best Headphones for Any Situation.

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