How To Buy Headphones

In the begin­ning tak­ing your music mobile meant bal­anc­ing a boom box and hop­ing for no rain. Now, with the right head­phones, you can blast The Cure on back­coun­try slopes, feel Naughty by Nature flow in class IV rapids, and rock out to Ride of the Valkyries while grind­ing remote sin­gle-track. But not all head­phones are made to han­dle the same con­di­tions. Before you buy, read through this guide on how to choose the best head­phones for your needs.


Deter­min­ing which head­phones are best for you comes down to three main fac­tors: your sport, your demands for sound qual­i­ty, and your sen­si­tiv­i­ty to price.

Blue­tooth (also called wire­less): These are the most ver­sa­tile of active head­phones since they can be used for calls, have good sound qual­i­ty, are wire­less, and are for the most part designed to be water resis­tant. Blue­tooth has a (unno­tice­able) split-sec­ond sound laten­cy (delay) com­pared to wired head­phones, which is a small price to pay to get rid of pesky wires. Blue­tooth tech­nol­o­gy and pro­to­cols are always evolv­ing so be sure to shop for the lat­est if you want to expe­ri­ence the newest per­for­mance advancements.

Over-ear/on-ear: Over ear (also called full-size) and on-ear (also called supraau­ra) head­phones are designed for sound and not for activ­i­ty. Prac­ti­cal­i­ty will be an issue, mean­ing they’ll be great to curl up with in your tent and okay for a short hike to camp, but def­i­nite­ly not ide­al for bik­ing, run­ning, or any oth­er stren­u­ous out­door activity.

Hel­met com­pat­i­ble: While it’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that pad­dle, skate and bike hel­mets will one day include sound com­pat­i­bil­i­ty, today’s hel­met com­pat­i­ble head­phones cater to the ski/snowboard mar­ket. These are typ­i­cal­ly on-ear head­phones that are fit­ted into/over the helmet.

In-ear (also called ear­buds): In-ear head­phones are the most com­mon type used for active sports. In-ear head­phones have a wide range of qual­i­ty (and price), depend­ing on their specifications.


The back of each head­phones box will dis­play sev­er­al num­bers. Unless you’re in the head­phone man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness, you only need to wor­ry about a few of them.

Deci­bel (mea­sured as dB): The deci­bel rat­ing refers to how loud the head­phones get. Most head­phones reach a high deci­bel range mak­ing this num­ber rather unnec­es­sary com­pared to tone.

Tone (also called Fre­quen­cy Response, mea­sured as Hz): Tone is prob­a­bly the most impor­tant spec to pay atten­tion to when buy­ing head­phones. It refers to the fre­quen­cy that the head­phones are capa­ble of reach­ing. The human ear can hear bass tones down to 12 Hz and can feel bass even low­er than that. The most expen­sive head­phones will fea­ture Hz fre­quen­cies down to 5hz (deep bass) up to 30,000hz (high tre­ble). You’ll want a good bal­ance of bass that’s strong enough to keep your head bang­ing but not so over­pow­er­ing that you can’t hear the mids (vocals, gui­tars, etc.). In the end, the right bal­ance of tone comes down to per­son­al pref­er­ence based on your music tastes.

Imped­ance: Imped­ance refers to the resis­tance of the wires to the pow­er source. Although these num­bers are dis­played on head­phones box­es, it’s rather use­less because head­phones aren’t typ­i­cal­ly strung togeth­er, which is when imped­ance matters.

Bat­tery Life: Wire­less head­phones and some over-ear head­phones require bat­tery juice to main­tain their con­nec­tion and strong sound. Look for both “talk time” and “idle time” or “stand­by time” to make sure the prod­uct will last as long out there as you will.

Cord length and shape: Whether it’s too long (pesky), too short (pesky) or just right (music to your ears!), the length of the cord will impact your engage­ment in your sport. The best impact, pre­dictably, is none at all.

Con­trols: Many head­phones include vol­ume, pause/play/stop, and for­ward and back­ward con­trols. Some peo­ple like to play it sim­ple but you’re not a con­trol freak if you like to jump between songs. The choice again comes down to preference.


There are a lot of fan­cy fea­tures on the head­phone mar­ket today. Here are some that cater to out­doors enthusiasts.

Water­proof: Water­proof head­phones have flood­ed the mar­ket in the past year. Most are of the in-ear vari­ety but there are some cre­ative over-ear designs. With a water­proof case for your device, you can now lis­ten to your favorite jams while tak­ing a swim in the lake.

Water resistant/Sweat resis­tant: It’s nasty but true: sweat can short wires. Water/Sweat-resis­tant head­phones fea­ture ear open­ings that pre­vent drib­ble get­ting in and wreak­ing hav­oc. But water resis­tance is dif­fer­ent than ful­ly water­proof so you won’t want to take them on your next scu­ba trip.

Micro­phone: Made for voice calls, micro­phones are a very con­ve­nient way to avoid stop­ping while bik­ing or run­ning. Although there’s no real met­ric for sound/voice qual­i­ty, look for “talk time” bat­tery life for wire­less headphones.

Noise can­celling: The noise-can­celling fea­ture can be found on all types of head­phones. The tech­nol­o­gy is the prod­uct of some pret­ty in-depth sci­ence involv­ing sound waves but the gist of it is there is a sep­a­rate micro­phone that emits an “enti­noise” sig­nal that can­cels out ambi­ent noise. Noise can­celling is good because you won’t have to crank the vol­ume as high. Noise can­celling head­phones tend to be more expen­sive and usu­al­ly require batteries.