Handy tips for buying headphones as a gift this Christmas

Sony WH 1000XM5

Adamya Sharma / Android Authority

The festive season is officially upon us — Christmas is just around the corner! If you’re anything like me, buying the right gift for your loved ones can be a bit of a headache. But fear not! We’re here to give you some headphone-related tips to make sure you get the perfect gift for that special someone while ensuring you get the most out of your money.

Tips on buying the best headphones for someone else

huawei freebuds pro 14

Bogdan Petrovan / Android Authority

Comfort and fit

One of the main things to look out for when buying a new set of headphones is the fit. No one wants a gift they hate to wear, after all. A perfect seal around the ear helps to protect your music from outside environmental sounds, but you’ll want them to remain comfortable after several hours of use. It’s often better that the cups sit around the ear rather than on them, but either way, good padding is essential.

It’s also important to know that you can take your headphones out for a spin without them falling off your head. There’s nothing worse than going for a morning jog, only for your headphones to come flying off. Admittedly, this is more of a problem for people with longer hair. That said, not all over-ear headphones have sufficient grip to keep them steady against hair. If you’re looking to buy over-ears as a gift this Christmas, it’s worth checking how stable the headband is. Headphones should also be light enough so as not to exert too much pressure on the top of your head. Sufficient cushioning in the padding is also a must if you’re looking for a comfortable fit.

Nearly all over-ear headphones have the option to expand their size. This extendable band would ideally have a friction rod design, as opposed to the slightly-outdated notched track. This means you can freely adjust your size without the need to remember the correct setting.

Headphones should be light enough and have sufficient padding to ensure a pressure-less, comfortable fit

When it comes to in-ear headphones, there are some design features worth keeping in mind. For avid fans of exercise, a pair of buds that include ear hooks are a must. These secure the earbuds around the outer ear, making it far less likely that they’ll fall out when running. All good manufacturers include a selection of ear tips so you can select the appropriate size, helping them to nestle comfortably into the ear canal. If finding the right fit is often an issue, you have the option to choose between silicon and foam tips. Foam tips expand inside the ear, which further helps to form a perfect seal and secure fit.

More ideas: What headphone type is right for me?

Water-resistant IPX ratings

sony wf 1000xm4 review hero

Speaking of exercise, water-resistant headphones won’t break a sweat when you, well, sweat! Although most new in-ear buds host at least an IPX4 rating, it can be somewhat harder to find with over-ears. This is because there’s simply more surface area to cover and larger driver openings with over-ear headphones. Manufacturers also assume that most people will choose to wear in-ears when exercising due to their comfortable and secure fit. There’s no denying that with enough rigorous exercise, over-ear headphones are more likely to wriggle around than in-ear headphones.

An IPX4 rating or above should provide enough protection from sweat when you exercise

Regardless, it’s worth noting that any headphones with an IPX4 rating or above should provide enough protection when you exercise. If you’re looking for something more robust, here’s a little run down of IPX water-resistance ratings.

  • IPX0 — No special protection from water
  • IPX1 — Protects from vertically dripping water
  • IPX2 — Protects from sprays up to 15°
  • IPX3 — Protects from sprays up to 60°
  • IPX4 — Protects from splashing water in any direction
  • IPX5 — Protects from sustained, low-pressure water jets in any direction
  • IPX6 — Protects from high-pressure water jets
  • IPX7 — Protects in water up to 3 feet (1 meter) for 30 minutes
  • IPX8 — Protects in water over 3 feet (1 meter)
  • IPX9K — Protects from high-pressure, high-temperature sprays at close range

Active Noise Cancellation (ANC)

If your friend or loved one often travels on noisy public transport, look no further than ANC-capable headphones. By using microphones that listen to sounds outside and inside of the earphone, ANC technology neutralizes unwanted sound waves. With a decent pair of headphones, ANC is capable of rendering low drones from cars, trains, and airplanes effectively mute. Be sure to look out for ANC-capable headphones that combat sound in the 20-1000Hz frequency range. This is where most of the environmental sounds you’ll likely want canceling out sit.

Noise reduction is only one-half of the picture, however. A great feature of ANC is the inclusion of a transparency mode. By using external microphones, ANC-capable headphones can effectively turn ANC off and the outside world on. A perfect feature when you want to make conversation, listen out for announcements, or take a break from your music.

Microphone quality

The Jabra Elite 85t noise cancelling true wireless earbuds microphone holes next to a Gameboy Color speaker grill.

Zak Khan / Android Authority

If work calls are a deciding factor in your purchase, you’ll want a good-quality microphone. Some headphones perform better than others in this field, so it’s worth taking the time to make the right choice. Of course, there’s a world of difference between headphone-quality audio and a dedicated external microphone for your home office. Gaming headsets, or similar, with a protruding mic tend to provide an experience closer to the latter.

Beamforming and environmental noise-cancelling microphones give users high-quality audio options

However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of discrete choices out there for voice calls. With the introduction of beamforming, environmental, noise-cancelling microphones, users finally have high-quality options. Pioneering firmware updates are also paving the way for enhanced noise-rejection algorithms.

Bluetooth Multipoint

Beats Studio Buds pairing scaled 1

Sam Smart / Android Authority

Bluetooth Multipoint lets users connect multiple Bluetooth devices to a singular headset at the same time. Sound handy? That’s because it is!

Users can stream music and receive laptop notifications, whilst keeping an ear on a nearby phone for incoming calls. Owners of work and personal phones could connect them both to a headset to receive notifications from both. It even prioritizes a connection to whichever device is receiving a call, over another device that’s streaming media.

It is usually the case that one paired device will act as the primary device, while the other is secondary. In essence, Bluetooth Multipoint designates one device as a media player and the other as strictly for pushing notifications through.

Not every wireless headphone and Bluetooth device supports Bluetooth Multipoint

Not every wireless headphone and Bluetooth device supports Bluetooth Multipoint, so some research is required. Before pairing a device, it must support both A2DP for audio streaming and HFP/HSP for voice calls. Some headphones, like the Sony WH-1000XM4, only recently rolled out support for Bluetooth Multipoint when using the AAC Bluetooth codec. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but an incredibly useful feature if you can pair up the correct devices!

Cutting-edge features for music lovers

We tested the Sony WH-1000XM5 in the lab with state-of-the-art equipment

Chris Thomas / Android Authority

If you’re looking to spoil that special someone this Christmas, take a look at some of these must-have premium headphone features. Although they’re not essential for most buyers, they take it up a notch when it comes to music listening.

Spatial Audio

Also called “virtual surround,” spatial audio uses a cocktail of advanced math, signal processing, and algorithms to recreate 360° audio. Essentially, it tricks our brains into thinking that sound is originating from all around us. The result? A truly immersive, movie theatre-style listening experience.

However, there are some things to keep in mind. For example, not every music streaming service supports spatial audio. Tidal, Deezer, and Amazon Music Unlimited all currently do. Music also needs to have been captured in surround sound at the time of recording. Because of this, not every streamable song will boast this feature. Spatial audio is arguably a more immersive feature for movie and TV streaming, but again, support varies a fair bit between platforms and the content in question. It’s worth researching what they’ll be playing back before jumping on this feature.

Spatial audio tricks our brains into thinking that sound is originating from all around us

There are different spatial audio brandings out there, but they all use the same principles, even if their implementations vary a little. Most new mobile phone companies are adopting Dolby Atmos into their surround sound functionalities. Apple’s spatial audio, Sony’s 360 Reality Audio, and Samsung’s 360 Audio all support Dolby Atmos content.

See also: The future of spatial audio sounds amazing and left me wanting more

AptX HD and LDAC Bluetooth Codecs

Bluetooth technology has been going from strength to strength in recent years. Audiophiles have previously (and rightly) been skeptical of sluggish and compressed Bluetooth data transfer. But thanks to Qualcomm’s aptX HD and Sony’s LDAC codecs, music lovers might finally have a high-quality wireless option.

The key need to know here is that these Bluetooth audio options provide higher-quality compression compared to the more common SBC and AAC codecs supported by the majority of headphones. However, you’ll need compatible playback devices and a high-quality music library to really benefit.

Those with physical FLAC-quality libraries, or who stream HD-quality audio, will benefit from aptX HD and LDAC Bluetooth codecs

Essentially, those with a physically-downloaded FLAC-quality library, or who stream HD audio, will benefit most from high-quality Bluetooth music. To use Qualcomm’s aptX HD or Sony’s LDAC codecs, a compatible smartphone-headphone setup is essential, and you won’t find either codec supported by iPhones. They’re Android only, but even here support varies. Apart from a few exceptions, Sony headphone users are the main beneficiary of LDAC, while aptX HD headphones are found across Shure, Sony, Sennheiser, and other brands.

App features

Jabra Elite Active 75t true wireless workout earbuds headphones app

Lily Katz / Android Authority

As equally important as hardware is to a user’s listening experience, so too is software. Most notable of all — app features.

Not only do headphone apps allow customers to pair their devices quickly, but they also host features that bring headphones to life. Want to tweak the high and low-end frequencies of a music mix? There’s an equalizer for that. Want to customize headphone controls? There’s an array of mapping options for that. Want to flick between ANC and ambient sound? There are noise suppression controls for that. Want to run an ear-fit test to make sure the buds are secure? I think you get the picture.

It’s also important to download headphones apps if you want to keep up-to-date with software updates for your headphones. The ever-popular Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds only received Multipoint Bluetooth in a recent update. At a minimum, you should check that the brand’s app works with your phone of choice. But it’s also worth considering the type of app features and customization your gift will be used for.

Pitfalls to watch out for

Assorted headphones

Robert Triggs / Android Authority

For all of the glamour and excitement listed above, there are some audio-related sticking points to take note of. Especially when buying headphones for someone else.

Proprietary and ecosystem nonsense

Proprietary features are probably one of the biggest offenses currently facing would-be headphone buyers. Apple could be considered a frontrunner here, but others like Samsung, OnePlus, and Huawei are all joining the fray.

Take Apple’s AirPods Pro, for example. Android users miss out on a plethora of functions that make these earbuds the powerhouse they are for iPhone owners. Apple’s seamless pairing doesn’t work, and you can’t customize the earbuds’ double-tap functionality either. Siri virtual assistant also wouldn’t work, and there’s no provision for launching Google Assistant or Alexa in its place.

Without a compatible smartphone, some headphones features could be lost in the void

Likewise, Samsung’s Galaxy Wearables app currently has no iOS compatibility. That’s a huge problem if any iPhone user were looking to take advantage of Samsung’s 360 Audio feature. But it’s not even just iOS users. Samsung’s 360 Audio feature requires a Galaxy smartphone or tablet to work, which rules out a huge range of Android users too.

Mapping tap controls, aforementioned Bluetooth codecs, checking battery life, and switching devices are some of the features that can become lost in the void without a compatible smartphone. Always check device and feature compatibility.

Not all features are equal

Active noise cancellation is a great invention, but just because a headphone supports it doesn’t mean it will work as well as another brand’s implementation.

This is true even within the same brand. From Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live’s wobbly isolation to the truly remarkable Buds 2 Pro, it’s an imperfect science. Sony, too, has been trying to redefine the meaning of noise suppression with their latest WH-1000XM5 model. This is in stark contrast to their earlier, relatively average earbud cousin, the WF-1000XM3.

ANC, fit, and sound quality are all an imperfect science, even within the same brand

It isn’t just noise cancellation, either. Microphone quality, sound quality, and fit all vary wildly, even within the same brand. Some brands specialize. Shure, for example, tends to produce headphones with good microphone quality, while Beats are masters of bass-boosting buds suitable for exercise. If you’re after something quite specific, it’s always worth taking the time to compare the nitty-gritty details.

Our recommendations

The Bose Sport Earbuds true wireless workout earbuds sit outside of the closed charging case, all objects are covered in sprinkles of water.

Zak Khan / Android Authority

Hopefully, you’re now fully equipped to pick out the perfect gift. But just in case you’re looking for that little bit more guidance, here are some of Android Authority’s top picks. These include affordable and cheaper headphones with good ANC, sound quality, app features, and fit.

Sony WH-1000XM5: Sony’s latest quality over-ear headphones pack a punch. Despite their hefty price tag, they host 8 microphones for superior audio quality and ANC capabilities. Weekly Zoom meetings and voice calls are a breeze for these headphones. Losing yourself amongst the music is easy no matter where you are.

Apple AirPods Pro: If you’re an iPhone user, look no further than the AirPods Pro. Excellent sound quality and the inclusion of extra-small ear tips mean that music is at the heart of these buds. The app also hosts some tasty features to hone your sound and take control of your overall experience.

Jabra Elite 45h: If you’re looking for an affordable gift this Christmas, these over-ear headphones should be on your list. Although they have limited high-quality Bluetooth options, the battery life and speaker quality make up the difference. The top-quality microphone with Google and Alexa voice assistants make these a perfect pair for conference calls.

Bose Sport Earbuds: For your athletic friends, these reasonably priced in-ear headphones boast an IPX4 rating and a secure fit. The sound quality is second-to-none at this price, and the comfort cannot be understated enough. They fast charge via USB-C for when you’re on the go and have above 5 hours of battery life to keep you running.

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