You may have noticed that headphones -- those electrified earmuffs that the sonar operator in every submarine movie is always wearing -- have suddenly become fashion statements. Music artists including Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Quincy Jones, Ludacris and others have their own branded “cans,” as studio rats like to call over-the-ear headphones. Whatever the reason they have appeared on the consumer music scene, it’s a welcome development -- after nearly a decade during which the earbud has been the ubiquitous conduit through which we access our portable music, its implicit trade-off of convenience versus quality is starting to wear thin.

Not that earbuds are a bad thing -- unless, of course, you listen too long and too loudly -- but the fact of the matter is, they may not be what you want when what you’re after is being able to hear all of the music on each track. That’s because, like us, music needs air to breathe. Earbuds come in two varieties: those that sit on the outside of the ear canal and those that are placed inside that channel, also known as in-ear monitors. How deeply in-ear monitors can be placed into the ear canal varies, as does the level of seal that different ones can achieve, which largely determines the bass response that these ‘buds are capable of. That’s because much of the sound you hear when you’re using earbuds comes from mechanical coupling of that tiny speaker (also known as a transducer) to your head. In essence, you become part of the playback process. You can get good results from high quality earbuds, but their ability to reproduce a wide spectrum of tonality is simply limited by their size and the fact that they’re not pushing a whole lot of air.


Get Your Cans On

That’s where headphones have a distinct advantage. The transducers on a pair of earphones may rest as little as a quarter of an inch or less from the outside of your ear, but that’s still miles compared to an earbud. In that space, they can move a considerable amount of air, and as noted, air is good for music.

Headphones have other advantages when it comes to critical listening. One of the two main categories of over-the-ear headphones, known as circumaural, cover the outside of the ear and thus can seal out most if not all extraneous noise, lessening distractions. (By the same token, if you’ve ever been annoyed sitting next to someone on a long plane flight whose had his or her earbuds cranked up, relax, because circumaural headphones won’t allow others to hear what you’re listening to.) Some of the best designs for this type of headphone are so comfortable you’ll forget you’re wearing them, and they’re the best option for quality personal music monitoring.

The other type of headphone is known as supra-aural. These have pads that rest on top of the ears instead of around them. It’s not as intimate an environment as circumaural headphones can provide, but supra-aural headphones are lighter and can be more comfortable when worn for long periods.

Headphones have two other differences. Closed-back or sealed models are fully enclosed on the back of the earcup (i.e., the part that faces away from the ear); these offer an immersive listening experience. Open-back models, on the other hand, have perforations in their plastic housings that let some extraneous ambient sound in. The volume of the music played through them is usually enough to mask most external noise, but as headphones become the way we access our music as we move around town, the ability to hear a siren now and then is also a good idea.


Picking & Choosing

The proliferation of headphones means there are plenty to choose from, and make no mistake, different headphones will color music differently to some extent. “Headphone choice is like choosing your music -- they’re both a bit subjective and personal taste is certainly a factor,” observes Eric Stubbert, channel manager for professional systems and consumer electronics at Sennheiser. “But the move from earbuds to headphones is definitely an upgrade in terms of being able to better hear and experience whatever music you like.”

Stubbert suggests trying on a few pairs to get a sense of what the caliper pressure -- the level of tension that holds headphones to your ears -- is like on different models, which can affect comfort over long periods of wearing. And he recommends choosing models with fabric-covered foam around the edges of circumaural types; they’ll cost a bit more then ones that use plastic-encased foam but those will get uncomfortable quickly when they come in contact with perspiration.

Finally, says Stubbert, test-listen using music you’re familiar with, and look for headphones that have as flat -- i.e., uncolored -- a response as possible. As mentioned earlier, all transducers -- headphones or speakers -- will impart come coloration to the sound. Listen for ones that fit your tastes. For instance, Monster’s Beats headphones are biased to enhance the bass, which makes them better for, say, hip-hop than for rock or blues. Whatever works for you is great. Just get some air in there.


Sidebar: Cancel This!

A subcategory of headphone is the noise-canceling headphone. Consumers have embraced them for use in environments where they’re exposed to high levels of continuous ambient noise, such as aboard an airliner. Products like these, from brands like Bose, Sennheiser and Audio-Technica, use active noise-canceling technology: a tiny transducer that analyzes ambient noise and then generates tones of similar frequencies but with their phase inverted, effectively canceling out the noise.

Understandably, this approach is not perfect; some of the desired frequencies in the music may also be caught up in this kind of process. However, the most advanced active noise-canceling headphones are able to process ambient noise to a near-surgical degree, leaving the music relatively untouched. The best of these can cost upwards of $500, but if you’re a music lover who spends a lot of time at 40,000 feet, it’s a worthwhile investment. 

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