If you’re looking to improve the audio coming from your iPod, iPhone, or Mac, a new set of headphones is probably the most rewarding upgrade you can make. However, as with speakers, the variety of styles and options is wider than ever—and the opportunities for testing even fewer. To help you find the perfect set of headphones, here’s a quick rundown of the different types on the market, the pros and cons of each type, and some of our favorites at various prices. (Prices listed are MSRP; you can find many of these models for significantly less.)
Whichever model you choose, don’t forget the basics of hearing protection.
Earbuds, the type of headphones included with every iPod and iPhone, sit loosely in your outer ears. Although earbuds don’t produce outstanding sound, they’re compact and relatively inexpensive. Apple’s stock ‘buds are actually decent as earbuds go; you’re not going to get a big upgrade in sound quality by simply replacing them with a different set. Still, there are a few alternatives out there that provide modest improvements.
As a side note, if you’re going to spend the big bucks on a set of high-end canalphones, we enthusiastically recommend going all-in and getting custom earmolds—eartips custom-made for your particular ears. The benefits are substantial: better comfort, better noise isolation, and better sound quality. Many canalphone vendors offer custom earmolds, which require a trip to an audiologist to get impressions of your ear taken, for around $150.
(See our recent canalbuds review roundup for more options.)
Full-size headphones fall into two categories: closed and open. Closed models block out some degree of external noise. Open models, which many people prefer sonically, let noise in and out. One thing to keep in mind when shopping for full-size headphones: to reach their potential, many require more juice than you get from the headphone jack of an iPod, iPhone, or computer; the models recommended here all work well when run directly from your portable player or Mac.
One caveat when it comes to canalbud- and canalphone-style headsets: Because these models partially or fully block your ear canal, a phenomenon called the occlusion effect can make your own voice sound—to yourself—oddly booming when you’re talking on the phone.
(We reviewed several iPhone headsets last year; we’ve currently got another roundup in the works.)
[Senior Editor Dan Frakes reviews iPod, iPhone, and audio gear for Macworld.]