Headphones Buying Guide

If you listen to digital music on the go, having the right headphones is a must. The ear buds that ship with most portable players just can't deliver the comfort, sound quality or features of a good set of portable headphones. Whether you're buying a new digital music player or just want better sound from your current one, use these steps to find a good pair of 'phones' that best fit your digital lifestyle.
Select a Style
Headphones come in several varieties and finding the right style is important for both comfort and sound quality. In-ear styles, whether ear buds, headband style or ear canal headphones, are ideal for active lifestyles. Their snug fit keeps them secure in your ears while exercising, or just running for the bus, and their small, lightweight designs make them great travel partners. Ear-canal headphones, which insert deeper into your ear to superbly isolate outside noise, often feature interchangeable soft ear fittings to tailor the tip of the ear bud to the size and opening of your ear.
If comfort is most important, traditional over the ear designs typically offer the best fit and comfort but are generally larger and can be less secure during exercise or fitness. If you want an over-the-ear style without a headband, consider clip-on headphones. Clip-ons are a comfortable choice that work well if you wear a hat or helmet while listening.
Finally, behind-the-neck headphones move the band to the back of the head or neck, which insures a secure fit while staying out of your way and out of your hair.
Find the Right Features
In addition to style, you'll want to consider features. For example, if you're using an MP3-equipped cell phone, you may want headphones with a built-in microphone and call buttons. This will let you take calls through the headphones in addition to listening to music.
If you spend any time in noisy environments, like planes or trains, consider either sound-isolating or noise-canceling headphones to help minimize background noise. Both can effectively reduce background noise, albeit through very different means. Sound isolating headphones work like earplugs, sealing the ear canal to block unwanted sounds from reaching your ear. This traditional approach is very effective and is generally more affordable. Noise canceling headphones, on the other hand rely on electronics to minimize the ambient noise in your environment. Using a microphone built into the headphones, they take the outside noise and create destructive interference (exact opposite sound waves) to essentially cancel out unwanted ambient sounds at your ear. They are very effective, but tend to be more expensive and require battery power to operate—a potential drawback for some users. With either approach you'll hear more detail in your music and be able to listen longer without fatigue.
Finally, if you have a Bluetooth-equipped MP3 player you should consider wireless Stereo Bluetooth headphones. Stereo Bluetooth headphones let you stream the audio from your portable player or cell phone without wires. As an added bonus, most have built in controls for wirelessly controlling the playback device. Remember that both the player and the headphones must have the Stereo Bluetooth (A2DP) profile in order to listen to music through wireless headphones.
Size up the Sound
Once you have decided on style and features, you'll want to consider sound quality. Maybe you're looking for headphones with a nice full-range sound, or headphones with strong, deep bass. In today's digital world there's no excuse for not hearing your music the way you like it.
Since sound quality is highly subjective, you'll definitely want to audition headphones before you buy. Remember that the fit -particularly with in-ear styles- will most likely affect sound quality. Try several to see which deliver the best sound to your ears. Large over-the-ear headphones will generally produce the most dynamic, full-range natural sound, although almost any headphones will deliver drastically improved sound quality over the freebies that came with your portable player.
The Bottom Line
Finding the right pair of headphones is easy and can make a huge difference in how you enjoy your music. Even lower-priced models will deliver a noticeable improvement--both in sound quality and comfort--over your bundled buds. While you could easily spend more on audiophile grade headphones than on your MP3 player itself, you need only invest a fraction of that to get big returns on sound, quality, convenience and comfort.
Don't forget the importance of safe playback volumes and protecting your hearing when using headphones.