Headsets and earphones How to choose one

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If audiophiles agree that nothing replaces the experience of a good sound chain and excellent speakers, such a configuration is not suitable for all listening situations. High-fidelity speakers are generally expensive, require a lot of space, and can disturb people around them. That is why it is sometimes better to opt for headphones or ­earphones. They represent a practical and economical solution to such problems, in addition to offering greater flexibility. And do note the “Nuraphone” below, a headset that breaks many of the usual conventions.


Appreciated by both audiophiles and ­occasional listeners, headphones lend themselves to a wide variety of situations, helped by the great number of models on the market. In choosing among them, it is important to identify the different types of external shell or covering, as the listening experience varies greatly from one model to another. Supra-ear headphones have an outer casing that only partially covers the ear. They cannot completely isolate one’s ears from ambient noise, sometimes leading to the use of a high volume to compensate. On the other hand, their small size makes them perfectly adapted to mobile listening.

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The Sennheiser MM450-X headphones offer a useful balance between good quality and portability. They are very comfortable, as their cushions do not exert pressure on the cartilage of the ear. However, they are less suitable for mobile listening (as in the bus, or while walking), because they are relatively large and heavy. They are more suitable for home listening with a computer or digital ­device. The same kind of cushion design may be found in very high-end models, such as the famous Sennheiser HD800.

In addition to the type of cup or cushion, it is important to differentiate open from closed designs. Open housings have openings that let air circulate. Although they provide a lower degree of sound insulation, they have the advantage of rendering a more transparent sound. Such housings, like the PS1000e model from the Grado company, are generally ­preferred by audiophiles. Closed cups offer better insulation, but they tend to make the bass frequencies sound louder than the rest. The absence of air circulation inside the shell may also be troublesome during long ­listening sessions.

Most manufacturers now offer wireless head­sets. Older models used infrared or radio frequencies, but current headsets mostly ­utilize the Bluetooth technology. The latter has the advantages of generally satisfactory audio quality and a (mostly) stable signal.


For listeners who like to listen to their music both at home and on the move, earphones are an interesting option. Their small size makes them ultraportable and discreet. The semi-intra-ear phones penetrate only partially in the ear. Despite this, they seal the entrance to the ear canal, providing the user with effective protection against ambient noise. Prolonged listening, however, may cause discomfort and increase the risk of hearing loss. Although ­earphones cannot offer the audio quality of a premium headset, some models do offer ­satisfactory performance, such as the Shure SE215. In-ear earphones dig deeper into the ear. As a result, they offer ­superior sound insulation and improved bass definition. This type of ­earphone is not suitable for everyone, and some would be inconvenienced by its penetrating feel. The MC5 model from Etymotic ­Research offers good quality at an ­affordable price.

Active noise control

Some headphones, such as the Bose QC35, ­incorporate active noise cancellation, giving listeners an unparalleled level of sound ­insulation. This technology samples the ­surrounding noise and then emits into the ­auditory canal, in real time, sound waves that cancel out the noise. The listener perceives a pronounced drop in ambient noise, thus greatly improving the listening experience. Note that the headphones require an ­independent battery.

Musical style

One’s preferred style of music is an important factor in choosing headphones or earphones. While some manufacturers (such as Beats by Dr. Dre) praise the acoustic qualities of their products, they are not necessarily adapted to all musical genres. To determine this, ­examine the frequency response or the extent of the frequency spectrum that a headphone (or earphone) can restore. That gives a good idea of the level of change in the sound. While pop, rock, and rap usually sound good with bass-boosting devices, classical music and jazz ­require a high transparency of sound; other­wise the nuances are lost. In the case of serious music, headphones that offer a large listening space are preferred, as they have a greater ability to spatialize the sound. The expensive K701 professional headphones from AKG employ such a design.


Employing two independent sound drivers, the Australian Nuraphone has the particularity of rendering the high and low frequencies separately, one via an over-ear shell and one via earphones that protrude from inside the cup. This novel design offers the listener a sound of great clarity. The most innovative ­aspect, however, lies not in the hardware but rather in the Nuraphone’s ability to “tune” the sound to individual hearing. On the assumption that everyone hears differently, the ­Nuraphone’s software automatically measures one’s hearing characteristics and then ­calibrates accordingly the frequencies sent to the headphone. According to the manufacturer, the same audio quality is thus guaranteed to all users. The headphones can be connected either by a universal cable or ­wirelessly. In sum, this is a highly innovative ­headset that has so far garnered good reviews. The Nuraphone, priced at US $400, is ­available via its website,


Translated by Adrian Rodriguez

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


About Author

Arnaud G. Veydarier est actuellement étudiant en musicologie à l’Université de Montréal et nourrit un intérêt prononcé pour le jazz, la musique contemporaine et les liens entre musique et développement urbain. Il est pigiste pour La Scena Musicale depuis septembre 2017.

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