Small heads, safe ears: The best headphones for kids

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At a Glance
  • Sony MDR-222KD Children's Headphones

  • Kidz Gear KidzControl Wired Headphones for Kids

  • Griffin Technology Crayola MyPhones headphones

  • MarBlue HeadFoams Foam Headphones for Kids

  • JLab Audio, Inc. JBuddies Kids Volume Limiting Headphones

  • Lil Gadgets Untangled Pro Children's Wireless Bluetooth Headphones

  • Fuhu, Inc. Nabi Headphones

It’s back-to-school time, and one thing that’s struck me over the past few years is how our kids’ school-supply lists have changed. Sure, they still include pencils, crayons, and markers—though not as many as before—as well as requests for tissues, hand sanitizer, and other classroom sundries. But these days, our lists also include headphones. Every student is expected to bring his or her own headphones.

This isn’t too surprising, as more and more schools are using iPads and laptops as part of the curriculum, and teachers want students to be able to hear lessons and work on projects without disturbing each other. Still, it’s telling that headphones are in, and binder paper is largely out.

But after volunteering in my kids’ classrooms over the past three years, I can tell you that when it comes to children, not all headphones are created equal. The best headphones for adults are rarely the best models for kids, for a number of reasons:

Style and fit: Earbuds and in-ear headphones are likely the most popular types of headphones, but they aren’t always the best for kids. For starters, in-ear models often don’t fit kids’ smaller ears. And even if you can find in-ear headphones specifically designed for a child, they can be difficult to put in and take out, and they can hamper your son or daughter’s ability to hear teachers or classroom volunteers.

In-ear headphones and earbuds also come with some degree of “ick” factor—they sit inside your ears, after all—and these models tend to get even nastier when used by kids who aren’t as careful as adults at keeping the things clean: Combine the usual ear detritus with dirty floors and desks, and you get earbuds that no one wants to handle.

Finally, I’ve seen too many earbuds and in-ear headphones get crushed under little feet when they’ve fallen on the floor, or been wedged between heavy books in backpacks.

For these reasons, I generally recommend on- or over-ear headphones, which are easy to put on and take off, and often more durable. However, you’ll find that very few standard models fit younger children well, even at the smallest setting. Kids’ heads are smaller than ours, so they need headphones designed for smaller noggins.

Durability: In a perfect world, any decent set of headphones would be sturdy enough to withstand a few drops, some cable bends and strain, and the occasional yank-them-out-of-a-backpack headband bending. But we live in the real world: Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a set of headphones break or a cable fail, even though you thought you treated the headphones well.

mess of headphones
A mess of kid-friendly headphones, organized in classic kid style

Children tend to be even rougher on their gear than adults, and their headphones are often lugged around in backpacks filled with books and other can-crushing items, so kids headphones need to be designed with kid-level abuse in mind.

Volume level Hearing damage from loud volume levels is a risk for anyone listening to headphones, but children are especially susceptible, as they’re less aware of the dangers and, in my experience, more willing to put up with too-loud audio rather than turning it down. Specifically, the CDC recommends avoiding extended exposure to volume levels above 85dB.

You can use iOS’s volume-limit feature to cap the maximum audio output of an iPhone or iPad, but that feature isn’t available on Macs, and if your child is using a device you don’t manage, it may not have the volume limit set. It also doesn’t account for the varying sensitivity of individual headphones—the optimum volume-level setting for one set of headphones might produce volume that’s too loud on another set, and not loud enough on another. And, of course, kids are resourceful, and eventually they’ll figure out how to get around this setting.

A better solution is a set of kid-focused headphones that includes circuitry to limit output volume to 85dB, no matter how high the volume is cranked up on the source. While testing headphones for this review, I used an Ear3 meter to measure actual volume levels at the ear. (The Ear3 measures loudness in dBA—A-weighted decibles—which refers to a method of measuring noise levels that approximates the loudness perceived by the human ear.)

frakes kid headphone testing
One of my headphone-testing assistants

Volume-limited headphones do have a couple drawbacks. First, the volume-limiting circuitry usually affects sound quality noticeably. Specifically, treble can sound muffled, bass is sometimes emphasized, and midrange is just a bit off. The second is that in some noisy environments, such as a car, train, or plane, volume-limited headphones may be unusable—your kids won’t be able to hear the headphone audio because of background noise. The solution, however, isn’t to use non-limited headphones, which will subject your kids’ ears to potentially damaging sound levels when turned up loud enough to be audible in these environments. Rather, it’s to make the environment quieter, or to use headphones that block external noise or include active noise-canceling circuitry.

A family affair

I, along with a 1st-grader and a 3rd-grader, tested seven sets of full-size headphones designed specifically for kids. My kids helped me evaluate each model’s fit, comfort, and ease of use, while I evaluated sound quality and general fit and finish. Unfortunately, I couldn’t perform long-term tests for what may be the most-common headphone failure: cable and cable-connection issues. But all five models survived a few weeks of kid-level use. (If, during subsequent use, any of the models fail, I’ll be sure to update this article.) All seven models connect using a standard 3.5mm (1/8-inch) headphone plug; one also can connect using Bluetooth. They’re listed here from least to most expensive.

Sony MDR–222KD Children’s Headphones

Sony’s $15 MDR–222KD, available in pink or black, is essentially a kid-sized version of traditional lightweight, portable headphones. The thin, plastic headband hosts small earpieces with small, foam earpads; at just under two ounces, the MDR–222KD is the lightest of the headphones here.

As with some of the other models, the 222KD fits a wide range of head sizes, from toddler to adult—you get a whopping four extra inches of headband length with the earpieces fully extended. The headphone cable is four feet long.

sony mdr 222kd headphones
Sony’s MDR–222KD

Its light weight keeps the 222KD’s hard-plastic headband from being too uncomfortable on the top of the head, though my kids still wished the headband had some padding. The earpad foam is a bit scratchy, but overall quite comfortable, as the headphone doesn’t grip the head too tightly, even on large adult heads.

However, the foam earpads make this a very open design—the 222KD doesn’t block any external noise, and others can hear what you’re listening to, even at moderate volume levels. The former means that kids will be more likely to turn the volume up, and the 222KD’s volume-limiting circuitry doesn’t actually limit volume to the “safe” limit of 85dBA. Though Sony doesn’t explicitly state the volume limit of the headphone, instead claiming only “low volume levels,” my Ear3 meter showed that the headphone regularly reached volumes over 90dBA when connected to an iPhone playing music with the volume level at the maximum. (“Only” 5dBA of difference may not seems like much, but the decible scale is logarithmic, so 90dBA is considerably louder than 85dBA.)

As for sound quality, the 222KD sounds much like an inexpensive, portable headphone—the kind that used to ship with Sony Walkman and Discman players. (Since many readers of this review are likely parents, I think it’s safe to mention such devices here.) Audio is tinny, thanks to a relative abundance of treble detail paired with recessed midrange and little real bass. Overall, the 222KD’s audio quality was one of the worst of the bunch, befitting the model’s budget-minded price tag.

Kid comments: “The foam on the earpads was very comfortable, but the top felt like something was poking me, so I didn’t like that part.” Said the headband feels stiff and plasticky.

Kidz Gear KidzControl

Thanks to a thin, plastic headband with a split-band design, Kidz Gear’s $20 KidzControl Volume Limit Headphones is the second-lightest of the headphones I tested, at just 3.6 ounces including the volume-limiting adapter (more on that in a bit). The headband is hard and uncomfortable, though the small earpads are soft and pleasant on the ears. The KidzControl fits kids as young as two years, but its earpieces extend far enough to fit my adult head. The headphone is available in pink, orange, blue, green, purple, and white; the company also offers a $30 wireless version (which I didn’t test).

kidz gear kidz control headphones
Kidz Gear’s Wired Headphones for Kids

Each earpiece folds into the headband slightly, though not enough to significantly reduce the size of the headphone for travel. The all-plastic design feels a bit flimsy, but I subjected the headband to a good amount of reasonable twisting and bending, and it handled that limited abuse just fine.

Oddly, instead of incorporating volume-limiting circuitry into the headphone itself, Kidz Gear provides it via a 7-inch adapter cable that you connect in between your volume source and the KidzControl’s headphone cable. (The KidzControl’s built-in cable also feature an inline, rotary-dial volume controller.) With the adapter in place, the headphones were indeed restricted to safe levels, with volume only occasionally reaching 85dBA with iPhone volume at the max. Without the adapter, sound levels regularly passed 90dBA, sometimes reaching as high as 100dBA.

For a headphone aimed at children, I find the use of a separate adapter to be puzzling. If your child loses the adapter—or purposely removes it to get louder volume levels—you’ve lost the ear safety provided by the volume-limited circuitry.

The KidzControl produces audio that’s roughly on a par with the Sony model, above, just with different limitations: The KidzControl sounds more muffled, with less treble detail and more midrange emphasis, similar to that of the JBuddies, below. Bass response is meager, and midrange sounds a bit hollow and echoey. Interestingly, I didn’t hear much difference in sound quality between the volume-limiting and non-limiting configurations—just a bit more muffling in the treble with the adapter in place.

Kidz Gear also offers a couple useful accessories: a $6 headphone splitter that lets two kids listen to the same source, and a $6, lightly padded carrying bag.

Kid comments: The least comfortable of the bunch. “The earpads are soft, but the headphones are hard to put on because the earpieces flip around a lot. And the top hurts my head because it’s really hard – it felt like something was digging into the top of my head.” Doesn’t block any sound.

Griffin Technology Crayola MyPhones

Thanks to big earpieces, available in blue or dark-pink, Griffin’s $25 Crayola MyPhones is one of the larger models I tested—on the youngest of kids, the faux-leather earpads may even surround the ears, rather than sit on them. The pea-green headband is made of hard plastic with no padding, but the headphones are light enough overall (about five ounces) that neither of my kids complained about comfort, even after a couple hours watching a movie.

Each earpiece is connected to the headband by thin, metal rails—the only metal on the headphone—and tilts up and down a few degrees for a better fit. Though the overall appearance is decidedly kid focused, and the headphone fits children as young as two or three years old, the earpieces extend enough that many adults will be able to wear the headphones, as well. (Your kids will likely outgrow the MyPhones’ design before outgrowing the headphones themselves.) The headphone cable is four feet long.

griffin myphones 2
Griffin Technology’s MyPhones

The outer surface of each earpiece is quite plain, but that’s because each package includes roughly 30 stickers: four round ones that each cover the entire outer surface of an earpiece, a sheet of 22 or 24 smaller ones (depending on the model color) that can be applied to the earpieces and headband, and three blanks (two round for covering the earpieces, and one long, thin one for the headband). Kids can decorate the blank stickers using three included Crayola fine-tip markers. Alas, the stickers and packaging are stuck in traditional gender roles: The blue model, which shows a boy on its packaging, includes stickers with flames, lightning bolts, skateboards, surfboards, guitars, and monsters; the pink model shows a girl on the packaging and includes stickers with hearts, flowers, and butterflies. The blue model includes red, blue, and green markers; the pink model includes pink, purple, and yellow. For such a 21st-century product, the design and packaging feels decidedly mid–20th-century.

That said, I can tell you that, before even trying them on, the MyPhones were the headphones my kids were most excited about, thanks to the decorative opportunities. (One of my two girls prefers blue over pink, so each was happy.)

Griffin claims the volume-limiting circuitry restricts volume levels to approximately 85dBA. Using the Ear3, I verified that when connected to my source iPhone at maximum volume, the audio output occasionally reached the “borderline safe” level of 85dBA, but the majority of the time, audio was actually in the 75dBA to 84dBA range, making the MyPhones the quietest headphone here. Sound isolation, however, is minimal, despite the large, soft earpads, which means that in loud environments, your kids may have trouble hearing headphone audio.

The MyPhones is one of the better-sounding headphones in this group, with good (if a bit too prominent) bass, midrange that doesn’t sound too hollow or echoey, and okay treble response. Audio is unquestionably worse than with a decent set of non-volume-limited headphones, but this was one of the two headphones of the bunch (along with the Nabi, below) where I didn’t feel like my kids were giving up decent audio quality for the sake of ear safety. For their part, my kids, who haven’t yet been cursed with a desire for stellar sound, thought the MyPhones sounded great.

(Griffin Technology also sells the $20 KaZoo MyPhones, which appear to be identical except that each sports an animal theme—frog or penguin—rather than a DIY-design theme.)

Kid comments: The second-most comfortable. “I like the ear pads. They’re very cushiony and comfy. Two things I don’t like is that the headband is kind of hard, so it kind of hurts my head, and they don’t go all the way around my ears, so they don’t block out a lot of noise.”

At a Glance
  • Sony MDR-222KD Children's Headphones

  • Kidz Gear KidzControl Wired Headphones for Kids

  • Griffin Technology Crayola MyPhones headphones

  • MarBlue HeadFoams Foam Headphones for Kids

  • JLab Audio, Inc. JBuddies Kids Volume Limiting Headphones

  • Lil Gadgets Untangled Pro Children's Wireless Bluetooth Headphones

  • Fuhu, Inc. Nabi Headphones

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