What will you be using your headphones for?
This is an absolutely critical question you need to ask yourself. There is a good setup for almost any purpose at numerous price points in this day and age. Do you only need a setup for gaming on your pc/laptop? Or do you listen to music as well? Would you like to take the system on the go to connect to your MP3/laptop?
What is your budget?
A defined budget at the outset helps focus on what components you need instead of browsing for months on end and just wasting time. This also links to the above point, with $300 you can afford a great headphone/ in-ears and a DAC/AMP [ glossary ] to come later.
Do your research
Never take one person's advice [ even mine (: ] as sound is subjective to a degree. What I enjoy might not be to your taste and vice versa. The best way to find out if something works for you is to try it first hand of course, but in the market for expensive headphones that can be difficult. Hence, use Head-fi as a starting point and do a search and take it from there. The more you read, the more you'll end up knowing about the world of audio.
Now let's get down to the juicy stuff!
Headphones vs IEMs
What the heck are IEM's some of you may be asking? IEM stands for In Ear Monitors, such as
They're earphones essentially, but the critical difference between IEM's and ordinary crappy earBUDS that come bundled with iPhones/iPods and most mp3 players nowadays is that IEM's fit inside your ear, as in they plug into your ear like so
By being directly inside your ear, they block outside noise incredibly efficiently and of course, the sound is directly channelled into your ears rather than going all over the place [ the reason why you can hear "music" when someone using the iPod earphones ]
The problem with In-Ear-Monitors is that they're very hit or miss. Everyone's ears are unique so what may be a perfect fit for one may be atrocious for some. Some people just hate them because the feeling of having something penetrate the ear so deeply just doesn't work for them. However, IEM's are incredibly portable, the better ones sound absolutely spectacular ( but usually command a correspondingly spectacular price tag ) and they isolate outside noise very well, much more so than the headphones that claim to be "noise cancelling" [ more on that later ].
Headphones have exploded in popularity of late with people walking around with $500 iPhones in their pockets and $300 dollar Beats on their heads. I would have normally said " I'll dispel the Beats myth " later but this needs attention, along with another myth.
DO NOT BUY BEATS OR A GAMING HEADSET
I'm positive I'll cop a lot of flak for this, but by god this needs to stop. Beats aren't rubbish, that's true. But at it's price point, there are vastly superior offerings from lesser known brands. Gaming headsets similarly are mostly garish offerings from companies that know almost next to nothing about creating a headphone. Plantronics, Steelseries, Turtle Beach are all brands to be avoided in regards to headphones. [ That being said, steelseries do make some epic peripherals that aren't headphones so props to them in that regard ].
Open or Closed?
Open headphones are just that. They're open to the outside world so your music/gaming sound will be heard by others, and others talking/traffic/general noise will leak in and will be heard. They offer a typically clearer and more detailed sound than closed and are cherished by high end audiophiles. If you're only going to be using headphones at home/quiet private environment, absolutely get open headphones [ suggestions to come later ].
If you live in a dorm [ as I do ] or if you have a family that's always yelling at something [ as I do ] or if you travel quite a bit by bus/train [ as I do ] then a closed headphone is more preferable. Closed headphones also have stronger thumpier bass than equivalent open headphones.
Circumaural vs. Supra-aural
What on earth? Clueless on what circumaural vs. supra-aural is? They're really just fancy terms for how headphones fit over your head. Circumaural headphones have earpads that completely surround the ear like so~
Because they surround the ear, they're typically more comfortable than supra-aural and are better suited for long gaming sessions. Supra-aural headphones meanwhile sit on the ears, pressing the ears against the head.
In terms of sound and comfort, circum-aural headphones usually come out on top but this is dependent on the headphones themselves. Some circum-aurals are incredibly heavy or "clamp" the head incredibly tight [ which leads to stronger bass but can be uncomfrotable ]. This can be fixed easily by leaving them clamped around a sofa chair arm or a ball overnight though.
Try wearing these $8000 babies for longer than a minute. I dare you
Noise cancelling or noise isolating?
Even though these two terms sound interchangeable, they are very different ideas. I'm sure most people will have at some point come across these "noise cancelling" earphones/headphones. Simply put, the "active noise cancelling" headphones picks up external sound through a microphone and creates a sound wave that negates the incoming noise.
Sounds great right? There are quite a few problems with headphones that offer "active noise cancelling " though. Firstly, they're vastly more expensive than an equivalent headphone sans noise cancelling. Secondly, they need more parts than a normal headphone and thus is heavier. A noise cancelling headphone needs the typical components of a headphone, along with a microphone to pick up outside sound, circuitry to produce a sound wave to negate the outside sound and a battery to power the aforementioned parts. Third, by creating sound through the speaker to negate the external sound there is an audible hiss and usually muffles the music/sound that you want to hear. However, there are some active noise cancelling headphones that are tremendous which I will recommend later.
I've been going at it for the past three hours now, going to get back to my paper I'll be back to finish this off sometime soon hopefully. Still to come are recommendations for headsets, open and closed headphones, noise cancelling headphones and IEM's for different budgets, along with a discussion of soundcards, the important things to look out for when buying a gaming headset and more. Let me know if there's something you think that needs adding. Post a comment, any comments are greatly appreciated. Adios!
EDIT FOUND A GREAT RESOURCE!