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Consider these five factors  - besides the price tag - when selecting headphones for your mobile device

by Phil O'Keefe

Your smart phone or tablet likely came with a built-in speaker or a pair of non-descript earbuds, but these are rarely a great choice for anything other than casual listening. When moving up to something better, there's more to consider than just price - so here are some tips for when you go shopping for headphones.


You want headphones with relatively flat frequency response (20Hz - 20kHz, +/- a few dB, at most), or close to it. More efficient drivers tend to cost more, but will convert more of the incoming low-power electrical signal from your device into sound instead of heat. Although you won't find a spec for this, if one set of phones is louder than another set of  phones with the same impedance, then the louder one is more efficient. A low distortion rating is also good.


Regarding impedance, ideally you want the load - the headphones - to to have appproximately an eight times higher impedance value than the source (the headphone output). You can fudge that a bit, but if you take it too far in either direction the output level, frequency response and / or distortion levels will suffer. Many mobile devices have an output impedance around 4-16 Ohms, so headphones with a rated impedance of about 32-100 Ohms are generally best. Steer clear of very low impedance (4-8 Ohm) models. Higher impedance (100-600 Ohm) models are useable, but typically won't be driven hard enough when connected directly to your device and will require an external headphone amplifier for proper performance. Finally, when comparing specs remember that not all companies use the same point of reference; as with all things audio, don't get too wrapped up in what you read - rely on what you hear as the final arbiter.

Open- vs. Closed-Back Headphones

Open-back headphones have a more "open" feel to them when worn. You can hear more of the environmental sounds around you, even when listening at moderate levels. Their lack of complete isolation makes them somewhat safer when you're moving about in public, but when you want to block out external sounds - like listening to music on a jet flight - that can be a downside. They also generally have a more natural and balanced sound to them than many closed-back headphone models. However, they tend to allow others around you to hear what you're listening to, which can be an issue at work or in other situations requiring isolation and privacy. 

On-Ear vs. Around-the-Ears vs. In-Ear Devices

Aside from some of the same factors that apply to closed-back vs. open-backed headphones, consider comfort and how securely the headphones stay in place on your head. If you're going to be physically active while wearing headphones, around-the-ear (circumaural) headphones often stay in place somewhat better than on-the-ear (supra-aural) headphones. However supra-aural headphones have advantages of their own - they tend to be smaller, lighter and more compact, making them easier to take with you, and lighter to wear than circumaural headphones. Of course, in-ear headset models are the most compact of all, and can often stay in position very well - but they tend to isolate you from outside sounds, are not always up to the sound quality levels of the best headphones, and some people don't like having something inserted into their ear canals.

Multi-Use - Are They Useable for Other Tasks?

If you're a musician, you may need to use headphones for more than just listening to music for pleasure - like monitoring with headphones when writing music, practicing, recording, or mixing. Some headphone models are better-suited for some of these tasks than others. Many people prefer open-back headphones for mixing, but closed-backed headphones will bleed into the microphone less and are better for recording. Lighter headphones tend to be more comfortable when worn for long periods of time, while more sturdy and heavier models generally hold up better to rougher use.

Here's What Should Be the Lowest Priority

Fashion! Okay, you probably don't want to look like a complete dork, but  the way the headphones look should be the least important item on your list of priorities - especially if you care more about how music sounds than what others think of you and how you look. Headphones have become a fashion statement in some circles, and people today are often tempted to pay big bucks for the latest craze even if they actually don't sound that good. But don't be afraid to be different - why not be a trend-setter yourself? Find what works best for you, what sounds great, and go with that instead! You'll save money and have a far more satisfying and enjoyable listening experience in the long run...which is why you wanted better headphones in the first place, right? 



Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines. 

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