There’s lots of misleading marketing with headphones, from pairs with big bass to gold connectors and noise isolation. We sort the fact from the fiction.
Since it’s impossible to compare headphone sound quality when buying online, brands go to great lengths with gimmicky spec lists to try to differentiate their pairs from the crowd. We’ve identified some of the worst offenders below – plus some common flawed assumptions people make when buying, so you can make sure you choose based on what counts.
Discover the best headphones – revealed by our professional lab tests and independent listening panels.
The internet is filled with self-professed audiophiles advocating that you should let your headphones play for hours before you should start using them, to improve the sound. The newly released JLab Audio JBuds Air Executive truly wireless headphones even come with a Burn-in Tool app, with a playlist they say will improve the sound of the headphones.
Our expert lab thinks this is nonsense. On extremely high-end headphones costing thousands of pounds, ‘burning in’ your headphones will make a very slight improvement to the sound. On headphones costing £70 like the JLab Audio JBuds Air Executive, you’re not going to be able to tell the difference. It’s just marketing aimed at making the headphones appeal to audiophiles.
See if the JLab Audio headphones are worth considering anyway in our expert JLab Audio JBuds Air Executive review.
2) Gold connectors
The Betron B25 headphones, claiming to be ‘noise isolating’ with ‘powerful bass’, are extremely popular on Amazon, with more than 7,500 five-star reviews. Another feature they promise is a ‘gold plated jack’, a feature which many buyers appear to assume improves sound quality.
On a £10 pair of headphones like the Betron B25, it should be no surprise that the amount of gold used must be extremely tiny. On headphones at this price, you won’t be able to hear any difference to the sound. Many bigger-brand, higher-end headphones don’t bother with a gold connector and focus on more important areas instead.
So why are Amazon users so impressed with these headphones, or is something else going on? Our experts reveal all in our Betron B25 review.
3) Big bass headphones have the best bass
Manufacturers have caught on to the fact many buyers have been unimpressed with the cheap bass-light headphones they have, which typically came bundled with their phones. So brands like Beats and Sony’s Extra Bass range promise big bass that’ll really deliver.
But it’s easy to be fooled by the marketing. In our expert tests we’ve found headphones from a whole range of brands with exceptional bass – and you don’t need to buy headphones with enhanced bass to get this. In fact, exaggerated bass can cause problems on some tracks: the bass might drown out the vocals, or a really boring one-note bass line could be more noticeable than intended. Big bass headphones often only work well for certain musical genres, like hip-hop and house music, which focus on basslines.
Sony has just released its latest in-ear Extra Bass headphones – see how well the bass is handled in our full Sony WI-XB400 review.
4) Better Bluetooth version = better sound
Bluetooth is constantly being improved, and many of the latest headphones advertise supporting the latest versions, which makes it seem they’ll sound better. But our recent lab testing shows little correlation between sound quality and the Bluetooth version a pair of headphones supports. Other factors – like how well the headphone drivers are designed – are now far more important than whether a pair of headphones supports Bluetooth 4.2, 5.0 or 5.1.
In recent months Huawei has been heavily marketing its new noise-cancelling truly wireless headphones, which have Bluetooth 5.1. See what we thought of them in our Huawei Freebuds 3 review.
5) AirPods only work with Apple devices
The Apple AirPods can connect to most Bluetooth devices, including Android phones. Many of the controls on the stalk of the earpieces will often work too, although you won’t be able to customise them. Some of Apple’s extra features like Siri voice control and checking the AirPods’ battery life won’t work.
So is it worth getting these headphones if you’re an Android user? Find out whether they’re worth the price, or if there are better options available, in our comprehensive Apple AirPods (2019) review.
6) Amazon Echo Buds are Alexa-only
The Amazon Echo speaker range is Alexa-only, but the Amazon Echo Buds are also compatible with Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant voice controls. So if you’re a fan of Amazon products but prefer to use your smartphone’s default voice assistant, you’re in luck.
But is the sound quality up to scratch, and is there anything else to watch out for? Our experts give all the details in our Amazon Echo Buds review.
7) More expensive headphones sound better and last longer
Our annual headphones survey of owners proves that paying more doesn’t guarantee a great product. One of the headphone brands with the most expensive asking prices has one of the worst records for reliability. Find our more in our guide to which headphones brand to buy in 2020.
And the opposite is true too – our expert tests have found fantastic-sounding, well-built headphones that are very affordable, so you can grab a bargain. For superior-sounding headphones for around £50 or less, see our best cheap headphones page.
8) Noise-cancelling headphones make the world silent – look for ‘noise isolating’ headphones
No active noise-cancelling headphones offer complete silence, regardless of the marketing. A precious few of the very latest pairs are very impressive and block out much external noise, but the vast majority of noise-cancelling headphones don’t even get close.
Noise-cancelling headphones are best at cutting out continuous, low-frequency background sounds like aeroplane and train noise, but even the best pairs won’t completely cut out higher frequency sounds like people talking near you.
The Which? audio lab simulates some of the loudest everyday sounds, so you can be sure that the noise-cancelling headphones we recommend truly are the best-performing pairs on the market. See our best noise cancelling headphone reviews.
Some headphones advertise themselves as ‘noise isolating’ . This isn’t particularly special – almost all headphones are noise isolating. The only main exceptions are open-backed headphones, which let sound leak to your surroundings and vice versa for a supposedly more ‘natural’ sound, and earbuds with a basic hard plastic earpiece like the standard Apple AirPods. If your in-ear headphones have flexible eartips of various sizes you choose between, they’re almost certainly noise isolating.
This doesn’t mean all headphones are equally good at doing it though. We’ve found some headphones so leaky the person next to you might as well have been wearing the headphones as well. We rate how well each pair of headphones blocks out sound – see the acoustic seal star rating on the ‘test results’ tab in any of our headphone reviews.
9) Bigger drivers sound better, look for neodymium magnets
Over-ear headphones will often advertise the size of their speaker drivers – the parts of the headphones that convert the electric signal into a sound wave, made up of magnets, voice coils and cone-shaped diaphragms. For example, the Dali IO-6 headphones promise ‘custom 50 mm paper fibre cone’ drivers.
Neodymium magnets are the typical magnet used in the majority of headphone drivers, so if you see this on marketing material, it isn’t anything special.
Typically, the size is an indicator of how big the sound can be. However, the design of the driver unit itself is more important, and there’s no guarantee a bigger sound driver will give you a better sound.
So what can you expect from headphones with a large 50mm driver? See what we thought of the latest pair of this size we’ve tested in our Dali IO-6 review.