What makes a good pair of headphones?
A good pair of headphones gives you a lot more ways to enjoy music or movies. Headphones allow you to watch a movie or play a noisy video game without disturbing a sleeping spouse. They let you enjoy music in peace while your kids make a racket in the background, or they can block out the noise of office chatter so you can concentrate on work. Many users also find decent headphones essential for long plane trips, as they sound better and feel more comfortable than the flimsy earphones rented out by the airlines.
Headphones come in several designs. Many reviews of headphones also cover earbud-style headphones that insert directly into your ears, but we cover these in our separate report on earphones. True headphones sit either on or over your ears and are generally joined by a band that goes over or around your head.
Headphones, as a category, cover a lot of ground. Finding the perfect pair means considering the different types of headphones and the different ways they might be used.
- Wired versus wireless. Most headphones, and all the ones covered in this report, connect to your music source by means of a physical cable. Wireless headphones, which transmit sound through radio waves or other wireless technologies, are covered in a different report.
- On-ears versus over-ears. On-ear headphones sit flat against the ears, while over-the-ear headphones fit over and around them. On-ear headphones tend to be lighter and put pressure directly on the ears rather than on the sides of the head. Some wearers find them more comfortable than over-the-ear models, but they can get warm after extended use and tend to let in more outside noise than headphones that enclose your ears completely.
- Home versus portable. Though all headphones are technically "portable," reviewers often use the term to refer to lightweight headphones, especially those that fold up for easy carrying. Heavier and bulkier headphones are more likely to be recommended for home use.
- Closed versus open backs. Closed-back headphones cup your ears, sealing your music in and muffling sounds from outside. This helps keep your music from disturbing others -- or being disturbed by them. Open-back headphones, by contrast, have openings in the ear cups to let outside sounds filter in. This can be an advantage if you want to be able to hear the phone ring or the oven timer sound over the music. Also, serious audiophiles tend to feel that open-back headphones have a more natural, purer sound.
- Noise-canceling headphones. While over-ear and closed-back headphones offer some privacy, and even some passive noise canceling, headphones with active noise cancellation kick it up a notch. They contain small microphones in the ear cups that measure outside noise, then block that noise by producing the same frequencies out of phase. This feature requires batteries to run, and some noise-canceling models, like the Bose QuietComfort series, won't work at all if your battery dies.
- Gaming headphones. Headphones designed specifically for gaming use typically include extra features, such as a microphone for in-game communication and virtual surround sound to help you track sounds within the game. However, they often don't have the same sound quality across the full audio range as headphones designed for music use.
Headphones also cover an incredibly wide price range. We found recommendations for models costing as little as $35 and as much as $1,500. In general, the top-rated headphones for both music and gaming tend to fall in the $250-to-$400 range. However, it's perfectly possible to find a decent pair of headphones that provides good, if not exquisite, sound quality for $85 or less.
The most important factor to consider with any pair of headphones is how good they sound. However, comfort is nearly as important. We saw many reviews from frustrated users who say they loved the sound of a particular pair of headphones but had to give them up because they were painful to wear. A third factor is overall value: not just price, but how much you get for your money in terms of performance, comfort and durability. All three factors are considered by our editors in finding the very best headphones. Information is drawn from respected professional reviewers at sites such as ConsumerReports.org, CNET, TheWirecutter.com and more. Reviews from individual users are also helpful, particularly for evaluating comfort and long-term durability.