You know a product is hot when the fashion industry makes it a wildly overpriced accessory. Earlier this year, jewel-encrusted headphones from the Italian designers Dolce & Gabbana showed up on runways with a price tag of almost $8,000. But you don’t have to sacrifice months of mortgage payments to find top headphones.
Our in-depth tests of more than 150 headphones identified 28 models that offer great sound for less than $200. All of them should be a big step up from the freebies that might have come with your phone. To choose the top headphones, ask yourself the following questions.
What’s your idea of comfort?
Some people love to wear turtlenecks, but others feel as if they’re being strangled by them. Comfort is just as subjective when it comes to headphones. Many listeners are comfortable wearing insert-style earphones that go into the ear canal, or earbuds that rest in the bowl of the ear, but others find them irritating. (Switching to a different-sized tip can help.) Some users prefer on-ear or over-ear headphones (picture earmuffs). But others balk at their bulk or complain that they interfere with eyeglasses or earrings. Also, they can make your ears hot and sweaty, especially if you wear them for a long stretch.
Are they mainly for exercising?
Almost two-thirds of headphone users wear them while working out, according to the research firm NPD. For vigorous activity, you want headphones that will stay in place and stand up to sweat or rain. Check out these great workout headphones.
One to consider: the Scosche SportClip 3, $30, which is billed as splashproof and dustproof. It has bendable ear clips that fit around the ear, a plus if you’re bouncing along a bumpy road or bending down to grab a barbell. The Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless, $200, has a built-in heart-rate monitor that uses a sensor in one of the earbuds. It works with a free app for Android and Apple devices. Readings are quite accurate, according to our tests.
Do you hate cords?
Most headphones connect to devices with a cord, but we’re seeing more wireless headphones that can save you from flapping cords and annoying tangles. Five Bluetooth models in our Ratings can operate up to 30 feet from a device. Keep in mind that they run on batteries, and it can be a pain if the batteries conk out during a long trip.
Are you an in-ear or over-ear fan?
To figure out which one you are, consider the advantages of each type. For on-the-go listening, you might want headphones small enough to stash in a pocket or purse. Earbuds or inserts are as teeny as they come. Recommended models include the Sennheiser CX 215, $40, and the Panasonic RP-TCM125, $20.
If you’re the talkative type, consider headphones that double as a phone headset. Bose FreeStyle earbuds, $130, are highly rated and have a built-in microphone and in-line controls for switching from music to a call with the press of a button—no need to grab the phone.
Headphone size is less of a concern at home, so on-ear and over-ear models are good choices for enjoying music or movies. (You’ll see plenty of people sporting big DJ-style headphones in public, too.) Among the top headphones in this price range are the over-ear Grado SR225e, $200, and the on-ear Grado SR80e, $100, both of which have excellent sound.
Either of those designs is a good choice for serious music listening. Most of the excellent-sounding headphones in our Ratings are over-ear and on-ear models. On the other hand, if you listen mostly to MP3 music or audiobooks, top sound quality may not be as critical. In that case, you can save some bucks by choosing a lower-priced model with very good sound.
To block out chatty seatmates on a plane or prevent late-night listening from disturbing others, you’ll want headphones with a sound-isolating design. Ear inserts, such as the Sennheiser and Panasonic mentioned above, fit snugly inside the ear. Closed, over-ear headphones such as the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x, $170, which enclose the ear, also block outside sound and keep your music to yourself. To go a step further, consider a model that uses electronic noise-canceling technology (below).
This article also appeared in the October 2015 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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