When you’re headphone shopping, chances are you have a rough idea of who you’re shopping for and how much you’d like to spend, as is probably the case with most of your holiday gadget shopping. But price isn’t always an indicator of quality, so it helps to know where you want to put your money. Headphones can be just as gimmicky as any other product, but some features that seem like frills are actually worth paying for. Gold-plated plugs fight corrosion, detachable cables keep you from having to buy new headphones if the cable frays, and inline mics can be a big boon if you listen to music on your smart phone.
Sound quality and comfort are usually the two deciding factors at any price point, but your preferences in these areas are shaped by where your intended will listen. If you’re shopping for a workout nut, look for earbuds that have some method of staying securely in your ear. Commuters and frequent fliers will want something that brings the funk and nixes ambient noise. Home listeners are often concerned with little more than exquisite sound and comfortable earpads (over-the-ear style) for long listening sessions.
For more advice on finding the perfect headphones in the right price range and style, read on. For advice on all your holiday shopping needs, check out our Gadget Gift Guide.
You’ve got two basic options here: headphones that simply block out noise, similar to putting your hands over your ears, and headphones that have built-in circuitry that listens to sounds around you and actively cancels them out by filling your ears with anti-sound, along with your tunes. Each type comes in full-size and earbud flavors.
Active noise cancellation requires power; some models have internal rechargeable batteries while others use standard AA or AAA batteries. A few noise-canceling headphones draw power directly from the player, which reduces bulk but also drains your portable device’s battery faster. Another important feature to look for in active noise-canceling headphones is the ability to play music even after the headset’s battery runs out.
The quality of noise cancellation varies across models, but keep in mind that active cancellation works on continuous din, such as engines; good passive blockage works better for blocking out such intermittent sounds as a bouncing basketball.
Bluetooth stereo headphones let you listen to music without wires, but if you’re planning on using them with your smart phone, consider getting a set capable of handling phone calls. And if you have multiple Bluetooth-capable devices (laptop and phone, for example), it’s worth getting a headset capable of connecting to more than one device at a time.
A couple of caveats about the technology: Bluetooth compresses music when it sends it through the air to your headphones, so if you’re listening to heavily compressed music (such as 128 Kbps MP3s), recompression further degrades the sound quality. Also, most Bluetooth headphone manufacturers claim a 30- to 40-foot operating range, but obstacles such as walls—and the human body—can limit that distance significantly.