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Consumer Reports - Headphones

With audio and video gear taking center stage in many households, itís bound to happen: Youíre relaxing to a classical CD when your kids start blasting MTV or a DVD movie. Rather than resorting to a d...

With audio and video gear taking center stage in many households, itís bound to happen: Youíre relaxing to a classical CD when your kids start blasting MTV or a DVD movie. Rather than resorting to a duel of decibels, you can keep the peace by doling out headphones.


There are a few hundred different headphone models on the market. Sony is the market leader; other leading brands include Aiwa, Jensen, Koss, Panasonic, and Radio Shack.

Home/studio. Most look like earmuffs, with earpieces on a headband. They can be corded or wireless. Corded sets, which account for 9 out of 10 sales, have a wire about 8 feet long that connects to your receiver, CD or DVD player, or TV. Wireless sets have a battery-powered headset and an AC-powered transmitter that connects to your audio or video gear.

Price range: $20 to more than $1,000.

Portable. Headphones for use with portable audio devices such as CD and MP3 players vary mostly by whether the earpieces sit on or go into your ears. Because many sacrifice sound quality for size, serious listeners may prefer a home/studio model even with a portable player.

Price range: about $10 to $30. †


Headphones feature a few basic designs. Closed over-the-ear sets cup your ears and create a seal to your head that reduces the amount of sound that escapes. They also muffle ambient sound. But you may miss some things that you want to hear, like a doorbell. Open over-the-ear models donít press as firmly on the sides of your head and are usually lighter. They let more sound in and out, so late-night listening could keep your spouse awake.

On-ear headphones have earpieces designed to lay flat on your ears, with no gaps. Models can be open or closed. They let more sound in and out than closed over-the-ear headphones. Comfort is a very individual matter; any type of headphone may feel uncomfortable after a while, especially when itís hot.

Portable models vary in a few ways. Lightweight on-ear headphones, a good choice except in noisy environments, are secured by a headband, neckband, or earclips. The in-ear style features earpieces held securely in place by ear clips or a neckband. These are a good choice except in noisy settings. Earbuds (and a variation called earplugs) are the lightest, but active use may shake earpieces loose. Earplugs are best for noisy settings.

On wireless models, multiple channels are a plus. As with cordless phones, you can switch channels to minimize interference. On some wireless sets, the transmitter uses radio frequency (RF) to communicate with the headphones. Other sets use infrared, much like a TV remote, which requires a line of sight between the headphones and the base.

For connecting headphones, most models have a 1/8-inch plug and a 1/4-inch adapter so they can work with home- and portable-audio systems. Some home/studio models have volume and mute controls. On some models, earpieces swivel and fold for easier storage; of these, some have earpieces that reverse for single-side monitoring, of particular use to DJs.


Performance differences. Headphones should feed you clear, accurate sound with sufficient volume. Based on our tests, corded models are likely to offer better sound quality than wireless units. Wireless models are prone to interference from devices such as cordless phones resulting in static, hissing, or clicking. All the models weíve tested recently should produce adequate volume with any home-audio device, but some sets exhibit lower sensitivity that results in reduced volume with used with certain portable players.

Recommendations. Price isnít always the best gauge of sound quality. Some low-priced corded headphones have performed as well as sets costing far more. Headphones scoring good in our Ratings are fine for watching TV or, if youíre not too fussy, for music. Like speakers, headphones may emphasize various parts of the audio spectrum, so sets with the same scores may sound different.

Because potential interference problems with wireless headphones wouldnít be known until you tried them at home, we suggest you buy wireless models only if they can be returned for a refund.

Whichever type you go for, try them on before buying, if possible, to judge the comfort and sound quality. Online shoppers should be sure to check out return policies.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.

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