Earbuds and headphones started as luxury items one would use for a limited set of activities, including portable music systems, home entertainment, or professional audio. Today, they are a common must-have item in almost every home. As the applications of these items have grown, the demand, variations, and innovations have inherently evolved as well.
History of Headphones and Personal Playback Devices
The first recorded mention of headphones goes back to the late 19th century when telephone operators utilized a single earpiece situated upon the user’s shoulder and weighed 10 pounds! Less than two decades later, a pair of headphones resembling the designs we are familiar with today were manufactured by the hands of an American engineer known as Nathaniel Baldwin. Shortly after he invented these revolutionary headphones, the United States Navy ordered 100 pairs to be used for military communications.
In the mid-1900s, Jazz music lover John Koss successfully developed the first set of stereo headphones, specifically for music enjoyment rather than forcing music listeners to utilize military-grade headphones. Which were only capable of performing in a mono configuration and being equipped to playback a small frequency range- just enough to make the human voice intelligible. The introduction of stereo personal music playback systems, in turn, revolutionized the way people reacted to and appreciated recorded arts.
Fast-forward to the late 1970s. Sony technology released the legendary Walkman player: a pocket-sized device capable of playing your favorite cassette tapes in full stereo through a pair of headphones. The portability of the device, and of course, the way consumers could suddenly listen to whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, proved to change music consumption habits forever.
It is worth noting that the development of the in-ear earbud design happened parallel to the evolution of over-ear style headphones. From stethoscopes used by doctors to the first earbuds used in conjunction with wax cylinder playback devices to the sudden introduction of similar designs as we know them today, the earbuds make up over half of the portable music listening device industry.
After the release of the Sony Walkman, Apple Technology took portable music reproduction a step further with the development of the iPod. This handheld music device saw various evolutions of its form. At the same time, the stock-issued white earbuds became a common sight worldwide.
Today, headphones are available for specialized use, including gaming, office/conference, music listening, pro audio or military and aviation, and fashion-based headphones, focusing on the unit’s aesthetics. Headphones are available in various configurations, which I’ll explain later in this article. Wireless technology has also revolutionized the headphone world, as they are becoming increasingly more standard, including wireless earbuds.
Wireless Headphones & Earbuds
Today, wireless headphones and earbuds are slowly becoming the standard, arguably due to the Apple AirPods release. Bluetooth and other wireless technology have been around for some time now. However, they are still considered fairly new in the consumer audio market, hence the price differences of wireless devices compared to their wired variants.
If a wireless pair of headphones or earbuds suits your intended uses – such as gym and outdoor exercise, live music performance, or even just to get rid of the cable – there are many great options available. As for the sound quality of Bluetooth and wireless audio devices, not much audio quality is lost. However, you can experience a slight lag or delay at times, which can, of course, cause trouble for you if you’re using them for time-sensitive applications like online meetings, gaming, music performance, etc.
The only real downside to Bluetooth headphones and earbuds is that they need to be charged or powered by batteries. As we know, batteries aren’t getting any cheaper, so it all depends on how much you’re willing to spend on the pair or potentially take charging breaks.
Stock Earbuds vs. Upgrades
Nowadays, when you purchase a new cellphone, a pair of earbuds are included in the deal. These are usually the standard earbud-style we discussed earlier. Depending on the manufacturer, these earbuds can be pretty decent or poor. Apple, for example, include their iconic white pair with all Apple device purchases, which perform to a reasonable standard.
However, if you’re using them to listen to lots of music, watch a film, or even use them for long time periods and you’re looking for better audio quality, a better-sounding, more comfortable, and durable pair of earbuds may be worth considering.
One of the biggest debates surrounding earbuds vs headphones is the related health risks, particularly over long exposure times. When using an earbud or headphones for a long period of time at a high listening level, you are placing your hearing at risk of temporary or permanent damage or loss. No matter how tempting, it is very important to monitor your listening level at all times. Many smartphones feature a volume-checking function, where your listening volume is limited to a certain output volume, and you can find a detailed report of your average listening levels on such phones. This is worth taking a look at if this is a concern to you.
Care and Maintenance
Headphones are earbuds that are generally constructed reasonably durably and should last a long time, but their lifespan can be exponentially increased if proper care is taken. You can do this by simply caring for important aspects of the earbuds or headphones, such as the cables: avoid packing them away carelessly into your pocket or bag, and rather wrap their attached cable neatly – but not too tight – retiring the pair.
It is recommended to store your earbuds or headphones in a carry bag, or if you have the space – a hard-shell case or padded bag for additional protection.
Also, take note of your device’s waterproof rating, especially if you’re using them outside where they come into contact with moisture in the air or even your sweat.
If you’re looking for any audio-related product, a series of technical specifications will be thrown around on the reviews, websites, or adverts. Here is a short guide to the basic terms used in headphones and earbuds:
Frequency Response is a way of describing an audio device’s ability to accurately reproduce the media given to it – how the sound characteristics can change within the device. Frequency response is represented on a graph or as a figure and is always relative to our hearing capabilities.
Human hearing ranges from around 20Hz – 20kHz, and a frequency response that covers most of this range is desired. Next, we look at the deviation factor: by exactly how much does this change? This is displayed as a decibel figure. A deviation of positive or negative 3 Decibels is considered relatively ‘flat’, and this is what we’re looking for in a good-sounding audio device.
This is an important factor to consider. A heavier pair of earbuds or headphones can place unnecessary strain on your head, causing headaches and other forms of discomfort during use. Flexibility is also important if you have a larger than usual head shape or size.
Wired vs. Wireless
If you’re looking for a wirelessly operational set of headphones or earbuds, make extra sure to check the wireless capabilities to see if they meet your requirements. Some factors to consider are Bluetooth type, range, and code type used on the device.
What Kind of Headphones or Earbuds Do I Need?
Since we’ve taken a brief glimpse of various common styles of headphones are earbuds, we can now devise which design better suits different applications:
For Gaming: Over-Ear Headphones
If you’re a gaming fanatic looking to upgrade your system’s sound, I would highly recommend over-ear headphones for the following reasons:
The over-ear design means a greater isolation factor, minimizing outside noise coming in or your gaming noises going out. Additionally, you can expect a more immersive experience as surround sound capabilities are often included with over-ear headphones, providing improved awareness of virtual surroundings, faint sounds in the distance, etc. I would recommend a wired pair rather than Bluetooth or other wireless technologies to never interrupt your gaming experience due to low battery or charge levels.
For Office Use: On-Ear Headphones
For use in the office or workplace, I would recommend on-ear headphones because they allow a great ratio of private to ambient noise to enter your ears. This means you can listen to your music, phone calls, podcasts, etc., and remain fairly aware of your surroundings. When using on-ear headphones in an office situation, just remember to keep an eye on your listening level to avoid disturbing your colleagues as some of your media may leak into the area around you.
Sport and Gym: In-Ear Earbuds
My recommendation would be in-ear earbuds for those looking for a pair of headphones or earbuds for working out. This is because they will not fall out of your ear easily, no matter how strenuous your exercise may be. If you plan on using your new earbuds for outdoor workouts such as cycling or running in the streets, I would recommend standard earbuds due to the allowance of some environmental noise to enter the ear canal, which could be a life-saving factor.
If you’re looking for more sound from your surroundings to stay audible, I recommend looking at bone conduction headphones. These headphones rest on your cheekbones and allow for your ear canal to remain entirely open. While sound quality will deteriorate here, they are ultimately the safest option.
Critical Listening and Music Mixing and Mastering: Open Back Headphones
Open-back headphones have been used for music mixing and mastering for decades due to their improved sound quality owing to various design factors. For mixing and mastering music, these will provide the flattest possible frequency response from a pair of headphones while also permitting greater spatial awareness of a mix, ultimately simulating a stereo speaker pair in front of the user. While open-back headphones may not be the cheapest, they will undoubtedly improve your mixing and mastering capabilities.
Live Music Performance: In-Ear Monitors
In-ear monitors are the go-to option for many performing musicians, mostly due to their inherent reduction of outside noise. They enable you to focus on your personalized mix better and in a recording vocalist setting, for example, for minimal leakage to access the microphone, potentially spoiling a recording. Additionally, in-ear earphones are comfortable, and many musicians acquire custom-fitted earpieces for their setups. They will also stay secure in your ear- perfect for some performers with manic stage presences!
Casual Listening: Earbuds or Over-Ear Headphones
A decent pair of earbuds or over-ear headphones will certainly satisfy your media consumption needs for casual listeners. Whether you choose standard earbuds or headphones is entirely up to you and essentially depends on how and where you plan on using your new portable music device.