Are headphones or earphones better? Is it really necessary to break in headphones? Do you really have to fork out $200 to get the more expensive pair versus the mid-ranged ones?
Over the past couple of years, earphones and headphones have become the quintessential accessories to bring around. With these nifty little things, you don’t have to part with your music when you’re commuting to work or buying groceries. But it can be a bit more difficult when it comes to replacing your beloved headphones.
A lot of people believe that certain things make earphones or headphones better – best brands, price range, and even how to use your headphones. But how much of this is true?
Sometimes, these things are just myths that originated and held as gospel within the audiophile community. Sometimes, companies perpetuate and even advertise these myths to sell more products. To help you be a more conscious consumer (and give you rebuttal material against your snobby audiophile friend), we’re here to debunk some of the most popular headphone and earphone myths.
1. Brand = Good Headphones
You don’t have to look too far beyond Beats and SkullCandy to debunk this myth – well-known brands endorsed by multiple celebrities, but with mediocre sound quality.
These companies are not the best because they’re popular. If anything, it means that they have huge marketing budgets to throw around for brand awareness and sponsorship deals.
Of course, sometimes popular and reliable brands like Bose come along to smash the competition with quality products without over-relying on their marketing budget. The keyword here is quality headphones or earphones, which lesser-known brands can produce as well.
With enough time and research, you can find a great set of headphones that sound awesome without paying for ‘brand tax’.
2. Every headphone fits every ear
Definitely not. Although it doesn’t seem that way, every person’s ears are uniquely sized and shaped. Headphones, on the other hand, are manufactured to be the same size. Because of this, it’s impossible for a set of headphones to fit the ears of everyone you know.
However, the earcups on headphones are often made with foam, which is a material that changes shape easily after long uses. Once you’ve used them long enough, they naturally mold themselves to your ear shape for a better fit.
3. Expensive earphones and headphones are ALWAYS better
Although you’re more likely to get good-quality earphones or headphones if you’re willing to spend a bit more, it isn’t always the case.
It’s possible to spend boatloads of money for a pair of well-marketed headphones with horrible sound quality. It’s also possible to get well-designed earphones that sound amazing without burning a hole in your pocket. Just because the headphones are expensive, doesn’t mean it’s good.
When buying new headphones or earphones, research is key. If you’re too hung up on buying expensive or branded headphones, you’ll spend more money on a product that isn’t necessarily better.
4. You need to burn in your headphones
This myth is centered around the idea of softening up the headphones’ materials with pink noises and heat. In theory, this makes the speaker element move faster and therefore improves the performance of the headphones.
False. You don’t have to put on 50 hours of rock music to make your headphones sound better.
While it’s true that your headphones lose rigidity after prolonged usage, it doesn’t actually do anything for the sound quality. Good quality headphone materials take a ridiculously long time to degrade, so it wouldn’t make much sense to expect an observable sound quality improvement in a matter of hours.
Now that that’s established, why do people still think that burning in headphones is a thing?
Christian from SoundGuys has a pretty good theory. Materials degrade over time – the speaker, the drivers, and the earcups. It’s not a reach to attribute the sound quality improvement to the ear cups’ change of shape after using them for a long time.
After prolonged usage, the earcups contort their padding to fit the shape of your head and ears better. This creates a better seal, which not only greatly increases noise isolation, but also ensures that every sound from the speaker is going into your ears. That’s why you think sound quality improved – not because you burned in your headphones, but because your headphones fit you better now.
5. Noise cancellation and noise isolation are the same
Although both noise cancellation and noise isolation work to reduce external sounds, they are a bit different from one another.
For starters, noise isolation is the simpler of the two. It works by creating a physical barrier between your ears and the outside world. Similar to earplugs, you can’t really hear anything if your ear canal is plugged up.
Because of this, even the cheapest set of earphones with ear tips will have some kind of noise isolation. That being said, there’s a significant difference between the low-end and high-end ones. The best noise isolating earphones will completely block off external sounds, while the worst ones will barely do anything. In worst-case scenarios, you might even hear a strange hissing or low-frequency noise from the cheapest of earphones.
It is important to consider when choosing the best headphones for your kids as poor sound isolation will make them push the headphone volume up, which could damage their hearing and may even lead to a hearing loss.
Noise isolation also depends on fit since your earphones have to be snug in your ear canals for them to work properly. This is also why in-ear headphones have much better noise isolation compared to most over-ear headphones. Over-ear headphones are simply too far away from your ear canal to do any good with noise isolation.
On the flip side, noise cancellation works by picking up sounds via the microphone and feeding an inverse sound wave into your headphones that balance the offending noise out.
Think of the gentle hum of a car engine as -1. Your noise cancellation headphones emit a +1 frequency to balance out the sound before it even reaches your ears. Now, all you can hear is the soothing voice of your favorite singer.
Although noise-canceling technology can theoretically cancel out any sound, the reality is far from ideal. Noise-canceling headphones do wonders for low-frequency sounds like airplane droning or innocent cafe sounds, but they don’t do very well against high-frequency sounds. So, if you’re looking to get noise cancellation headphones to drown out a baby’s wailing on the plane, you have to look somewhere else.
That being said, you can use better-fitting ear cups and ear pads to improve noise isolation. You won’t be able to hear much of the outside world if you have earcups that cover your ears completely in addition to noise-canceling headphones.