How do you ensure that your music sounds really good? It sounds like a simple question with an easy answer, but it’s really not so simple. For getting good quality sound to your ears, you need to pay attention to the entire process. Every step — from the quality of the audio file that you play, to your phone’s audio hardware, to your headphones, play a critical role in reproducing music well.
Getting a good pair of headphones will change your listening experience forever. Do not settle for the stock ear-buds that come with your phone. A good pair of headphones is the best investment you can make in your music listening ventures. With headphones coming in different form factors and with prices ranging from a few hundreds to lakhs of rupees, we aim to de-mystify which headphones you should buy.
That being said, there is no perfect headphone. Headphones vary in their sound signatures and the key is to get the right headphone for your music and how you like to listen to them. So the choice of headphones depends on the type of music you like to listen most and also how you prefer to hear them. The more expensive the better may not be true with headphones. The best type of headphone is the one you’ll use the most.
- In-Ear headphones.
- Gym-workout headphones.
- Bluetooth in-ear Headphones.
- Open-back over the ear headphones.
- Closed-back over the ear headphones.
- Noise Cancelling Headphones.
- Music source.
- Music players.
- Ear Tips.
1. Why should I look at In-Ear headphones?
In-Ear headphones are perfect for: Portability, Isolation, Gym Use.
These headphones have a small, soft tip that is inserted into the ear canal. With a proper fit, these headphones provide decent isolation of external sounds. They are small and easy to carry and wear. Usually they don’t require too much power to drive them and thus go well with portable devices like mobile phones. When well designed, in-ear headphones can rival the sound quality of good full-size open headphones. However, they usually do not have as strong a sense of space and imaging.
This category is huge. You have in-ear headphones starting at a few hundred to a few lakhs. Like the price, the quality varies wildly and we have found most of the cheaper earphones to be very poor in sound details and performance. There are a lot of in-ear headphones that have too much bass, excessively bright treble or very poor comfort and fit.
Top picks Under Rs. 3000/-
These are the entry-level models. They can still sound good but won’t have the best build quality. There are very few truly good-sounding headphones in this price range. If you tend to lose things easily, or just want some decent sound for occasional use or if are just starting out buying headphones, this may be a good place to start.
Top Picks Under Rs. 6000/-
This is the budget where really good headphones start. They have better drivers, are sturdier, and are more comfortable to use. Good headphones sound clearer, crisper, and warmer than cheaper headphones. The overall experience is more lifelike with richer sound and more details in the music. You’ll find that you start hearing instruments more clearly and with a bigger sense of space.
These typically last longer and are more comfortable. Perfect for people who listen to music a lot and love getting lost into the musical world created between the two ears.
Top picks under Rs. 10,000/-
While there are several in-ear headphones that cost more than these and are better, we find the Rs. 10000 as the upper limit for in-ear headphones. These are mainly because the bang for buck reduces as you go higher up in price. Also these are meant for portable use and anything that is used on the go, will get damaged or lost.
These are headphones you invest in since music is so important for you. These models are premium, well built and sound amazing. You’ll find a new level of quality which when paired with a quality DAC or a music player and some high quality music will make for a profound experience. You will note better instrument separation in the music, love the wide and spacious sound-stage and overall, music will sound full bodied and accurate.
In general, in-ear monitors deliver the best isolation from outside noise and are ideal for commuters and daily use. Getting a good seal inside your ear is critical for these earphones and without it you may find lack of bass and details. Getting foam-tips or trying various sizes usually helps.
2. What about headphones for the Gym?
In ear headphones are the best for use in the gym or for running. Since there will be lot of moving and sweat involved the headphones best suited for this are sweat proof and generally built in a more rugged fashion. These headphones usually have a loop or some other device to keep them in place. You have an option of wired or wireless headphones which are designed for workouts. Wireless headphones cost a lot more due to all the technology that goes in them. They have a bluetooth recever, amplifier, battery all built-in. Thus for the same price, you’ll get better sound quality in a wired paid than a wireless one.
3. What about Bluetooth headphones ?
Wired headphones do not require any separate source of power. They get their power from the 3.5 mm jack on the music player which is supplied by the music players amplifier. In case of a Bluetooth headset however, the music player for eg: your phone only sends the digital signal over bluetooth to the headphone. The headphone then has to receive the signal , convert it into analog, amplify it and then play it through the speakers. Thus wireless headphones cost a lot more due to all the technology that goes in them. You also have to additionally charge them. Keep in mind that for the same price, a wired headphone will generally be much better in quality than a wireless one as most of the money goes into making the earphone wireless and chargeable.
That said, they do make sure that you don’t have any nasty wires hanging around. If you have a large phone then carrying it around during a workout becomes an issue and wireless headphones help you keep them in a corner of the Gym while you enjoy your music on the other side of the room.
Over the ear headphones
All professionals, be it recording artists or DJ’s prefer over the ear headphones. This is because of the comfort of using them over long periods and also the sound quality. They have bigger drivers and are generally the best sounding type of headphones. Definitely not as portable as in-ear models, the main reason you’d want to buy a pair of over-ear headphones is the sound quality for the price. They are also more sturdily built and last several years of use. Apart from the portable over the ear models, typically these are power hungry and perform great with a dedicated amplifier.
4. Why are open-back Over the Ear Headphones better?
Open-back Over the Ear Headphones are perfect for: Indoor Use, No Isolation, Great Sound Quality.
These are headphones which go over the ear and have ear-pads that completely cover your ears (circumaural). Being open-back means they are not sealed to isolate from external noise. This gives them a more natural, open and airy sound. It also means that people around you can hear what you are listening to. The sound is similar to what you can hear in a nightclub or a concert hall, because you are not hearing them through closed cups. They are great for music which has lot of instrumentation and details like Jazz or Classical music. They are usually little lacking in bass and hence maybe not so suited for EDM. Open back headphones typically require a dedicated amplifier to get the most out of them.
Since they are not meant for public listening or portable use, these are typically used around the home or office where there is little outside noise.
5. What about Closed back over the ear headphones?
Closed-back Over the Ear Headphones are perfect for: Indoor Use, Some Isolation, Great Sound Quality.
The closed back over the ears’ seal out external noise by covering the ear from the outside. These are perfect for people just don’t like the feel of plugs sticking into their ears. However, the earpads sit on the ear and hence isolation can be a hit and miss. Closed back headphones usually have punchier bass which is good with most mainstream modern music. Closed back headphones come in 2 forms. One is bigger with pads that fully cup your ear while the other are on-ear ones with ear-pads that rest against your ear. The on-ear models are smaller and hence more portable.
6. What about Active Noise cancelling headphones ?
Active Noise-cancelling Headphones are perfect for: Great Isolation, Portable use in noisy areas.
Noise-cancelling headphones are headphones that reduce unwanted ambient sounds using active noise control. This is distinct from passive headphones which, which try to reduce outside noise by giving a good seal. They incorporate a microphone that measures ambient sound, generates a waveform that is the exact negative of the ambient sound, and mix it with any audio signal the listener desires. They typically cost more than regular headphones and need to be charged for it to work. Since there is some digital signal processing involved, some noise cancelling headphones can sound a bit strange. Generally, these headphones are only recommended for people who cannot get a good seal with passive ones. Typically they are useful for air travellers and rail commuters. Bose has been a leader in this technology and it is not surprising that some of the best active noise cancelling headphones are made by them.
Getting the most from your headphone :
As mentioned earlier, for getting good quality sound to your ears you need to pay attention to the entire process. Every step — from the quality of the audio file that you play or stream, to your smartphone’s audio hardware, to your headphones play a critical role in reproducing music well.
What is important before buying a headphone is to understand which type of headphone fits your style of listening. Some headphones are more bass heavy, some better suited for acoustic music – so pick one that suits your kind of music. The type of headphone you will buy will be different for casual at-home listening and listening during a gym workout or a jog. Getting a good quality source and pairing it with a great headphone are probably the most important steps. Finally pay attention to the power requirements and the source of music that you are using. Some headphones require a dedicated amp to power them. It all depends on how important music is for you and how much you are willing to invest in it.
The way a music player (even your smartphone) works is – the DAC, a digital to analogue converter reads the digital source through the phone’s audio software converts it into an analogue signal and sends the signal to your headphone through the amplifier. In case of a bluetooth headphone, the phone sends the digital signal to the headphone via bluetooth and then bluetooth headset does the conversion and amplifying.
Thus there are 4 main parts in a which influences your music quality other than headphones.
- Music Source
- Music Player
- External DAC / Amplifier
- Headphone Tips
1. Source – The source as the name suggests, is where it all begins and hence very critical. The source is the audio file you are playing. Portable audio typically means compressed music in various formats. You have mp3, AAC, m4a which are most popular. These are examples of lossy audio, meaning the files have been compressed to save space, and some information from the original recording has been lost. However, the trade-off is between achieving a smaller file size while retaining as much of the original music information and as possible. This information is called “bitrate”. If you have music that is encoded at 128 kbps and below you will find a lot of reduction in sound quality. Mp3’s and AAC’s can record upto 320 kbps and generally you should only listen to music encoded at 256kbps or 320kbps.
You also have lossless formats – which is a method that reduces file size without any loss in quality between the original source file and the resulting file. Popular lossless formats are FLAC and ALAC both of which will take considerably more space than mp3’s but are still smaller in file size than CD’s.
If you own CD’s and wish to convert them to digital files you can choose between lossy and lossless formats. If size is not an issue and you want the best audio representation, use lossless audio compression. If size is important, use lossy audio compression at 320kbps.
Most people however will listen to streaming music on a smartphone through music streaming apps like Apple Radio, Saavn, Wynk, Gaana etc. These apps make the process of finding and downloading music on to your device effortless. They also help you discover new music easily with their algorithms which recommend similar artists and ready recommended playlists. However most of them are paid and there is a monthly fee for using the service. It is also important to note that you don’t really own the music and the day you stop paying or switch services, all your saved music will just disappear. However, if you still decide to use these as your main source of music, make sure you select “high quality” or “320 kbps” in your app options.
2. Music Players –
If you are using a smartphone to listen to music, then you are using the DAC and the amplifier that comes with the phone. However, not all phones are the same and use high quality components. Typically, cheaper phones will have inferior components and this will affect the sound quality. Even some expensive phones like the Nexus 6p or the Google Pixels do not have very high quality amplifiers. There are other phones like the HTC 10, LG V20 and the iPhones which have excellent audio quality.
Headphones are essentially a set of speakers rigged to fit on your head and comfortably over your ears. Like all speakers, they need power, which is provided usually by a 3.5 millimeter audio jack. If the power provided by the jack is not enough to fully drive the speakers you’ll find them strangely quiet and feel that certain aspects of the experience, such as strong bass, are missing.
What’s important is to realise that not all headphones can be powered well with smartphones. You need to look at the headphone impedance for this. The impedance specification is ignored by most headphone buyers. Impedance is unit of measurement for headphones and what kind of power they will need. The higher the impedance, the more voltage they need.
Low-impedance (under 32 ohm) headphones will work well with your smart phone. Most portable in-ear and over the ear models are low-impedance. However, the bigger headphones typically come with higher impedance numbers. The Sennheiser HD650 has 300 ohms of impedance. As with other Sennheiser open-air headphones, this requires not only a powerful amp, but a quality amp.
If you’re looking for headphones to use with a portable player or laptop, stick to the headphones in the range of 16 – 32 ohms. For anything that needs more power, get an external Amplifier.
3. External DAC / Amplifiers
An amplifier increases the power of an audio source so that it can properly drive bigger, louder equipment. For most portable use you probably don’t need an Amp. General rule for amplifiers is that the bigger headphone, the bigger the need for amplification. You should generally use a dedicated headphone amplifier for a full size headphone.
You get headphone amplifiers that are desktop models and also portable ones. Even a portable amplifier can be enough, depending on the type of the headphones. Some Amps nowadays come with built in DACs also. It is possible to connect higher-quality DACs and headphone amplifiers externally to your smartphones using the micro USB, USB-C or Lightning port on your smartphone. They’re not very portable, but offer better sound quality than most phones.
Garbage in = Garbage out (GIGO) is a popular phrase used to emphasize the importance of a good source. This can be the soundcard in your PC or laptop, the smartphone you are using or the streaming service. The better each one is, the better your music will sound.
4. Ear Tips
For In-ear headphones, getting a seal in your ear-canal is critical. This not only isolates outside noise, it also enhances the way music sounds. Without a good seal you may find a lack of bass and details in the music. Your earphone typically comes with ear tips of various sizes. Try all of them and see which fits best. In addition, getting foam-tips is a great way to enhance your experience. Comply is a company that specialises in foam tips. They are made of memory foam and once inside, take the shape of your ear-canal. They give you a much better seal, which means you’re going to get better bass response. They also help in ensuring that the earphones stay put. Find the eartips meant for your headphone from their website and try the mixed pack to check your size.
Sound Signature of Headphones
Headphones have many different aspects of sound including Bass, Mids, Treble, Soundstage, and instrumental separation. The Bass typically encompasses drums and bass impact. It is what gives energy and power to a song. The Mids are where the vocals and guitars typically play. The Treble contains strings, cymbals, and other high frequency instruments. Soundstage is about how spacious a headphone sounds and instrument separation makes each instrument sound independent and not muddled and mixed up.
A typical Rock song is very different from EDM, Bollywood or Classical music. The instruments used are very different as is the way the sound is recorded, mastered and presented. Some headphones are better suited for a type of music than others because of the way they are tuned. Do note that this is a simplistic approach and the hundreds of genres of music and the sub-genres usually overlap and do not fit neatly in classification like this. However, we can for the purpose of understanding broadly classify headphones into:
- Bass Heavy – Earphones for fans of heavy bass who value bass and power.
- Warm – moderately enhanced bass and laid-back treble. Emphasis specifically on the mid-bass region often results in rich, full-bodied sound.
- V-Shaped – With Enhanced bass and treble the v-shaped sound is similar to the “Rock” equalizer setting.
- Balanced and accurate – Emphasizing no particular area of the frequency spectrum, balanced headphones provide the clearest and accurate sound
Can I use equalizers to change Sound Signature of Headphones?
Equalisers are a great way of tuning the sound of your headphones. However not all equaliser pre-sets work the same way. Also equalisers can at-best slightly change the frequencies, but if your headphone has very less bass capabilities, no amount of Eq’ing will bring in Bass. We generally like to hear music the way it was produced and intended by the artist to be heard. So we prefer keeping EQ’s neutral and let the headphones do their job.
While all of this may sound overwhelming, the main purpose here is to enjoy your music. The innumerable number of products are to match your taste and preferences. There is no one perfect headphone that all will like. Choose a budget and pick one of the recommended headphones. If you like the way your music sounds then there is no need to buy expensive ones. Else keep trying newer ones with different sound signatures till you find your musical nirvana.