Shopping for a new set of headphones can be a daunting task, given the wide array of styles, types, and prices. But it doesn't have to be—and we're here to help. If you can answer these five questions, you'll be well on your way to finding a set of headphones, earphones, or earbuds that should provide years of sonic enjoyment.
Before hitting the list below, here are a few things to consider. One is that there are great headphones for nearly every budget, so don't give up on good sound because you think you can't afford it. But also remember that you might not need a pricier set of 'phones that can reveal every ounce of detail if you're mainly listening to compressed mp3s or less-than-pristine YouTube videos.
Also, the model you choose has to be comfortable, especially if you tend to wear your headphones for extended periods of time. That may lead you to choose one type instead of another. For example, I personally can't wear in-ear earphones for more than 15 or 20 minutes without them becoming excruciatingly painful, so even my portables are on-ear models. You may decide to own several sets of headphones, depending on whether you're listening at home or on the go. My go-to cans at home are large, over-the-ear models that are really too large to lug around.
Finally, for many of us headphones have become as much a fashion item as a piece of audio gear. That's fine, but you don't have to sacrifice decent sound for an eye-catching design, though you're likely to pay a bit more cash for the extra flash.
Enough said. Here's our list of questions that should help narrow down your choices.
1. Will you be using the headphones primarily with a phone or tablet? If so, then pay attention to the headphone's sensitivity and the controls built into the inline remote control. Sensitivity is a measure of how much power it takes to drive the headphones to satisfying volume levels. Since most portable devices have much less power than a home A/V receiver, you should look for a model with at least medium sensitivity, although a model with medium-high or high sensitivity will alleviate most concerns. If you want to use the headphones to receive and disconnect phone calls, make sure the headphone's inline remote control has a built-in microphone and buttons that let you answer and disconnect calls without having to dig your phone out of a pocket, bag, or knapsack. You may also want to consider a wireless model that can connect to your phone via Bluetooth rather than a wire.
2. Will you be using them in a noisy environment? Then you'll probably want a model that can either block out some external noise, or one with active noise cancellation. Most in-ear earphones, which are jammed into the ear canal, and closed, over-ear headphones (sometimes called circumaural headphones) do a decent job of blocking out external sounds. Models with active noise cancellation use tiny microphones that capture the frequencies of incoming noise, and use battery-powered electronic circuitry to create out-of-phase frequencies to "cancel" the noise. Our headphone Ratings for noise-canceling models include a rating for sound quality and noise reduction.
3. Will you be using them while working out or engaging in active sports? If you will, you'll need earphones or earbuds that will stay in place during vigorous motion. Some models have special eartips or bands that provide a secure, snug fit, and more models now have water- and sweat-resistant materials or coatings that repel moisture and allow them to be washed after strenuous workouts.
Find the best model for your needs and budget: Check our headphone buying guide and Ratings.
4. Is fashion important? It seems to be for many of us these days. If so, choose a model that satisfies your fashion sense without sacrificing good sound. Just be aware that you're likely pay a bit—or even a lot—more for a fashion-oriented or celebrity-endorsed model such as the ever-present Beats by Dre models.
5. Will I get more if I pay more? In some cases that's true, although there are exceptions. If you look at our stereo headphone Ratings, many of the top models are high-priced. For example, among the home/studio models, the Grado Prestige 325i ($300), B&W P7 ($400), and HiFiMan HE-400 ($300) are all relatively expensive. But Grado's SR80i and SR60i headphones cost $100 and $80, respectively, and are CR Best Buy recommendations. (These headphones are still on the market, but they have just been replaced by the newer SR80e and SR60e models—at the same prices—which are currently being testing in our headphone lab.) Among portable models, the Panasonic RP-TCM125 has very good sound—something many higher-priced models don't achieve—and costs only $10. But the exception is noise-canceling models, where many of the models that have excellent or very good sound and noise reduction tend to cost cost more, typically between $280 and $400. But even there, you can find a model with very good sound and excellent noise cancellation—the Monoprice Noise-Canceling Headphone—for a little over $100.
Just remember that comfort is going to be extremely important in your choice, especially if you tend to use your headphones or earphones for extended periods of time. It's no good to love your headphones' sound if you can't stand wearing them for more than 10 minutes at a clip. When you have a chance, you should try all different types—in-ear, earbuds, on-ear, and over-the-ear models—to see which feel the best on your ears. And if you're buying online, try to find a retailer that will at least let you exchange the model you purchase if you find that it's just not comfortable enough to use regularly.
—James K. Willcox
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