What the best headphones have
- Good sound quality. Headphones should deliver clear, accurate sound at an adequate volume level. High, middle and low notes should all come through clearly, although some headphones may put a slight emphasis on one part of the musical range. In general, wired headphones provide better sound quality than wireless headphones, which we cover in a separate report.
- Comfortable fit. To a certain extent, the fit of a pair of headphones depends on personal details, like the shape of your head and ears. However, some factors affect comfort for nearly all users. Lightweight headphones are easier to wear for long periods, and adjustable ones will fit a greater variety of head sizes. Ear cushions are also key: They should feel soft against your ears without overheating. Users who wear glasses need to make sure the headphones feel comfortable while the glasses are on.
- Ease of use. Headphones should be easy to put on and adjust to your head. It should be obvious at a glance which is the right ear and which the left. Controls should be easy to find and operate by touch alone. Ideally, the design of the controls should also prevent you from activating them by mistake, so that a careless movement of your head doesn't shut off the music or turn the volume up to ear-blasting levels.
- Sturdy build. Headphones can take a lot of abuse, so look for sturdy materials and solid construction. Some brands use cheaper materials to keep costs down, but they can end up costing you more in the long run if you need to replace them every year. One nice feature on some high-end models is a detachable cord, which will come loose if it's yanked rather than damage the headphones.
- Reliability. Check to see what users have to say about headphones' durability and reliability. You don't want to shell out a few hundred dollars only to see your new headphones break down within a few months. Of course, even the best brands may have the occasional lemon, so look for a good warranty as well.
Know before you go
What are your musical preferences? Some headphones are better suited for particular types of music. Heavy rock-and-roll music, for example, sounds best with headphones that offer a deep bass range, while headphones with a wider treble range shine with material such as classical flute medleys. The headphones covered in this report are generally well-balanced across the musical range; if you prefer a stronger emphasis on bass or treble, check out professional reviews to see how well a particular set handles musical highs and lows. Keep in mind, also, that headphones with a strong emphasis on bass may cause listener fatigue.
Where will you use your headphones? Large over-the-ear models can draw you fully into the music during home listening sessions, but they may be too big to carry with you on the go. Portable models, by contrast, may sacrifice a bit of sound quality in exchange for convenience. However, don't assume that a small pair of headphones should be able to stay on your head wherever you go. Safety experts say it's a bad idea to wear headphones while biking or running in traffic because they can block out sounds you need to hear, like sirens or approaching footsteps.
Do you need to block outside noises? Some headphones are equipped with electronic noise-canceling technology, which creates interference to drown out external noises. However, experts say this technology is more effective for blocking low-frequency tones (like an airplane engine) than for higher tones (like a crying baby on the airplane). You can also block out some noises directly by choosing headphones with a closed back.
If at all possible, listen before you buy. While reviews can point you in the right direction, the best way to know whether headphones meet your personal needs for sound and comfort is to try them out yourself in a store.
Authorized versus unauthorized dealers. Some manufacturers will only honor their warranties if you buy your headphones from an authorized dealer. Check to make sure the seller is authorized before you buy, or you might be stuck with a pair of pricey headphones that isn't supported. Your dealer will be the best resource if you have questions about the headphones either before or after the sale.