Buying Guide: Find the best headphones
If you're looking to get more audio enjoyment from your smartphone, tablet, media player, or computer, new headphones will do wonders. And a set of headphones is a must-have for those times you want to listen to your music without bothering those around you—or being bothered by them. But the variety of styles and options is wider than ever, and the opportunities for in-person testing are fewer. To help you find the perfect set of headphones, here’s my yearly buying guide: what to look (and listen) for, descriptions of the different types, and specific recommendations, whether for yourself or for the lucky recipient of your generosity. (We cover speakers in our annual speakers buying guide.)
What to look for when shopping
Unlike speakers, headphones don't differ much in features—you plug them in, put the earpieces on (or in) your ears, and listen. (One exception, covered below, relates to remote/headset functionality.) For the most part, the main differences between models are type, comfort, and sound quality. I explain the different types of headphones later in this article, but here are a few things to keep in mind when shopping.
Specs and sound quality: You should generally ignore manufacturers' specifications—especially frequency-response numbers. No standard testing methodology exists for headphone frequency response, and many vendors exaggerate their specs for marketing reasons. Plus, even if those specs were accurate, they wouldn't tell you much about how a particular set of headphones actually sounds.
Instead of reading specs, use your ears. (If you can't audition a product in person, read reviews from a source you trust.) As with speakers, a quality set of headphones reproduces audio with good balance between treble (upper), midrange, and bass (lower) frequencies, producing full, rich sound while preserving detail.
However, because of their especially small drivers (speakers), headphones present a unique challenge when it comes to bass response: Unlike huge speaker woofers that you can not only hear, but feel, the drivers in most headphones can't reproduce the visceral impact of low bass—you may be able to hear the lowest frequencies, but you probably won't be able to feel them.
I point out this bass issue because some vendors attempt to address it by emphasizing certain bass and upper-bass frequencies to give their headphones more "kick." This helps the headphones stand out from other headphones in the store, and some people—especially those who use their headphones while exercising or for beat matching—really want that exaggerated impact. But such headphones often become fatiguing to listen to over time. If you're interested in accurate audio reproduction, be careful not to be wowed by emphasized bass. (The same goes for exaggerated treble detail.)
The best approach, when possible, is to audition a set of headphones for several hours—or, even better, several days—with a variety of music. If the headphones still sound great at the end, there's a good chance they'll satisfy you over the long run.
Headset functionality and inline control modules: Many current headphone models include, right on the cable, an inline module with a microphone and one or more remote-control buttons, much like the inline remote on Apple’s iPhone earbuds. At minimum, this remote features a single multifunction button for controlling media playback; making, taking, and ending phone calls; and taking advantage of an iPhone or other smartphone’s voice-control features. The module's microphone can be used to talk on the phone, make voice recordings, and give Siri or other voice-control commands. Models aimed at iOS users generally include a three-button remote with dedicated volume-up and -down buttons; this three-button remote also lets you control volume and media playback on recent Macs.
Fit/comfort: Unlike most consumer-electronics devices, you actually wear headphones. So how well a set of headphones fits you—your head, your ears, and even your ear canals—plays a significant role in your long-term satisfaction (or lack thereof). I include a few comfort-related tips below when describing the different types of headphones, but reading about a particular style is no substitute for actually giving a product a test drive (or a test run, as the case may be for fitness-oriented models).
Where to buy: Sadly, fewer and fewer brick-and-mortar retailers carry quality headphones, and few of those that do actually let you try the products in the store—especially if you're talking about in-ear-canal headphones. This makes it difficult to audition the sound and fit of headphones before you buy them. Your best option is to buy from a retailer with a generous return policy, so that if you're unhappy with the way a set of headphones fits or sounds once you get it home, you can return it. This goes for both local and online retailers—for example, Internet headphone retailer HeadRoom carries a huge assortment of great headphones and offers a 30-day, no-questions-asked return guarantee, even on in-ear-canal models.
Protect your ears
Before I get into the different types of headphones, a quick—but important—aside: Whichever set of headphones you choose, make sure you’ll always be able to enjoy your favorite music by protecting your hearing. While some of the models recommended here block external noise, you won’t always be wearing your headphones, so it’s good to keep a set of earplugs handy—you never know when you’ll find yourself in earshot of jackhammers, standing in a too-noisy crowd, or sitting in a movie theater with ear-splitting volume levels. Similarly, many music lovers attend concerts where the decibel level risks damage to your hearing.
Inexpensive foam earplugs are widely available, but these work by completely obstructing your ear canals, making it difficult to hear what’s going on around you. Spend a bit more, and you can get special earplugs designed to reduce external sound to safe levels while still allowing you to hear clearly. Recommendations:
- Etymotic Research Ety-Plugs ($13)
- Comply Foam Plugs ($20)
- V-Moda Faders ($20)
- Etymotic Research Musicians Earplugs (custom-fit; price varies by audiologist)
- Etymotic Research Music-Pro High Definition Electronic Earplugs (automatically adjust noise reduction based on ambient noise levels; $399)
With that out of the way, read on for headphone types and recommendations.
Headphone types and recommendations
Literally thousands of headphone models are out there, varying dramatically in style, audio quality, features, and price. But they nearly all fall into one of several main types: earbuds, in-ear-canal, canalbuds, lightweight, full-size, wireless, or noise-canceling. Below are brief descriptions of each type, along with recommendations at various prices. I’ve noted which models include an inline remote/microphone module. (Prices listed are MSRP; you can find many of these models at significantly lower prices.)
Of course, these lists are by no means exhaustive—many quality headphones aren't included. But the products recommended here are a good place to start, and all are efficient enough to work well directly from the headphone jack of a smartphone, tablet, media player, or computer. (I’ve also included some headphones that not only sound good but look good.)
Earbuds: Earbuds, the type of headphones included with every iPhone and iPod, as well as with many other smartphones and media players, sit loosely in your outer ears. Although earbuds don't generally produce outstanding sound, they’re compact and most are relatively inexpensive. If you’re an iPhone user, Apple's EarPods are actually pretty good as earbuds go; you're not going to get a huge upgrade in sound quality without spending a decent amount more. Still, there are a few better-sounding alternatives out there if you want a new set, or if your non-Apple device shipped with something mediocre. Recommendations:
- Apple EarPods (three-button module; $29)
- Urbanears Medis Plus (three-button module; $60)
- Polk Audio UltraFit 1000 (earbuds with earclips; three-button module; $70)
- Yuin PK2 ($79)
- Sennheiser/Adidas Sports PMX 680i (earbuds with neck band for exercise; three-button module; $90)
- Bang & Olufsen EarSet 3i (earbuds with earclips; three-button module; $199)
- Moshi Clarus (earbuds with earclips; three-button module; $200)
In-Ear-Canal Headphones: These headphones, also known as canalphones, use silicone or foam eartips that fit snugly—and fairly deep—in your ear canals. Like earplugs, they block most external noise, so they’re great for travel and noisy environments. They’re also capable of producing stunning audio quality. On the other hand, some people find canalphones to be uncomfortable, and the best ones come with an equally stunning price tag. (For more information, check out our primer on in-ear-canal headphones.) Recommendations:
- MEElectronics A151 ($75)
- Etymotic Research mc3 Headset + Earphones (three-button module; $99)
- MEElectronics A161p (one-button module; $120)
- Etymotic Research hf3 Headset + Earphones (three-button module; $179)
- Future Sonics Atrio m5 ($199)
- Nocs NS800 Monitors (three-button module; $200)
- Westone UM2 True-Fit Dual-Driver Earphones ($300)
- Logitech UE 900 (three-button module; $400)
If you find the silicon or rough-foam tips included with most canalphones to be uncomfortable, an inexpensive and worthwhile upgrade is a set of Comply replacement eartips. In my experience, these soft-foam tips tend to be more comfortable and seal better than most stock eartips.
Alternatively, if you decide to spend the big bucks on a set of high-end canalphones, I enthusiastically recommend going all-in and getting custom eartips—tips custom-made for your particular ears. The process requires an audiologist visit to get impressions taken of your ears, but the benefits include substantially better comfort. (On some models, you may also gain better noise isolation and better sound quality.) Many canalphone vendors offer custom eartips for $100 to $150 plus audiologist fees. A step above custom eartips are custom in-ear monitors, which place the actual headphone circuitry in larger, custom-made earpieces.
Canalbuds: Canalbuds, which occupy a middle ground between earbuds and in-ear-canal models, have become quite popular over the past decade. Compared to canalphones, canalbuds generally use smaller eartips that sit just inside the ends of your ear canals instead of deep inside them. Good canalbuds easily best earbuds in terms of audio performance and noise isolation, but fall short of good canalphones in those areas. On the other hand, canalbuds tend to be more comfortable than true canalphones because they don't sit so deep and don't fit so tightly (although the line between canalphones and canalbuds is blurring these days); canalbuds are also usually less expensive. (See our in-ear-canal-headphone primer, linked above, for more information on canalbuds.) Recommendations:
- Monoprice 8320 Enhanced Bass Hi-Fi Noise Isolating Earphones ($6) and Monoprice 9396 Hi-Fi Premium Noise Isolating Earphones ($7)
- NuForce NE-600M (one-button module; $30)
- iLuv HearSay iEP515 (three-button module; $50)
- RHA MA450i (three-button module; $50)
- Logitech Ultimate Ears 350vi Noise-Isolating Headset (three-button module; $60)
- Maximo iP-595 iMetal (three-button module; $80)
- Velodyne vPulse (three-button module; $99)
- Denon AH-C560R (three-button module; $100)
- Scosche IEM856md In Ear Monitors (three-button module; $250)
Lightweight Headphones: These portable and (usually) reasonably priced headphones use larger drivers than earbuds and canalphones, and their similarly larger earpieces rest against the outside of the ears instead of sitting inside. Some lightweight headphones have a thin headband that goes over or behind the head. Others use a small clip on each earpiece that slips over the ear—these earclip-style models are often good for exercising. Some lightweight headphones fold up for easier traveling. Although many lightweight headphones produce mediocre sound, there are a number of standouts. Recommendations:
- Koss KSC75 (earclips; $20)
- Koss KSC35 (earclips; $45)
- Koss Porta Pro (over-the-head; $50) and Porta Pro KTC (over-the-head; three-button module; $80)
- Grado iGrado (behind-the-neck; $50)
- Sennheiser PX 100-IIi (over-the-head; three-button module; $90)
- Sennheiser PX 200-IIi (over-the-head; three-button module; $110)
Full-Size Headphones: If you don’t mind some extra bulk, a set of good full-size headphones—so named because they fully cover or surround your ears—will usually sound better than good lightweight models. Many full-size headphones are also very comfortable, thanks to generous padding and ergonomic designs. However, contrary to what you might expect, not all full-size headphones are designed to fit large heads, so be sure to try before you buy (or, again, make sure you can return them if they don't fit well).
Full-size headphones fall into one of two categories: closed or open. Closed models block out some degree of external noise while keeping your music from disturbing others, while open models, which have a (generally deserved) reputation for offering better overall sound, let more noise in and out.
In terms of fit, full-size headphones can either completely surround your ears (called circumaural or over-ear style) or sit on your ears (supra-aural or on-ear). Over-ear models are the largest and tend to block out more sound, but people with large ears may find on-ear models to be more comfortable than squeezing their ears into over-ear models.
Note that to reach their potential, many full-size models (open or closed) require more juice than you'll get from a basic headphone jack. Those listed here work well with the low-power headphone jacks on phones, tablets, iPods, and computers. Recommendations:
- Sennheiser HD 202 II (closed; over-ear; $35)
- Beyerdynamic DT 235 (closed; on-ear; $75)
- Grado SR60i (open; on-ear; $79)
- Sennheiser HD 280 Pro (closed; over-ear; $100)
- Skullcandy Navigator (closed; on-ear; three-button module; $100)
- Sony MDR-V6 (closed; over-ear; $110)—also sold as the MDR-7506
- Shure SRH440 (closed; over-ear; $125)
- Incase Sonic Over Ear Headphones (closed; over-ear; three-button module; $150)
- Skullcandy RocNation Aviator (closed; over-ear; three-button module; $150)
- Audio Technica ATH-AD700 (open; over-ear; $160)
- V-moda Crossfade M-80 (closed; on-ear; three-button module; $229)
- Bowers & Wilkins (B&W) P5 (closed; on-ear; three-button module; $300)
- V-moda Crossfade M-100 (closed; over-ear; three-button module; $310)
Bluetooth Stereo Headphones: If you think being tethered to your music source is a drag—or, for the gym rats, an equipment-snagging hazard—consider going wireless. While some wireless headphones use radio-frequency and infrared technology—some of them very good, if very expensive—your best bet for convenience and portability is Bluetooth.
You can stream audio to stereo-Bluetooth (A2DP) headphones from pretty much any recent smartphone or tablet (including iPhones and iPads), from many media players (including the iPod touch and iPod nano), from any recent Mac, and from some recent Windows PCs. You can use Bluetooth headphones with other devices by purchasing a Bluetooth transmitter, offered by a number of companies.
Most stereo-Bluetooth headphones also double as headsets, letting you seamlessly switch between music and voice features. And most tablets and smartphones let you control music playback using Play/Pause, Back, and Forward buttons on the Bluetooth headphones themselves. (The recommendations here all include such playback controls.)
Note that even though Bluetooth headphones connect wirelessly to your music source, they still require a wired connection between the left and right earpieces; for example, Bluetooth earbuds have a cable that goes behind your head. Recommendations:
- Plantronics BackBeat 903+ (earbuds with earclips; $80)
- Jabra Sport (earbuds with earclips; $99)
- JayBird Sportsband (on-ear; $99)
- Plantronics BackBeat Go (canalbuds; $100)
- JayBird Freedom Sprint (canalbuds; $129)
- Philips Bluetooth Stereo Headset SHB9100/28 (on-ear; $130)
- Sennheiser MM 100 (behind-the-neck lightweight; $150)
- AKG K 830 BT (on-ear; $200)
Noise-Canceling Headphones: If you’re not a fan of in-ear-canal headphones, but you want something that can filter out external noise such as airplane engines, train rumblings, or the hum of a crowd or noisy office, consider investing in a good set of active-noise-canceling headphones. These headphones sample outside sound and then pipe in an inverse audio signal to “cancel out” a good deal of monotonous noise. (For more on the technology and its limitations, see my review of noise-canceling models from a while back.) Although they don’t usually sound as good as comparably priced in-ear-canal headphones, noise-canceling models are easier to put on and take off, and they let you hear what’s going on around you.
Noise-canceling headphones are available in many of the same styles—canalbud, lightweight, full-size, and so on—as standard headphones, but I've found full-size models to provide the best combination of noise isolation, audio quality, and comfort. Recommendations:
- $159 Phiaton PS 210 BTNC (canalbuds; support wired and Bluetooth connections; $159)
- Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b (over-ear; $179)
- Logitech UE 6000 (over-ear; $200)
- Bose QuietComfort 15 (over-ear; $300)
- Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 (over-ear; $350)
- Bose QuietComfort 3 (on-ear; $350)
- Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000 (over-ear; $350)
R. Matthew Ward, Tony Silva, and J. Andrew Yang contributed to this article.
Updated 12/6/2012, 1pm, to add the Philips SHB9100/28 to the Bluetooth-headphones list.