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Headphone buying guide: A beginner's guide to all things headphones
Headphones have matured greatly over the past few years. What was once a straightforward means of listening to music is now a wearable smart device and extension of your phone. All of the specs and software updates can make it hard to understand what’s important when buying headphones. Our ultimate headphone buying guide is meant to springboard you into the right headset for your needs.
What kind of headphones do you want?
Let’s start with the broad headphone types and then get more specific. There are a few general kinds of headphones: over-ear headphones, on-ear headphones, in-ears, and true wireless earbuds. We’ll briefly cover each type’s advantages and disadvantages so you can better understand which fits the bill.
Note: there’s an exception to every rule, and this is a guide, not a book of law.
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Over-ear headphones are probably what you think of when someone says, “headphones.” Physically, over-ear headphones are the largest option on the market. These feature a circumaural design, which means the ear pads encompass your ears.
Recommended over-ear headphones:
- Audio-Technica ATH-M50x: If you don’t want to spend too much money on a great set of headphones for studio use, these are a studio go-to. The spacious ear cups leave plenty of wiggle room for all ears, and neutral-leaning frequency response is great for accurate audio mixing. There’s even a Bluetooth variant for listeners who want to take studio sound anywhere.
- Sony WH-1000XM4: These are among the best wireless noise-cancelling headphones you can buy and merit your attention. The WH-1000XM4 supports Sony 360 Reality Audio and advanced software features like Speak-to-Chat. The deep-seated earpads are comfortable, and the flexible hinges make it easy to compact the headset for travel.
- V-Moda Crossfade 2 Wireless Codex: This is as durable as headsets get and are MIL-STD 810G certified. These headphones aren’t just tough, though; they sound great too. When you stream over Bluetooth, you have your pick of SBC, AAC, or aptX Bluetooth codecs, and you can listen by wire too, which is good for those with high-resolution music libraries.
What are the advantages of over-ear headphones?
Over-ear headphones generally offer better sound quality and more accurate reproduction of auditory space (or soundstage). The drivers emit sound waves that use the pinna (a part of the ear) to funnel sound down to your ear canal, which emulates how we typically hear the world around us. For greater accuracy, some headset manufacturers use multi-driver systems.
Since over-ear headphones encompass your ears, comfort is better with over-ears than with on-ears. The large ear cups lend themselves nicely to effective weight distribution around the ear and across the headband. Another benefit of the larger design: battery life (if wireless) is better. There’s more room for hardware like batteries. You can enjoy hours and hours of playback without searching for a charging cable.
What are the disadvantages of over-ear headphones?
Full-fledged headphones are relatively difficult to transport. Even the most travel-friendly headphones can’t compare to compact options like true wireless earphones or even foldable on-ears. Another inconvenience of wired headphones is that they might require external power, though it’s rare. You’re unlikely to encounter a headset that requires a dedicated amplifier unless you have audiophile taste and an audiophile’s budget.
Further reading: The best over-ear headphones
If you like the look of over-ear headphones, but want something a bit more compact, then on-ears may be just right for you. These are supra-aural, meaning they rest directly on your ears rather than around them.
Recommended on-ear headphones:
- AKG N60NC: These headphones are a few years old, but they still keep up with the best of them. AKG’s noise-cancelling is highly effective, and the clamping force is just enough to keep the headphones secure without causing pain, something we experienced with the Beats Solo Pro. The sound quality is very good, but battery life isn’t anything special relative to modern alternatives.
- Grado SR80e: This is the open-back headset to get if you’ve never tried open-back headphones before. The SR80e costs just $99 USD and reproduces audio with great accuracy across the frequency spectrum.
- Jabra Elite 45h: Get these on-ear headphones if you don’t want to worry about charging your headset. These last 54 hours on a single charge and support efficient fast charging: 15 minutes of charge via USB-C cable provides 10 hours of playtime. Jabra’s headset reproduces accurate audio, but it isn’t perfect, as clarity is only okay.
What are the advantages of on-ear headphones?
The on-ear design is portable enough for commuting, and many headsets feature joints that allow you to further compact the headset for travel. One of our favorite travel headsets is the AKG N60NC because it ticks every important box: effective noise-cancelling, a comfortable fit, and good sound quality. Like over-ear headphones, accurate audio is fairly easy to achieve with on-ear designs, again, because the larger diaphragms drive audio into your ear canals.
Another shared advantage with over-ear headphones is that on-ear headphones have larger batteries than earbud alternatives so that you can enjoy longer playtime. Some on-ear headsets even run circles around their over-ear competitors.
What are the disadvantages of on-ear headphones?
Good isolation is hard to achieve with an on-ear fit. This means minor adjustments, even wiggling your ears, can dislodge the perfect fit and allow external noise in. This kind of build also tends to be the least comfortable of the bunch, especially if you wear glasses. But there exist a handful of comfortable options for devout fans of on-ear headsets.
Learn more: The best on-ear headphones
Earbuds are often referred to as in-ears and used to be an automatic inclusion with any smartphone or MP3 player purchase. In-ears are great because they’re portable, affordable, and usually house some form of a control module.
- Beats Powerbeats: The Powerbeats wireless earbuds are great for athletes who want a headset with long battery life and a secure fit. They use Apple’s H1 chip, so if you have an iPhone, you benefit from advanced features like hands-free Siri access and automatic device switching between Apple devices.
- Beyerdynamic Soul Byrd: The Soul Byrd are some of the most comfortable wired earbuds around. The housings feature flat panels that don’t protrude from the ear at all, making the Soul Byrd a great pair of earphones for listeners who enjoy music or podcasts from bed.
- Etymotic ER4SR: This is a great pair of in-ear monitors that boasts accurate audio quality and plenty of ear tip options so that you can find the best fit. The MMCX connectors extend the lifetime of the earphones because you can replace the cable if it breaks.
What are the advantages of earbuds?
Whether you get wired or wireless earbuds, these are very easy to transport. You can toss them in your bag without taking up any space or crumple them into a pocket if you don’t mind a mess of cables. Passive isolation is very good with earbuds that seal to the ear because they create a clear barrier between your eardrums and the outside world. This is dependent on your ability to find the proper ear tips, though.
Wireless earbuds, especially, are great for athletes. They’re compact and have easily accessible control modules. Wireless earbuds usually warrant some kind of official water-resistance rating, which is a must-have for gym rats.
What are the disadvantages of earbuds?
Accurate audio reproduction across the frequency range is typically harder to achieve with earbuds because of the smaller drivers. There are plenty of audiophile in-ears, but they generally cost significantly more than headphones with similar audio quality.
Earbuds rarely have replaceable cables, meaning their lifespans are shorter than alternative headsets.
Wires get tangled easily, and this can be a real pain for some people. Tangled cables are less often a problem when you use traditional wireless earbuds, but it still happens. If you untangle your cables with brute force, you run the risk of fraying them or snapping the headphone jack termination. These cables are rarely replaceable, which means you usually have to buy a new set of earbuds. This is less often an issue with headphones, as most come with replaceable cables. You can, however, get a pair of IEMs with MMCX cables like the Shure SE215.
More: The best earbuds of 2021
True wireless earbuds
These are the latest in audio technology, but the jury’s still out on whether or not true wireless earbuds are the greatest option available to consumers. True wireless earbuds feature many of the same advantages as standard earbuds (wired and wireless), but these cut the cord completely.
Recommended true wireless earbuds:
- Apple AirPods Pro: If you have an iPhone, these are the best true wireless earbuds you can get. They work seamlessly with iOS, offer very good noise-cancelling, and an advanced DSP for things like Adaptive EQ. The IPX4 rating means you can take the AirPods Pro to the gym or out during a springtime shower. Android users don’t benefit to the same degree as iPhone users and are better off with any number of AirPods alternatives.
- Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro: These are among the best all-around true wireless earphones you can buy. They boast excellent standalone battery life, fast charging, and a consumer-friendly sound profile. Its Galaxy Wearable app is comprehensive, and Samsung is great about updating its earphones with significant features.
- Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2: These noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds are ideal for anyone who values an elegant design and top-notch ANC. You can adjust the frequency response from Sennheiser’s mobile app and enjoy premium features like AAC and aptX support.
What are the advantages of true wireless earbuds?
If you need the greatest portability, true wireless earbuds are your best option. All models, regardless of cost, include a carrying case that doubles as a charging case. You can easily pocket any true wireless headset and not worry about untangling cables later. Since these earbuds lack wires, they’re the perfect companion for athletes who engage in vigorous activities like HIIT workouts.
Totally wireless earbuds are chock-full of software features and normalized the idea that earbuds can function beyond music playback. If you’re knee-deep in smartwatches, you may want to get a matching set of true wireless earbuds. There are often advantages to staying within the same brand for your watch and earbuds.
What are the disadvantages of true wireless earbuds?
Battery life is not great because the lithium-ion cells are tiny. Rare headsets like the Beats Powerbeats Pro and Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus last about 10 hours, but most fall somewhere between three and five hours of playback on a single charge.
True wireless earbuds aren't built to last for years on end because of the constant charge-deplete cycle of their batteries.
True wireless earbuds aren’t built for long-term use, which ties in directly with their poor standalone battery life. Totally wireless earbuds are constantly subjected to a charge-deplete cycle, which hastens the battery cells’ degradation process. This means that after about two years of daily use, your earbuds may struggle to hold a charge. There’s a chance your earbuds won’t make it to this point because true wireless earphones are easy to lose. You might fumble an earbud and lose it to a sewer grate if you aren’t careful.
Read on: The best true wireless earbuds
Whether your primary console is a PlayStation 5, an Xbox Series X, or a Nintendo Switch, a gaming headset can improve your experience. Headsets often come with virtual surround sound software that recreates a more realistic sense of three-dimensional space, and the sound quality is typically better than your standard TV speakers. If you don’t want to buy a dedicated gaming headset, you can always attach a boom mic to your favorite pair of headphones.
Recommended gaming headsets:
- Audio-Technica ATH-G1: This is a no-frills wired gaming headset for listeners who value sound and microphone quality above all else. It’s a plug-and-play affair that works with any 3.5mm input. Alternatively, the HyperX Cloud Alpha is a great wired gaming headset.
- Corsair Virtuoso Wireless SE: This gaming headset has excellent microphone quality, a sleek design, and great battery life. Unlike most gaming headsets, the Virtuoso Wireless SE does a good job of blocking out background noise, which is a must-have for gamers with multiple roommates.
- SteelSeries Arctis 1 Wireless: This headset sounds great, looks great, and is a great value. Plenty of gaming headsets rely on gimmicks like RGB LEDs and near useless software, but this wireless gaming headset is a great option for the casual and enthusiast gamer.
What are the advantages of owning a dedicated gaming headset?
Gaming headsets give you the edge over non-headset-wearing gamers because they reproduce a more realistic soundscape that more accurately represents how we perceive sound on a day-to-day basis. What’s more, a gaming headset is really just a fancy bundle of a pair of headphones and a microphone. Proprietary software typically accompanies wireless gaming headsets, and this allows you to enable certain features and even customize the sound profile. Since gaming headsets really are just a glorified bundle, it’s often more affordable to buy a gaming headset than it would be to buy a comparable pair of headphones with an external microphone.
If you’re one of the lucky ones who own a PlayStation 5, you’ll want to buy a dedicated gaming headset like the Pulse 3D Wireless Headset to take full advantage of the console’s integrated Tempest 3D AudioTech. This uses object-based 3D surround sound, similar (but different from) Sony 360 Reality Audio.
What are the disadvantages of buying a dedicated gaming headset?
Not all gaming headsets are created equally, and plenty of gaming headsets rely on fancy marketing jargon and seemingly useful specs to lure consumers in. It can be hard to discern the wheat from the chaff, and if you purchase without doing your research, you might just end up wasting a few hundred dollars. Fortunately, our sister site SoundGuys developed a concise guide on what to look for when shopping for a gaming headset.
Gaming headsets feature a distinct design, one often defined by glowing lights, RGB color schemes, and blocky or angular housings. This may appeal to you, or it might not. One thing’s for sure, though, the distinct design makes it hard to bring a Bluetooth-enabled gaming headset out into the public sphere without catching the attention of passersby.
Wired or wireless headphones
You also have to decide between wired or wireless options within each category, save for true wireless earbuds. Most Bluetooth headphones include an audio input for wired listening, but they’re generally more expensive than their solely wired alternatives. It’s also important to consider your smartphone: does it even have a headphone jack? If not, are you okay with connecting your wired headset to a dongle adapter every time you need to use it? You may decide to save wired listening for the home and take wireless headphones out for your commutes.
Related: Best Bluetooth headphones
Open vs. closed-back headphones
Within the on-ear or over-ear variety of headphones are open- and closed-back headphones.
Recommended open-back headphones:
- Monoprice Monolith M1060: These headphones are huge and feature planar magnetic drivers, giving headphones that cost four times as much a run for their money.
- Grado SR80e: Again, if you’re just starting to experiment with open-back headphones, you can’t go wrong with Grado’s famed SR80e headset.
- Philips Fidelio X2: These are extremely comfortable headphones and are especially good for anyone with glasses. The velour earpads wrap around spectacle frames, which makes for a great fit for long-term listening.
Recommended closed-back headphones:
- Beyerdynamic DT 770 Studio (80Ω): These over-ear, closed-back headphones are as comfortable as they are durable. You can replace the ear pads, which extends the life of the headset, and they have a consumer-friendly frequency response, bound to please enthusiasts who enjoy bass and treble emphasis.
- Drop x Sennheiser HD 6XX: This is the pair of headphones to get for enjoying music from your desktop. These headphones require a significant amount of power, so you will likely need an external amplifier to get the best experience.
- Sony MDR-7506: There’s a reason this headset is in studios around the world. The MDR-7506 is a reliable, well-constructed set of headphones that costs significantly less than the competition.
Open-back headphones have grills that expose part of the driver elements, and the closed-back headphones are completely sealed. The benefit to open-back headphones is that outside noise can freely pass through the ear cups, emulating a more natural or “open,” sound. You really wouldn’t want this for use beyond your home or a studio because everyone can hear what you’re playing.
Closed-back headphones, on the other hand, are much more popular and versatile. Sound bounces around the enclosed chamber but ultimately has no escape to the outside world.
Active noise-cancelling (ANC) technology
Active noise-cancelling headphones, ANC earbuds, and ANC true wireless earphones are great options for airplane frequenters and remote workers alike. They’re different from noise-isolating headphones because they emit destructive interference to nullify environmental noise. When done well, noise-cancelling headphones can really make your surroundings melt away.
Recommended active noise-cancelling headphones:
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II: These headphones may be a bit dated, but they stand the test of time and remain the most comfortable headphones on the market. If you value comfort and portability above all else, look no further than the Bose QC 35 II.
- Microsoft Surface Headphones 2: Microsoft’s headphones demonstrate the best execution of Bluetooth multipoint we’ve tested, and the noise-cancelling is good too.
- Sony WH-1000XM4: Sony has earned its keep in the audio market’s ANC sector, and its latest noise-cancelling headphones are some of the best around.
Not only will a good pair of ANC headphones make your commute more enjoyable and your roommates less annoying, but the technology can also protect your hearing in the long run. With standard headphones and earbuds, we tend to increase media volume to block out background noise. But prolonged, repeated exposure to loud sounds will damage the mechanisms that allow your brain to perceive sound. When you enable noise-cancelling on a pair of headphones, you don’t have that same need to increase the loudness of your music.
Read on: Best noise-cancelling headphones
What else should you look for when buying headphones?
There are plenty of other features to consider when picking out a pair of headphones, and it all depends on your specific use case. Commuters and frequent flyers may want to splurge on a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones, while athletes may want durable earbuds. Audiophiles may be more inclined to don a pair of open-back headphones than a general consumer would be.
Bluetooth codecs affect wireless audio quality
When on the hunt for a good pair of Bluetooth headphones or wireless earbuds, you need to consider Bluetooth codecs; these determine audio quality and reduce latency. Some Bluetooth codecs perform better on certain smartphones than others.
iPhone owners should get a wireless headset with AAC support, as this is the only high-quality Bluetooth codec that Apple devices support. Android smartphone owners should keep their eyes out for aptX support. Even though Android supports AAC streaming, AAC’s performance is inconsistent across the Android operating system. What’s more, LDAC, while an excellent codec, isn’t always a consistent performer either.
Battery life varies across types of Bluetooth headphones
If you’re determined to buy a pair of wireless earbuds or headphones, you will need to charge your headset now and then. Most Bluetooth headphones last anywhere from 20-30 hours on a single charge. Another thing to consider with battery life: fast charging. Most wireless headsets support some kind of fast charging, but the efficiency varies depending on your specific model of headphones. The standard used to be that 10 minutes of charging supplied 60 minutes of playback, but companies like OnePlus lap this a few times over.
Frequency response: every headset reproduces audio differently
If you’ve shopped around long enough for headphones, you’ve likely come across a specification detail that reads something like 20Hz-20kHz. This tells you the frequency range of sound that a headset is capable of producing. The accepted range of human hearing is 20Hz-20kHz, which is why this is an oft-cited range on headphones. The range alone doesn’t tell the whole story, though.
A neutral or “flat” frequency response reproduces all notes with equal loudness, but this is a platonic ideal and virtually impossible to achieve given physical limitations. If a headset were to have a perfectly neutral frequency response, it would sound the same as the artist and engineers intended, with each note’s loudness equal to all others. While many people seek and pay top dollar for this kind of sound, some listeners prefer deviations.
An accurate frequency response is great for studio use, but many consumers prefer bass emphasis.
Most consumer-oriented headphones typically amplify bass and treble notes. This kind of frequency response adds that familiar “oomph” to your favorite tunes while making it easier to hear harmonic detail from treble notes (e.g., resonances from a guitar strum).
If bass notes are too loud relative to other frequency ranges, it can lead to auditory masking. Our sister site SoundGuys breaks auditory masking down into great detail, but the long and the short of it is this: it’s a phenomenon that occurs when a loud sound makes it hard to hear a relatively quiet one. It’s a limitation of the human brain, which only has so much processing power for auditory stimuli.
Microphone quality matters for personal and professional calls
Whether you work remotely or just like to spend your free time on the phone, microphone quality matters. Your best bet for optimal voice transmission is a headset with an external microphone (e.g., gaming headsets), but not everyone wants to walk around with a boom mic attached to their person. If that’s the case, there are plenty of headsets with very good embedded microphones.
One of our favorite headsets for taking phone calls is the Shure Aonic 50. Otherwise, the Sennheiser PXC 550-II is very good, as are the Sony WH-1000XM4 and the WH-1000XM3. Anyone looking for a compact pair of earbuds with a good mic system should look into the Apple AirPods Pro, Google Pixel Buds (2020), or Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro.
Software features and updates (wireless only)
Whether it’s a smartwatch, smart speaker, or smartphone, almost any wireless product supports software updates, and wireless headsets are no exception. Software updates are important because they keep your products going with modern features and improve things like microphone quality. Some companies gatekeep access to software updates and certain features, while others make them universally available across operating systems.
If you have an iPhone, you may be familiar with the AirPods and AirPods Pro, Apple’s famed true wireless earbuds. Well, you can only access software updates for the AirPods line of audio products if you own an Apple source device (e.g., iPhone or iPad). If you have an Android device, you can still connect to the AirPods, but you can’t access some of its important features, nor can you perform basic functions like updating its software. Apple isn’t the only company to do this: OnePlus tried it, but since made its firmware updates available to all platforms.
Software features are important to consider when buying wireless headphones.
Software features and mobile companion apps are a great addition to wireless headphones because they let you reconfigure the onboard controls, tweak the frequency response (virtual EQ modules), find your earbuds, and more. These apps are free to download, but you may want to read the terms of service before downloading an audio app, or any app for that matter.
IP ratings, dust, and water-resistance
Ingress Protection (IP) ratings are awarded to products that pass certain rigors. A common IP rating is IPX4. This means that a product is fairly water-resistant but can’t be fully submerged. The X is a placeholder for a dust-resistance rating, which is harder to find in headsets. We have a full rundown of these ratings here.