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How to Choose Wireless Earbuds or Headphones

Look at more than price to find a pair you’ll want to use for the long term

Many wireless headphones display in the store
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One of the most practical and trendy accessories for your smartphone is a set of wireless headphones.

Whether you go with over-the-ear or in-ear headphones, the latter often referred to as earbuds, these gadgets are for listening to audiobooks, music, podcasts and any video you might be watching, such as movies, sports, TV shows and YouTube, without disturbing others around you. If a call comes in, most have a microphone to chat hands free.

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Other reasons why wireless headphones are a practical purchase: Many smartphones no longer include headphones in the box. And many new phones don’t have a headphone jack, including some of the most popular brands such as Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy.

You also can use the same set of wireless headphones for more than one device, including laptops, tablets and other Bluetooth-enabled devices, such as smartwatches and some smart TVs. But not every set is best for everyone’s needs or budget.

Three main types of headphones

1. In-ear headphones, better known as earbuds, slip inside your ears for a snug fit. While you can wear them anywhere, earbuds are ideal for those on the go, including those who exercise, because they’re small and lightweight and usually remain inside your ears during movement — to the point you might forget you’re wearing them.

If you use them outside or working out, make sure the earbuds you buy are water resistant. That will keep them from malfunctioning if you’re caught in the rain or sweating from exercising.

2. On-ear headphones go up against your ears but don’t cover them completely. The cushions can be as small as a silver dollar or as large as the bottom of a coffee mug.

An adjustable headband usually holds the ear cups in place while some sport models wrap around the back of your head and neck. On-ear headphones are ideal for wearing in and out of the home and are relatively compact for travel.

3. Over-ear headphones completely cover your ears. Think of these like something a DJ would wear or the large hi-fi headphones of yesteryear. These headphones have larger drivers for louder and perhaps more well-balanced sound.

Some users find these the most comfortable but perhaps too cumbersome to walk around town. These might be your best choice when you’re sitting and relaxing.

Those who wear hearing aids can’t use earbuds. But keep in mind that many hearing aids now offer Bluetooth connectivity to wirelessly tether to a smartphone or smart TV.

Active vs. passive noise cancellation

Some headphones are advertised with noise-canceling technology. But they minimize background noise in different ways — be it airplane noise when you’re trying to catch some shuteye or the annoying murmur of a television in another room while you’re listening to classical music.

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Active noise-canceling headphones work by introducing sound waves that negate incoming sounds and dramatically reduce the outside noise that a listener hears. Tiny microphones hear the noise, and a processor generates a sound wave with the opposite polarity to cancel it, so to speak.

Most of these headphones can block out more than 90 percent of all outside noise. However, active noise cancellation requires battery power.

Sometimes a rechargeable battery is included. In other instances, you must use an AA or AAA battery. The more intense the background noise, the quicker the battery is drained.

Passive noise-canceling headphones, most often labeled as noise-isolating earphones, generally don’t perform as well as active noise-canceling models. You won’t use up batteries, but only the design and material of the headphones block out the noise.

Wait, what if I want to hear the outside?

On the flip side, some headphones today are designed to better hear what’s happening around you, often referred to as open ear headphones. These are ideal for cyclists and pedestrians.

The headphones deliver sound through your cheekbones and into your inner ear, using what is sometimes called bone-conduction technology. That way, you can hear ambient sound around you.

Some headphones have a listening mode, also called ambient, aware or transparent mode, that allow you to tap an earbud or ear cup to enable internal microphones to amplify outside audio, such as a flight attendant who is asking if you’d like something to drink. When you’re done, you can tap again to continue your audio.

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Four other considerations

1. Personal comfort. Wireless headphones and earbuds may sound amazing and have a long battery life. But you also have to want to wear them.

For earbuds, some companies include small, medium and large silicone ear tips in the box. You can choose your best fit. Be sure to read up on any model before you buy.

2. Price. Good wireless headphones can range from $40 to thousands. Unless you’re a finicky audiophile who takes music very seriously, you don’t have to spend more than a couple of hundred dollars for great sound.

Be sure to keep the box and receipt in case you want to return them. Look for headphones with larger drivers; audio that balances low-, mid- and high-range sound; and any advanced features like high-definition (HD) sound or Dolby Atmos technology.

Some work with an app to tweak the equalizer settings. If you can, try before you buy to gauge the acoustic quality.

3. Battery life. Active noise-canceling headphones can use up their charge in noisy environments, but earbud battery life can be a concern because of their size. Be sure the earbuds you’re looking at offer a minimum of five hours of music playback between charges.

If your earbuds have active noise-cancellation enabled, they won’t last as long as when it’s off. Most wireless earbuds include a charging case with their own battery to top up the earbuds when you’re out.

Some charging cases offer 15 to 20 hours of extra battery life. For over-the-ear or on-ear headphones that are wireless, look for a model that also includes a cable. Sometimes that can give your headphones extra life if your device has a headphone jack and you can’t charge the headphones for a while.

4. Voice assistant capabilities. Some headphones and earbuds let you activate your nearby smartphone’s personal assistant by saying its wake word or tapping one of the ear cups or earbuds.

Then you can ask a question — “What’s the weather today?” or “How long will it take for me to drive to the office right now”? — or give a command, “Play the Tech It Out podcast” or “Turn on the outside lights.” This is a feature worth looking into, whether it’s for Alexa, Google Assistant or Siri.