Every pair of headphones we review is put through the same tests for audio performance and usability
We rely on listening tests, making judgements on product quality through listening to a range of music in various scenarios. Read on for how:
Headphones can be very personal things, so we pay attention to the aesthetics. But they’re also practical items, so we prioritise build quality, comfort and longevity. We stretch and twist headphones to see how much punishment they can take. We throw them into bags and use them out and about for at least a week to see how they hold up.
Then there’s the usability side of the design. Are they ergonomic? For in-ear headphones, we’ll try different ear tip sizes and see if they fit. Are buttons easy to reach and use? Do the bigger headphones fold up for portability and if so, how strong are the hinges? We spend as much time obsessing over these things as we do critiquing the specs sheet and listening to them.
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Testing the specifications
We take seriously every claim a manufacturer makes. If a pair of headphones has an aptX stamp on it, we’ll make sure to use them with an aptX device to verify. If there is a claim of a 10m wireless range, we’ll walk that far to check it out, indoors and outdoors.
We also check claims of battery life by playing music (at normal volumes) until the juice runs out, and we make note of how long charging takes. Then there’s the type of charging connector – we keep an eye out for headphones using the older micro-USB plug, versus the newer USB-C standard.
Then we look at any extra features. Are there motion sensors? Proximity sensors? Touch-sensitive controls? App-based sonic adjustments? Headphones score points for having more features – as long as they work well.
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When we get down to listening, we do so in a thorough manner. Every pair of headphones is used fresh out of the box, then run in, then ‘lived in’ as daily headphones. This is to ensure a good grasp of the headphones’ character, which can change after unboxing.
When we listen, we listen to a wide range of music, to make sure headphones can perform in different arenas. We’ll just anything from the latest pop songs to classic rock, experimental jazz, and even ambient recordings of speech. We listen to those in different quality, from 320kbps MP3 to high resolution 24bit/192kHz files FLAC files. We listen through a number of audio devices, such as the latest smartphones, a laptop, and a hi-res portable music player.
Here’s what we listen out for:
Detail: The definition and texture of instruments and vocals. Are they clearly pronounced?
Dynamism: How much and how quickly a pair of headphones can move between quiet and loud. A more dynamic performance means a more lively performance.
Volume: Loudness is important, but so is composure. There’s no point for a pair of headphones to reach a high volume if it struggles to hold it. A good pair of headphones should be able to go loud without distortion.
Tonal balance: Treble, midrange and bass – the top, middle and bottom of the frequency range. These should ideally be in balance, with not one hogging the spotlight or getting more attention than the rest of the frequency range.
Tonal performance: the treble, midrange and bass quality is also important. High frequencies should be distinct but never harsh or sibilant. Midrange should be direct but not overbearing. Bass should underpin the entire performance and support it, not drown everything out. The three should also be nicely integrated, not working independently of each other.
Timing: Notes should stop and start at precise places, and disparate elements should come together effectively. A performance with poor timing will be unengaging.
Soundstage: The sense of space. A solid soundstage anchors instruments in their place and leave you with a clear idea of where everything is. A good pair of headphones will give you a good stereo image, the perceived spatial location of vocals and instruments laterally and in depth. A good soundstage puts you in the room – you should be aware of not just performers, but the space they’re playing in.
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Scoring and final verdict
After all the tests are complete, we score the headphones using the criteria outlined here. We first check to see if the headphones’ performance matches the manufacturer’s claims, and that all the features work as expected and advertised.
We look at how it compares to other similar products, if it’s missing any vital features and whether it impresses as a whole.
Value is a consideration during scoring, too. If a competing product offers equivalent features or performance for less money then this will affect the score.
Equally, if a device is only slightly more expensive but performs significantly better then we’ll score the two products accordingly.