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How to buy headphones

Most headphones fit into a handful of categories. Here’s a quick breakdown of what each one does, so you know where to start looking. 

In-ear Also known as earphones, earbuds or IEM, which stands for in-ear monitor. This is the discreet option as in-ears don’t take up much space. They’re not for everyone, though – some don’t like the feel of the tips in their ear canals, and most don’t sound quite as good as a full-sized pair. In-ear Bluetooth headphones are a great pick for sports, and are often waterproof for outside training (not to mention, you know, sweat). There are more and more that are ‘truly wireless’ too, but keep an eye out for those with plenty of eartips to ensure a snug fit.

– Read our guide to the best wireless earbuds

On-ear These are the most popular kind of portable headphones at the moment, particularly for a workout or commute. They generally sound better than in-ears, and they can be more of a style statement. They don’t dig into your ears either, but the trade-off is that tighter fitting sets can get uncomfortable, especially for those who wear glasses.

– Read our guide to the best headphones

Over-ear The biggest and most conspicuous of the lot, but they are the most comfortable because they sit around your ear. They usually offer decent noise isolation, and better sound than on-ears. Open-back versions have perforated ear cups and sound more spacious, but you’ll want to avoid those for use outside the home.

Noise-cancelling Increasingly popular, especially among commuters and frequent travellers. These headphones actively scrub out noise, rather than passively blocking it out. Microphones are used to monitor ambient noise, an inverse wave of which is then piped-out by the headphone, negating the din. Great for blocking out plane engine sounds, or just the office air conditioning.

– Read our guide to the best noise cancelling headphones

Oh, and to complicate things a little, all of the above are available in wired and wireless flavours.

Buying wireless headphones

The main reason to choose these is convenience – wireless headphones offer unprecedented freedom from tangled cables, not to mention headphone jacks. Active noise cancelling (ANC) is a common and useful feature for blocking out noisy environments too, and is well worth considering if you travel frequently.

You’ll need to begin by asking what you need them for and what your budget is. Bigger budgets often (but not always) open to door to better performances and better finishes, while what you use them for will have a big say on the design you should opt for.

Battery life is another consideration, and will range from over 20 hours on larger over-ear headphones to as little as three hours on completely wireless earbuds. Fine for most commutes, but not as convenient for longer haul journeys. If you’re forgetful when it comes to charging, consider an on- or over-ear style that allows wired playback when the battery runs out. Not all do.

Sound quality: look out for aptX or aptX HD support (Sony offers its own solution called LDAC). You’ll need a source device that supports it as well as your headphones, which counts iPhones out, but most Android devices are on board.

– Read our guide to the best wireless headphones

Buying true-wireless earbuds

A true-wireless earbud is an earbud that connects to your phone via bluetooth (or similar). When buying true-wireless earbuds you need to consider what exactly you want them for.

If you’re after something you can use on the morning commute, you’ll want to avoid shelling out for a pair with ANC (active noise cancellation), as using them when crossing roads can be fairly dangerous.

If you’re after a set for the gym, then you’ll want to look for a pair with a decent selection of tips and water/sweat-proofing. See below for more on this.

Then finally you have to think about price. After all, there’s no point spending oodles of cash on a set with a heart-rate monitor or getting a top-end set with ANC if you’re just a casual listener looking to enjoy the benefits of wire-free headphones.

After all that, you should ask, ‘do I really need a true wireless set?’ After all, as the tech is fairly new, every pair comes with a fair mark-up on price. If you don’t 100% need a completely cable free set you could be better off checking out an over-ear wireless set.

– Read our guide to the best true-wireless earbuds

Buying running headphones

Deciding what’s right for you is largely down to preference – so take a look at the above list to get an idea of whether you prefer wired or true-wireless. 

Some people don’t like in-ear headphones and prefer to wear over-ears (sometimes referred to as “cans”). But while you might see people wear Beats headphones in the gym, this is a sure-fire way to shorten their lifespan, so make sure you look at over-ear headphones designed for exercise.

As you might expect, you generally get better battery life from bigger headphones. This is simply due to the fact there’s space for a bigger battery.

For this reason, on-ear headphones lead the pack by a considerable margin – a pair of truly wireless earbuds might only last 4hrs. Standard wireless neckband-style headphones might get away with slipping a bigger battery into the section that also holds the in-line remote control. These kinds of headphones typically offer around 8hrs of battery life.

Some running headphones now integrate a heart rate monitor (HRM) that takes readings from your inner ear. These are typically more accurate than the wrist-based HRMs found in fitness trackers and running watches, but lag behind chest-worn heart rate monitors.

They are a useful extra training tool for avid runners and fitness enthusiasts, letting you keep an eye on your overall performance and cardiovascular health.

– Read our guide to the best running headphones