The Ultimate Audio Buying Guide

N By Nik Turner - November 27th, 2023
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Are you looking for new audio gear? You’ve come to the right place! Our Ultimate Audio Buying Guide is your one-stop-shop for everything audio tech related. Whether you're a casual listener, a die-hard audiophile, or someone who wouldn't know a woofer from a subwoofer, this guide is all you’ll need. We’re covering everything you need to know when shopping for your new audio tech, whether that’s a new pair of headphones, speakers, soundbar, or home audio system.

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We've split this article up into two sections - portable audio gear and audio gear designed for the home. Let's dive in!

Buying Headphones or Portable Speakers

Let’s take a look at some key features you may have to consider when choosing your new audio technology. This section will cover key considerations when shopping for Headphones/Earbuds and Portable Speakers.

Wired vs Wireless

Should you opt for wired or wireless? This often revolves around sound quality, convenience, and price. While wired devices can offer superior sound quality, wireless technology is constantly improving and is often more convenient, albeit typically at a higher price point. However, if you’re an audio professional whose priority is stability and stellar high fidelity audio, then a wired option will be a better fit. Consider your use case, where and how you plan on using your audio device, the level of convenience you need, and whether wires will benefit that or not.

Sound Quality

Frequency response will have a big impact on sound quality. The balance between bass (low frequencies) and treble (high frequencies) determines whether the sound output is more bass-heavy or more balanced or treble-focused. If you’re someone who loves to feel the thump in your music, ensure your headphones reach a frequency of 20Hz or even lower. However, keep in mind that headphones that are skewed too heavily towards bass (and not enough treble), can lose certain details making the sound feel 'muddy' or overpowering. Additionally, cheaper products which can’t properly reproduce sub-bass will often boost the mid-bass to compensate and sound ‘muddy’.

Another important element is the soundstage. This refers to how accurately the location of the instruments and voices in the recording is conveyed. A good soundstage provides a three-dimensional, immersive listening experience, making you feel as though you are in the midst of a live performance. The level of importance you should place on the soundstage ultimately comes down to the type of music you like to listen to. However, headphones with a poorly defined soundstage may present a more congested or flattened audio experience.

Bluetooth and Connectivity

If you're aiming for a wireless experience, Bluetooth connectivity is key. Bluetooth 5.0 provides a range of up to 240 meters (unobstructed), low latency, and the ability to connect to multiple devices at once. Not all devices may support this version so take note. While everything with Bluetooth supports SBC, if you want optimal sound quality, keep a look out for devices which support advanced audio codecs such as aptX, AAC, or LDAC. Look for AAC to get the most from iPhone, the AptX family to get the most from Windows, Mac, and Android, or LDAC for Android. Apart from Bluetooth, also consider other connectivity factors like Wi-Fi and NFC (Near Field Communication), which can enhance the functionality and usability of your audio device.

Noise Cancellation and Isolation

If you’re going to be using headphones in noisy environments and/or being in the zone is important to you, then keep an eye out for noise cancellation on your next pair of headphones. Active noise cancelling technology actively eliminates background noise, keeping you immersed in your sounds. The ambient sounds are reduced using technology that produces counteracting soundwaves. On the other hand, noise isolation, also known as passive noise cancellation, involves physically blocking external noise, normally by using well-fitted ear cups or ear tips.

Battery Life

Battery life will significantly impact the continuous playback of your device so don’t forget to check this! An average set of wireless headphones might provide anywhere from 10 to 30 hours of battery life, while wireless speakers can provide up to 24 hours of battery life. It’s also worth noting whether the device has fast-charging capabilities. This will allow you to get hours of battery life back in a brief charging period which can end up being a godsend.

Water and Dust Rating

Do you plan on using your audio device outdoors or somewhere it may get wet? Say, speakers at a pool party or earphones during a sweaty gym session? If so, you should pay attention to the water and dust rating. You will see this specified with an IP rating, often containing two numbers or an X and a single number. The first digit after IP reflects the level of protection against solid particles, such as dust, while the second digit reflects the level of protection against moisture.

The letter X is used when there is no rating for that aspect. For example, an IPX7 rating suggests no rated protection against dust but is waterproof up to 1 metre (for up to 30 min). An IP68 rating on the other hand, means the device is fully dust-proof and is waterproof, capable of handling sustained submersion in water (take note of one the manufacturer specifies). This means that an IP68 rated device is built to withstand harsh elements and can be ideal for outdoor use or in wet environments.

Buying a Soundbar, Speaker or Home Audio System

Channels

If you’re shopping for value, 2-channels might be fine for you. However, if you want immersive sound, keep an eye out for soundbars and sound systems that have a minimum of 3 channels - this will ensure a more balanced and immersive experience. Three channels means sound comes from the center, left, and right (as opposed to just left and right like on 2-channel configurations). However, more channels are better so if your budget allows, look for something with 5-channels - this includes two rear channels for surround sound, rear left and rear right. If you’ve got a larger room or set up, consider one with 7-channels which includes two additional surround sound speakers to add more depth.

You will notice that channel numbers often include a second number, such as ‘5.1’ and ‘5.0’. What does this second number mean (the .1 in this case)? This refers to the number of subwoofers in the setup. It is quite common to see a 1 and every now and then, you may come across a 2. While one subwoofer is enough for most people, some prefer having two in their setup. If this is you, look out for a 2 in the second number.

Dolby Atmos

If you want to transform your living space into a cinematic marvel, look for sound bars, speakers and audio systems with Dolby Atmos support. Dolby Atmos adds upward-firing speakers to the 5/7-channel configuration, bouncing sound off the ceiling to add an extra element to the sound stage. This creates an enhanced immersive 3D spatial sound experience, transforming your living space into a cinematic marvel or transporting you to the center of a live concert. When a speaker has Dolby Atmos Sound, you will see a third number to represent the upward firing speakers, e.g. 5.1.2 or 7.1.2. Note that to fully benefit from Dolby Atmos, your media content also needs to be compatible with Dolby Atmos. Many streaming services, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, Spotify, and more, offer Dolby Atmos support on selected content.

Sound Quality

Start by assessing the type of sound profile you're after – whether it's punchy bass for music or crystal-clear dialogue for movies. Take a closer look at features like frequency response and sound output as this will give you a good idea of what the sound quality is like. We touched on sound quality further up in our headphones section and the same applies for speakers. Click here to jump back up to it.

Connectivity

Consider what connections are available when choosing your soundbar or speaker. For soundbars, HDMI is the best way to connect to your TV as it can pass higher resolution audio, resulting in the best audio quality. While most TVs have HDMI ports, to connect to your soundbar, it’ll need an HDMI ARC port so make sure you check your TV for one of these ports. If this is unavailable, an optical port, RCA cables, Bluetooth or WiFi will be your other options.

Size and Placement

Be sure to consider the placement and environment when choosing your soundbar or speakers. Soundbars will typically sit in front of your TV, be mounted to the wall under your TV, or sit below or above your TV on a shelf. Ideally, it should not be wider than your TV. Take measurements and keep this in mind when shopping for your soundbar. When it comes to speakers, consider the type that will work best for your room size and listening environment. Do you need bookshelf speakers? Tower speakers? Wall speakers? The size, shape and placement of these, in relationship to the size and layout of your room, will play a role in how they perform.

Types of Speakers

There are many different types of speakers to choose from. Below are the types that are commonly used in home entertainment set ups. However, if you have needs other than home theatre, check out our dedicated Home Audio Systems, Computer Speakers and more here.

  • Soundbars are great for minimal setups and will look great in front of most TVs. They're probably the easiest and most convenient option for your home entertainment setup. While soundbars can have 5 or 7 channels, the fact that this is all within a single box does mean that it's not as immersive as a surround sound option. 

  • Surround Sound Systems are ideal for those wanting an immersive experience. Satellite speakers are lower powered speakers that are often used alongside a set of main speakers - as seen in the Logitech Z906 Surround Sound System - in surround sound configurations. They reproduce medium and high frequency sound so are usually paired with a subwoofer to handle the low frequencies. For higher-end systems, bookshelf speakers or floorstanding speakers might be used. 

  • Bookshelf speakers are ideal for providing high-quality audio for music, movies, and general entertainment. They are also suitable for people who seek a compact yet high-performance sound system, often used in a stereo setup or as part of a home theater system. Bookshelf speakers are best for small-medium rooms and they're often placed on shelves, stands, or mounted on walls. 

  • Floorstanding or tower speakers are bigger and better. As the name suggests, they're designed to stand on the floor. They are best for large rooms as they can deliver a larger, richer and fuller sound. These speakers are the top-tier option for high-end audio systems, such as home theatre setups, as they can typically produce a wider range of frequencies due to their size and multiple drivers. 

  • Subwoofers are a great way to enhance your overall sound quality. They reproduce low-frequency sounds (bass) that other speakers may struggle with, providing a deeper and more immersive audio experience. This is especially beneficial when listening to music with heavy bass or watching movies with intense sound effects. Many soundbars or sound systems come with a subwoofer and the number of them is denoted in the second number of the channel specification (e.g. '5.1' tells us there is one subwoofer).
Picture of Edifier Bookshelf Speakers
Picture of Harmon Kardon Floor Speakers

Understanding Audio Terminology

Now, let’s talk about some key audio terminology you might come across when shopping for new audio technology. With an understanding of the below terms, you can get a better idea of how your different options truly stack up against each other.

Frequency Responses

Frequency response refers to the range of bass, mids, and treble. In headphones and speakers, it represents the range of audio frequencies the device can reproduce. It's described as a range between the lowest and highest frequencies, measured in Hertz (Hz). To manipulate these frequencies to your preference, you can use an equalizer, or EQ. An EQ allows you to adjust the volume of individual frequencies, so you can emphasize or de-emphasize certain sounds.

For example, if you’re big on bass, you’ll want to use an EQ to boost lower frequencies (20-250 Hz), and choose gear capable of properly reproducing them. Sounds lower than 20Hz represent bass you can feel. The ideal frequency response would cover or come close to covering the full spectrum of human hearing (20Hz to 20,000Hz). When utilising an EQ, you can tailor this range to enhance your listening experience. Remember, the wider range available, the more robust the sound capacity, and the stronger tools like EQ will be.

Sennheiser Frequency Response
Frequency Response on Sennheiser HD 660S2 vs. HD 660S

Impedance

Impedance, measured in ohms (Ω), is essentially the amount of resistance a device gives to the current and voltage being applied to it. Lower impedance devices (around 25 Ω) are considered ideal for use with portable devices (e.g. smartphones or laptops), while higher impedance devices (250 Ω and up) are designed for use with high-powered amps or home audio systems. There's a mid-range (50-250 Ω) that represents something of a sweet spot or balance - these headphones can be powered to acceptable listening levels by most portable devices, while still gaining significant benefit from more powerful amplification.

Sensitivity

Sensitivity (aka sound pressure level) tells you how effective the device is at converting an electrical signal into an audible sound. It is usually measured in decibels (dB). Higher sensitivity headphones or speakers can produce louder sound with less power. For the average person, sensitivity might not be a primary concern, also, not all products will list their sensitivity. However, it plays an integral part in their level of sound and may be important for audiophiles or those concerned with energy efficiency and max output. 

RMS Output

RMS output refers to the amount of power that an audio device can output. An audio device with a high RMS rating will typically deliver more volume than a device with a lower RMS output, given the same input signal. Keep in mind that too much power output can result in distorted sound or even damage to the audio system, so balancing power and sound quality is vital.

Drivers

Sound drivers are the heart of your headphones, earbuds, or speakers. The quality, size, and type of the driver can have a significant impact on the sound quality. In general, larger drivers usually produce louder and more powerful bass, but driver design and materials also play a big role in sound quality. Different types of drivers each have their own strengths and can affect sound reproduction differently, offering a variety of listening experiences.

What Should You Buy?

While technical specs can help you understand what a good audio system should ideally sound like, the most important factor in the end is personal satisfaction. Does the sound please your ear? People have different preferences for sound. Some may prefer stronger bass, while others prefer a more balanced sound profile. Additionally, a sound setup perfect for rock music may not be ideal for someone who primarily listens to classical compositions. Similarly, what works for music might not work as well for someone who wants a home theater setup.

Different people have different preferences for how they want their music or movies to sound, so it's always best to try before you buy if possible. Being able to understand the different audio terminology and features, however, will help you follow along with reviews and get a better idea of whether something might be a good fit for your tastes. To help you along on your decision making process, here are some more articles to check out on the topic of audio. When you're ready, head over to our Headphones & Audio department to check out your options!


Written By

Nik Turner

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