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Headphones buying guide

Find the right headphones by learning about the different styles

David Brown is a member of Crutchfield's Home A/V writing team. He studied writing and politics at Ithaca College in upstate New York, where he grew up. He spent 12 years in Washington, D.C., where he earned a Masters degree in journalism and wrote an award-winning humor column. David relocated to Charlottesville, VA, in 2012. He enjoys listening to music, playing the guitar and piano, and hiking with his wife and children.

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With so many different headphones out there, how do you decide which ones are right for you? This guide will show you what to look for.

Fit style

Headphones come in lots of different shapes and sizes. But there are three main categories that relate to their size and how they fit your ears.

Fit style
Around-the-ear headphones Over-the-ear
  • Earcups fit completely around your ears
  • Also known as around-the-ear or circumaural headphones
  • Cushioned earcups and padded headbands offer supreme comfort
Shop for over-the-ear headphones
On-ear headphones On-ear
  • Earpads rest against your ears
  • Sizes range from very compact to as large as around-the-ear models
  • Often feature earcups that rotate or fold up into the headband for easy storage and portability
Shop for on-ear headphones
In-ear headphones In-ear
  • Earpieces fit in the ear opening or ear canal
  • Also called earbuds
  • Usually include multiple sizes of silicone or foam tips for proper fit
  • Easy to take anywhere
Shop for in-ear headphones

Open- vs. closed-back headphones

Around-the-ear and on-ear headphones can all be classified as having either an open or closed back. This refers to the design of the earcups.

Earcup type
Open-back headphones Open back
  • Allows more airflow through earcups
  • Spacious, natural sound
  • Keeps your ears cool
Shop for open-back headphones
Closed-back headphones Closed back
  • Noise isolation limits external noise
  • Music doesn't leak out and disturb others in quiet settings like an office or library
Shop for closed-back headphones

Choosing by application: When and where do you listen?

Before choosing a pair of headphones, you should think about when and where you will use them. Are they for travel, commuting, working out at the gym, working at the office, or watching TV late at night without disturbing others? Click on the various types of headphones to learn more and find links to shop.

  • Internal circuitry minimizes external noise
  • Protects your ears by allowing you to hear music in loud environments without turning volume up too loud
  • Ideal for airplane travel, commuting, noisy offices

Read our noise-canceling headphone shopping guide

Shop for noise-canceling headphones
  • Connect to your music source via Bluetooth® or with a separate wireless transmitter
  • Bluetooth models are ideal for mobile use
  • Models with transmitters are great for late-night TV watchers

Read our wireless headphone shopping guide

Shop for wireless headphones
  • Compact headphones designed for working out
  • Often water-resistant to protect against rain and sweat
  • Ideal for exercise and outdoor use

Read our sports headphones shopping guide

Shop for sport headphones
  • Designed for musicians and recording engineers
  • Deliver accurate sound for recording and performance monitoring

Read our pro headphone shopping guide

Shop for studio and stage headphones
  • Designed for use with computers and game consoles
  • Include boom microphones for online chat

Read our gaming headphones shopping guide

Shop for gaming headphones

Want better sound from your headphones?

Learn how a headphone amplifier and digital-to-analog converter can help your headphones sound their best. [Read our headphone amplifier and DAC shopping guide]

Last updated October 18, 2016

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