How We Test Headphones
How To Test The Good Or Bad Of The Headphones
Whether they’re in-ear, on-ear, or over-the-ear, we put headphones (technically earphones for the first group) through the wringer at the PC Labs to find out which sound best. But what exactly does that mean? Here’s how we test every pair we review.
Headphone Types and Design
There are several different types of headphones and earphones, and it goes much deeper than just earbuds and cans. Circumaural, or over-the-ear, headphones have large earpads that completely cover the ears and are generally the most comfortable. They’re also excellent for isolating sound. Supra-aural, or on-ear, headphones have smaller earpads that just press against the ears; they’re lighter and block out less noise as a general rule. Earbuds are small speakers that fit into the outer ear, but are not inserted into the ear canal. In-ear headphones are also small like earbuds, but have soft rubber or silicone tips that are inserted into the ear canal and can block out outside noise like over-ear headphones.
Fit is a very important factor in how we judge headphones and earphones. For on-ear and over-ear headphones, we evaluate how they feel on the head and if they remain comfortable for long periods of the time. Some headphones can feel too tight or too heavy, or put too much pressure on the ears or scalp, and few can be worn for hours on end without discomfort.
We also look at what the headphones include as part of the package. Many headphones come with detatchable cables and carrying cases, and earphones often include multiple sets of eartips so users can find the most comfortable fit. The accessories (and with them, functionality) you get for the price is an important factor when evaluating headphones.
Feature and Connectivity Test Headphones
Some headphones and earphones incorporate active noise cancelling, which employs a built-in microphone to measure outside noise and produce an opposing signal to counter that noise. If a headset or headphone pair has active noise cancellation, we determine how well the feature works and how much it disrupts the audio playing back. In addition, active noise cancellation requires a battery to operate, so we also check if the headphones can be used passively and unpowered, or if they become unusable when the battery is dead.
Headphones can also function as headsets if they include a different microphone either in the earcup, on a boom extending from the earcup, or into a small module on the headphone cable. We evaluate how well the microphone picks up voices and, if the microphone has a noise-cancelling feature, how well it blocks out street noise from a call.
Typically, headphones use a 3.5mm or 1/4-inch wired connection, but that’s not always the case. Some headphones use Bluetooth to connect wirelessly to compatible devices. Others might use a proprietary wireless connection to a base connected to your sound system. These wireless headphones might also have wired options. We check all of these possibilities for each set of headphones we review. For Bluetooth headphones, we look at how easy it is to pair them with various mobile devices and how reliable the connection is. For proprietary wireless headphones, we determine the effective range between the headphones and the base, and look at the connection options offered on the base.
Using music to test headphones
To evaluate headphone audio quality, we play multiple tracks from multiple genres to determine their weaknesses and strengths. Since headphones often heavily boost or sculpt deep bass, we test deep low-end reproduction with The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” a track with very deep bass synth and kick drum hits. The Roland TR-808-style bass kick in the song is a rite of passage through which all speakers and headphones must endure, and only the strong ones can reproduce it with a sense of power, and without crunchy, unpleasant distortion as we turn the volume up.
Besides the bass test, we cycle through multiple songs in the jazz, classical, rock, metal, and dance genres, to get a better idea of how the speaker handles each one. Each genre of music tends to have its own emphasized instruments and frequency ranges, like the low rumble of an upright bass on a Miles Davis recording, or the deep-but-crisp-edged baritone vocals on a Bill Callahan track. Depending on a headphone pair’s response across the entire audio spectrum (usually between 20Hz and 20kHz), a given model might make a synth-heavy dance track sound amazing, but classical and jazz music end up sounding muddled or even too bright, just to give one possible example. Similarly, even though a pair of headphones might capture the guitar riffs and screeching vocals of heavy metal well, they might lack enough low-end force or speed to faithfully reproduce bass-heavy funk songs.
Songs can vary heavily in balance based on how they were mixed, so we don’t simply randomly shuffle through tracks, either. The songs we play are ones our reviewers have listened to hundreds of times across dozens of different speakers and headphones, including very high-end models, so we know exactly how it should sound, and exactly what a given speaker or headphone pair might be reproducing well or poorly. At this point, every PCMag.com editor and analyst has “Silent Shout” etched into his or her brain.