Last month I probably tested more headphones than the average person buys in a lifetime. At the moment, I likely have around 15 to 20 pairs of headphones (and earphones) laying around the office (products I’ve already reviewed or that are waiting to be reviewed or that I plan on including in a “best of” list at some point). And I’ve lost track of all the headphones (and earphones) I’ve reviewed and then sold or given away over the years.
In fact, as I write this extensive buying guide I’ve got wireless headphones, audiophile headphones, noise-canceling headphones, Swedish headphones (wow exotic!), sport/fitness headphones, gaming headphones, cheap headphones and expensive headphones all within just a few feet of me! And I’m probably forgetting about some pair of headphones laying around the video studio or on my nightstand or stashed away in my backpack or travel bag.
Being surrounded by all these incredible headphones is what inspired me to write this buyers guide. I figure that I’ve had more than enough experience listening to some of the world’s best (and worst) headphones to spread some knowledge.
In this guide I’ll be going over everything you might ever want to know about buying the perfect pair of headphones. Of course perfect is subjective and relative: you likely have certain preferences or budget constraints and find yourself experiencing different situations than I or anyone else. And that’s fine. I’ll write this guide in a way that takes that into consideration. My main objective is to help you find the best pair of headphones for you, personally.
I am here to help you make the best headphone buying decision. I’ve got some comprehensive information for you that comes not only from my own brain but also from the minds of some headphone industry experts (so you can be absolutely sure this article is steering you in the right direction — as opposed to those annoying fake buying guides that just give you the pros and cons of several sets of headphones).
I’ll be discussing important features like what makes headphones sound good (obviously a very important factor when purchasing headphones), what some of the top headphones brands are, wired vs. wireless headphones, types of headphones (in-ear, on-ear and over-ear), style, comfort and headphones designed for specific uses (sports and fitness, noise-canceling, gaming headphones, etc.).
But before we get too far (in the very next section, in fact) I will also make some recommendations as to what I think the best headphones are in terms of price points and budgets (in case you don’t care to know why certain headphones are actually better than others and are just looking for some good buying tips). I’ll recommend the best headphones over $500, the best headphones in the $200-500 range, the best headphones in the $100-200 range and finally the best headphones under $100. Along the way I’ll also recommend the best wireless headphones, the best noise-cancelling headphones, the best sport/fitness headphones and more. But first…
I’d recommend spending some time thinking about how and where you are going to use your headphones (as opposed to just looking at specific features). If you go by features alone without thinking about where you might find yourself using your headphones, you may end up disliking the pair you buy. And yes, I’ve got an example (a tale of caution, if you will)…
Some of the nicest sounding headphones I’ve ever tried happened to have a ridiculously long and thick cord (I mean insanely long). At the time I tried them they were the best sounding headphones I’d ever listened to. But… they weren’t very portable (okay, they weren’t portable at all). Aside from sounding awesome, they looked nice, they came with a nice microphone and carrying case and they were comfortable BUT they could effectively only be used at home. Luckily for me these headphones happened to be a review pair that a company sent me hoping for some coverage, but if I had bought them solely on their features I would have been sorely disappointed (even though these were “premium” headphones that were quite expensive). That’s because I absolutely want a pair of headphones that I can take with me to the coffee shop (where I like to work from time to time). So put some consideration into where you’re going to listen and think beyond the feature set and price.
Here are some questions to ask yourself: Do you want cutting-edge headphones that let you share music with friends? Will you travel often (lots of travelers adore noise-cancelling headphones)? Will you wear your headphones at your desk for long periods of time (and therefore need headphones that are super-comfortable and reduce ear fatigue)? Will you be playing games competitively (wanting to hear every step an opponent makes in your vicinity)? Are you an audiophile who wants to hear their favorite music just like your favorite artist intended for it to sound (and need headphones with a premium sound above all other features)? Do you hate clutter and cords (and need a wireless solution)? Do looks matter to you (and therefore you need something stylish that you can show off)? Do you need headphones you can jog with (that won’t come lose and that you can sweat all over)? Do you want to be able to take phone calls without having to take your headphones off (and need a pair of headphones with a good mic)? These are all important factors to consider.
Something else to consider: headphones can surprise you. What I mean is that it can be genuinely surprising to hear a really expensive pair of headphones for the first time. It can also be quite surprising when a “cheap” pair of headphones sounds better than you would expect (I’ll include that recommendation down below). Additionally, I’ve been surprised (aka disappointed) by “nice” brands whose headphones feel cheaper than I would’ve expected. The reason I mention this is that I think you’d be doing yourself a favor by keeping an open mind as you explore your options.
At any rate I hope to answer questions like, “How do you buy the best headphones?” and “What are the best headphones?” and “What makes headphones sound good?” among others in this guide.
Alright! Let’s dive into the recommendations next and after that I’ll break down everything you could ever want to know about what to look for in the best headphones (for you). Ready?
The best headphones by category, style and price
I’ll be the first to admit that this is a very long article. And if you don’t feel like reading through the entire thing to learn what makes a pair of headphones “the best” then this section is for you. Here I recommend several great pairs of headphones based on things like price and popular features or uses. Alternatively, you might like to browse through the rest of this guide and then come back to this section to find a starting point in picking out your new pair of headphones.
Best headphones and earphones over $500 (the best luxury headphones)
Headphones that cost over $500 are the best of the best. In general you should expect super-high quality in both sound and build as well as some extra-special, cutting-edge features that can’t be found at lower price points.
So if you want top-of-the-line headphones I’d recommend checking out the HIFIMAN HE1000 over-ear headphones which retail for $2,999. Not only are they practically works of art but they have some serious technological breakthroughs (such as being the first pair of headphones with a diaphragm in nanometer thickness). Their frequency range is both higher and lower than a human ear can even hear, meaning you will absolutely get the full music experience as the recording artist intended. Live music should sound absolutely superb with these headphones thanks to the advanced asymmetrical magnetic circuit.
And if you’re looking into top-of-the-line earphones I would recommend checking out the Shure SE846-CL sound isolating earphones which can be had on Amazon for $999 at the moment (that’s 20% off). What makes these earphones so special is their patented design which provides very clear high and low-end performance (thanks to the Quad Hi-Definition MicroDrivers). The True Subwoofer provides insane bass.
Best headphones and earphones for $200-$500 (the best audiophile headphones)
Headphones that cost between $200-$500, while not the absolute top of the line, are still going to sound incredible. If we were talking about cars, headphones in this price range would be like flagship luxury cars (Mercedes, Audi, Acura, etc. — whereas the headphones above $500 would be more akin to supercars like Lamborghinis and Ferraris).
The best headphones I can recommend in this price range are the Grado Reference Series RS2Es which clock in at $495. These are open-back headphones for optimal sound that are hand-crafted out of mahogany wood. These are headphones that people tend to rave about (even though they are the “little brother” to another pair of Grado headphones). You WON’T be disappointed with the sound.
The best earphones I can recommend in this price range are the Shure SE425-V sound isolating earphones. Like the Shure’s at the higher price point I recommended just above, these earphones also feature Hi-Definition MicroDrivers (but 2 rather than 4). They come with a phone cable and remote as well so you can use them with your phone!
Best headphones and earphones for $100-200 (the best premium headphones)
For $100-$200 you can get yourself some amazing headphones that will be highly enjoyable (especially when you can find a great deal).
For headphones in this price range check out the AKG Q 701 Quincy Jones Signature reference-class premium headphones. These are normally almost $500 but you can get them right now for about $180! Packing some interesting features like a two-layer diaphragm and flat-wire voice coil technology, these headphones are going to sound absolutely superb.
For earphones in this price range check out the B&O Play Earset 3i earphones ($199) which are light and adjustable and have a very unique design. The ear hooks will ensure that these headphones stay situated where they should and the brushed aluminum and soft rubber are nice to look at and feel nice on your ears.
Best headphones and earphones for $50-100 (the best budget headphones)
If you’re shopping for “cheap” headphones under $100, you shouldn’t necessarily expect amazing sound or build quality, but you can certainly find products that are better than decent and fully-enjoyable.
I’d take a look at the JVC HARX900 high grade full-size headphones for starters. You’ll get deep bass (thanks to the 50mm drivers) and a comfy fit thanks to the pressure dispersion mesh pad. If you’re on a limited budget it’s hard to go wrong with these unassuming JVCs.
On the earphone side of things I think you should check out the Bose SoundTrue in-ears (which sometimes go on sale for under $100, although they retail for $150. These headphones actually give you lots of options. You can choose from earphones that are compatible with Samsung Galaxy phones or iPhones (with mics for taking calls) and there are several cool color options. The StayHere clips are perfect for people who don’t want earphones that fall out or get loose over time.
Best headphones under $50 (the best cheap headphones)
If you’re reading this section that means you don’t have a lot of extra cash to spend on headphones. But that’s ok! I think you will be seriously and pleasantly surprised by some of the headphones you can get for under $50.
For the best headphones under $50 consider the Sennheiser HD 202 II headphones which you can pick up for under $25 (though they are normally $39.95). DJs love these headphones for the clean, deep bass and detachable ear cups. The frequency range is actually more than decent ranging from 18Hz – 18kHz!
For the best earphones under $50 I would go with Amazon’s $15 premium earphones. I’ve heard tech blog after tech blog rave about how nice these are for the price. They are magnetic to keep them tangle-free when not in use, feature a mic and multi-function button and feature nice and crisp audio (especially for being under $25).
Best wireless headphones (best Bluetooth headphones)
If you want the best wireless on-ear headphones I would recommend checking out the Beats Studio Wireless series which stays connected up to 30 feet away, can take phone calls and has convenient controls. It’s one of the few Beats headphones that serious reviewers would actually recommend right now. It just so happens that this great pair of headphones also features noise-cancelling and it’s cool that the rechargeable battery lasts up to 12 hours.
If you’re looking for the best on-ear wireless headphones, I can’t recommend the Plantronics BackBeat Sense any higher. Seriously — one of my all-time favorite pairs of headphones. I love them (and I’m wearing them right now as I type this guide). They’re comfy, light and have no quality issues.
If you want the best wireless earphones then you absolutely have to check out the Jaybird X2. These earphones set the standard for all other earphones as far as I’m concerned both in terms of sound and style. They’re technically sport headphones, though, but don’t let that stop you from owning them (if you’re not sporty).
Best sport and fitness headphones (well, earphones, mostly)
I’m going to sound slightly repetitive here because I just mentioned them in the paragraph above, but the Jaybird X2 earphones are the best of the best not only when it comes to wireless earphones but in the realm of sport and fitness earphones as well. They’re comfortable, the battery lasts for 8 hours, they look good, sweat can’t phase them, they’ve got good remote controls, have many ear tip options and come in a variety of awesome colors.
If you’re doing anything sporty, over-ear or on-ear headphones aren’t really recommended (by me, anyhow). Sure, you see lots of athletes wearing them, but that’s always before or after a game — not while they’re playing or running! Just in case you’re still tempted… you don’t want to sweat on nice, expensive headphones. It’s nasty. Just go with some nice earphones for exercising and get some headphones for when you’re not active (that’s my two cents).
Best noise-cancelling headphones
I think the best bet for noise-cancelling headphones is going to be the Bose QuietComfort 25s. They’re light, come in several unique color options (including the very cool triple black special edition) and probably have the best noise-cancelling abilities of any manufacturer.
On the earphone side of the equation you should probably go with Bose again — this time with the Bose QuietComfort 20s.
Best gaming headphones
On the gaming front I have a different opinion than most “expert” reviewers who like to pick the Kingston HyperX Cloud gaming headset. Instead, I like the newer Creative Sound BlasterX set which I find to be super comfortable (which matters a lot more than you’d think if you’re playing for a long time). I like the detachable mic and the fact that you can hook it up to the Creative Sound Blaster G5 amp for extra power.
Best DJ headphones
If you’re a DJ you need something accurate and comfortable. For professionals like yourself I’d recommend the Audio-Technica ATH-M50. It’s capable of on-ear monitoring thanks to the 180 degree swivel and the ear cushions give you the ultimate in noise isolation.
Expert advice on how to pick out the best pair of headphones
As much as I think I know about headphones, I’m far less of an expert than Sean Sullivan who is the Global Product Manager for the earphone and headphone category at Shure Inc. He’s the guy who is responsible for developing and managing Shure’s listening products from design and launch (through the time they are discontinued). I asked him a few questions about how to pick the best pair of headphones (to give you another perspective).
Manuel from Sennheiser was also nice enough to provide some answers to these same questions.
Here’s what they said:
ME: What is the ONE most important technical aspect a person needs to consider when purchasing headphones?
SEAN: This is impossible to answer. It’s like asking for the most important specification on a car. Right? The answer depends on what you’re looking to use the car for. As long as you’re purchasing a standard headphone… The way they SOUND when coupled with YOUR player or System is most important. There is no tech spec that will tell you what a headphone is going to sound like. In fact, tech specs on a box can be the most misleading information. If you have a chance, try them with your setup. That is the only way to know.
MANUEL: It is not just one technical aspect a person needs to consider when purchasing a headphone. Much more important is to take some time to listen to the headphone carefully and to compare it to others. Only a comparison lets you hear the difference.
Also important to bare in mind are these questions: Where and for what do I want to use my headphones? There are so many different use cases as there are: for sports, on business trips, at home for my TV, etc. And each use case has other features or technical aspects which are important.
ME: What is a myth or misconception people have about headphones (and why is it false)?
SEAN: Along the same lines as the last question, one myth is that the headphones with the widest frequency range spec will sound best. This is a false statement. A frequency range is supposed to state the lowest, and highest frequency that is produced by a headphone. This is incredibly misleading. Firstly, the range of human hearing is around 20Hz to 20 kHz – for someone with very good hearing. Some specs will go WAY past that – like 5Hz to 50 kHz. Which not only is well out of the range of human hearing, but says nothing about what happens between those two frequencies, where our hearing is most sensitive. Our ears are most sensitive between around 800Hz and 4 kHz – the relative amount of energy that a headphone produces in this mid-range area is much more important than what happens at 20Hz or at 20 kHz.
MANUEL: People often think the more bass the headphone has the better it is. That is definitely wrong. The perfect interaction of bass, midrange and treble makes a headphone sound good. But on the other hand, bass is very important — especially a very detailed bass. Bass is not just one deep tone; it can be so multifarious.
ME: What is one headphone feature that is often overlooked that actually makes a big difference in how much a person will enjoy their headphones?
SEAN: Detachable cable is often overlooked. This is one thing that should be considered. A cable will break someday. It is really nice to just be able to replace it – and not have to buy a new headphone. This also allows for accessorizing or customization is some cases. You may want a straight or coiled cable, or one with iOS controls, or whatever the next new thing becomes a couple years from now.
MANUEL: In my opinion next to the perfect sound the comfort of the headphones plays a much bigger role than lots of customers believe. If you listen to your favorite music you don’t want to stop after 15 minutes of listening because a headache forces you to put away your headphones.
ME: Put as simply as possible, what makes a pair of headphones “the best” from your perspective?
SEAN: I am all about the sound first and foremost. Sound preference is different for everyone, but I have listened to enough to know the sound I want. Next, I need to have a comfortable fit. This means the phones can’t be too heavy, or clamp the head too hard. I want to be able to listen for hours at my desk and forget that I have them on. That said, I would choose a different, perhaps more robust and neutral sounding phone for stocking a recording studio for tracking music.
MANUEL: For me a perfect headphone needs to be lightweight and comfortable and have a big sound stage. But it always depends on the usage. For on the go it needs to be wireless and collapsible. At home it should be an open, wired system. On business trips the headphone definitely needs to have active noise cancelling.
Sound quality: what makes headphones sound good?
By the time you’re done reading this section you’ll be able to make sense of all the industry jargon you read on manufacturer websites or on retailers like Amazon. Once you understand a few key concepts, you won’t be in the dark anymore regarding “nice” headphones and you won’t just have to take someone else’s word for it when they say one pair of headphones is better or worse than another. I promise to make this as painless as possible (so it’s not like studying for a class or exam)!
The first thing you should know about is the design of the headphones — specifically whether or not they are “open” or “closed”. Sometimes you will see this referred to as “open-back” or “close-back” headphones. It’s a phrase that actually doesn’t make the most sense (to me, at least) because it’s actually referring to what seems more like the sides of the headphones. You know that part opposite of your ear — the outer part of the headphones? Ya, that’s what we’re talking about here.
Generally it is understood that open headphones have the best sound (not that closed headphones sound bad). When headphones are open it means they are not fully enclosed which lets sound “leak” or escape or pass through (however you’d like to think of it). A potentially big drawback for open back headphones is that people around you can hear what you’re listening too better (which they probably won’t like).
Closed headphones, on the other hand, don’t leak as much sound which causes the sound waves to bounce back into your ear producing a less natural sound. But a big benefit is that closed headphones tend to block out outside noise better (so that even closed headphones that aren’t noise-cancelling can be noise-isolating).
When you’re looking to buy headphones it should be pretty easy to see whether or not they are closed or open (the title or description usually gives it away). But just in case it doesn’t, just use your eyes to look for openings or “mesh” or “grates” in the headphones. If there are no holes of any kind — if it’s just a smooth surface — you’re looking at closed headphones.
When you’re looking into buying headphones it won’t be long before you run into drivers. Manufacturers like to advertise the largeness of their drivers (i.e. 50mm!). In reality, I’ve seen experts say that 42mm is really the biggest a driver should be for maximum sound as anything over can distort frequency response (we’ll get to frequencies in just as second). The thing is, the bigger the driver, the bigger the bass. So if bass matters to you more than anything else (and if you possibly don’t mind the rest of the music getting a bit distorted), by all means go for a pair of headphones with a big driver. That said, buying headphones with a massive driver (i.e. 70mm) is seriously overkill (and isn’t worth it).
The next thing you should know about is treble and bass frequencies. The human ear is really only capable of hearing noises from 20Hz to 20kHz. Don’t worry about Hz or what it means; just understand any headphones that cover those frequencies will be capable of playing a full range of what you can actually hear.
Now what that means in practical terms is that bass can only be heard down to 20Hz and treble can only be heard up to 20kHz. These are the lower and upper limits of what we can hear. So the best headphones out there will cover that full range. I’ve seen plenty say that they go higher or lower; while that might seem cool on paper, it doesn’t mean all that much in reality!
So you’ll often see headphone reviewers refer to highs and lows. We’ll this is what we are talking about: bass and treble and how well the headphones make them sound.
Along those same lines, us reviewers are also looking for something called spectral flatness. It’s a fancy term for saying we don’t want to hear peaks or dips in the sound: we want our headphones to be balanced.
So just as headphones have a frequency range, they also have a dynamic range. When you see dynamic range being referenced, someone is simply talking about how loud or quiet a pair of headphones gets. Simple!
The last major concept I think you should understand is that the bigger the headphones are, the better they USUALLY are. Not always, of course, but generally. This is because headphones are just miniature speakers. And you know that the larger a speaker is the more massive it’s sound is. There are definitely exceptions to this rule on the headphone and earphone front, but you’re probably going to end up paying more for products that are smaller but have bigger, richer sound.
Other than the above factors, everything else basically comes down to style and extra features. Do you like how the headphones look? Did the manufacturer come up with some innovation in lightness or thinness? Are the materials cool? What’s the quality like? Once you understand what a pair of headphones are sonically capable of, it’s these types of questions that will probably lead you to a buying decision (although for some people I’m sure it’s reversed and they like to find something stylish or with a certain feature and then figure out how good the headphones are capable of sounding).
In-ear, on-ear or over-ear
There are three main types of headphones: over-ear (or over-the-ear), on-ear (or on-the-ear) and in-ear (also known as earphones). Each different type has some unique advantages and disadvantages, but none is inherently better than the others.
Over-ear headphones tend to give the listener the richest, deepest, clearest sound. That’s because they typically do a better job of blocking out outside noises (also known as noise-isolating, but not to be confused with noise-cancelling). The reason why is obvious: they fit over the entire ear, thus sealing it off by leaving no air gaps.
Over-ear headphones tend to be quite bulky because they are so large. But it’s just because they are so large that they often sound so good. With headphones, the bigger they are the better they can sound (I say can because size alone isn’t even close to the only determining factor). But a larger size headphone can fit bigger components (like larger drivers).
On-ear headphones, on the other hand, don’t do much to isolate sound (either sound going in or sound going out). On-ear headphones tend to be lighter, though, as they have less bulk and that is one of their major benefits. Again, because they are smaller than over-ear headphones, on-ears tend to be easier to stash and store.
Many on-ear and over-ear headphones fold up for easier (or at least more compact) storage. Sometimes the ear cups rotate to be flatter and sometimes the actual headband can fold up (and some headphones do both). If you’re looking for headphones that can pack easily or for headphones that won’t take up too much room when not in use, this is something to look for and consider.
Earphones (or in-ear headphones) are obviously the smallest type of headphones. Earphones come in many different varieties. Some are made of plastic (like the famous — or infamous — Apple EarPods). Some have silicon tips. Some have memory foam tips. Some have interchangeable tips and give you the option to choose the size and style of the tips (so you can find the most comfortable fit). Some very expensive earphones can also be custom-fit to the exact shape of your ear (many musicians and performing artists take advantage of this type of earphone while on stage).
And those different earphone tips make a big difference in comfort and sound. Memory foam tips tend to do the best job of sealing out outside noise and are generally quite comfortable (although some people might not like the way they take up so much “ear space”). Silicon tips are my least favorite style because they often come loose in my experience (and are very bad for travel — every time you take them out of a bag or pocket is another change to lose a tip). That said, silicon tips are pretty comfy — especially compared to plastic earphones.
Ear fatigue is one of the main things you’ll want to watch out for no matter what type of headphones you buy. I’ll be talking about that more in the “Comfort” section of this guide, but I do want to at least mention it briefly here in relation to each type of headphone. For me, personally, every over-ear headphone I’ve ever worn has eventually given me some sort of ear fatigue. On-ear headphones seem to give me less ear-fatigue, for sure, and earphones are usually pretty comfortable. Generally, and again I’ll talk about this in more depth in another section, the lighter the headphones and the softer the material that touches your ears, the more comfortable they will be.
So what type of headphones should you buy? Here are some questions and answers to help you narrow it down.
Do you want the best possible sound? Get over-ear headphones.
Do you want to seal noise in/out? Get ever-ear headphones.
Do you want headphones that will be seen and noticed? Get over-ear or on-ear headphones.
Do you want to be as inconspicuous as possible? Get earphones.
Wired vs wireless (Bluetooth) headphones
You may have heard that wired headphones sound better than wireless headphones (or, put differently, that the sound quality of wireless headphones… sucks). Well, that is true to varying degrees (even in 2016). There are a few reasons why.
For starters: compression. Bluetooth headphones (most wireless headphones are Bluetooth headphones) use compression in order to get sound signals from Point A to Point B. Especially when it comes to music, compression is a bad thing.
Think about it in terms of TV content. 4K TV content contains 4 times as much image information as does HD/1080p content. Though this turns out to be a kind of a weird example (ha), listening to compressed audio is sort of like watching HD/1080p content on a 4K TV: it’s a setup that isn’t living up to it’s potential.
But compression isn’t the only reason why music might not sound as good through wireless headphones. The wireless frequency used by Bluetooth devices of any sort is all the same. So objects in your house like computer mice and keyboards, Bluetooth smart home devices, speakers and such are all piggy-backing off the same signal. It’s kind of like too many cars driving down the highway at the same time: things can get clogged up and quit working properly.
That said… don’t be scared away from buying wireless headphones because the sound might not be up to snuff compared to wired headphones. The truth is that unless your some sort of audio freak you won’t be able to tell the difference in quality. So the whole notion that wireless headphones don’t sound as good as wired headphones is a little misleading (but technically true).
Personally, given a choice, I’d always go with a wireless pair of headphones. I feel like they give me more freedom. Plus, I really, really hate having a mess of cords strewn across my desk or getting tangled up in a backpack or bag. The less clutter, the better (as far as I’m concerned: you obviously may feel differently).
But wireless headphones definitely have one other drawback: battery life. They are going to need to be recharged from time to time — and if you forget, it can be frustrating when they won’t turn on when you’re ready to use them.
And consider the battery life of your phone if you plan on getting wireless headphones as well. Like any Bluetooth device, the more you use it (a device connected to your phone via Bluetooth) the more it will drain your phone’s battery.
In any case, wireless headphones are definitely the future. I can say this with a certain degree of certainty because of the iPhone 7 which, upon debut, will be without a headphone jack (so the rumor goes, but I’m very inclined to believe it). I won’t get into that whole discussion here, but as Apple goes, so goes the industry (usually).
A final word on wireless headphones: they sometimes “glitch out”. Not all wireless headphones, mind you, but I’ve had several pairs of “nice” headphones drop signal on me before. Usually it’s intermittent for a split second or two here or there, but it can be SO annoying. I’d just say do your research before you buy a pair of wireless headphones to see if anyone has had any issues like this. Or, if you’re lazy, you can just go with the pair I recommended in the top headphone recommendations section of this article (above).
When it comes to wired headphones, not all wires are created equal. Some are long, some are short, some are interchangeable or replaceable. And some have different sized jacks. That can be confusing, so lets talk about it for a second.
The standard headphone jack size is 3.5mm. That’s the size that most phones have (still have, I should say). But some higher-end headphones ship with a 6.3mm jack adapter. Why? There’s really no difference in sound quality, but the larger jack is stronger and makes it more suitable to listening to an electric guitar, for instance. In any case, the average person won’t ever need to touch (or worry about) a 6.3mm jack.
I mentioned a few paragraphs back that some headphone cables were replaceable (or detachable). That’s actually a very nice feature if you’re planning on using your headphones for many years. If you don’t want to buy new headphones every two or three years, a replaceable cord is a must.
In the end, when you’re selecting the best pair of headphones for yourself, it’s going to come down to picking between form and function on the issue of wired vs wireless.
On style and headphones
When it comes to headphones I feel that style is often at odds with sound quality. Not always, but more often than not. I say this because many of the headphones considered most stylish sound the worst. And, on the flip side, many of the headphones that sound the best seem to forget about fashion altogether (again, this isn’t always the case).
Beats are probably the best example of stylish headphones that can be lacking in the sound department. I have to say they are getting better with each new generation, but still, Beats have a (well deserved) reputation for focusing on bass at all costs while forgetting about the important of the highs and mids. Now that has typically applied to the lower-end Beats models (although their lower-end models are still way more expensive than most headphones on the market). Top Beats models on the other hand tend to have a much more balanced sound profile.
Unlike Beats with their candy colors and smooth finishes, many high-end headphones manufactures whose headphones sound absolutely incredible stick with bland blacks and silvers for their designs. It’s like these companies spent most of their HR budgets hiring engineers and skimped a bit on industrial designers (that, or are run by folks who just don’t make design a big enough priority). For instance, I’m not a huge fan of the design of AKG headphones (while I have no problem with their sound). And both Shure and Grado headphones — probably the top two companies in terms of sound performance — have looks that are just OK in my opinion (I certainly can’t say I love them).
In terms of materials, headphones often use plastic, metal or wood — or a mix of those three materials. Plastic and metal are certainly the most common, although wood headphones definitely seem to be gaining in popularity in recent years.
If you’re looking for headphones with bright colors you almost certainly are going to be looking for plastic headphones. Same goes for headphones with printed designs (like art or abstract patterns).
If you’re looking for awesome headphones made out of wood there are a lot of options. Wood used in headphones can come from trees such as mahogany, walnut, birch, cherry and more.
When it comes to style you also want to consider how big your headphones are. Do you want your headphones to be massive and grab a ton of attention? Do you want them to be nice, but understated so that if they are noticed you’ll look good but at the same time you won’t draw any unnecessary attention?
Headphones and comfort
Headphone comfort comes down to mainly these things: earpad material, headband material and tightness. Of course, depending not the type of headphones you choose (on-ear vs over-ear, for instance) these factors will be amplified or lessened.
In my experience the most comfortable headphones are the light on-ear headphones like the Plantronics BackBeat Sense. It’s the lightness, more than anything, that makes those headphones the most comfortable I think I’ve ever worn.
Over-ear headphones, while often producing the best sound, are most likely to cause ear fatigue (again that’s just my opinion). The reason is that if there’s any ear contact at all, there is going to be pressure and that pressure adds up over time.
Most headphones are comfortable for awhile. I’d say most headphones are going to be comfortable for the first 30 minutes of wear no problem. But if you wear your headphones for long stretches at a time, picking a more comfortable headphone is going to be a must.
For example, if you are a pro gamer, if you listen to music or the radio through headphones while you work, if you have a long train commute, if you’re traveling on a long flight… you’re going to want some comfortable headphones.
So if you want over-ear headphones, for whatever reason, and you want them to be as comfortable as possible for as long as possible, try to get some that are light. Next, look for headphones with maximum padding both on the ear cups and on the headband (I really like headphones that have memory-foam padding!).
In terms of the most comfortable earphones, I think silicon tips are probably the winners although I’m a big fan of memory foam earphone tips as well (but some people don’t like the pressure they add as they fill up your entire ear canal to seal out/in all sound). But if you don’t find the right fit in a silicon tip, they will be loose and constantly coming undone, so I’d look for headphones that come with several tip sizes in the box.
Noise-cancelling headphones and earphones
I have a confession to make: I’ve never met a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that lived up to my expectations. There, I said it! The thing is, noise-cancelling headphones (and earphones) DON’T remove ALL sound — which is not what I hoped for when I tried my first pair. The reality is that noise-cancelling headphones could be more accurately labeled noise-dulling headphones.
Before I get into how noise-cancelling headphones work, let me talk a bit more about my experience with them. I do a lot of typing (as you can see) so whether I’m at the office or at a coffee shop, there are plenty of times I want to drown out outside noises so I can focus better (actually I’m a big fan of listening to Brain.fm while I work… you should check it out).
When I’m at the coffee shop, for instance, my noise cancelling headphones don’t mute the outside world (I’ve seen Beats advertise their ANC, or active noise cancelling, models that way). Muting implies total silence. What actually happens is that you can hear less of the outside world. That’s it.
So how do noise cancelling headphones work? They have a microphone that picks up noises and then they issue a sound wave meant to cancel out those outside noises. The idea is sort of like a 5 and a -5 cancelling each other out to make 0. Sometimes the effect works better than others and often times it sounds a bit like soft static (to me).
The thing is, and I’m totally serious, you might be better off buying noise-isolating headphones, or headphones that try to seal off outside noise just by having thick padding (but don’t employ any electronic backflips or tricks to cancel noise digitally). In fact, many noise-cancelling headphones are also noise-isolating — and benefit from that thick padding anyways.
Noise-cancelling headphones are extremely popular with frequent fliers. That’s because manufacturers do a good job tuning out the sound waves produced by plane engines. And because people on planes can be loud (you know, the proverbial crying baby on a plane or the nosy, talkative person that always seems to sit next to you). I definitely recommend noise-cancelling headphones for travelers: they’re great for music, silence (or as close to silence as you’re going to get) and an in-flight movie.
One cool feature I’ve seen in a lot of noise-cancelling headphones is the ability to turn off the ANC (active noise cancelling) to hear what is going on around you. What this does it turn up the volume of what the mic is picking up and turning down (or off) any music you are listening to. It’s really handy for having a conversation with someone while you’re wearing your noise-cancelling headphones.
As you might have guessed, noise-cancelling headphones are going to use more power (i.e. drain your batteries faster) than “normal” headphones.
For sports and fitness headphones
If you’re rocking Spotify Running, a jogging playlist of your own creation, a workout mix shared with you by your best friend or just the radio or a podcast during your morning treadmill session, you need specialized headphones or earphones. Why? Exercising and music go perfectly together — but cords, loose gear and sweaty electronics are the enemy of a tough workout.
So it stands to reason that sport and fitness earphones should do three things really well. First, they should be wireless so you don’t get tangled up in cords. There is nothing worse than running with a cord jangling against your elbow or flapping around your chest. I hate that! At the same time, it’s the worst when you’re at the gym lifting weights and a cord gets woven into the machine you’re working on. That’s a bad look.
The second thing you need from the best pair of fitness headphones is for them to be secure. You don’t want them to fall out or off or to come loose in any way. And just because you grab a pair of earphones, don’t think they will stay put automatically (just because they are in your ear). I’ve tested several different types of sport earphones that just wouldn’t stay in while I ran. Earphones with ear hooks or bumpers of some sort that wedge into your ears more are the most secure and make excellent fitness headphones.
The last thing you should look for in the best sport earphones or headphones is sweat resistance. I don’t know how much you tend to sweat during a good workout, but just like you wouldn’t dunk your other electronics in a pool or water, you wouldn’t want to soak your fitness electronics in sweat. Circuits and sweat aren’t the best of friends, if you know what I mean. Plus, if you ever exercise out in the rain (or snow, you beast) then you need some earphones or headphones that are weather proof as well.
I’ve already recommended what I view to be the very best sport (and wireless) earphones earlier in this guide: the Jaybird X2s. The Shift technology makes these wireless earphones just about as good as wired headphones (reduces skips and lags), the ear fins (bumpers) keep the X2s in place no matter what activity you’re into, there are 6 different ear tips to choose from, you can take and make phone calls, the around the back of the neck design is brilliant and makes sure no cords are going to interfere with your workout, and the list goes on… If you missed it, pop back up to the second section of this guide to learn more about these awesome fitness earphones.
Gaming headsets (gaming headphones)
There’s really nothing extra special about gaming headphones versus “regular” headphones. Other than having a microphone or some sort (which can either be attached or detached, depending on the model), choosing the best pair of gaming headphones is very, very similar to just choosing the best pair of headphones.
First lets get something out of the way: if you want to get technical, gamers are probably looking for gaming headsets (headphones with mics) rather than gaming headphones, but most people don’t realize that and won’t be searching for the term headset… so.
For gaming headphones, though, sound is more important than ever. That’s because so many new games take advantage of positional audio (or audio that immerses players in an environment like never before to the point where they can actually hear whether or not an object or player is in front of or behind them). If you don’t have headphones that can help you take full advantage of positional audio, you could be giving other players a real competitive advantage.
Other than sound, I think there are two main things to consider when purchasing gaming headphones aside from the obvious (needing great sound quality). First: comfort. Second: durability.
Comfort is so important for gaming headphones because gamers tend to game for hours on end. I saw a statistic somewhere that said gamers spend an average of 22 hours per week playing video games — per week (and that was back in 2014). If you’re going to have something on or around your ears for 88 hours each month, it can’t be uncomfortable.
Durability is also very important in gaming headphones because gamers tend to be harder on their gear (especially younger gamers) than non-gamers. Game controllers (with the possible exception of the $150 Xbox Elite controller) tend to get tossed around like toys… so it’s reasonable to assume gaming headphones should be as durable as possible.
In terms of microphones I would say this: look for a pair of gaming headphones with a mic that won’t pickup backgrounds noises. Nobody wants to hear your cat or baby brother in the background.
Other than what I’ve talked about already, choosing a pair of gaming headphones really comes down to the design and just picking a pair of headphones that makes you look as fierce or nerdy (whatever you’re going for) as possible.
6 unique headphones and earphones with very unique features
Headphones are headphones are headphones, right? Wrong. While I’ve already covered the headphones you’d expect to exist in the world — headphones that fit over your head and play music, namely — I’m going to cover some unusual and unexpected headphones in this section. While I think traditional headphones are probably always going to be around in some form or another (because people will probably always want to just listen to music), I also think we are going to see a lot of interesting new headphones released in the next half decade.
Like many simple gadgets, headphones are starting to be able to do more. While many of the established (and respected) headphone makers continue to manufacture the same old style of headphones we’ve become accustomed to, there are several startups doing their best to upend the status quo by producing headphones that show movies (seriously), headphones that send sound through the bones in your head and thus need not even cover your actual ears, earphones that are custom-molded to your ear shape, headphones that let you share music wirelessly with your friends and even headphones that double at fitness monitors (think Fitbit for your ears).
In this section I’m going to explore some of the coolest, most unique and out-of-the-box headphones there are. Some of them definitely stretch the definition of headphones altogether. But if you’re looking for some headphones that are different from what your friends are rocking or just want headphones that feel more cutting-edge, these are going to be some of your best options.
Arc Wearhaus headphones let you wirelessly share music with friends
The Arc Wearhaus is a new type of headphone with social features and personalization options. It’s killer feature is that it allows you wirelessly share the music you are listening to with a friend (or friends) who also have Arc Wearhaus headphones. It doesn’t matter what source your music is being played from either! Another cool thing about these headphones is that you can customize the glowing ring of light on each side with any color you’d like for a more personalized look.
Normal headphones are guaranteed to fit perfectly
The (new) Normal headphones are the successors to the highly individualized 3D printed (old) Normal headphones. Normal headphones are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. They are truly wireless (there’s not even a charging cord as there’s a built-in USB port that folds down from the headphones themselves).
Normal headphones are adjustable thanks to their 5-axis rotation, come in leather and silicon styles, have “fit dots” that come in a ridiculous amount of sizes to ensure an actual perfect fit (so they won’t fall our of your ears, ever), capacitive touch controls and an awesome 8 hour battery.
Oh, and watch the video… this brand has a major attitude.
Glyph: a personal theater for your eyes and ears
The Glyph is being billed as mediawear, a new category or technology wearables. What may look like a normal pair of headphones at first actually has a headband that rotates down over your eyes to let you view video content! The Retinal Imaging Technology uses a ridiculous amount of mirrors (two million, to be exact) to project images directly to your eyes.
Batband: ear-free headphones
Ya, you read that right. Batband uses bone conduction to provide a private listening experience that lets you hear your music (or podcasts or radio or whatever it is you are listening to) while also allowing you to hear the world around you. That means that you can hold a conversation with your coworkers while you listen to your tunes (hmm, maybe that’s a bad thing).
FreeWavs: Fitbits for your ears
FreeWavs, which debuted at CES 2015, are fitness tracking earphones. Aside from playing music wirelessly, they are also capable of tracking your heart rate along with other fitness metrics.
AIAIAI: build your own headphones
The AIAIAI Configurator lets enterprising individuals build their own perfect pair of headphones. You can select the headband, speaker units, earpads and cable that best suit your needs and interests. It’s a sleek solution that gives you an animated visual preview of your choices in realtime.
Get to know the best headphone brands
There are a lot of headphones made by many different brands out there. But are some brands inherently better than others? It can be easy to think that all headphones above a certain price point or with certain features or a certain style are so similar that it really doesn’t matter which brand you go with. But that idea actually couldn’t be more wrong.
Like brands in any given category, some brands of headphone manufacturers consistently outperform others — and some are consistent under-performers (despite their enormous marketing budgets and name recognition).
So let me break down some of the top headphone brands for you in terms of quality, history and what they are known for (both good and bad). In this section I’ll discuss just 11 of the best headphones brands as I simply don’t feel like writing about every brand there is. There are definitely other companies that make nice headphones (niche companies, startups, etc.), but this is a good list to give you a better understanding of the market.
Something to keep in mind about all of these brands is that they all probably have at least one standout product. What I mean is that even a company that generally makes poorer quality headphones may have one or two flagship products that are really pretty great. And some higher-end companies that typically produce hit after hit may end up with a couple flops.
If I was forced to pick one company as the very best headphone maker I’d have to say Shure. In test after test, Shure comes out on top. It’s no wonder: the company has been making audio equipment since 1925! Shure headphones range in price from very affordable ($40) to quite expensive ($500), so there’s something for everyone. Shure’s products are so good that the company received a Grammy award for technical contributions to the music industry!
Grado is right up there with Shure competing for the title of world’s best headphone manufacturer. It’s one of those brands that people swear by and that is premium by definition. Hand-built in Brooklyn, Grado specializes in reference, professional and in-ear headphones (among others). Prices range from a few hundred dollars a couple thousand dollars so if you’re looking for cheap headphones look elsewhere.
Despite what the name may lead you to believe, Klipsh is an American company that has been around since 1946. If you want to buy headphones that are engineered and made in America, you’ll like Klipsch. Since the company’s inception, Klipsch has produced products based on four principles: high-efficiency, low-distortion, controlled-directivity and flat-frequency response. Klipsch also strives to produce products that are green and energy-efficient. Klipsch music-focused headphones and earphones range in price from about $80 to upwards of $500.
AKG is an Austrian company that has been making headphones since 1949 but was acquired by Harman International (an American company) in the 90s. Notably, AKG partnered with popular artist DJ Tiësto to produce a line headphones. AKG headphones range in price from about $80 to well over $1,000. In 2010 AKG won a technical Grammy award.
JVC makes a very wide range of headphones that tend to be pretty affordable (with prices ranging from under $20 to about $150). Still, JVC headphones are known for sounding good and providing a lot of bang for the buck. You’ll find everything from sports headphones to kids headphones to noise-cancelling headphones to wireless Bluetooth headphones. If you’re looking for a good deal on headphones, JVC is worth looking into.
Audio Technica is another brand that is known for producing pretty nice headphones at or under $150 (but prices range from around $25 to well over $1,000). From professional and hi-fi headphones to simple over-the-ear headphones, the Audio Technica lineup is pretty diverse. Audio Technica has made waves on the noise-cancelling front where it has won multiple industry awards.
Sony is a brand that is known for making consistently great headphones (I’d say near the end of the top 5 brands list). Sony has A LOT of headphones to choose from. From a Waterproof Walkmans to extra-bass Bluetooth headphones to ultra-affordable in-ear headphones, there’s literally something for everyone. The styles and colors can be pretty unique as well.
A lot of people love Sennheiser headphones. You’ll be able to find Sennheisers starting at about $20 for super-basic listening on up to $1,500 and beyond. Sennheiser is probably best known for it’s microphone business, but the HD 800’s are particularly interesting top of the line headphones. All Sennheiser headphones are manufactured in either Ireland or Germany.
B&O (which is short for Bang & Olufsen) is known for making audio products centered around incredible, if not breathtaking, design. When it comes to headphones, B&O doesn’t have nearly the selection of some other companies, but the headphones it offers have very distinct style. B&O headphones range in price from $200 to $400. If design and a luxury look and feel matter to you, you might really like this brand.
Beats by Dr. Dre
Beats are known for their signature color schemes and plastic look. Beats are a brand most people by for looks or just to say they have Beats. Unless you buy the most expensive models, Beats headphones really don’t sound all that good (which is odd, considering they are now owned by Apple). Hopefully that changes down the road. Beats headphones range in price from $199 to about $1,200.
Bose headphones are typically several steps ahead of Beats but still underperform, generally speaking, headphones from top companies like Shure, Klipsch and AKG. That isn’t to say Bose doesn’t make good products. They do (check the higher-end, especially). But aside from the QuietComfort series, you might find better deals for the prices.