Buying Guide: Headphones

Every time I’ve lost or broken a set of headphones, I find myself standing in front of a store rack for at least an hour. It’s almost like being at a buffet with a variety of cuisines where you want to try everything; but then again, there’s only so much your plate can carry and your stomach will agree to. So how do you know which is the right one for you? This guide aims at making choices such as this one a lot easier.

Types of Headphones
You can easily tell these apart from the rest because of their sheer size. Circum-aural headphones have huge cups that cover the entire ear and the rims are almost always padded with soft foam for comfort. The drivers of these headphones are usually large and high in impedance, thus allowing higher volume levels. Due to these characteristics, most circum-aural headphones are at the top of the food chain.

Circum-aural headphones can be further classified into open-back and closed-back types, and like their title suggests, the former have a grille at the back of the headphone enclosure for sound to escape, while the latter ones have solid backs. If you visit a good professional audio-recording studio, you’ll find that they usually have closed-back headphones for recording so as to prevent leakage into ultra-sensitive microphones.

Circum-aural headphones almost always have an adjustable headband, so that one size can fit all. But do remember that this type of headphones can get a little heavy, especially with higher end, closed back models. Check out the Sony-MDR-XD200 which offer excellent value for money at Rs. 1,200.

These are commonly known as 'over-the-ear' headphones, and are like shrunken versions of circum-aural headphones. They are a lot lighter, smaller, and perch themselves on top of the ear. The drivers of these headphones are usually covered with light foam and the adjustable headband is similar to the ones on circum-aural headphones, except that they are thinner and lighter. While traditional headbands went over the head, newer versions have clips that can be attached to the ear or the headbands are bent around the back of the head. All in all, the sound quality of supra-aural headphones is good, but you might get less low–end response and slightly less clarity than you do with circum-aural ones. The Sennheiser-PMX 40 headphones are a great pick, and they cost Rs. 1,390.

Noise -Cancelling Headphones
There are some super-special circum-aural/supra-aural headphones with features like noise-cancellation. With the help of special circuitry, all you have to do is enable the noise cancellation function, and most incoming noise will be blocked, letting you enjoy your music in peace. The Bose QuietComfort is a good example for noise-cancelling headphones, although they could end up being quite expensive, say approximately Rs. 15,000.

Multimedia/Gaming Headsets
A headset is the combination of supra-aural headphones and a microphone protruding from the left ear piece. Their prices vary depending on the manufacturer, build quality and on the components. You can buy something like the iBall i333 for as cheap as Rs. 150, or the Sennheiser-HMD 280 PRO which costs about Rs. 21,000. Cheaper variants are quite common in call centers and are basically used for Internet communication, while gamers usually prefer the slightly more high-end ones.


Earphones are probably the most common, and have almost always come bundled with portable music players from the time of the Walkman to the current day iPods. They are really tiny, with low power-consumption and impedance, so most of them don’t offer the best sound. They can also be uncomfortable to wear, as you have to lodge them in the outer canal of your ear. Also, depending on how your ears are shaped, the wrong ones can be uncomfortable to the extent of being completely un-wearable. The Sony-MDR-E818LP earphones are a good example of earphones and cost Rs. 300

In-ear or Canal phones
These are my personal favourite because they fit snuggly into the ear, which makes them quite comfortable. Thanks to their unique construction: a rubber sleeve protrusion is attached on the earpiece that acts as an ear plug, thus blocking out external noise. But watch out while you’re using these on the go, as it may be hard for you to hear sounds around you, especially if you like your music loud. The best canal phones I’ve had the pleasure of owning, are the Sennheiser-CX 300 II Precision which cost Rs. 2,790. Of course, there are cheaper options, e.g. the Philips-SHE3582/98 which costs merely about Rs. 350. However, there’s a world of difference between the two.

Surround Sound Headphones
These headphones are regular stereo ones on the outside, but, on the inside, multiple drivers and strategic placements allow them to emulate surround sound. Some models come with an external decoder, while some have the technology built in and they are quite popular with gamers. The Razer Barracuda HP-1 5.1 headphones are one good example of surround headphones, and cost approximately Rs. 7,000.


Wireless Headphones
There are various types of wireless headphones, right from Bluetooth A2DP hands-free sets to headphones for gaming and music. The obvious advantage of having these is that you don’t have to bear with the hassle of wires. So if you want to play your favourite game or watch an action flick while you’re your roommate burns the midnight oil cramming for final exams, you can do so without feeling guilty.

The Tech-com SSD-HPW-210 Wireless Headset is an inexpensive example that costs about Rs. 500. As for A2DP hands-free, they allow you to connect to your phone or other Bluetooth-ready device so you can do everything from listening to music to answering calls on the go. The i.Tech Clip Music 801 A2DP Bluetooth Headset is a semi-wired clip-on set that costs approximately Rs. 3,500.


Ergonomics, Convenience and Application
A mix of good sound and comfort is what you should be looking for, and avoid compromising on either, or you will be left with a set of headphones that you bitterly despise. You really want headphones that fit you well, and you will only be able to truly enjoy the sound of a good headset if it is comfortable enough to wear in the long run.

Size also matters a whole lot. You will almost certainly not be comfortable wearing a set of circum-aural while jogging or in the train on your way to work as they will literally weigh you down. On the other hand, if you have powerful audio equipment and like loud music or are a DJ / sound engineer, circum-aural headphones are perfect for you.

If you are on the go all the time, and cannot be separated from your mobile phone or portable media player (PMP), I’d suggest a nice pair of in-ear or supra-aural headphones. Of course, provided your phone or PMP supports Bluetooth, an A2DP set would be just right.

So now that you have a clear idea as to what options are available, there’s no room for mistakes when you’re out buying a good pair of headphones to enjoy your multimedia collection.