Updated

Controls On Headphones

What it is: The control scheme of the headphones, the number of functions provided, button layout and ergonomics as well as the quality of tactile feedback.
When it matters: If you want to control volume, pause your music or make phone calls without directly interacting with your audio device.
Score distribution

The control scheme describes the layout, functionality, and placement of the buttons on your headphones.

Headphones with built-in controls typically have volume toggles and a multi-function button to play or stop your music and answer calls. Some headphones offer more functionalities and options, such as noise cancelling switches, talk-through modes or touch sensitive input methods.

For our control scheme test, we score the functionality and layout (if present) of the volume, noise canceling and play/stop/call buttons. These are evaluated subjectively, based on ease of use and ergonomic design.

Test results

When it matters

Ergonomic button layouts are easy to use and offer great control over your audio. This is especially important for the listener that does not want to have to change tracks or volumes directly from the audio source. Some listeners, however, prefer the simplicity of headphones with fewer buttons and therefore the importance of these results is subjective. We do not assign as much weight to button layout and functionality as we do comfort or build quality.

Our tests

Our buttons test evaluates the layout and functionality of the headphones’ control scheme. We score the layout, functionality, and feedback of the headphones’ control schemes.

OS Compatibility

What it is: Testing the headphones' controls to see which operating system they work with.
When it matters: The controls on some wired headphones aren't compatible with all operating systems so this allows you to check if the controls will work with your device.

Certain headphones that use what appears to be a regular audio jack may not have full functionality on all operating system (OS) types. Some wired headphones only work on iOS while others work exclusively on Android. Often you can choose a specific variant to suit which OS you primarily use, but some headphones are only available for one OS.

To test OS compatibility, we try using the headphones on Android and iOS. We plug the headphones into an iOS device, usually an iPhone 4, and test the in-line controls and microphone. We then do the same with an Android device. If the controls and mic fully function on both OS types, we conclude that the headphones are not OS specific. If the controls and mic fully function on only one OS, we list the compatible OS tested.

In the case of headphones available in different variants, worth nothing that we currently only purchase and test one OS variant: the variant tested is what appears as the test value. Our test also currently only measures full functionality and does not account for instances in which the headphones may partially support another OS.

Button layout

Plantronics Backbeat Pro DesignGreat button layout
Easy to use
Sennheiser PXC450 DesignPoor button layout
Cramped placement

We assign a higher score to headphones that have good, simple and efficient button placement, with dedicated buttons for each control. The buttons should be easy to reach and operate while the headphones are in use. Unorthodox control schemes lose some points if they are not intuitive or easy to get accustomed to.

Functionality

Bose QuietComfort 25 Design Good control options
Call/music, track skipping, volume, and noise cancelling  
Koss QZ900 DesignPoor control options
Volume and noise cancelling only

A higher score is assigned to headphones that give more control options. This typically means better control over your audio and a listening experience that doesn't require changing options directly on the audio source or device.

Feedback

Bose QuietComfort 20 DesignGood tactile feedback
Monoprice Enhanced Active DesignPoor tactile feedback

A higher score is assigned for buttons that provide clear tactile or auditory feedback and that respond with minimal delay, to prevent mistaken or erroneous inputs.

Conclusion

Our control scheme score evaluates the efficiency and simplicity of the functions and layout of the buttons on headphones. The controls provided by a headphone can be frustrating if prone to erroneous inputs and may be more important for the listener that does not want to have to change tracks or volumes directly on their audio device. However, this may not be the case for all listeners. Some may prefer fewer buttons and therefore the results of this test will not be as significant. We evaluate the layout, functionality, and feedback of the buttons on each headphone and score them according to their ease of use and efficiency.

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