Devices for listening aren’t usually considered essential tech. But in recent years, our lifestyles have changed to the point where we should reconsider their value.
Faced with constantly busy schedules, we often find that our best chance to read books is through listening to their audio versions. Expert podcasts have become a vital tool as we try to stay on top of our respective fields. And everyone has had the chance to experience remote working and online learning.
In all of these activities, audio quality makes a big difference. If you’re saving up for Cyber Monday or found an available promo through your UOB credit card, a good audio accessory can be well worth the investment.
But how do you discern real value in this area? Here are the criteria that true audiophiles look at when seeking to maximize their money on a purchase.
The uninitiated might interchange the terms ‘headphones’ and ‘earbuds.’ Those more familiar with their audio tech will know the difference but see it as mostly a matter of taste. They think that you wear whatever’s comfortable or has a good ergonomic fit.
Those things matter, but how your device is worn has a significant impact on its audio quality. Earbuds are compact because they’re meant to be inserted into the ear canal, while headphones are larger because they need to cup over your ears. That difference in design translates to a difference in driver size.
The driver mechanism provides the core sound-producing function of any audio device. And while construction methods and materials used vary greatly, in general, bigger drivers deliver smoother bass and are more consistent over the entire frequency range.
Earbuds generally pack only 7-15 mm drivers, while headphones may have drivers of 40-50 mm. Earbuds can overcome this difference, but it will likely cost you more for premium construction.
Another sound-affecting factor that’s tied to device wearability is noise cancellation. When listening in your home office, personal vehicle, or even public transportation in a quiet, orderly city like Singapore, the outside world isn’t very intrusive. If you live in a noisy place or have resumed working from a busy office, your environment can detract from the experience.
Earbuds and headphones both provide passive noise cancellation, but for the former, it’s highly dependent on fit. Unfortunately, everyone has a unique pattern of cartilage in their outer ear, which can even serve as a fingerprint equivalent. This increases the chances of buying earbuds that don’t fit your ears perfectly. For headphones, it’s much less of a problem.
For audiophiles who nonetheless prefer earbuds, there are other solutions. You can buy third-party memory foam tips, which can improve snugness of fit and do a better job of shutting out the background noise. High-end earbuds (and headphones, for that matter) may also have an active noise cancellation feature, neutralizing ambient sounds before they reach your inner ear.
Wired versus wireless
Wireless audio devices have become a popular mainstream option. Yet research has consistently shown that wired devices offer better sound quality.
Wired headphones or earbuds plug directly into the amp and power of whatever device is playing media. This means the pathway of sound to your ear is analog, simple, with minimal loss of information.
By contrast, wireless audio relies on Bluetooth technology, which compresses the data coming from your media device. It’s then decompressed at the output end for speakers to play into your ear. At both junctures, loss of signal happens.
Whether this quality loss is significant depends on your situation and purposes. It might not be a big deal if you already have good noise cancellation, big drivers, and a quiet environment. Otherwise, going wired could make a real difference, provided you can avoid getting tangled up or yanking on the cord by accident.
An audio accessory’s impedance properties seldom receive attention from non-audiophiles. In electronics, impedance refers to a circuit’s resistance to electric signals passing through. And specific to audio devices, that means less sound is relayed with a higher impedance.
If you want to optimize sound quality, it usually makes sense to buy accessories with lower impedance. Most users will be playing their media on a phone, tablet, or laptop, and these generally don’t pack amplifiers with a lot of power.
But you have to remember that impedance must be scaled to match the media device’s output. If you’re hooking up your earbuds or headphones to a home theater system, for instance, the powerful amplifiers can blow out the sound. You’ll need high-impedance accessories in that situation.
Overall, you don’t need to aim for a maximum on all these factors. Just consider your typical use case, and look to balance them in the right way to find an accessory that can deliver great sound quality.