Grado SR80i
Grado SR80i

Best-value full-size headphones

The Grado SR80i headphones score points in reviews where it counts -- sound quality, including detail and natural sound across all frequencies. Overall sound is described as lively and open, though some reviewers say the high ranges don't quite match up to the quality of the midranges. The bass response of the Grado SR80i is excellent, reviewers write. Also be aware that these are open-style headphones, meaning sound leaks in and out. Some don't like the retro styling of the Grado SR80i headphones, and others warn you might need to bend the headband to get a comfortable fit. However, reviewers are unanimous on the headphones' value.
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*Est. $100 Estimated Price
Koss PortaPro
Koss PortaPro

Lightweight headphones

Koss PortaPro headphones have been around forever, but remain many reviewers' top pick for lightweight listening thanks to their excellent sound for the price, clever folding mechanism for travel and lifetime warranty. In particular, reviewers note the Koss PortaPro's stellar bass response and comfortable feel. The styling dates from the 1980s and looks like it, reports say, and the headband can get caught in hair. Like many on-the-ear headphones, Koss PortaPros allow sound to leak in and out.
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Koss KSC75
Koss KSC75

Budget headphones

Many reviewers are impressed with the detail and richness of the clip-on Koss KSC75 headphones, which hook individually over the backs of your ears rather than being attached to a headband. Bass is strong, though some feel higher frequencies suffer from lack of refinement. Sound will leak in and out, so these aren't a good choice for a library. In spite of the unusual design, most reviewers find them comfortable. Users complain that the ear clips tend to fall off, but if you lose one, Koss will replace it under its lifetime warranty.
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Bose QuietComfort 15
Bose QuietComfort 15

Best noise-canceling headphones

The Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones currently get the most attention among noise-canceling models. This type of headphone uses special technology to eliminate ambient noise so you can hear music better. Reviewers say the QuietComfort 15 (also known as the QC 15) headphones do a great job of filtering out ambient noise, especially low tones like the drone of airplane engines. However, these Bose headphones are not as light or portable as their brandmates, such as the Bose QuietComfort 3 (*Est. $350). The Bose sound tends to be muted and laid-back, so the QuietComfort series might not be best for those seeking the highest audio accuracy.
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Sennheiser HD 650
Sennheiser HD 650

Pro-quality headphones

The Sennheiser HD 650 is a strongly reviewed reference-quality set of headphones, offering strong bass and clean, rich sound, even at high volume levels. There's plenty of bass range to handle hard-driving rock and electronic music in addition to low orchestral tones. Some reviewers find definition and highs to be a little lacking, but sound is generally balanced, and you'll need to spend many times more to find a set of headphones that perform better. At 9 ounces, the Sennheiser HD 650 headphones aren't very portable, but reviews do say they are comfortable.
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See a side-by-side comparison of key features, product specs, and prices.

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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.

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Sennheiser HD 650 Headphones
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $499.95 $429.00   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Koss PortaPro Headphones with Case
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $49.99 $36.97   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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