Headphones, headsets, earbuds, oh my!

June 23, 2022

You want to be able to listen to your audiobook/podcast/music privately, without bothering anyone else? Get a set of headphones. Easy, right? Well, yeah, it can be if you buy the first thing you see but if you start looking around you’ll likely find a bewildering array of types and terms and options. Wired, wireless, over ear, in ear, what? And different uses sometimes require different specifications. If you want to have your TV sound play through your headphones you want their mouths to be in sync with the sound you’re hearing. If you have a high quality recording you probably want to hear all the nuance in the track.

So let’s get some definitions out of the way. Headphones can be put into several different types of classifications, There are “over ear”, “on ear”, “in ear”, “open ear”, and “bone conduction”. Then there are codecs and latency. Then there are special uses, like that TV thing I mentioned.

Over ear go OVER your ears, covering them completely with cups that rest against your head. They tend to mute the sound around you by virtue of the fact that they seal around your ears. They can be wired or wireless and they can have a microphone so you can use them on a phone call, for instance. A wired over ear is https://go.ttot.link/WiredOverEar

“On ear” rest ON your ears. They don’t surround your ears the way over ear do. They tend to mute the sound around you but not nearly as well as over ear. They can be wired or wireless and can have a microphone. An example of a wired on ear is https://go.ttot.link/WiredOnEar

In ear, often called earbuds, have a protrusion that goes into your ear and they generally, but not always, provide a seal so that you are, as with over ear, isolated from sounds around you. They can be wired or wireless and can have a microphone. An example is https://go.ttot.link/WiredInEar

These three types tend to give the best sound with good bass, mainly because they project more of less directly into your ear canal.

Bone conduction headphones sit against the bones in front of your ears and vibrate. The vibrations are carried to the part of your inner ear that is responsible for interpreting the vibrations as sound. I know some people that swear by these but I have never been happy with them – the vibrations tickle! Nonetheless, I tell you about them so you’ll have a more or less complete picture. A example is https://go.ttot.link/BoneConduction

Personally, unless I’m really listening to some high quality tracks (FLAC, remember?) I prefer open ear. These tend to sit OUTSIDE of your ears, the speakers pointing at your ears. I like them because I’m not cut off from my surroundings yet I can still hear my music. They tend to not provide the best fidelity but are passable, in my opinion, for casual listening. They can be wired or wireless and can have a microphone. An example is https://go.ttot.link/WirelessOpenEar

Today wireless in headphones means Bluetooth. What is that? In short a transmitter sends sound over the air to a receiver. You’ll often see a number associated with Bluetooth, like 4 or 5 or 5.1 or 5.2. That’s the version – Bluetooth has been around a long time and has undergone quite a few updates. 5.2 is the newest. The transmitter and receiver can use different versions – they all work with each other. An older version just won’t be able to do some of the things that a newer version offers. Like what? Well, Bluetooth 5.0 made some changes to Bluetooth LE (Low Energy, introduced in Bluetooth 4) that allows headphones to connect and use Bluetooth LE. True to its name, Bluetooth LE requires less power so your headphones battery will last longer. Don’t have a Bluetooth 5 headphone? No big deal! It will still connect and work but will use more battery than an LE capable headphone.

You may also read about Bluetooth “profiles”. In general you don’t need to worry about them. The basic profiles that allow you to make and receive phone calls, listen to music and start, stop, skip tracks and change volume are present in every Bluetooth headphone I’ve seen.

You will also likely see references to a CODEC or CODECs. A codec is how the sound is encoded before its sent to your headphones. Some codecs are high quality that can provide near perfect reproduction of the sound but all codecs reproduce pretty well – only with high quality headphones and high quality source material would you likely be able to detect a difference in quality.

You may also see a reference to “latency” which is the delay between the time the sound is sent to your receiver (headphone) and the time you actually hear the sound (don’t ask why, that’s beyond the scope of this column). Why would you care about latency? If you want to watch a video (e.g. YouTube, Netflix) if the latency is high you’ll notice a difference between lip movement and what you hear. Some codecs (e.g. aptX-LL for Low Latency) are optimized to provide low latency but pretty much any codec can provide low latency if implemented with latency in mind. And most headphones nowadays keep their latency low enough to not be a problem but if you think you’ll want to use your headphones to watch videos, pay attention to what is said in product descriptions and comments. This problem does not exist with wired headphones so if you don’t mind being tethered to your phone/tablet, you can sidestep the whole issue.

OK, got all that? Deep breath, we’re almost done…

One other thing to briefly talk about is noise cancellation. Many people (and manufacturers) make a big deal about this. ANC is Active Noise Cancellation as opposed to PNC or Passive Noise Cancellation. Headphones with ANC analyze the outside sounds and try to generate sound waves that cancel out those sounds, leaving the sound it’s receiving from your phone/whatever as the only thing you hear. It’s never perfect and I generally don’t care for it because of its imperfection. It requires power so it will decrease your available time on battery. Passive Noise Cancellation deadens outside sounds by virtue of the seal the headphones/earbuds make with your ears so requires no additional power.

By now you’re either very confused or are getting a handle on the various elements that can be taken into account when it comes to selecting headphones/earbuds.

Next week I’ll talk about special cases – for example, assistive listening devices for those of us who need a little help hearing and understanding conversations (I had my hearing tested and according to the audiologist, my hearing isn’t bad enough to need a hearing aid but it can use a little help). I’ll also talk about headsets that are better for phone calls and why they’re better.

That’s it for this week. Note that my intent with these columns is to spark your curiosity, give you enough information to get started, and arm you with the necessary keywords (or buzzwords) so you’ll understand the basics and are equipped to search for more detailed information.

Email me with questions, comments, suggestions, requests for future columns, whatever at tony@TonysTakeOnTech.com and don’t forget that I maintain links to the original columns with live, clickable links to all the references at https://go.ttot.link/TGColumns+Links or https://go.ttot.link/TGC+L – it should be updated shortly after this column appears online.