How to choose the right headphones for you

Here’s everything you need to know

a girl in a pink jumper holding he rhands over her headphones with her eyes closed
(Image: © nakaridore /

Are you looking to buy a new pair of headphones or earbuds? These days, there are so many different models, brands, and styles to pick from, that making a choice over which are the best headphones for your needs can prove tricky.

Not only that, but once you’ve decided upon the kind of headphones you want, you then need to think about how much you should spend, too. Is it worth considering those super-cheap in-ear headphones from Amazon? How much is too much when it comes to audiophile over-ear cans?

We’ve tested a lot of different headphones over the years, and we’re here to help you make the right choice. So, whether you’re on the hunt for a pair of modern true wireless earbuds, or a pair of wired headphones to use with your record player, we’re here to give you all the info so you can make the right choice for your needs.

In-ear, on-ear, or over-ear?

Let’s start with the basics. If you’re looking to buy a new pair of headphones, the easiest way to get started is to consider the form factor you like best: in-ear headphones, on-ear headphones, or over-ear headphones

a woman wearing the 1more triple driver in-ear headphones

In-ear headphones like the 1More Triple Driver (pictured) feature small earbuds that sit at the entrance to your ear canal. (Image credit: 1More)

In-ear headphones – also known as earbuds or earphones – are those you’re most likely to see people wearing while out and about. This is because their compact build makes them ideal for use while traveling or commuting, and also because they’re often cheaper than on-ear and over-ear headphones. 

Fitting inside the opening of your ear canal, in-ear headphones are usually super-comfortable to wear for long periods of time, and can create a good seal against the outside world, blocking some of the noise and making your music sound better. 

While they come with much smaller drivers than on-ear and over-ear headphones, earphones can sound incredible if you’re willing to spend the money on a pair that support hi-res audio and are made from premium materials. Saying that, if you mainly listen to podcasts and don’t care about getting the very best in sound quality, a pair of budget earbuds could be a savvy purchase. 

the jabra elite 45h on-ear headphones in black

The Jabra Elite 45h (pictured) feature cups that sit on your ears, rather than over them. (Image credit: Jabra)

On-ear headphones feature cushions that sit on – rather than over – your ears, and feature a headband connecting each earcup. They’re usually more compact than over-ear headphones, which makes them ideal if you want to use them while traveling – or if you don’t like the feel of earbuds in your ears. 

On-ear headphones are also good for people who find that over-ear headphones make their ears uncomfortably warm. The ear cushions don’t envelop the entire ear, generating less heat than over-ear cans. 


Over-ear headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro (pictured) come with large earcups.  (Image credit: Beyerdynamic)

Over-ear headphones (also known as supra-aural headphones) are probably the best choice if you’re looking for the ultimate in audio immersion. Such headphones feature large drivers that deliver a powerful sound, alongside earcup design that can block out the sound of the world around you. 

Perhaps even more importantly, over-ear headphones could also be a better option over in-ear headphones for your hearing health. Since they put more distance between loud sounds and your eardrums, plus they block out a lot of ambient noise (or all ambient noise, if they include ANC), you won’t need to have the volume turned up quite so high. If safeguarding your hearing is a priority – and it should be for all – then it’s another reason to consider a pair of over-ear headphones.

a woman with her eyes shut wearing the sony wh-1000xm4 wireless headphones

The Sony WH-1000XM4 (pictured) are the best wireless over-ear headphones you can buy today. (Image credit: Sony)

Should you go wireless?

If you don’t have the patience to deal with a tangle of cables then a pair of wireless headphones or earbuds might be a good option. Not too long ago we would likely have advised against buying such a pair, since the technology was still in its infancy and they didn’t offer the best listening experience as a result of dodgy connections and low battery life. 

However, the Bluetooth headphones and earbuds of today are far more reliable; in fact, in terms of audio fidelity, they can give wired headphones a run for their money. Plus, the convenience of no wire between your device and your headphones is very appealing.

Wireless headphones can be split into a few different categories: wireless earphones connected via a neckband, wireless on-ear headphones, and wireless over-ear headphones. All are battery-powered and use Bluetooth to connect to your smartphone, laptop, portable music player, or even your turntable.

the apple airpods being removed from their charging case

True wireless earbuds like the Apple AirPods (pictured) have no wired whatsoever. (Image credit: Apple)

There are also true wireless earbuds, such as the Apple AirPods, which have no cord whatsoever; no wires to get caught in your zipper, and nothing to keep each bud connected to each other. Supplied with charging cases that are usually slim enough to fit in your pocket, true wireless earbuds are incredibly popular, especially for commuters who will appreciate the absence of any cables and their compact builds.

No matter the wireless headphones you go for, make sure that the battery life meets your needs. Lots of headphones offer upwards of 30 hours of playback, but you might need to pay more for longer battery life. 

a man wearing the Sony WF 1000MX4 wireless earbuds while talking on the phone

The Sony WF-1000XN4 (pictured) prove that small drivers can still sound fantastic. (Image credit: Sony)

The audio specs to look out for

When purchasing a set of headphones, no matter the type you opt for, there are some audio specs that you need to take note of when making your decision. 

Most brands make the technical specifications of their headphones available to the public (although you may find brands such as Apple are less forthcoming with this information). With numerous techy words and numbers, these specs can look daunting – but they’re not too tricky to interpret once you’re aware of the terminology. 

One of the first things to look out for is the size of the drivers that feature – the bigger they are, the bigger the soundwaves they can produce. Most over-ear headphones come with 40mm drivers and upwards, while more compact earbuds feature 6-8mm drivers in the main. Usually, larger drivers deliver a louder, more powerful sound – but this isn’t the only factor that affects audio power. In fact, many earbuds featuring smaller drivers actually sound better than over-ear headphones, which means driver size shouldn’t be your only consideration when choosing a pair of headphones. 

a man wearing the philips ph805 wireless headphones on a plane

The Philips PH805 (pictured) come with a frequency range of 7 – 40,000Hz. (Image credit: Philips)

Another spec you may come across is frequency range. This is the range of low, mid and high frequencies (also known as bass, mids, and trebles) on offer, measured in Hz. It’s generally accepted that humans can hear a range of 20-20,000Hz. However, larger frequency ranges (i.e 5-40,000Hz) are commonly found in audiophile headphones – the low-end in particular can be felt, rather than simply heard, with bass frequencies creating a thumping or rumbling sensation in your chest. 

If audio fidelity is a priority, then ensure your headphones support hi-res audio. This is lossless audio capable of reproducing the full range of sound from recordings that have been mastered from better-than-CD quality music sources – a sound that closely replicates the quality that the musicians and engineers were working with in the studio at the time of recording.

The difference between hi-res audio and lossy formats such as Spotify streams might not be immediately obvious – unless you’re an audio nerd, but you’ll hear more detail and clarity from your music, and it will sound closer to how it sounded in the studio. Nowadays, even wireless headphones and true wireless earbuds can come with hi-res audio support, so you don’t have to use a huge pair of over-ear headphones plugged into an AV receiver to enjoy it.

a man wearing the Urbanista Miami noise-cancelling headphones

Brands like Urbanista make colorful headphones. (Image credit: Urbanista)

Design, color, and comfort

Aside from choosing between over-ear, on-ear, or in-ear headphones, there are some other design aspects to consider. 

For instance, if you want to use your headphones while working out, you’ll need an IPX4 (or higher) water-resistance rating, which will protect your cans from sweat or rain. 

If you’re opting for in-ear headphones, ensure they come with interchangeable ear tips in a range of sizes, so you can find a good fit. Materials such as silicone or memory foam are most commonly used. 

If you go for over-ear or on-ear headphones, make sure the ear cushions and headband are generously padded, so they feel comfortable to wear for long periods of time. And, whatever headphones you buy, take note of their weight – the lighter they are, the more comfy they’re likely to be. 

Color is a consideration, too, and while many headphones come in standard black designs, there are plenty of brands out there that deck out their cans in bright colors to suit your style. Look out for brands such as Urbanista, Beats, Jabra, and JBL, if you want to stand out from the crowd. 

a woman wearing the airpods pro and smiling

ANC earbuds and headphones like the AirPods Pro (pictured) are very popular. (Image credit: Apple)

Do you need active noise cancellation?

Active noise cancellation (ANC) is an increasingly common feature among headphones of all types. While most headphones will naturally block out some environmental sound by simply creating a physical barrier between your eardrums and the outside world, active noise cancellation takes this one step further, using built-in microphones to analyze environmental noise and create 'anti-noise' frequencies that are mixed in with your music playback. This effectively cancels out the sound of your surroundings using analogue or digital filters.

If you want to use your headphones while commuting or in a busy office, noise cancellation is a great way to ensure that you can listen to your music in peace. Bear in mind, though, that noise-cancelling headphones are usually more expensive than non-ANC models. 

a woman wearing the focal stellia headphones while browsing on a tablet

The Focal Stellia (pictured) are among the priciest headphones we've tested. (Image credit: Focal)

What about price?

In the end, the headphones you buy might simply come down to your budget – and if this is the case, you don’t have to compromise on great sound, design, and features. 

Brands such as Sony, Jabra, Cambridge Audio, and Lypertek all offer budget-friendly headphones that don’t skimp on the specs. Just be aware that if you want premium features such as ANC, or you want your headphones to be made from high-quality materials, you’ll probably need to spend a little more. 

At the other end of the spectrum, there really is no limit to how much you can spend on a pair of headphones. If you’re looking for the ultimate audio quality, check out the Focal Stellia, which cost $3,000 / £2,799 (about AU$4,000). They’re incredibly pricey, but the sound they produce is mind blowing.

Olivia Tambini

Olivia was previously TechRadar's Senior Editor - Home Entertainment, covering everything from headphones to TVs. Based in London, she's a popular music graduate who worked in the music industry before finding her calling in journalism. She's previously been interviewed on BBC Radio 5 Live on the subject of multi-room audio, chaired panel discussions on diversity in music festival lineups, and her bylines include T3, Stereoboard, What to Watch, Top Ten Reviews, Creative Bloq, and Croco Magazine. Olivia now has a career in PR.