Comparing reviews of headphones
There are a lot of different types of headphones, but the most obvious distinction is between true headphones -- which have cups that fit on top of or around your ears -- and earphones, which feature small speakers that poke inside your ear. For the most part, reviewers prefer over-the-ear headphones for comfort, for DJs, for airplane travel or for long listening sessions. If you are interested in lightweight earbuds and in-the-ear headphones, see our separate report on earphones.
There are hundreds of headphones out there to choose from, and almost as many people who would like to tell you which headphones to buy. The best starting point for headphone reviews is CNET, which maintains a list of its top five headphone choices as well as best full-size models, best noise-canceling headphones and best portable headphones. With CNET's rating system and bottom-line assessment, it's easy to compare models.
PCMag.com also does a great job of comparing the headphones it reviews with similar models, though some of the older reviews lack the detail of more recent ones. Online review sites also come through for us. ILounge.com, which reviews accessories for the iPod and iPhone, covers a nice array of headphones of all types and price ranges, and PC World (Australia) Good Gear Guide gives useful input with star ratings and pros and cons for each headphone. Britain's What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision magazine offers a balanced viewpoint to compare models, though its fun-to-read reviews are on the short side. Macworld and Laptop Magazine also provide coverage that's worth a read. Subscription-based consumer review organizations such as Which?, Choice and ConsumerReports.org all maintain comparisons of headphones.
We also take user reviews into consideration. While owners typically have experience with far fewer headphones than professional reviewers, they also have more insight into how well headphones satisfy over the long haul and how well they hold up. Amazon.com has hundreds of user reviews on the most popular headphones, and sites such as AudioReview.com solicit feedback from dedicated audiophiles.
That said, coverage of headphones can be sporadic, even on audiophile sites. Headphones are one branch of consumer electronics that hasn't seen much radical change in the past decade. Many well-regarded headphone models have been around a long time, making reviewers less likely to update their assessments on a regular basis. This applies to both extremes of the market: The expensive Sennheiser HD 650 (*Est. $500) headphones have been a top choice for quite some time (including earlier updates of this report), while the Koss PortaPro (*Est. $35) continues to be recommended as a good budget option, despite being virtually unchanged since the 1980s.
Experts say that choosing headphones requires not just product knowledge but also a degree of self-knowledge. Even if price is no object, a pair of $1,700 cans may be a lot more headphone than your ears, your equipment and your choice in music require. As with some other products -- wine or men's suits, for example -- there exists a level of craftsmanship that may go unnoticed by all but the most serious connoisseur, and if you're not such a person, paying that much just doesn't make sense. Most audiophile experts say that if you can't hear the difference, don't spend the extra money. We found excellent reviews for good general-purpose headphones in the $50 to $100 price range.