Headphones are among the biggest gadget categories after smartphones, with a massive range of products available in many different styles. While most phones come with a basic headset in the box, you can do much better. By understanding your personal audio style, you can find the optimal pair of headphones to spin your customised sound cocoon.
There are three basic designs, each with some advantages and some drawbacks.
What’s your style?
The most popular earphones today are the bullet-shaped earbuds, which are fitted into the ear canal where they block out outside noise to create a more immersive music experience. The tighter fit also makes them ideal for gym, sports and an active lifestyle. Most buds come with a selection of tips in different sizes, or in different shapes and materials. Typical pricing for high-quality buds starts at around R1 500.
Full-sized headphones develop a fuller sound than buds, with more bass. More affordable and practical are the on-ear style where the cups press against the outer cartilage of the ears, although, they can become uncomfortable after an hour or two. Some designs are foldable and more portable. Pricing for good on-ears starts at about R1 500.
The audiophile choice is over-ear style headphones. These surround the whole ear and easily produce the best soundscape of all headphones, with the best harmonics and full bass. However, they usually cost more, are bulky to carry around and can be hot and heavy to wear. They’re best left on your desk or next to the sofa, or wherever you can truly appreciate your music. Good over-ear headphones start from R2 500.
Less is more
Some upmarket phones have dispensed with the headphone socket completely, and some controversy still surrounds this move by Apple, in particular. The iPhone includes a special plug in the box that adapts the digital charging/data port into an analogue headphone socket. Meanwhile, the latest iPhones and some Beats headphones now contain Apple’s specialised W1 wireless music chip, which works wonders for quickly pairing your Apple devices and maintaining the connection over greater distances
Bluetooth headphones grant you freedom of movement and the convenience of stowing your phone while controlling your music from the headphones themselves. Whether you’re pacing around your office, dancing around the kitchen or sweating at the gym, Bluetooth freedom is a bigger deal than you’d imagine, and hard to live without once you get started. However, sending music to your headphones wirelessly, as a stream of data to be turned into music on the fly, does come with serious limitations.
The Bluetooth music stream is degraded by using data compression, and the end quality of your music depends on what chips and software were used in both the phone and the headphones. Make sure your Bluetooth headphones are rated for A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile) and look out for AptX, which can produce near-CD quality sound.
Bluetooth can sometimes be unreliable, even over short distances of just a few metres, and mid-song drop-outs can be very distressing when you’re deep in the zone. Where possible, get headphones rated Bluetooth 4.0 or better. These have the best connection and offer optimal battery life.
Connecting with a 3.5 mm jack still delivers the best audio quality by far. Most Bluetooth headphones can also use a jack and cable
No to noise
Noise cancellation is a feature now available in both buds and on-ear styles, but is most common in over-ear headphones. The basic technology is the same across all brands: The headphones use tiny microphones to listen to persistent noise in your environment, then they create mirror-image sound waves to cancel them out. So, while it won’t mute gossiping work colleagues, it will reduce the hum of air conditioners or plane engines.
Headphones are the most personal of electronics. Chosen carefully, a good pair will deliver years of deeply satisfying audio pleasure, which – unlike most other gadgets – makes them a very sound investment indeed.
Our top picks
Whatever your listening preference, there’s a product for you
They do look a little strange hooking into the outer shell of the ear with the unmissable white ‘stalk’ hanging down, but the sound is fantastic. Left and right buds connect wirelessly with each other and then with your phone, but you’ll only get peak performance, battery life and reliable connections when used with your other iDevices, as this makes use of Apple’s clever W1 chip. The AirPods turn on automatically as you place them in your ears, and you can double-tap to give Siri instructions. The carry case doubles as your travel charger.
In-ear style, Bluetooth 4.0, A2DP, W1 wireless chip, carry case, R2 600
JBL E45 BT
A bargain at the price, these cans have a fairly sturdy build, but the audio quality punches well above its weight. They’re a funky, contemporary design with well-padded cups, cloth-covered headband and neat control buttons, and the side arms fold down into a very small package, which we like, but they don’t include a travel case. From the tactile finishes to the meaty full-range sound, these are workhorse headphones to pair with your PC or phone. They come in a couple of bright colours and claim a whopping 16 hours of battery life.
On-ear style, Bluetooth 4.1, A2DP, cable with 3.5 mm jack, R1 200
Sennheiser Momentum Wireless
It’s exactly the kind of German engineering genuine audiophiles crave, with equal amounts of attention paid to the crafting of the physical product and to the full, yet perfectly balanced sound. The sublimely sprung headband is sheathed in grainy leather with stylish steel arms supporting the ample cups covered in soft, durable calf skin. The soaring sound feels effortlessly so, across all music genres from gangster rap to delicate acoustic. We were delighted that they folded up into a fairly compact package, so we never need to leave them behind.
Over-ear style, Bluetooth 4.0, A2DP, AptX, NFC, cable with 3.5 mm jack, carry case,