Headphone features explained

Lynn Wright / 20 May 2016 ( 03 November 2016 )

Closed headphones or open headphones? Wireless or cabled? We explain the important headphone features to consider so you can buy the perfect pair of headphones for you.



When it comes to choosing a pair of headphones, you’re typically faced with an overwhelming choice of models with different features and specifications. Take time to select the right pair of headphones for you and the result will be the perfect combination of sound quality, comfort and style.

Headphone features to consider

Headphone type

The four main types of headphones are earbuds, in-ear, on-ear and over-ear. Small and cheap, earbuds are commonly included as a freebie with smartphones and portable music players.

In-ear models extend into the ear canal and some come with clips to help them fit more securely on the ears – handy when listening to music while exercising. Although lightweight and portable, neither earbuds or in-ear headphones offer the sound quality of large headphones.

On-ear headphones sit on the ear, while over-ear models completely cover the ear to avoid noise interference from the outside world.

Find about more about which type of headphones are best for you with our guide: How to choose the best headphones.

Noise cancelling 

Noise-cancelling headphones use tiny microphones and battery-powered electronics to virtually eliminate background noise so you can listen to your audio with annoying interruptions.

 These headphones aren’t cheap but they’re ideal for anyone who travels in noisy environments or enjoys being fully immersed in their music, game or film.

Five of the best noise cancelling headphones

Noise isolating 

Unlike noise-cancelling headphones’ active approach, noise-isolating headphones passively block ambient room noise by creating seals around the ear or in the ear canal. 

With over-ear headphones, this takes the form of soft, thick foam on the ear pad to keep noise out, while in-ear headphones effectively form a seal within the ear canal, blocking external sounds. 

Noise isolating offers safer listening, as users don’t have to whack up the volume to drown out external noise.

Take advantage of the Vinyl Revival

Closed back 

Also known as sealed headphones, the back of these over-ear or on-ear headphones are fully closed, which helps blocks ambient noise and at the same time avoid sound leakage. 

Noise-cancelling and noise-isolating headphones typically use closed designs.

Open back 

With these over-ear or on-ear headphones, the back of the ear cups is open or vented, typically showing the internal circuity behind a mesh. 

Although this allows people nearby to hear your music, the increased air flow delivers realistic sound with natural bass reproduction.

Wireless 

Wireless headphones remove the need to be connected to an audio source. They let you enjoy your music anywhere without trailing or tangled cables, so they’re perfect for sports and outdoor listening. 

Two main types of wireless technologies are used to transmit the sound wirelessly over short distances from the audio source: infrared or Bluetooth. Most wireless headphones use Bluetooth as it’s easy to use and reliable. Bluetooth functionality is standard on many smartphones, laptops and other mobile devices which makes syncing with a Bluetooth-enabled headphones quick and easy.

What is Bluetooth?

In-line volume control 

Usually found towards the top of a headphone cable, this lets you change volume, skip tracks and stop your music playing. Many have microphones that allow you to talk on the phone, make voice recordings, dictate and speak commands to Siri, and other voice-control software.

Behind-the-neck 

A headphone design where the headband hangs around the nape of your neck.

Folding design 

Many on-ear and over-ear headphones have headbands that folds in on themselves so that they can be easily stored when travelling.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.