Buying headphones (or earphones or ear buds or headsets) can be a fun, but daunting, process. There are so many choices that it's easy to get overwhelmed when you walk into a store or start shopping online. If you're looking to replace your current set (or buy your first one), ask yourself these questions before you get started.
What's comfortable to you? Headphones usually come in three varieties: on-ear, which have ear cushions that rest on the outer edges of your ear; over-ear, which have ear cushions that cover your entire ear; and in-ear, which go into your ear canal. This last choice can vary in how it accomplishes this - some headphones feature buds while others have little pieces called "flanges" that might be more comfortable.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to discern what's comfortable until you've been wearing them for a while, and by then it's too usually late. Since most headphones are packed up tightly and can't be tested before worn (this is especially the case with in-ear models), see if you can borrow a friend's pair to help you decide. Also know that the type of ear cushions that are included will have an effect on comfort. Ear cushions with memory foam may be more pleasing for both in-ear and over-ear models.
Are you going to use these while exercising? Are you a marathon runner who really, really doesn't want them to fall out? You want something lightweight and even waterproof so that they aren't ruined by sweat. There are also models that can be rinsed beneath a faucet as a quick cleaning method. Designs for athletes can vary from those that clip around your ear, to those that rest outside the ear, to those that twist into your ear canal. If you can, try a friend's pair to see how comfortable they are.
Are you buying these for your kids? Several companies have headphones that go above a certain noise level, so you will limit any potential hearing loss. Since the younger generations are growing up with ear buds inserted since, well, practically since birth, noise-limited headphones are a smart option. They come in both over-ear headsets and ear bud options so the older ones can still look cool to their friends.
Will you use this with your phone? If you have an iPhone or other type of music player phone, you may want the ability to use the headphones to take calls. Look for a pair that has an integrated microphone. Many often come with volume controls as well, although you should make sure that your device supports them. These controls often only work with the device they were designed for.
Are you going to use them at your home office? Do you Skype a lot? If this is the case, look for one that has a foldable microphone that can be extended for video chatting.
Are you a frequent traveler, especially on airplanes? Active noise cancellation is the way to go for you. Try to find headphones that will still operate even when the active noise canceling runs out, or you chance getting 30,000 feet in the air without any audio when the batteries die.
Are you a gamer? Many gaming headsets are branded as able to work with one platform over another, but this doesn't mean that you're limited to these. You can typically use headphones with either platform (say Xbox vs. PS3), although you should check to make sure the key features will still operate.
How much money do you want spend? Headphones can run from less than $5 to more than $1,000, so there's a huge range. While you often get what you pay for, you certainly don't need to skip a mortgage payment to get something you're satisfied with. Figure out your comfort range before you start shopping to prevent yourself from overspending. Likewise, if you really want good sound quality and something durable, know that those low-end ear buds probably aren't going to cut it. Click here to read about some of the best cheap ear buds.