As more and more interpreting work has gone online, the quest for the perfect headphones has begun in earnest.

Yet unpacking the jargon and discovering your ideal pair of headphones is quite the challenge!

After all, headphones come in all shapes and sizes. And the terminology used to describe all these shapes and sizes can be overwhelming.

Never fear - we’re here to help!

The anatomy of headphones

Let’s begin with a tour of headphones.

For starters, remember that headphones do not have a microphone, while headsets do. We’ll cover headsets in a later article, but many of the concepts you’ll learn now will also apply to headsets.

Headphones that cover one ear are called monaural headphones, while headphones with two ear muffs are called binaural headphones.

Headphones are designed to be “closed-back,” “semi-closed” or “open-back.” This indicates how much sound can exit the headphones through the “cups” or “muffs” over your ears:

  • Open-back headphones allow air and sound to pass freely through the ear cup, offering more natural sound. But as a result, sound can bleed into your microphone, so watch your volume!
  • Closed-back headphones block out external sound, making them ideal for noisy environments. However, since they "seal" to your head, they can create pressure which might make you feel like sound is coming through a tunnel or echoing. To make it easier to hear yourself speaking, closed-back headphones may come with side-tone software adjustments, or can be used with microphones with provide side-tone or “monitoring” which feeds your voice back into your headphones.
  • Semi-open or semi-closed headphones create a partial seal and allow some air and sound to pass through the housing.

Headphones can cover your ears, rest on your ears, or nestle into your ears. We’ll cover over-ear and on-ear options in just a minute.

Headphones can be wireless or connect to your device using a cable. Always use cabled headphones for interpreting to ensure a stable signal.

The plug on the end of your headphone, microphone or headset cable is called a connector. You insert the connector into a socket called a jack (for analog connectors) or port (for USB connectors).

Most interpreters use headphones with a 3.5 mm analog connector, also known as a “mini-plug” or ‘⅛” plug. Although many headphone models have a 6.3 mm analog connector (“¼” plug), 3.5 mm models are the easiest to use with consumer electronics, since you usually won’t need an adapter.

You can use an external sound card (also known as an “audio interface”) with a USB connector to convert analog signal from your headphones or microphone to digital signals your computer can understand. Your sound card can be as small as your thumb; larger models offer additional controls. If you plug 3.5 mm headphones straight into your computer’s 3.5 mm jack, your computer will use its internal “sound card” software. Using an external sound card can make your headphones easier to detect for RSI platforms using Google Chrome.

Bear in mind that most headsets have a digital USB-A or USB-C connector that includes a built-in sound card, since the USB connection is digital. While USB-A connectors have been around for many years, the smaller USB-C connector can be found on many newer devices. You can also purchase a USB-A to USB-C adapter if needed.

Some headsets have an in-line controller, a small device in the cable that may allow you to turn the headset on or off, mute it, or adjust the volume. We’ll discuss headsets in a later article.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) establishes a frequency response range of 125 - 15000 Hertz (Hz) for interpreting headphones. That sounds like technical mumbo jumbo, but the principle is simple: humans can typically hear from a bass frequency of 20 Hz to a treble frequency of 20,000 Hz. For optimal audio, you’ll want to ensure that both your headphone speakers and microphone span that range.

Now that we’ve gotten the basic terminology out of the way, let’s take a closer look at different types of headphones.

Over-ear headphones

Over-ear (circumaural) headphones have thick headbands and large ear cups that fully cover your ears.

As a result, they tend to be large and heavy. Most weigh well over 100 grams, which exceeds the ISO DIS 24019:2020 limit for interpreting headphones. However, many colleagues swear by their favorite over-ear models.

Featuring large drivers for enhanced audio quality, these headphones can be open, closed, or semi-open.

To hear yourself while working, choose open or semi-open styles. If you prefer a closed-back style, look for headphones with side-tone so you can monitor yourself. If you work in a noisy environment, a closed-back over-ear style with side-tone and a unidirectional noise-canceling microphone like the Audio Technica ATH-M50X may be a good choice. (That’s why pilots use this kind of headset!)

If you can find a pair that isn’t too heavy, you may find over-ear styles to be more comfortable for long sessions without putting pressure on your ear.

On-ear headphones

On-ear (supra-aural) headphones tend to be more compact than over-ear styles. Since most models don’t cover your entire ear, it may be easier to hear your own voice and monitor your output.

On-ear headphones come in both closed and open styles, but beware: closed models can create a sensation that sound is coming through a tunnel even if they don’t cover your entire ear. As some on-ear models have very large ear cups, make sure to check their size before purchasing.

Open models are fairly common, but if you’re shopping online, you may have to read the fine print to determine if the design is open or closed. For example, popular brands like Jabra and Poly offer closed models with side-tone.

Some interpreters find that wearing on-ear headphones for many hours may put pressure on their ears, while others love them.

Which headphones should I buy?

As we’ve seen, headphones come in all shapes and sizes. Which ones are right for interpreting?

Start by picking comfortable headphones. Plenty of factors affect comfort, including the size and weight of your headphones, the style of ear cups or ear muffs, whether you wear them over, on or in your ears, the materials they’re made of, and even the way the headband feels.

Obviously, headphones should sound good. Look for high-quality, natural sound and avoid anything that says "deep bass" or similar on the packaging. To test what headphones sound like, head into your local shop, plug a few models into your smartphone, and listen to a podcast or recording.

Make sure your headphones (transducers) and microphones offer a frequency range of 125 -15,000 Hz to meet ISO standards.

Keep a close eye on connectors. Many models are sold with several options. To avoid letdowns, check before you buy. (Most interpreters will want headphones with a 3.5 mm jack or headsets with a USB-A or UAB-C connector.)

Some headphones may also come with accessories, like adapter plugs or a pouch or case.

Headphones can also be made of different materials. Vinyl can get sweaty, but is easier to clean and may be more comfortable than foam. Try a few options and pick the material you find most comfortable.

Finally, you’ll need to decide whether you prefer to work with headphones and a microphone or a headset - more on that in our next article.

We know that different interpreters prefer different types of headphones and headsets. Figuring out what works best for you may take a bit of trial and error. Believe it or not, you may prefer inexpensive models to expensive ones, and headphones that seem great at first may seem less appealing after you’ve used them for a week!

Wondering which specific headphones we recommend? The Interpreter’s Guide to Audio and Video is for you! It features a table including nearly two dozen of our favorite headphone models in every shape and size, with price points as low as $24. (Really!) Snag your copy for just 25€ using this link!

This column is excerpted and slightly modified from The Interpreter’s Guide to Audio and Video, by Josh Goldsmith and Naomi Bowman. It also appeared in the June 2021 edition of the ToolBox Journal.