How To Test and Tweak Your Headphones Or Earbuds

By Matthew Braga

Before you make your next purchase, here's how to test those potential earbuds and make sure you're getting what you've paid for.

Looking to buy yourself a new set of headphones and ditch those Apple earbuds for good? You're not alone. The earbuds included with your phone or player aren't quite the best in terms of quality, and a new and improved pair can make your music or games come alive. You can't just walk into your big box store and grab a new set of cans, however; just like with speakers, headphones have their own set of criteria that you should keep in mind if you're looking for the best in sound.

PC Magazine's testing shows how the iPod headphones (green) have very different signal response, even between left and right earbuds. 
explains it, will "color the sound, usually intentionally, in order to give the listener more bass or treble, account for modern music mixes, or create a unique sound signature." 

This isn't always a bad thing. Closed headphones, open headphones and earbuds are all constructed differently, and thus transmit sound in different ways. Altering the frequency response of a closed headphone design might make bass frequencies sound more natural, for example, which most users would probably prefer over a flat, "authentic" sound. However, it's hard to compensate for all styles and genres of music; altering the bass response might make your Modest Mouse sound great, but your Mozart, not so much.

Multimedia Speaker Test to evaluate the frequency response of your speakers or headphones. By loading the test files onto your portable player, you can easily determine how different models perform, identifying any potential problems along the way.

But while a frequency test is great for testing the setup and theoretical performance of a set of headphones, it's not a good real world test; after all, you'll be listening to music, not artificial tones on a daily basis. Oftentimes, the best way to test the quality of a potential purchase is to use a well-recorded song that exhibits a nice range of qualities and instruments. For example, classical pieces from well-known orchestras are often popular with many reviewers, because they demonstrate a wide range of instruments, encompassing both high to low frequencies. Jazz and classic rock albums are also popular choices.

What you won't find used are albums or songs produced more recently. Today, sound engineers often compress and squish frequencies in order to achieve the "loudest" possible sound without distortion, compromising the quality of the music in the process. In fact, if you're to compare the waveforms of two songs — one from the 70's, and one from today — you'll see what we mean. If there's no distinct frequencies left, it becomes hard to accurately use a song or album to test the frequency response of a pair of headphones.  

Above: a song from 2010. Below: a song from 1969.

With all this in mind, what sort of tests do you do when picking out a new set of headphones or earbuds? And more importantly, what are you using now? Let us know! 
Images via Flickr users Giandomenico Ricci and Scratchworx.