A long, long time ago, before the Age of the Walkman came along and revolutionized the devices in the 1980s, headphones were big and clunky. In those bygone days, headphones were stay-at-home things, relegated to late-night, LP music listening. That was then; the latest generation of slimmed-down headphones injects high-resolution music or home-theater sound directly into your ears.
Audio-Technica's ATH-M50s are among the best over-ear headphones for less than $200, but definitely check out the Bose QuietComfort 3 if powered noise-cancellation is at the top of your features list. On the other hand, if you're shopping on a budget and just want new headphone that sounds better than the ones that came with your music player, the Koss Porta Pros continue to earn a spot on our Top 5 list for their throwback design and worthy sonic competition, even after 28 years. Not everyone feels comfortable with the headband-style designs of circumaural headphones, so earbud-lovers will want to check out the Klipsch Image S4i II, a well-balanced headphone that comes with a tangle-resistant flat cord and three sets of oval ear tips to achieve that all-important precision fit.
Still unsatisfied? There are plenty more options in our list of the best headphones.
Forms and styles
The distinctions of portable and home headphones are melting away, but the following rundown of headphone types will clarify your buying options. How you intend to use your headphones -- for music, home theater, or gaming -- and where you plan to do your listening -- at home or on the go -- will narrow the range of possible types you'll want to research. The four major form factors are listed below, from the smallest (or most portable) to the largest, which are the least portable.
1. Earbud headphones
Also known as: In-ear headphones.
Earbuds are commonly issued as freebie headphones with portable players and usually get junked in favor of higher-performance buds that offer sonics rivaling full-size models. Their tiny earpieces rest on the outer ear or need to be inserted into the ear canal, and some models include clips for a more tailored, secure fit.
Upside: Ultracompact and lightweight; most models have microphone and track navigation controls built into the wire; can provide moderate to excellent isolation from external noise; little to no interference with earrings, glasses, hats, or hairstyles.
Downside: Sound quality and bass response often not comparable with full-size models; can sometimes cause discomfort over extended use; some reference models are difficult to insert and remove, making them less than ideal for office environments; dual-cable design means more possibilities for tangled wire.
Extra features: Five-button remote to control volume; variety of ear tip sizes and materials (foam, rubber, silicone); over-ear guides; multiple balanced-armature drivers with crossover.
2. On-ear headphones
Also known as: Supra-aural headphones, open-backed headphones, semi-open headphones, closed-back headphones, earpad headphones.
These headphones rest on top of your outer ears and run the gamut from inexpensive portables to high-end home models. While on-ear headphones can have closed designs that cover the ears, some prefer fully sealed circumaural models (see below) for their increased sound isolation and the fact that they won't leak sound to neighbors. Still, the earpad headphone is preferred in places like office environments, where users still benefit from hearing the outside world.
Upside: Comfortable; less prone to overheating ears than full-size headphones; some models fold up for easy transport.
Downside: Less effective noise isolation than in-ear or full-size models; less powerful bass compared with full-size headphones; leaks noise to neighbors.
Extra features: Microphone and track navigation controls on the wire; extra earpad set included; carrying case; folding design; coiled and straight cord.
3. Full-size headphones
Also known as: Circumaural headphones; closed-back headphones; earcup headphones; over-the-ear headphones..
The tech-speak description for this type of headphone is "circumaural," which includes any headphones with earcups that fully enclose your ears. Because of their size and their acoustic isolation, full-size headphones are often considered to be better suited to home use rather than as a portable option, but the recent popularity of Monster's full-size, noise-canceling Beats headphones are challenging the rule.
Upside: Large headphones offer potential for maximum bass and loudness levels; earcups create larger sound stage; surround-sound effectively blocks outside noises, seals music in.
Downside: Large footprint can be cumbersome for portable use; some full-size models have problems with heat on the ears; wide headband can often interfere with earrings, glasses, and some hairstyles.
Extra features: Folding design; detachable cord; microphone, track navigation, and volume controls on the wire; replaceable pads; extra 3.5mm plug for daisy-chain sessions with multiple listeners.
4. Wireless headphones
Also known as: Bluetooth headphones, transmitter headphones.
Wireless headphones are most commonly used (A) in apartments with thin walls that don't permit loud media from bookshelf speakers, and (B) on the run where a dangling cord can get in the way. The most popular format for transmitting wireless music is Bluetooth, but keep in mind that you'll sacrifice sound quality to convenience in the file compression process. To combat this audio degradation, some of the newer headphones support the aptX Bluetooth codec that offers slightly improved fidelity.
Upside: No messy wires to trip you up; falling prices make Bluetooth headphones a reasonable auxiliary device for workouts and portable use.
Downside: The music stops when your battery dies; compressed audio files will leave your music sounding less dynamic; less real estate on the headphones means smaller buttons to control track navigation and volume; hardware limitations relegate its use to devices with Bluetooth connectivity.
Extras: Active noise-cancellation; 3.5mm port, and cable for a hardwired connection; replaceable earpads; travel case.
5. Noise-canceling headphones
These headphones hush ambient noise by creating antinoise that obviates the noise at your ear. They don't eliminate the outside world, but the better models significantly reduce the whoosh of airplanes' air-conditioning systems. Noise-canceling headphones come in all forms, from full-size to earbuds. Since you no longer have to crank up the volume to overcome background noise, this type of headphone lets you listen at lower levels, which leads to reduced ear fatigue. You'll also hear more low-level detail in your music.
Upside: Active noise-canceling technology eliminates ambient noise; ideal for plane rides and morning commutes.
Downside: Alters the "natural" qualities of music; some people experience an "underwater" nausea effect from the noise-canceling hum.
Extras: Wireless connection; travel case; rechargeable batteries; on-ear navigation and volume controls.
The size, type, and technology of a pair of headphones are all critical to a purchasing decision. But it's important to demystify the bevy of features and headphone-specific vocabulary. Listed below are the most important features you'll need to consider before finding the perfect pair of headphones.
- Bass: Even at its very best, headphone bass is never the sort of pants-flapping, sock-it-to-your-gut experience you literally feel from massive speakers or subwoofers, but many manufacturers (like the Beats by Dr. Dre) custom tune their "signature sound" to emphasize the lower frequencies, albeit at the cost of instrument separation and natural delivery.
Earbuds are tiny and portable, but -- except for a couple of high-end models -- they can't compete with full-size, over-the-ear headphones for deep bass response or visceral dynamic range.
- Sealed vs. open: Sealed headphones -- the noise-isolating, in-ear models or the full-size earcup designs -- acoustically isolate your ears from your environment. Of course, the degree of isolation varies from one pair of headphones to another, and the seal limits the leakage of the headphones' sound out to the room.
Sealed models are ideal for private listening, where you don't want the sound to be heard by other people. Open headphones -- such as foam earpad models and many sports designs -- are acoustically transparent and allow outside sound to be heard by the headphone wearer, and a good deal of the headphones' sound will be audible to anyone near the listener.
Generally speaking, such headphones produce better, more "open" sound than sealed designs. Because they don't block out everything from the outside world, open-backed headphones are recommended for outdoor activities, such as jogging, which require awareness of your environment.
- Comfort and weight: Assessing sound quality is always a subjective exercise, but the only way to judge comfort is to put them on and listen for at least 10 minutes.
Do the earpads exert too much pressure on your ears? Headphones that enclose or cover your ears can get uncomfortably hot, but you'll have to wear them for a while to find out. Some of the bigger sealed models with cushy leatherette pads are the worst offenders.
Pro-style headphones are comparatively bulky and can feel uncomfortably heavy after hours of use. Lighter headband-style headphones are almost always more comfortable than heavier ones. And even if they're not, they're less of a hassle to carry around.
- Durability: There's no reason a headphone should be treated as disposable technology. Unlike almost everything else in the realm of consumer electronics, this year's headphones won't be obsolete six months or a year from now. In fact, there's no reason a good pair of headphones can't last for the better part of a decade.
Be sure to assess the build quality of your prospective headphones. Some earbuds and portable devices are relatively fragile, for instance. If the headphones fold up for easy storage, are the hinges robust, or will they fall apart in a month or two? Don't forge to consider that the earpads and earbuds will get extensive wear and tear over the life of the headphones.
- Cable dressing and length: Most stereo headphones have just one cable, usually attached to the left earpiece (sometimes called single-sided cabling). Some models -- and all earbuds -- use a Y-cable that connects to both earpieces (double-sided). The actual cable plug, meanwhile, is usually one of two designs: a straight I-plug or an angled L-plug; the latter may be useful if your portable player has a side- or bottom-mounted headphone jack.
Preferences for the length of headphone cables vary for portable users, especially depending on where you prefer to wear your device: a backpack or a pants pocket necessitates a longer cable, while you'll opt for a short one when wearing a player on a neck lavalier or an armband. But a cable length at either extreme need not be a fatal flaw: extension cables can lengthen those that are too short, and cable wraps can tighten up ones that are too long.
Quick reference glossary
You'll find a few of the following specifications on the headphones' box or on the manufacturer's Web site. Here's what they mean:
Frequency response : Frequency-response specifications in full-size loudspeakers are generally pretty useless in predicting sound quality, but headphone frequency-response numbers are even worse. Manufacturers have routinely exaggerated frequency-response figures to the point that they're irrelevant. Even the flimsiest, cheap headphones routinely boast extremely low bass-response performance --15Hz or 20Hz -- but almost always sound lightweight and bright. Generally, bass buffs will be happier sticking with larger 'phones.
Total harmonic distortion: True, headphones with lower actual total harmonic distortion (THD) will sound better than those with higher THD. But the quoted THD numbers -- "less than 1 percent" -- aren't helpful in predicting sound quality. Listen to recordings of simply recorded acoustic guitar to assess the distortion of one set of headphones versus another. Some will sound appreciably cleaner than others.
Impedance: Generally speaking, the lower the headphones' electrical impedance (aka resistance), the easier it is to get higher volume. But here again, the low impedance is no guarantee of high volume capability; other factors can still limit loudness potential. Since many MP3 players have feeble power output -- the iPod is a notable exception -- smart shoppers should check the loudness before purchasing any pair of headphones. To be sure, listen with your player.
Frequently asked questions
Q: Do I need a headphone amplifier?
A: What you plug your headphones into can significantly affect their sound, and the quality of the amplifiers built into portable CD/MP3 players is generally awful. It's not their fault: the little guys have to power their electronics and their internal amplifier using a few puny volts. Even some of the better home AV receivers' headphone jacks offer highly variable sound quality.
If you find yourself listening to headphones a lot of the time and care about sound quality, you might want to consider purchasing a headphone amp. Both home and portable headphone amplifiers are available, and Steve Guttenberg reviews them all the time on his high-end audio blog on CNET, The Audiophiliac.
Q: I lost the ear tips that came with my earbuds, do I have to buy a whole new pair of headphones?
A: Absolutely not...unless you're just looking for an excuse to try something new. But if you're not made of money, you can always hit up the manufacturer for a pair of replacement tips. Most earbuds only come with one set of each size, so losing one can be annoying. If you're in an experimental mood, Comply offers aftermarket tips that fit your brand and come in a variety of materials.
Q: Does a higher price tag mean the headphones will sound better?
A: Not necessarily. We're continually surprised that people drop hundreds of dollars on a smartphone and still refuse to invest in a quality pair of headphones to use with it. On the other hand, not all inexpensive headphones should be assumed to be cheap.
Case in point: the Koss PortaPro headphones first hit the market in 1984 and have become such a favorite with audiophiles that the company leaves the design (and the price tag) untouched. You can still pick one up for less than $50, and they come with a lifetime warranty, no receipt necessary. Check out our favorite budget headphones for more selections.
Ready to go shopping? Head over to the CNET Headphones page to get started.