HeadphonesHeadphones have become the hottest property in hi fi, and it’s because portable music players no longer pump out junk music. With CD-quality storage formats those teensy earbuds just don’t sound good enough anymore.

But while it’s pretty safe to bet that any pair of headphones will sound better than any earbuds, finding the right headphones is an art. For a start you have to forget the first law of buying audio; that the most important thing is sound quality.

The most important thing with headphones is comfort. If they aren’t comfortable you won’t use them.

It’s not just a matter of delightfully soft earpads, the clamp pressure has to be right. This is how hard the earpads press against your head. You need high clamp pressure if you want to dance, but after just 15 minutes or so you’ll find you’ll need a break. For armchairs you can have clamp pressure so low you forget you’re wearing them.

And for the bumps and knocks of public transport you need something in between.

There are two types of headphone, the ones that sit on your ears and the ones that enclose them. On-ear headphones usually need a low clamp pressure to be comfortable for any length of time, so get a good feel for them before buying. Their advantage is that they don’t cut you off from outside; you’ll still hear approaching traffic, platform announcements and flight attendants.

Enclosed headphones immerse you in the music and for lots of people are more comfortable over a longer period – really good ones feel as comfortable arriving in San Francisco as they did leaving Melbourne. But make sure you don’t have to bunch up your ears to fit them in the cup.

If you’re buying headphones for a portable music player make sure it has enough power to drive them properly; some headphones need more oomph than portables deliver. The easiest way to check is to see if they’ll go loud enough for you.

Lots of headphones now have cable controls for smart phones.

Noise cancelling headphones are a great idea for noisy commutes and flying. They work best at minimising constant noise, like engines and air conditioners, they’re less effective at dealing with unpredictable noises like conversation and screaming babies.

For the gym get headphones with replaceable ear pads, as sweat will take its toll on them. You’ll also need solid clamp pressure.

Okay, now you’re ready to listen for the music quality. Try as many as you can (the first ones always sound terrific, after three or four you’ll know which way is up) and play music with which you’re thoroughly familiar.

It should be rich, full bodied and nicely balanced between bass and treble. It should be immediate and exciting. And it should sound like it’s coming right from the centre of your head.

And if a pair costing $50 sounds just as good to you as some costing twice or three times that, go with them.

 

 

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