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Headphones

Headphone buying guide

Last updated: November 2014

Getting started

Headphones have become indispensable now that so many of us listen to music on the go or watch videos on a tablet, laptop, or phone. Headphones allow you to enjoy a late-night movie without disturbing your sleeping spouse or listen to music while the kids run amok in the background. If you're still using the free earbuds that came with your phone or other gadget, you may want to consider an upgrade to a better model. Headphones come in all sizes and types, from tiny earbuds you can stash in a shirt pocket to big, padded, over-the-ear 'phones that make you look (and maybe feel!) like a DJ.

If you'll be listening to music or videos on a crowded plane or in other noisy places, consider headphones that can reduce ambient noise. The physical design of some headphones--those that cover your ears or that are inserted into the ear canal, much like an earplug--can help block outside noise. This is called passive noise reduction. Some headphones, called active noise-canceling models, go a step further. They use battery-powered electronic circuitry that can reduce extraneous noises to various degrees. Use this headphone guide to find the right pair for you.

Types

The type of headphones you buy depends mostly on your lifestyle and somewhat on your budget. Some people buy different types of headphones for specific uses, such as a pair to wear while exercising and another for listening to high-fidelity music. You'll see people wearing all types of headphones as they walk down the street or sit on the train, even bigger models that used to be worn mostly at home. Here are the types of headphones to consider.

Home/studio-style headphones

These headphones are usually larger models that look like earmuffs, with earpieces connected by a headband that you can adjust to fit. If you wear glasses or big earrings, they can get in the way. Most are corded, with wires that run from 3 feet to 8 feet long so they can be connected to an audio source such as a receiver or TV. Some can fold for storage and come with carrying pouches. There are also battery-powered wireless models that pick up radio frequency or infrared transmissions from a base unit that connects to an audio source. More models now have Bluetooth for wirelessly connecting to a smart phone or tablet.

Home/studio headphones come in a few basic designs:

On-ear


Also called supra-aural, these headphones are usually lighter than over-the-ear models and don't press on the sides of your head--they press on the ears. Many wearers find them more comfortable and less likely to make your ears hot during long listening sessions, but they can allow more ambient sound to enter. On-ear headphones, like over-the-ear, also come in open and closed versions. Some can fold for storage and come with carrying pouches.

Over-the-ear, closed

Also called circumaural, these models cup your ears, sealing in sound and muffling ambient noise. But they might also block out some things you want to hear, such as a doorbell or a child's cry. Some people find that their ears get hot if they wear them for a long time.

Over-the-ear, open

These headphones have openings in the ear cups. You'll be able to hear more external sounds, but sound can also escape, perhaps enough to disturb someone nearby.

Portable headphones

All headphones are actually portable, but we use this term to describe small, lightweight models, some of which can be folded and tucked away in a pocket or purse when not in use. They come in a variety of styles:

Earbuds (intra-concha)


These earphones rest in the bowl of the ear, outside the ear canal, though a portion might extend into the canal. Earbuds are fairly common, as they typically come with iPods and other portable audio players.

Hanging on-ear models

These are on-ear models with no head or neck band. Each headphone hangs over the ear, held in place by a clip that hooks around the outside of the ear.

Headphones for smart phones

Designed for use with smart phones such as the iPhone and Android-based phones, these headphones have a microphone and small controls on the cord that let you control basic music player functions such as play and pause and connect and disconnect phone calls. So if you're listening to music and your phone rings, you can press a control on the cord and answer the call without taking the phone out of your pocket or purse. You may get the same capabilities with the headset that comes with the phone, but these replacement headphones might offer better sound quality that is better suited for music. Note that these headphones offer full functionality only with specific phone models, so be sure a given model will work with your phone. These headphones come in various styles, as described above, and some use noise-canceling technology.

Insert-style (intra-canal)


These earphones are inserted into the ear canal, forming a seal that can help keep out extraneous sounds. Many come with additional earpieces (canal tips) of varying sizes to ensure a secure fit. They're one of the least obtrusive types of headphones, but some people don't like the feeling of something stuck inside their ear, especially for long periods.

Sports-style on-ear


Also called supra-concha, these models are a good choice for when you'll be engaged in a strenuous activity or exercise. Supported by a bracket that passes around the back of the head, they generally radiate sound forward toward the ear canal rather than sideways directly into the ear canal. Many sports models are billed as "water-resistant."

Wireless headphones


Wireless models, once rare, are now increasingly common, and typically use RF, infrared (IR), or Bluetooth wireless technologies. Portable wireless headphones generally use Bluetooth technology, with a typical operating range of up to 30 feet or so, to connect to a smart phone or to a Bluetooth-enabled portable media media player, such as a second- or later-generation iPod Touch. Most home models have a battery-powered headset and an AC-powered transmitter that connects to your audio or video gear. RF models can transmit signals through walls and floors, so you don't have to be near your sound system, enabling you to use them in other rooms or even outdoors. But they are also subject to interference from other devices, such as cordless phones and microwave ovens, that operate on the same frequencies (often 900MHz or 2.4GHz). RF technologies include FM (analog) and digital spread spectrum. Wireless headphones that use infrared technology, much like a TV remote does, require a direct line of sight to the transmitter. With wireless models, you obviously don't have to deal with tangled cords, which is a plus. But it can be inconvenient if the battery dies while you're in the middle of a listening session. Many do give you the option of connecting to your mobile device with a wire.

Active noise-reduction headphones


Noise-canceling headphones are a good choice for anyone who wants to listen to music or movie dialog without being disturbed by outside noise. They come in a variety of styles. As noted previously, the physical design of some models offer passive noise reduction; closed design over-the-ear and insert-style earphones tend to block more noise than do open design, on-ear, and earbud-style headphones. Active noise-canceling models go a step further. These battery-powered headphones use tiny microphones to monitor noise frequencies, and then produce those same frequencies out of phase in an effort to cancel them.

The effectiveness of noise-reduction technology can range from very good to poor. In general, we found the most effective noise reduction in models with both a design that physically blocks noise and active noise cancellation. Some models let you turn off noise reduction, so you can still use them if the batteries die. Others work only with noise canceling activated, so if the batteries die you can't use them at all. And you can use the noise-canceling feature even when you're not listening to music, simply to reduce outside noise.

Features


With headphones, comfort is crucial, so look for models that will let you adjust or customize the fit. Ease of use and maintenance also matter, so look for the headphone features mentioned below.

Headbands


Adjustable headbands can provide a better fit on your head, while models with foldable and collapsible bands are easier to carry.

Earcups, earpads, and canal tips


Models that have earcups that pivot or that come with different-sized adapters, foam pads, or canal tips can help you to achieve a proper, comfortable fit. Some earcups will fold flat for travel and storage.

Replaceable, removable earpads and canal tips

These can be replaced or washed, making it easier to maintain the headphones.

Weight

Smaller, lighter headphones are often more comfortable than bulkier models, but you might trade sound quality for comfort.

Cords

Compared with a Y-exit cord, models with a single-exit cord reduce tangling. Also, some models come with asymmetrical cords, where one cord is longer or shorter than the other. This may be useful if you want to place the cord around the back of your neck, or the audio layer off to one side. Some models come with detachable cords that can be removed or replaced.

Volume control

A volume control is useful, especially if you're sitting far from the source, such as a TV. Some controls are on the headphone's earpiece, while others are on the cord.

Cell-phone controls

These let you answer and disconnect phone calls or control your music player without even touching the phone. Some headsets offer full capabilities only with specific cell phones, so be sure a given headphone will work with your phone model.

Brands

AKG by Harman arrow  |  Able Planet arrow  |  Apple arrow  |  Audio-Technica arrow  |  Audiofly arrow  |  Auvio arrow  |  Bell'O Digital arrow  |  Bose arrow  |  Bowers & Wilkins arrow  |  Creative arrow  |  Denon arrow  |  EarHero arrow  |  Etymotic arrow  |  Flips Audio arrow  |  Grado arrow  |  Harman Kardon arrow  |  HiFiMan arrow  |  House of Marley arrow  |  JBL by Harman arrow  |  JVC arrow  |  Kicker Audio arrow  |  Klipsch arrow  |  Koss arrow  |  Marshall arrow  |  Monoprice arrow  |  Monster arrow  |  Motorheadphones arrow  |  Munitio arrow  |  NAD Electronics arrow  |  Onkyo arrow  |  PSB Speakers arrow  |  Panasonic arrow  |  Paradigm arrow  |  Pendulumic arrow  |  Phiaton arrow  |  Plantronics arrow  |  Polk Audio arrow  |  Razer arrow  |  SMS Audio arrow  |  SOL Republic arrow  |  SOUL Electronics arrow  |  Samsung arrow  |  Scosche arrow  |  Sennheiser arrow  |  Shure arrow  |  Skullcandy arrow  |  Sony arrow  |  Tivoli Audio arrow  |  UrbanEars arrow  |  VOX arrow  |  Velodyne arrow  |  Westone arrow  |  Yamaha arrow  |  beats by dre arrow  |  iLuv arrow

AKG by Harman

AKG by Harman offers a wide range of headphones in a variety of styles, including in-ear, over-ear, and ear buds. The company, which is well established in the pro audio world and recording studios, sells models in all price ranges.

Able Planet

Able Planet sells headphones in the mid-to-higher-price ranges. The company uses a patent-pending Linx Audio technology, which purports to improve sound and speech clarity.

Apple

Apple sells low-cost headphones to accompany its iPod, iPad, and iPhone products. The company recently acquired Beats Electronics, which includes Beats headphones. 

Audio-Technica

Audio-Technica manufactures a variety of styles and types of headphones, typically in the mid-to-higher-price ranges.

Audiofly

Audiofly entered the headphone sector in 2012 with a small offering of headphones.

Auvio

Auvio is Radio Shack's house brand, ranging from ear buds to over ear. 

Bell'O Digital

Primarily known as a consumer electronics accessory company, Bell'O Digital introduced low-end priced in-ear phones in 2012.

Bose

While Bose's best-known headphones are noise-canceling models, it now makes several types, including earphones. Products are usually in the higher price range.

Bowers & Wilkins

Bowers & Wilkins, a speaker company, entered the headphone market in 2010. Its headphones are higher-priced models that target audiophiles.

Creative

Perhaps best known for its computer speakers and portable audio players, Creative manufactures headphones in all catagories, including noise-canceling models and Bluetooth  wireless products--at all price ranges. It sells premium headphones under the Aurvana sub-brand.

Denon

Denon, part of D&M Group (Boston Acoustics, Marantz, McIntosh), offers in-ear, over-ear, and active noise-canceling headphones. Prices tend to be in the mid-to-higher ranges.

EarHero

EarHero earphones, new to our ratings in 2013, are designed by an audiologist and billed as the "world's safest earphones."

Etymotic

Etymotic offers in-ear headphones. With roots in the hearing-aid industry, this company is conscious of "safe listening."

Flips Audio

Flips Audio offers a novel take on headphones with a model that converts to a portable powered speaker when the earcups are rotated outward. 

Grado

Grado is one of the oldest family-owned companies in the audio industry. Prices tend to be in the mid-to-high-end ranges, and new releases are not as frequent as other companies' cycles.

Harman Kardon

Harman Kardon re-entered the market after an 8-year hiatus. Engineered by AKG, it currently has a few models available at retail.

HiFiMan

HiFiMan is a performance-driven brand that sells over-the-ear and in-ear models, and outboard headphone amplifiers. The company uses planar magnetic drivers rather than the traditional dynamic ones used by most headphones.

House of Marley

House of Marley entered the headphone market in 2011 with an entire lineup of Bob-Marley-inspired in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear models. The company differentiates itself by being "earth friendly" and "cause minded."

JBL by Harman

JBL by Harman---part of Harman International, which also owns the AKG, Inifinity, JBL, Lexicon, Mark Levinson, and Yurbuds brands---makes midpriced to moderately-expensive ear buds, insert, and over-the-ear-style headphones.

JVC

JVC offers headphones in the low-to-midrange price categories. The company merged with Kenwood, which is known for its automotive and home audio products.

Kicker Audio

Kicker Audio, which got its start making car audio products such as speakers and subwoofers, now makes a line of in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear headphones that leverage its audio technology.

Klipsch

Klipsch, whose parent company is Voxx International, offers on-ear, in-ear, and noise-canceling headphones at a variety of prices.

Koss

Koss is an established headphone brand that offers a complete line of products with prices from low to midprice.

Marshall

Marshall, a brand best known for guitar amplifiers that helped shape rock history, entered the headphone market in 2010. The company offers three lines: Major, Minor, and Monitor.

Monoprice

Known for HDMI cables and home theater accessories, Monorpice offers a small variety of headphones at value prices.

Monster

Monster, best known for its line of Monster Cable cables and interconnects, helped to launch the celebrity headphone category with the Beats by Dr. Dre line. Monster and Beats have since parted ways, and Monster still offers a wide variety of on-, in-, and over-ear models.

Motorheadphones

Motorheadphones launched in 2013 as the headphone brand of the legendary rock band Motorhead. It promises to deliver true rock reproduction.

Munitio

Munitio, a California-based brand, started in 2010. It focuses on mobile lifestyle headphones, primarily distinctive earphones that have bullet-style casings.

NAD Electronics

NAD Electronics, known for high-performance audio and video home theater components, is new to headphones in 2014. 

Onkyo

Onkyo, a veteran audio and home theater brand, re-entered the headphone catagory in 2013 with in- and on-ear models. 

PSB Speakers

PSB Speakers, new to the headphone catagory in 2012, has a background in speakers and subwoofers. The company currently offers two headphones: the M4U2, an active noise-canceling over-the-ear model, and the M4U1, an over-ear model without noise-canceling technology.

Panasonic

Panasonic headphones cover all headphone catagories. They are competitively priced and widely available.

Paradigm

The loudspeaker company Paradigm entered the headphone sector in 2013 with its Shift series of in- and on-ear models.

Pendulumic

New to the catagory in 2014, Pendulumic focuses on wireless over-the-ear headphones. 

Phiaton

Phiaton sells headphones, earphones, and music docks. Some earphones have a unique "half in-ear" design that allows them to be worn just outside the ear canal.

Plantronics

Plantronics, a company with heritage specializing in communications technology, offers wired and wireless audio headsets for professional and consumer applications.

Polk Audio

Polk Audio, an audio brand best known for speakers, entered the headphone catagory in 2011. The company currently offers sports-oriented and noise-canceling headphones.

Razer

Best known in the gaming industry, Razer has recently ventured into personal audio lifestyle entertainment with the Adaro series. 

SMS Audio

SMS Audio markets headphones developed in conjunction with the rapper 50 Cent. The company also offers "Star Wars"-themed models, as well as sports and wireless headphones. 

SOL Republic

SOL Republic, launched in 2011, was co-founded by Kevin Lee, the son of Noel Lee, the head of Monster. The company makes on-ear and in-ear models.

SOUL Electronics

Soul Electonics, which launched in 2011, currently produces the Soul by Ludacris series of headphones and earbuds. Models include distinctive styles and colors and are typically in the mid-to-higher-price ranges.

Samsung

Samsung, a powerhouse electronics brand in a number of catagories, entered the headphone business in 2012. The company's initial offering consists of in-ear models.

Scosche

Scosche, best known for car audio products, offers in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear headphones at a variety of prices.

Sennheiser

Sennheiser is a respected professional audio brand that also offers a wide assortment of consumer headphones. Prices tend to be in the mid-to-higher ranges. The company has partnered with Adidas for a line of sports-oriented models.

Shure

Shure is a professional audio brand that also offers a wide assortment of consumer headphones, typically in the mid-to-higher-price ranges.

Skullcandy

Skullcandy earned a following with headphone lines that feature trendy designs targeting a younger demographic. The company's models cover all price segments.

Sony

Sony is a leading brand in the headphone market. It covers all types and styles, at all price ranges with wide distribution.

Tivoli Audio

This desktop audio company introduced its first and only headphone, the Radio Silenz, in 2012. This active noise-canceling headphone has been tested and appears in our Ratings.

UrbanEars

UrbanEars is a headphone company created by a collective in Scandinavia. It uses color, design, and social interaction (some models have earcups that let a friend plug in and hear the same music you're listening to) to differentiate its products.

VOX

Known for guitar amplifiers, VOX launched headphones in 2012. It currently has several models available with active built-in guitar amplifiers.

Velodyne

Primarily known for subwoofers and speakers, Velodyne joined the headphone catagory in late 2011. Different types of headphones were introduced in 2013.

Westone

Westone, new in 2013, has specialized in custom earplugs/earpieces for the hearing healthcare industry and the military. The company makes custom-fit and standard in-ear models. 

Yamaha

Yamaha, a well-respected audio and video brand, entered the headphone catagory in 2010. The company primarily sells earphones in the low-to-midprice range, but also offers an on-ear model.

beats by dre

Beats by dre, which spun off into its own company, Beats Electronics, after breaking ties with Monster Cable in 2011-2012, was purchased by Apple. Several models are currently available at a variety of prices to satisfy different target markets.

iLuv

iLuv is a mobile-lifestyle company offering a variety of headphones for all types of consumers.

Shopping tips

Evaluate sound quality

Headphones should feed you clear, accurate sound with sufficient volume. Beyond that, you have to decide what sounds good to you. Like speakers, headphones might emphasize different parts of the audio spectrum, and you might prefer one sound over another. If you can, try headphones before buying. If you buy online, check return policies to make sure that purchases can be returned or exchanged for another model.

For the best sound, stick with corded models

For serious music listening, we recommend one of the better-rated corded models. For less-critical music listening and for use with a TV, most corded models are fine. You have to be more choosy with wireless headphones. While some are quite good, many have background hissing and/or dynamic range compression that deadens the sound to some extent. We've found that digital wireless models can provide better performance than analog, and 2.4 gigahertz models often beat 900 megahertz headphones. But all wireless headphones are susceptible to interference from other devices, such as microwave ovens, cordless phones, and computer hard drives that operate in the same frequency ranges. Also, look for headphones that use multiple channels or spread spectrum technology such as Bluetooth. They tend to either be less susceptible to interference or enable you to switch to another frequency if you do encounter it. And don't forget that a battery can die at an inconvenient time--say, in the middle of a long hike.

Make sure they're comfortable

Many headphones or earphones that seem fine at first could become quite uncomfortable during extended use. Comfort, of course, is subjective, depending in part on the size and shape of your head and ears and how much adjustment a headphone allows. The pressure from the earphones and the weight affect how a model feels. With any headphones, prolonged listening can make your ears warm and sweaty. Many on-ear models offer a good trade-off between comfort and quality. Some find earphones that are wedged in the ear become uncomfortable with prolonged use. Insert-type earphones usually come with different-sized tips to accommodate a range of ear sizes and shapes. Although less obtrusive than other types, they can pop out at times.

Choose a design suited to your expected use

Consider how you'll use your headphones and get a model most appropriate for that application. Closed, over-the-ear models are great for listening at home but could be too large to be easily stowed when you're traveling. Portable models might sacrifice some sound quality for small size, but they are handy. Earbuds and insert models are great for listening to music on the go. If you'll be doing a lot of flying, or listening in a noisy environment, consider headphones with active noise-reduction technology. Keep in mind that you'll have to replace batteries with active-noise-reduction and wireless models.

   

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