Buying Guide: Find the best headphones

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Headphone types and recommendations

Literally thousands of headphone models are out there, varying dramatically in style, audio quality, features, and price. But nearly all of them 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 across a range of prices. (Prices listed are MSRP; you can find many of these models at significantly lower prices.) I’ve noted which models include an inline remote/microphone module.

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.)

Bang & Olufsen’s EarSet 3i

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 ear. Some also include earclips for a more-secure fit. Although earbuds don’t generally produce outstanding sound, they’re conveniently 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, you can find a few better-sounding alternatives if you want a new set, or if your non-Apple device shipped with something mediocre. Recommendations:

Westone ADV
Westone’s Adventure Series ADV Alpha

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:

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.)

Velodyne Pulse
Velodyne’s vPulse

Canalbuds: Canalbuds occupy a middle ground—in price, fit, and performance—between earbuds and in-ear-canal (canalphone) models. Compared to canalphones, canalbuds generally use smaller eartips that sit just inside the ends of your ear canals, instead of deep in them, making canalbuds more comfortable for many people. In terms of audio performance and noise isolation, canalbuds easily best earbuds, though they tend to fall short of good canalphones. (See our in-ear-canal-headphone primer, linked above, for more information on canalbuds.)

Interestingly, the line between canalphones and canalbuds has been blurring recently, as some canalbuds are starting to fit more like in-ear-canal models and use higher-quality components, while some canalphones are starting to fit more like canalbuds. Recommendations:

Koss’s Porta Pro KTC

Lightweight Headphones: These portable and (usually) reasonably priced headphones use substantially 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 for a more-secure fit—these earclip models are often good for use when exercising. Some lightweight headphones fold up for easier packing. Although many lightweight headphones produce mediocre sound, there are a number of standouts. Recommendations:

B&W P7 headphones
B&W’s P7

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 what you buy if it doesn’t fit well).

In terms of acoustic design, 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 (the circumaural, or over-ear style) or sit on your ears (supra-aural, or on-ear). Over-ear models are larger and tend to block out more sound, but people with large ears may find on-ear models to be more comfortable than trying to squeeze those ears into the earpieces of over-ear models. Our recommendations below are divided into on-ear and over-ear lists.

Note that to reach their potential, many full-size models require more juice than you’ll get from a basic headphone jack. Those recommended here work well with the low-power headphone jacks on phones, tablets, iPods, and computers. (To expand your options to harder-to-drive models, consider a dedicated headphone amplifier or DAC/amp combo.) Recommendations:

On-ear full-size headphones

Over-ear full-size headphones

Jabra Revo Wireless
Jabra’s Revo Wireless

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 or 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, from many media players, 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 include a headset microphone, letting you seamlessly switch between music and voice features. And most tablets and smartphones let you control music playback using Play/Pause, Previous, and Next buttons on the 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:

PSB’s M4U 2 noise-canceling headphones

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:

Tony Silva, R. Matthew Ward, and J. Andrew Yang contributed to this article.

[Editor’s note: This is an updated edition of our annual buying guide. Among other changes, it includes new recommendations and omits previously recommended products that are no longer available.]

Note: When you purchase something after clicking links in our articles, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate link policy for more details.
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