Choosing a pair of earphones or headphones is almost as personal a decision as working out whether you want an iPhone, Android or MP3 player. Some headphones give the right nod to fashion, while others show off your serious muso credentials.
It’s not enough to simply choose earphones that deliver enough big, booming bass or delicate highs and lows - they also need to isolate sound effectively so people around you don’t have to share your taste in music.
Depending on what you’ll be doing while plugged in to the radio or your iTunes collection, your audio headgear may also need to be comfortable enough to wear for hours at a time and to withstand a lot of movement as you exercise.
If you want to be able to take phone calls, you should look for earphones with a microphone and mute button on the cable that will cut the music while you chat.
Here, we look at which earphone design to choose and why.
Types of headphones
Price range: £3 to £300
If you don’t want anyone to be able to hear your music, in-ear headphones are the best choice as their speakers deliver the audio directly into your ear.
The Samsung EO-EG920BW (£3.25) and Apple EarPods (£29) are ear-bud headphones which don’t have removable ear adaptors (or flanges, as they’re also known). Instead, they take a one-size-fits-all approach.
In-ear headphones such as the Panasonic RP-HJE125E-K Ergo Fit (£7.63) and Philips SHE8105BK (£15.90) come with adaptors which form a seal so no sound can leak out. An advantage of a better-fitting headphone is they cut out background noise, so you don’t have to turn up the volume as high, meaning less chance of damaging your hearing.
On the other hand, the total immersion blocks out the outside world so effectively that you won’t be able to hear approaching traffic or someone calling out to warn you of danger. This makes in-ear earphones less suitable for cycling and outdoor use, but they’re fantastic for losing yourself in music at home.
In-ear headphones typically come with flanges of different sizes, so it’s important you try out the different fittings that come with your in-ear earphones to find the ones that are most comfortable and sound best.
Price range: £20 to £150
Also known as earpad headphones, these are smaller and lighter than over-ear headphones and have pads that rest on your earlobes and large audio drivers, which should mean they deliver a balanced and natural sound.
On-ear earphones are a great choice for general-purpose use.
You only need to spend around £20 to get a decent pair of on-ear headphones, while the best on-earphones cost about £150. AKG Y50 (£59.95) on-ear headphones are a great mid-range choice, while at the pricier end are the excellent Philips Fidelio M1MKII (£117).
If you’re looking for foldable headphones that are suitable for packing away when you travel, they will usually be on-ear ones because they aren’t as bulky as over-ear headphones. Sennheiser PX 100-II Foldable Open Mini On-Ear Headphone (£33.16) are the on-ear type.
Price range: £20 to £350
Full-size or over-ear headphones are larger and heavier than on-ear ones (see below), they completely cover the ear and form a seal around them. As a result, they offer better sound isolation than on-ear cans. Their larger size means they’re a bit heavier than other types of headphones, but they are also more comfortable to wear for prolonged periods as they don’t press against the earlobes or irritate the ear canal.
Some over-ear headphones are oval while others are round, but this doesn’t make much difference to the sound they produce. Some headphone makers favour wooden construction over plastic or aluminium because the resulting sound can feel more natural.
If you’re prepared to spend lots of money on your earphones, the Shure SRH1540 (£414) are a good choice, or the Sennheiser HD650 Reference Over-Ear (£267) are a bit cheaper. At the cheaper end of the spectrum are the AKG K92 (£49) and Sennheiser HD202 (£20).
In-ear headphones come in sound-isolation and active noise cancellation varieties. Active noise cancellation generates sound to counteract regular, low-level background noise such as that of machinery, while sound isolation earphones form a physical barrier in your ears to stop other sounds reaching you.
The Bose QuietComfort 35 (£289.95) are interesting because they are noise-cancelling, but include built-in Bluetooth, connecting wirelessly to a smartphone or tablet, without the need for cables.
Price range: £30-£130
The sports headphone market is growing rapidly. They are typically lightweight and durable, but designed to be secure yet comfortable.
Look for a pair that is splashproof and sweatproof, so you can wash them down after a particularly taxing workout.
Numerous styles are available, including: neckband, around ear, in-ear and earband. It’s a good idea to think about what how you will be using them choose a pair that will be comfortable.
Price range: £30 to £100
Wireless earphones use Bluetooth to transmit the audio from your music player to the earphones, so there’s nothing to plug in. This type of earphone gives you lots of freedom to move around and is a great choice if you want to listen to music or the radio while you’re exercising because there are no cables to get tangled up with your limbs as you run or cycle.
You might also choose wireless earphones if you want to listen to music on your hi-fi without disturbing other family members.
The music player needs to support Bluetooth and to be in line of sight of the wireless headphones. In practice, this means you need to be in the same room as the music player.
It’s not really practical to play music over Bluetooth to wireless headphones. from an MP3 player that’s stored in your bag because of the need for the wireless signal to travel from player to the headphones. Instead, it’s best to use a clip or strap to secure it to your clothing or body.
Wireless headphones are slightly more expensive than on-ear headphones because it costs the manufacturer a bit more to add a Bluetooth transmitter. Two examples include the Urbanista Boston (£42.33), Philips Fidelio M2BT (£199.99) and the B&W P5 Wireless (£229.05).
Wireless headphones come in in-ear, over-ear and on-ear versions. Since they’re mainly used for people doing sport, wireless headphones are usually very lightweight and often splashproof too.
The plastic earpieces aren’t always as comfortable or as stylish as some other headphones. Typically, Bluetooth earphone can be used for two-to-three hours before they need to be recharged.
*Prices may be subject to change at any time