How to buy headphones: 10 essential tips to help you find the perfect pair

Buying a new pair of headphones is an exciting moment often spoiled by an overwhelming abundance of choices. From over-ear to earbuds and noise cancellation to accessories, it can be challenging simply to know where to start. But decoding the tech specs and special features is an important part of making an informed decision and ensuring you get the most out of your new gadget. To help ease the nerves and narrow your search, we've put together this headphone buying guide designed with simplicity, and all your burning questions, in mind.

Top 10 things to consider when shopping for headphones:

  • Type of headphones

  • Fit and comfort

  • Sound quality

  • Durability

  • Connectivity

  • Microphone features

  • Compatibility with devices

  • Accessories

  • Brand reputation

  • Cleaning and maintenance

Types of Headphones

There are four distinct categories of headphones to choose from: over-ear, on-ear, in-ear and earbuds. Narrow your search by determining which style best suits your lifestyle and listening habits.

In-ear headphones are perhaps the most used style today. Popularized by the emergence of portable music players, they are designed for fuss-free transportability. A top choice among athletes and fitness enthusiasts, in-ear headphones feature small ear tips that fit snugly within the ear canal, creating a secure seal that naturally blocks out noise and optimizes sound quality.

Earbuds are a type of in-ear headphone that, less invasively, sits along the edge of the ear canal as opposed to inside of it. Lightweight and discreet, earbuds cater to listeners on the go who use them in a wide range of settings from the office to the gym.

Over-ear headphones are characterized by their headband and large ear cups that fully encompass the ear. This classic style provides ample passive noise isolation (PNI) and the most-advanced sound quality on the market. Over-ear headphones are suited for those seeking an elevated listening experience, such as audiophiles and gamers, who don’t mind a bulkier fit.

On-ear headphones are more compact and often lighter than over-ear headphones with ear cups that sit directly on top of the ear as opposed to over it. This reduces noise cancellation but increases breathability, making them ideal for casual listening without completely unplugging from the world around you.

Fit and Comfort

If you’re planning on wearing headphones for long periods of time, padding, size and weight are three important factors to consider when shopping for a comfortable fit.

Padding lines the headband and ear cups on headphones to provide a cushion between you and the hardware. The most common material for padding is natural and synthetic leather, which effectively isolates noise and creates a comfortable grip so the headphones don’t slip off. High-quality padding is smooth to the touch and resembles the pliability of memory foam.

Size makes all the difference when it comes to picking a comfortable pair of headphones. Over-ear cups tend to be the most comfortable since they don’t apply any direct pressure to the ear. They’re also the only fit to provide space between your ear and the speaker. Additionally, larger ear cups with rotation functions allow headphones to conform to the face's natural contours and deliver even pressure, unlike fixed ear cups which offer little to no wiggle room. On the smaller scale of things, ear tips are designed to make your in-ear headphones feel like a custom fit. If you’re in the market for this type of headphone, pick one that provides a variety of sizes for you to choose from.

Weight is a growing selling feature for all types of headphones. With some earbuds weighing as little as 0.2 oz, their comfort appeal is that you can barely feel them in your ear at all. Over-ear headphones are also getting lighter. In doing so, they apply less pressure to the top of the head and don’t require a very tight clamping force to remain secure when being worn.

Sound Quality

Advancements in headphone sound quality have set an entirely new standard for the way music is produced and shared. The best way to evaluate the sound quality of different headphones is by addressing three important tech specs: noise cancellation, frequency response and soundstage.

Noise cancellation comes in two unique forms. Active noise cancellation (ANC) refers to the electronic process within a pair of headphones that utilizes a microphone to measure background noise and counteract it with sound waves. Where in-ear headphones once stood no chance, ANC has enabled even the tiniest of buds to provide high-quality audio undisrupted by noisy environments. Similarly, passive noise isolation (PNI) works to eliminate unwanted background noise, but with physical barriers instead. In over-ear headphones, this is achieved through the use of thick, high-quality ear pads. In-ear headphones achieve this by way of silicon or rubber ear tips that fit similarly to an ear plug in the ear canal.

Frequency response measures the range of sound that headphones can produce. Simply put, headphones with a good frequency response (ranging 20Hz to 20,000Hz) can produce low, medium, and high tones of audio accurately and with optimal clarity. From bass to soprano, the result is a higher-quality sound that picks up the nuances of live listening. For audiophiles seeking an exceptional music listening experience, this measurement system is a quick tool to decipher which headphones will meet your satisfaction level before even trying them on.

Soundstage is often referred to as the hallmark of a great pair of headphones. When listening to music or watching a movie, speakers with ample soundstage allow the listener to distinguish the location of instruments and other sources of sound through a 3D effect. Similar to the sound experience in a movie theatre or concert hall, quality soundstage in headphones produces an encapsulating perception of depth and width for listeners. If you’re serious about your listening tools, seek a pair of headphones with a soundstage.


Regardless of how frequently you plan to use your headphones, they’re likely to weather over time. You can, however, choose a pair that is durable and long-lasting by keeping in mind three key factors: material, cables and IP rating.

Materials that are both lightweight and durable include aluminum and stainless steel. Headbands made of these metals will last longer than plastic alternatives and are more resistant to damage when dropped. For over-ear headphones, it’s wise to avoid ear cups padded with plastic lining prone to tearing. Opt for padding made of high-quality synthetic leather or, better yet, the real thing. While these materials tend to equate to a higher price point, a pair of durable headphones will save you money and disappointment in the long run.

Cables are something to pay close attention to when choosing wired headphones. They naturally risk a split to the covering, exposing the wiring beneath and inevitably deeming the cable useless. Ensure that the pair of wired headphones you choose is durable where it connects to the headphones. For an option that moves more easily and resists breakage, consider a braided cable.

IP ratings evaluate a headphone’s ability to withstand contact with dust, water and other intrusive elements. This rating system precisely measures the ability of a pair of headphones to withstand the wear of everyday use. The first digit following ‘IP’ represents a resistance score associated with solid objects and dust, and the second digit represents a resistance score associated with water. For effective protection from water and dust, you should seek out a rating of IP67 or higher.


With the prominence of wireless technology, wired headphones are sometimes considered to be outdated. Both methods of connectivity, however, serve their own unique functions with their own advantages and disadvantages. If you’re wondering whether to buy wired or wireless headphones, it really boils down to personal preference.

Wired connectivity is unmatched in two key areas: sound quality and battery life. If you’re a professional musician, sound engineer or a passionate audiophile, the top-tier audio and sound consistency might be just the reason to reach for wired headphones. This is because wired headphones receive an analog signal which handles more consecutive data than wireless headphones. As a result, their performance is higher than what any wireless headphone is currently capable of. Additionally, you never need to worry about your headphones dying before an important work presentation or halfway through your flight. A manual connection means no charging necessary.

Wireless connectivity may not be up to par with wired headphones in every aspect of the listening experience, but its innate design was invented as a solution to the problems cabled devices simply could not overcome. Beyond the freedom of movement with no wires tying you down, true wireless headphones (that is, headphones with no wires connected to a device or each other) have evolved the ways in which we interact with all our devices. A wearable device in its own right, wireless headphones have made the hands-free experience a reality by seamlessly connecting to our smartphones, computers and gaming systems at a distance. Though the range in which Bluetooth headphones can maintain a connection varies based on the devices being paired, these wireless connections have proven more than capable of producing high-quality audio and noise cancellation (ANC). As for the lithium-ion batteries that power them, wireless headphone charges can power for up to 70 hours in larger, over-ear wireless headphones. Even earbuds, which come in portable charging cases, can last up to 10 hours on a single charge.

Microphone Features

Yes, headphones are typically made for listening to music but many today have a built-in microphone that can be used for calls or online gaming.

Phone calls are one of the most common uses for microphones built-into both wired and wireless headphones. Whether you’re connected directly to a computer or to a smartphone via Bluetooth, built-in microphones allow for privacy when making a call and a hands-free experience that feels natural. Not to mention, with headphones producing higher-quality sound, you’re likely to experience a clearer interaction when taking phone calls on your headphones. Wireless headphones and earbuds should meet the needs of most headphone users. However, if you plan to make frequent phone calls or participate in virtual meetings while on the job, seek a pair of headphones with CVC (Clear Voice Capture), a noise-reduction technology for call software. Note that many of the most-affordable wireless earbuds feature this software.

Gaming online, especially within multiplayer settings, requires high-quality sound and communication capabilities. Boom microphone, which is mounted to the ear cup of an over-ear headphone, is a top choice for avid gamers seeking advanced voice control. This feature allows the microphone to extend outward and position perfectly in front of the user's mouth to make communication with teammates easier and free of interference. Keep in mind that if this is a pair of headphones you could see yourself using away from your game console and on the go, it’s recommended to select one with a detachable microphone.

Compatibility with Devices

Just because a device can connect to your headphones does not guarantee optimal compatibility. To ensure you choose a pair of headphones that make the most of its features, determine which devices you will be connecting to—and consider their make.

Ecosystems are expanding within brands like Apple and Google, including smartphones, watches, speakers and more. One of the biggest advantages to choosing a pair of headphones that are from your chosen ecosystem is seamless compatibility. Certain voice commands and headphone gestures that work between two Apple devices, for example, won’t necessarily translate between devices from different ecosystems. If you enjoy sending text messages hands-free or placing an Amazon order while walking the dog, shopping for wireless headphones within your ecosystem may be the best-suited choice to remain integrated across all your smart devices. Keep in mind that many newer smartphone models are replacing headphone jacks with USB ports, so wired headphones should always be cross-checked with your device to assure manual connectivity is an option.


There are just as many headphone accessories on the market as there are headphones themselves. While many put fashion before function, there are a few important products you don’t want to go without.

Travel cases will often come with the purchase of a new pair of headphones. Unfortunately, not all of these complementary cases offer true protection. Investing in a hard-shell case to shield your headphones will ensure that your investment stays safe and accounted for. With a variety of colours, sizes and external materials to choose from, there is a case for every type of headphone and every type of listener. As for wireless in-ear and earbud cases, the hard plastic charging cases they come in are generally quite durable, but a silicon casing may lessen the blow from unexpected drops and prevent the possibility of a crack or break.

Ear tips don’t last forever. Build-up and wear typically cut the life of foam ear tips, for example, to about three or four months. So, keeping a stash of extra ear tips is a wise idea. To stretch out the lifespan of your ear tips, swap in water- and sweat-resistant silicon tips for sessions at the gym, and replace them with lighter foam tips for more casual listening.

Adapters have become increasingly necessary for wired headphone users to connect to devices with different audio ports. Between lightning ports, headphone jacks and USB-C, there are enough variations to make the “dongle”an essential headphone accessory.

Brand Reputation

A brand’s reputation can make or break its success. If you’d like to research the reputation of a brand and determine the quality of its products, warranty policies and customer reviews are the two most valuable resources of information.

Warranty policies offer a glimpse into just how long a brand wants your headphones to last. Most will fully cover manufacturing defects but draw the line at accidents and physical damage. Even this coverage doesn’t last forever, with some brands capping at three years, while others offer only one. Less frequently, extended warranties may be available at an extra fee—a worthy gamble for the accident-prone. If you want to maximize the life of your headphones beyond that, rarely do brands cover the natural end of a product’s lifespan. Since warranties are frequently updated, it’s important to check the handbook that came with your headphones to confirm.

Reviews are a direct line to a brand’s most passionate customers—both pleased and displeased. While you shouldn't let your decision be entirely swayed by online reviews, if a product is flooded with negative or positive feedback, it’s likely an accurate indication of what you can expect from purchasing it.


It should come as no surprise that proper care of your headphones is necessary to maximize sound quality and lifespan. With so many new products frequently being released, it might not be entirely obvious what cleaning routines you should adopt. These are our top tips:

Use gentle and non-abrasive products. Two soft cloths, rubbing alcohol, soapy water, cotton swabs and a soft toothbrush are all the products needed to clean and sanitize your headphones. Brush off debris and residue before wiping all surfaces with a cloth dampened in soapy water. Cotton swabs can be used to reach small nooks like charging cases and earbud speakers. Lastly, gently pat the surface of your headphones with a cloth dampened in rubbing alcohol—this helps remove any bacteria that may have been left behind.

Disassembly is sometimes required. Ear tips and ear cups are easier to clean thoroughly when removed from the headphones. This way, you won’t miss any awkward nooks or folds. No need to remove any hardware, stick with the removable padding and tips that come in direct contact with your ears.

Form a regular schedule. It’s recommended that you wipe down your earbuds and ear tips at least once a week. Likewise, over-ear and on-ear headphones should be cleaned and sanitized regularly. Ultimately, there’s no hard rule here. Keep an eye on your headphones after each use, especially if you sweat in them. By cleaning your headphones regularly, you’ll maintain both their appearance and longevity.

As you can see, we live in a world where there’s a pair of headphones out there for everyone. Whether you’re looking for a companion to a killer workout, everyday commute or even an exciting gaming experience, the sky’s the limit. Refine your search by choosing what specs top your list of needs and most of all—have fun!

Simplify your buying experience with this handy infographic headphone buying guide to download and save.

By Staples Canada

March 20, 2023