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Gadgets & Home Improvement

3 things to note when buying headphones

When it comes to headphones, good sound is often a delicate balance of many contributing factors.
The Straits Times - May 23, 2012
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3 things to note when buying headphones

Sound quality is all that matters when it comes to choosing headphones, right? Not quite. When it comes to headphones, good sound is often a delicate balance of many contributing factors.

Here are three you might have overlooked and which are worth paying attention to.

1: Beware of cable rub

Unless you can keep totally still or your headphones are made of inert materials, you are bound to get some stray noises that are caused by the headphone's cable rubbing against what you are wearing or some part of your body.

Earphones with silicone ear buds are usually the most susceptible to this problem. This is because their sealed - or partially sealed - design makes noise created by friction louder than, say, a pair of over-ear headphones. The effect is similar to how a stethoscope amplifies sound.

Pay particular attention if you plan to use headphones that have silicone ear buds for exercise, because the result can be sheer annoyance - as I found out not too long ago with a pair of Audio Technica ATH-CKP330.

While this pair of sports earphones sounded great, its cable made such a din when used for running that it took away all the fun of listening to music. And this is despite my best efforts to minimise cable sway using an assortment of clips.

Another point to note: Thin and lightweight cables are usually less prone to making stray friction-induced noises compared to headphones with heavy gauge wires.

Tip: Tug at and rustle the headphone cables, or even jog on the spot, when testing headphones in the shop to see if noise from cable rub becomes an issue.

2: No jiggly bits, please

This issue largely applies to earphones, since such designs typically need a perfect fit with your ears to sound their best. While most of the earphones out there achieve decent fit, it is a different story when they are used for sports or even for just walking about.

Earphones with silicone ear buds are particularly jiggly for sports. The ones I have tried in the past always seem to come loose at the first hint of sweat or the slightest tug of the cable. Even those specially designed for sports and those with hooks, bands and grips for support, have not worked for me.

For instance, I have had to give up on the Philips SHQ3000/98 sports earphones - an impulse buy which comes with adjustable ear-hooks - because its ear buds would come loose even over an easy jog.

The Sennheiser Adidas PMX 680 sports earphones, which come with behind-the-head band for additional grip, also left me a tad disappointed. While I found its fit much better than the Philips earphones and it only came slightly loose when I used it for running, it was enough to make my workout tunes sound anaemic.

Tip: Good fit is important, but make sure it stays true when you move about - so give your potential purchase a rigorous torture test.

3: Match that impedance

A crucial but often-neglected headphone specification is impedance. This figure, which you can usually find by scouring through the fine-print of the packaging, essentially reflects how hard amplifiers and MP3 players have to work to drive the headphones.

A low impedance design would be the Klipsch Mode M40, which has an impedance rating of 32ohms. Such designs are typically easier to drive, making them suitable for battery-powered portable music-playing devices and with mobile phones.

High impedance headphones are usually not designed for portable use. Instead, they usually need to be partnered with a dedicated headphone amplifier to sound their best. Anything above 100 ohms is usually considered a high impedance design, such as the long-standing audiophile favourite, the 300ohm Sennheiser HD600.

So what's the big deal in all of this?

The main rub is the loss in fidelity. Partnering high impedance headphones with a mobile phone or an iPod can result in poor-quality sound and insufficient loudness, due to a lack of sufficient power from the device's amplifier to drive the headphones.

Besides impedance, also look out for the headphone's sensitivity rating. Typically, the more sensitive a pair of headphones, the louder it sounds, whether it is a low- or high- impedance design. Portable music players usually have to be matched with high-sensitivity headphones.

As a guide, a mobile phone or MP3 player usually needs headphones with a sensitivity rating of close to, or above, 100 dB to be able to play at sufficiently loud levels.

Tip: Make sure you test headphones with your own music gadget to avoid nasty surprises caused by mismatched specs.

Ong Boon Kiat is a freelance writer

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