Beginner’s Guide

Things To Consider When Choosing New Headphones

Man wearing black Sonos Ace headphones

If you’re getting ready to buy your next pair of headphones, you might have questions. For example: Where to even start? Advancements in headphone technology have brought game-changing features such as Active Noise Cancellation and lossless audio streaming over Bluetooth. But they’ve also brought a dizzying marketplace of products vying for your listening attention.

Rest assured. Whether you prefer in-ear or over-ear, wired or wireless, there’s a set of headphones out there for you. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the essential features to consider before making a purchase, from sound quality to battery life to all the bells and whistles your ears just can’t be without.

Start with the headphone type

The first step in choosing new headphones is narrowing it down to a specific type. There are three general types of headphones, classified by how they fit around your ears:

  • Over-ear headphones are distinguished by their large cups, which form a snug seal over the entire ear. These cups typically have some kind of foam or cushioning for comfort and are connected by an adjustable headband.
  • On-ear headphones fit on top of the ear, though they don’t entirely envelop it. They tend to be more compact than over-ear headphones, though with a less immersive fit and feel.
  • In-ear headphones sit inside the ear canal, with a fitted tip that molds to the contours of the inner ear. This is the smallest and most portable style, though a good pair won’t compromise on audio quality and features like Active Noise Cancellation.

For more on how to choose the right type for you, check out our guide to over-ear vs. on-ear vs. in-ear headphones.

Illustration of in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear

How will you use them?

The truth is, headphones aren’t typically a one-size-fits-all. You’re likely to prefer different types of headphones for different occasions.

Maybe a pair of sweat-resistant on-ear headphones makes the most sense for your winter morning runs, and a noise-canceling over-ear pair is what you need when traveling. Don’t make the mistake of thinking a single pair can do everything. Though if you’re on a budget, you might want to prioritize a pair that can mostly do everything.

Consider where and how you use headphones the most, and plan accordingly. This will shape the conversation around the features you prioritize. For example, a wired pair might give you better sound quality when hooked up directly to your record player, but a wireless pair will give you more flexibility when dodging commuters on the subway.

Do you prefer wired or wireless?

Bluetooth and wireless listening has become a major trend in headphones, to the point where most of the headphones you’re considering are likely wireless. But is there ever a case to consider going with a wired connection?

Yes. Wired headphones still have their strong points, as well as their faithful adherents. True audiophiles who do most of their headphone listening at home may prefer a wired pair, which provides a physical connection to an audio device that may help to ensure more consistent sound quality. And wired headphones continue to be a practical solution for plane travel, as they can connect directly to the headphone jack on most in-flight entertainment systems.

Even so, it’s difficult to pass on wireless technology these days — especially when it comes to Sonos Ace, which offers lossless audio streaming over Bluetooth and an optional wired connection for when you need it.

Evaluate sound quality

You might think that headphones’ best feature is their portability. But the right pair can also achieve one of the richest and most intimate sonic experiences around. Is sound quality important to you, but you don’t know how to define it? Start by considering a few key factors:

  • Frequency response is the extent to which your headphones can reproduce sounds across the full range of audible frequencies. Some headphones are tuned to boost the bass; others are so trebly that you barely get anything in the low end. The best option for most people is an evenly balanced, neutral frequency that doesn’t neglect or overemphasize either end of the spectrum.
  • Impedance is a somewhat technical term referring to how much your headphones “impede” the flow of electric current running from your headphone amplifier. Higher-end headphones tend to introduce more impedance, and may require an additional headphone amplifier. You should check the impedance on a new pair of headphones before buying them, but in general anything under 25–30 ohms shouldn’t present a problem in most cases.
  • Leakage refers to how much of the audio output signal “leaks” away into the air before making it to your inner ear. Generally speaking, the better the headphone fits around or inside your ear, the less this is a concern. A tighter fit will also allow you to listen to your headphones at a lower decibel output, possibly reducing your risk of hearing loss.

If you’re looking for high-fidelity quality but don’t want to bother with the technical jargon, check out Sonos Ace. We turned to industry-leading producers, engineers, and artists to help tune the custom-designed driver in our new headphones. They delivered with a hyper-realistic sound experience that gives every part of the mix — from the high end to the low end — its proper due. And if you prefer to fine tune your sound even further, you can easily customize the EQ using the Sonos app.

Compare noise cancellation features

Another, possibly underrated aspect of headphone sound quality is something called noise cancellation. This benefit blocks out ambient noise — office chatter, traffic, the hum of an airplane cabin — that would otherwise muddy the mix in your headphones.

There are two different types of noise cancellation, though they’re not mutually exclusive:

  • Passive noise cancellation comes down to sound-proof materials and a snug fit. Some materials are better than others at physically blocking out (or at least dampening) ambient noise. A well-engineered pair of headphones should use these materials.
  • Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) is a more technological solution involving tiny built-in microphones and a speaker. These microphones pick up noise from the environment, while the speaker uses this input to generate oppositional soundwaves that effectively cancel out the noise. This is an active feature that must be switched to “on” with most headphone models, hence the name.

Some headphones also feature transparent or ambient noise modes, which are kind of the opposite of noise cancellation. They’re designed to help you pick up and respond to ambient sounds in the environment, which can come in handy if you’re cycling or walking on busy streets.

To learn more, check out our guide to how noise-canceling headphones work.

An outside soundwave reaches the headphones. Active Noise Cancellation in the headphones layer a soundwave that opposes the outside soundwave, resulting in no noise entering the ear.

Evaluate battery life

If you’re going wireless, battery life will likely be a top consideration. Nobody wants to be stuck on a long commute with dying headphones.

Over-ear headphones tend to hold a longer charge than in-ear headphones, as they can accommodate larger batteries. In-ears, on the other hand, often come with a small electronic case that can help them maintain a charge for longer.

We definitely thought about battery life when designing Sonos Ace, which provides up to 30 hours of continuous playback with Active Noise Cancellation enabled. And you won’t need to charge them for long, as its fast-charging capability gives you up to three hours of additional battery life in just three minutes.

Find a comfortable fit

Just like the clothes you wear, the comfort and fit of headphones tends to be subjective.

Some swear by over-ear headphones, which don’t press against the ears and have a nicely padded fit. While others prefer in-ear headphones for their lightweight feel. Comfort is truly in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, so try a few different pairs out before settling on a style.

White Sonos Ace headphones on a table
Woman sitting in a diner listening to white Ace headphones

Evaluate the call clarity

If you regularly use your headphones for work meetings or personal calls, call clarity is another feature to pay attention to.

Over-ear and on-ear headphones are a better bet in this respect, as their larger profile can fit multiple microphones — one to pick up and correct for ambient sound, and another to tune into the frequencies of the wearer’s voice. These headphones may also be able to position the voice mic closer to the wearer’s mouth, allowing for a clearer signal.

But it isn’t just the microphones that matter. Software can help, too, which is why we’ve outfitted Sonos Ace with enhanced voice targeting that better distinguishes between your voice and other sounds in the environment. Sonos Ace also comes with background noise suppression, which recognizes background noises (like kids playing in the background of a call) and pushes them down in the audio mix.

Consider software features

Many high-end headphones these days aren’t simply listening devices. They’re also mini computers, complete with software that gives the wearer complete control over their listening experience. The built-in software on Sonos Ace, for example, allows for dynamic head tracking that adapts to the position and movement of your head to make your audio sound even more immersive. Combine this with the spatial audio capabilities of Dolby Atmos, and you get a three-dimensional sound experience that puts you at the center of the mix, wherever you are.

As software updates more frequently than you buy a new set of headphones, the brand matters, too. Go with a brand that releases regular updates and automatically installs them, as this can help to improve the longevity and functionality of your device.

Perfect your personal listening experience with Sonos Ace

Headphones are an intensely personal choice, and only you can judge which is the right one for your lifestyle. But we’ve been dropping hints about the capabilities of Sonos Ace throughout this guide, and that’s because we truly think it’s a game-changing product.

With Sonos Ace, you’ll enjoy lossless audio streaming over Bluetooth and USB-C, plus connectivity with Sonos home theater and up to 30 hours of battery life with Active Noise Cancellation. That all adds up to a pristine sonic experience whether you’re at home, on the go, or anywhere else in the world.

Read More