The sound is nothing short of phenomenal, and the adjustable noise cancellation works very well. In-line mic for phone calls and in-line volume control.
Expensive. Those who brave the sticker shock love them, though.
These headphones stand out for noise cancellation and comfort. Nice sound range and up to 80 hrs. of battery life. Reasonable price.
Made from plastic and don't feel particularly durable. The sound is a bit tinny for some listeners' taste.
These headphones connect to your entertainment system wirelessly and have a 100 ft. range. People with hearing loss rave about them.
Occasional durability complaints. A bit bulky to use during workouts.
Offer impressive features and capabilities for an affordable price, including balanced sound, decent noise cancellation, and Bluetooth connectivity. Available in several fun colors.
On the bulky side, but still comfortable for most wearers. Sound occasionally cuts out for unknown reasons. Some longevity concerns noted.
Top-notch audio quality from a well-known brand in the industry of sound. Rechargeable, up to 14 hrs. playtime. 3 color options. Aluminum and leather look good and wear comfortably.
Expensive. Some reports of Bluetooth issues and other quirks.
We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
Technology has changed our lives in some pretty big ways – nowadays, it’s hard to imagine leaving the house without at least a few of our most important gadgets. New tech categories are sprouting up out of nowhere; ten years ago, no one had ever heard of a smartwatch, and now you see them everywhere you go. But there’s one tech category that’s remained essential all along: headphones.
Whether you wear headphones for your daily commute, regular workouts, or just for jamming out at home, you need a good pair that’s comfortable and can make everything sound great. Headphone tech has evolved significantly, too, so some pairs can do a lot more than just play sound. It’s not tough to find a pair that can connect to your smartphone wirelessly, or one that can keep outside commotion out.
Here’s everything you need to know to pick the right headphones for you – the different form factors, the coolest new features, and the best deals on our favorite models. We’ve even included several of our favorites to make your shopping even easier.
There are thousands of different headphones to choose from, and that can get overwhelming pretty quickly. Before you consider any specific models, start with these questions. Your answers will help point you in the right direction.
Will you use your headphones while exercising?
If you’re buying a pair of headphones for an activity that involves moving a lot, start by looking at earbuds with over-the-ear hooks: they’re designed to stay in place no matter what you’re doing. If you’re a swimmer, start your search with waterproof models.
Do you prefer the convenience of wireless headphones or the audio fidelity of wired headphones?
There’s a lot of debate in the headphone world about wireless audio. Wireless standards like Bluetooth are capable of making music sound great, but because Bluetooth relies on data compression, it will never sound quite as good as a wired connection. The big question is, with the improvements in Bluetooth, can anyone tell the difference anymore between Bluetooth audio and wired audio? We’re skeptical that the difference is meaningful, so here’s our best advice: if you’re an audiophile who cares about hearing music in high fidelity, you’ll probably be better off with a set of wired headphones; if you need everything to sound great but prefer the convenience of wireless connections, go for a pair of Bluetooth headphones.
Will you be using your headphones for making phone calls?
If you want to make phone calls with your headphones, get a pair with an in-line mic. Tiny in-line microphones sit on the headphone wire near your mouth and allow you to talk on the phone without having to use your phone’s microphone.
Leader of the pack
If you’ve been on an airplane in the last few years, you’ve probably seen the Bose QuietComfort noise-cancelling headphones before: they’re a favorite of regular travelers because they’re so good at keeping outside noise out. They’re comfortable, they sound incredible, and the noise cancellation is so impressive that you feel like you’re in your own personal bubble. These headphones are not cheap, but they’re definitely worth the money.
As you’re browsing the headphone market, you’ll quickly find that they come in all shapes and sizes. Here’s a quick guide to the most common headphone form factors.
Over-the-ear: These are the headphones that have been around the longest. They have two big, cushiony speakers that cover both ears and are connected on top by a plastic band. If you’re a fan of the classic “cans” headphones from the 1970s and ‘80s, you’ll love the modern versions of these.
Headsets: These are headphones that include a microphone, usually on a small boom. These aren’t typically great for music, but they make phone calls a snap. If you spend hours on the phone for work, or you’re an avid gamer, a headset is your best and most comfortable bet.
Earbuds: These small headphones fit snugly inside your ear. Earbuds are ultra portable, and if you can get a pair with the right fit, they can sound just as good as other conventional headphones. If you like discreet headphones, or you just need a pair that’s easy to keep with you wherever you go, consider getting a pair of earbuds.
Wireless and truly wireless: These connect to your devices using Bluetooth, so you’re never physically tethered to your smartphone, tablet, or computer. Wireless headphones don’t use a wire to connect to an audio source, but they do use a wire to connect the two earpieces together. In contrast, “truly” wireless headphones come as two separate earpieces that don’t need wires to connect to anything. Wireless headphones are incredibly affordable; truly wireless headphones can cost anywhere from $100 to $400.
If you’re a swimmer, consider getting a pair of waterproof headphones. Waterproof headphones can withstand a decent amount of moisture – just don’t keep them submerged for too long.
If you’ll be traveling with your headphones, get a carrying case. Keep your earphones safe and don’t just stuff them in a bag where they can get accidentally damaged.
The most important feature of headphones is how they sound, so you should always let your ears pick the ones they like best. But if you’re looking for headphones that can do a little more, keep your eyes peeled for some of our favorite features.
Noise cancellation: Noise-cancelling headphones play specific tones, much like white noise, to cancel out all of the sound around you and allow you to enjoy your music uninterrupted. Noise-cancellation is an active process, so headphones with this feature require batteries. If you’re a frequent flyer, or if you’ve got a noisy commute to work each day, you’ll love noise-cancelling headphones: they’re fantastic at keeping the cacophony of the outside world at bay.
In-line: Some headphones include a small microphone built in to one of the wires. With an in-line microphone, you can make phone calls without having to hold your phone up to your face, which is incredibly convenient.
Digital assistant compatibility: These days, it’s kind of a rite of passage for any tech gear to be compatible with voice-controlled digital assistants, and headphones are no exception. Certain high-end headphones include a microphone that you can use with voice commands to conjure up your favorite digital assistant, but you’ll need to make sure your smartphone is compatible. For example, if you own a Samsung Galaxy S8 phone (or newer version), you can use certain headphones to execute specific voice commands on your phone, such as “Check weather.”
EQ controls: Equalization, more commonly referred to as EQ, controls the different aspects of sound that come through your headphones, and some headphones come with custom apps that let you adjust the EQ in granular detail. With the right EQ controls, you can add more treble, bump up the bass, or just create a sound profile that’s suited to your tastes. If you’re into customizing how your music sounds, look for headphones that work with an EQ app.
Wireless and noise-cancelling headphones rely on batteries to power key features. Most have non-removable batteries that you need to charge with a USB cable, but some rely on AA or AAA batteries. As you compare models, check what type of batteries they use, so you’ll know how to keep them charged when needed.
Inexpensive: Most casual users can find a good pair of headphones for between $20 and $50. Headphones in this price range sound great, include key features like an in-line microphone, and often support wireless Bluetooth connections. If you’re looking for a reliable set of headphones and you don’t need much more than audio, you don’t need to spend more than $50.
Mid-range: Many headphones that cost between $50 and $130 include improved sound and useful smartphone integration (like custom EQ controls). In this price range, you’ll also see a big jump in the quality of materials used, which improves both the sound and the luxury of each pair. If you need a pair of well-made headphones with basic noise cancellation, you’ll need to spend at least this much.
Expensive: Audiophile-grade headphones can cost anywhere between $130 and $2,000. Headphones in this price bracket are no joke: they create impressive soundscapes, are robust enough for use in a recording studio, and they’re just plain beautiful. If you need a pair of headphones for critical listening, or you simply want the best headphones around, it’ll cost you.
Affordable noise cancellation
The Sony noise-cancelling headphones are a tiny miracle. They’re great at blocking the outside world, so you’ll hear your music and nothing else – at a price point that’s less than $50. Wired headphones can be a tough sell for those who’ve grown accustomed to wire-free listening, but if you’re all right with a wired connection, this pair is an easy choice.
If you want headphones for gaming or watching movies, get some that support multi-channel surround sound. Some high-end headphones include technology that simulates surround sound, so sound effects feel like they’re coming from different directions. These headphones do a surprisingly good job at replicating the home theater experience and create an immersive experience for listeners. If you’re into big-budget blockbusters or first-person shooters and don’t have the room for a full-blown surround sound system, go for the next best thing and get headphones that support multi-channel audio.
If you’ll mostly be using headphones at your desk, install a headphone hook so you can safely stow yours when you’re not using them. Headphones can be fairly fragile, so it’s important to take care of yours and avoid tossing them around. A headphone hook gives your favorite pair a place to hang and creates a fun conversation piece for your workstation.
While Apple’s AirPods get a lot of attention for how well they work with other Apple products, there’s actually a more affordable option that’s just as tightly integrated: the Beats BeatsX Earphones. Apple owns the Beats brand, and it’s built the BeatsX earphones with the same W1 chip that’s in the AirPods. That means that the user experience is virtually identical – iOS makes it super easy to pair them with any iPhone or iPad. Our favorite part is they have a Fast Fuel feature, so when your battery is low, plugging them in for five minutes provides two hours of talk time. We’re also big fans of the COWIN E7 Headphones. They’re wireless, they’ve got on-board noise cancellation, and they can last up to 30 hours on a single charge. The E7’s have an impressive spec sheet for any price point, but the fact that they’re so affordable makes them an even better value. If you’re looking for affordable over-the-ear headphones that don’t make any compromises, this is the pair to get.
Q. How long do the batteries last on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones?
A. It depends. Noise-cancelling headphones use active technology to play unique frequencies that block outside noises, and depending on which model you buy, the battery can last anywhere from 15 to 40 hours. If you’re using a set of wireless headphones, the battery will be used for both noise cancellation and wireless connectivity, so expect the battery to deplete faster if you’re using both.
Q. How can I be certain a pair of earbuds will fit well in my ears?
A. It can be difficult, so buy earbuds that include silicone tips in multiple sizes. Everyone’s ears are unique, so most earbud manufactures include small, medium, and large silicone tips that you can easily swap out. If you want a particularly snug fit, consider getting third-party earphone tips made of memory foam, which will always adjust to the contours of your ears.
Q. Why do some headphones list NFC as a connectivity option?
A. Near-field communication, better known as NFC, is a wireless connectivity protocol similar to Bluetooth. NFC uses less power than Bluetooth and is faster when pairing devices, but it only has a range of about four inches. Some headphones use NFC technology to drive the process of pairing headphones with smartphones, but because of the range, it’s not used to transmit sound. While both Android phones and iPhones include NFC chips, it’s not accessible in Apple devices, so if you want a pair of headphones with NFC, you’ll need to own an Android phone to take advantage of the faster pairing.
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