What makes a good pair of headphones?
A good pair of 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. True headphones sit either on
or over your ears and are generally joined by a band that goes over or around
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, although some noise-canceling models will
still let you listen to your music even if your battery dies.
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 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 $100 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. Our editors consider all three
factors in finding the very best headphones.
The best headphones combine superb sound quality and elegant
test the very best headphones, one model rises to the top: the (Est. $400).
"They blew away our entire listening panel," TheWirecutter.com's
Lauren Dragan says. "The Oppo PM-3s are the best sounding, most versatile
closed-backed headphones for less than $1,000 we've ever heard."
The PM-3 uses
a special driver -- planar magnetic -- that you'll usually only find on
$1,000-plus luxury headphones ("the sort of headphone that should be kept
in their high-gloss lacquered cherry-wood storage box, right next to your
humidor and bottle of Johnny Walker Blue," as DigitalTrends.com's Caleb
Denison puts it). Somehow, Oppo manages to build this ultra-precise technology
into a $400 portable headphone, and experts are impressed.
love," Denison says. "That you can get a headphone that sounds this
good at the $400 level is amazing." Oppo doesn't skimp on the build
quality, either. "A sight to behold," What Hi-Fi? calls the PM-3.
"Titanium arms, leather ear-cups, and gorgeous milled hinges –
what's not to like?"
the PM-3 lightweight and comfy, with leatherette-padded over-ear cups (closed
ones, so others won't hear your music) that fold flat for easy carrying. The
PM-3 comes with a regular headphone cord as well as your choice of iOS or
Android cord with inline mic and remote for taking calls, plus a tailored denim
headphones are a very personal choice -- sound quality and comfort are
subjective, after all. A couple of testers feel the Oppo PM-3 fits a bit too
snugly. Some quibble with the sound: "Treble could do with more
sparkle," What Hi-Fi? says, and TheVerge.com finds the sound
"technically impressive" but "unexciting."
testing 20 pairs of headphones, Dragan says, "Among our top picks, there
really is no wrong choice. When you
get into this price range, the difference between number one and number five is
the tiniest of deviations that most people won't mind." The Oppo PM-3
carries a one-year warranty.
For about half
the price, consider the (Est. $210 and up) over-ear headphone. It
lacks the Oppo PM-3's planar magnetic technology, but picky audiophiles at
CNET, What Hi-Fi? and DigitalTrends.com choose it as one of their favorite headphones
Momentum 2.0 oozes refinement and seems to bring out the best in all types of
music," say David Carnoy and Steve Guttenberg at CNET. Warm, rich bass is
the Sennheiser signature, and Ced Yuen at What Hi-Fi? says, "The sound
quality is better than ever ... They're as confident pumping out heavy bass
lines as they are bellowing out a bit of opera."
Like the Oppo
PM-3, the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 is a lightweight, comfy, over-ear headphone
with "impeccable" build quality, Yuen says: They're made of stainless
steel and real leather, with faux suede lining the padded headband and ear cups.
Also like the
Oppo, the Sennheiser is closed-back and portable (actually, the Sennheiser
folds smaller than the Oppo and includes two soft carrying cases -- a zippered
one and a drawstring one). It comes in a variety of colors (black, brown and
ivory), and in versions that support either Apple or Android devices, and
prices can vary a bit depending on those options.
real concern with the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 was its $350 launch price last
year. But since that price has dropped notably -- especially if you shop
carefully and opt for whichever color version happens to be on sale at any
given time -- experts say the Momentum 2.0 is a fantastic choice. It carries a
two-year warranty, versus one year for the Oppo.
Noise-canceling headphones shut out background noise
Bose was one
of the pioneers in active noise-canceling technology, and most reviewers agree
that the (Est. $300) still sets the bar for sound isolation.
are the noise-cancelling headphones by which all others should be judged,"
says What Hi-Fi?. Other experts agree: The Bose QuietComfort 25 earns more
recommendations than any other headphones of any type, and no other
noise-canceling headphone comes even remotely close.
QuietComfort 25 was the top pick for all of us, by far," says Geoff
Morrison at TheWirecutter.com, after three experts exhaustively test 20
noise-canceling headphones. "Bose really does know what it's doing with
noise cancellation." Other brands can't use Bose's unique technology,
Morrison points out -- and they simply don't erase noise as well.
hubbub is dramatically reduced," What Hi-Fi? says. "Voices aren't
erased entirely, but we'll challenge anyone to pick out any part of a
conversation while music is playing at an enjoyable level."
QuietComfort 25 is impeccably comfortable, too, testers say, with plush leather
over-ear cups and a lightweight-but-sturdy, folding design that fits neatly
into a compact, zippered case, along with an included AAA battery, airline jack
adapter and remote/mic cable. It's optimized for Apple devices, but it also
works with other devices (some of the remote features might not work with
Android and Windows, but the microphone will, CNET says).
cancellation feature requires one AAA battery (it works for up to 35 hours). But
in a huge improvement over the previous model, the Bose QuietComfort 25 will
now play music even after the battery dies. You won't have active noise
cancellation (though the ear cups will passively block some outside sounds from
reaching your ears), but at least you'll have tunes.
headphones don't deliver audiophile-quality sound -- but when seated next to
the engines, audiophiles are quite happy to listen to music on their Bose
QuietComfort 25s. Music has "good dimension ... they don't sound flat at
all," says Caleb Denison at DigitalTrends.com. Just wearing the
headphones, even without turning on the noise-canceling feature, "I can
barely hear myself talk," he says. "Once I do turn it on, it's like
another world. It's actually kind of surreal. And then you start playing music?
You're not going to hear anything other than your music." The Bose
QuietComfort 25 carries a one-year warranty.
Good, basic headphones on a budget
While a truly
excellent pair of headphones can cost $200 or more, there are plenty of very
good choices out there for smaller budgets. In the $100-and-under range, we found
the most recommendations for the (Est. $100). These headphones
have an open-back design for the spacious, natural sound audiophiles love. (On
the other hand, closed-back headphones keep outside noise out and your music
in, so they're better for listening in public.)
sound on a budget, the Grado Prestige SR80e is TheWirecutter.com's top pick.
CNET agrees: "We've long been fans of Grado headphones and are really
impressed by the quality of sound you get from this new $100 model," David
Carnoy and Steve Guttenberg say. You won't get any extras -- no carrying case,
inline remote or microphone for taking calls -- but you will get to enjoy
detailed sound, with fuller, deeper base and a smoother, sweeter sound than
treble-heavy Grado has traditionally been known for.
lightweight Grado has foam-padded, on-ear pads that "don't clamp your head
too tightly," says Brent Butterworth at TheWirecutter.com. Butterworth
finds the foam pads scratchy, but Carnoy finds them "quite
comfortable" -- as do hundreds of happy owners at Amazon.com. The Grado
carries a one-year warranty.
If you're on a
tighter budget, consider the (Est. $40). This
lightweight, on-ear headphone has padded leatherette ear cups and a closed back
for good sound isolation, and a collapsible design for portability (no case,
not be swanky, but they fit well and deliver strong performance for a
reasonable price," Carnoy says. Fellow CNET reviewer Steve Guttenberg agrees,
and says "Shure's build quality and two-year warranty, a rarity in the
budget headphones category, make them a good deal."
DigitalTrends.com both name the Shure their favorite budget headphone.
Actually, PCMag picks the (Est. $50), which
adds an inline remote and mic for taking phone calls. There's also a semi-open
back version, the (Est. $40); Carnoy says they
all sound "virtually the same."
TheWirecutter.com, however, aren't crazy about the sound. "Geoff
complained that they sounded too dark for him, without much treble detail; I
thought they sounded like an inexpensive headphone from the 1980s; and Lauren
described them as merely okay," Butterworth writes, after testing the
SRH144. The closed-back SRH145 "has a bit more richness in the lows"
than the SRH144, PCMag's Tim Gideon says, although it's still "not for
booming bass lovers."
sleek design is "Beats-esque" (mimicking the ultra-popular Beats by
Dre headphone line), says Ryan Waniata at DigitalTrends.com, and it looks fine
from a distance. Up close, though, the scratch-prone metallic plastic headband
looks cheapish. "Generic but sturdy," Carnoy calls the design. The
Shure averages 4 out of 5 stars, with more than 100 reviews posted at
Amazon.com. Most say they're a steal for the price, although we did see several
complaints from owners who feel the Shure headphones clamp their ears too
Expert & User Review Sources
To find the best headphones, we
studied meticulous tests by CNET's Steve Guttenberg ("The
Audiophiliac") and David Carnoy, as well as veteran reviewers at PCMag and DigitalTrends.com. TheWirecutter.com assembles a panel of
experts to test nearly four dozen headphone models, and TheVerge.com tests the latest planar magnetic headphones head-to-head. We also found
valuable headphone tests and ratings at What HiFi? (a British magazine
that lab-tests stereo and home theater equipment) and ConsumerReports.org,
along with thousands of owner reviews at Amazon.com and BestBuy.com.