The Best Headphones for 2020

When people find out I’ve written more than 1,000 audio reviews for Audio Engineering Associates over the last 13 years, the first thing they usually want to know is what the best headphones are. But to me that’s like being asked what the best music is. Sure, we all have favorites, but the category is too broad to break down so simply. The real question is, what are the right headphones for you? And to answer this, we have to consider your personal tastes, your desire for extra features, and, of course, your budget.

Earphones vs. Headphones

Earbuds do not seal off the ear canal and typically offer the worst audio performance of the bunch.  Earphones  seal off the ear canal and therefore offer better bass response, a more accurate stereo mix, and a more secure fit.

 On-ear headphones  (which are also called supra-aural headphones) typically have smaller earcups that rest on the ear. Over-ear headphones (aka circumaural headphones) have larger earcups that rest around the ear. All of these headphones can be wired or wireless.

Over-ear headphones are typically going to provide a more immersive experience than on-ear headphones, but this isn’t a rule—plenty of on-ears sound amazing, and can even offer a little bit of passive noise isolation with the use of well-cushioned earpads. The main reasons to consider one over the other are comfort (and this will vary from person to person) and portability (on-ear pairs are often smaller and more travel-friendly).

Wired vs. Wireless Headphones

Ever since Apple eliminated the headphone jack on the iPhone, wired headphones and earphones have faded from the forefront of this category in favor of  Bluetooth models  that require no cable at all. And the latest cable-free trends,  true wireless headphones , don’t even have a wire connecting the two earpieces.

Audiophiles will probably still prefer a cable, particularly for home listening (and a small cable adapter can be purchased for iOS devices with no headphone jack). If you prefer wired headphones, there are still a multitude of options available, but it’s also worth noting that plenty of wireless headphones come with a cable and can be used in passive mode, which doesn’t drain the battery, giving you the best of both worlds.

The sonic advantage of wired headphones is still quite significant, even if Bluetooth audio has improved dramatically in recent years. No matter how much better Bluetooth has gotten, it is still based on a lossy codec stream, making it inherently inferior to a wired audio connection. The same can be said, incidentally, for inline microphones versus mics on wireless headphones—if you require crystal clear mic intelligibility for calls, it’s going to be hard for any wireless pair to beat the clarity of a wired microphone, though there are some wireless models that have made great strides in this realm, especially as HD Voice has been integrated into mobile devices.

If sonics are important to you and you want to go wireless, pay attention to what Bluetooth codecs the headphones support. Android devices will often use AptX and/or AAC codecs for streaming, while Apple devices typically use AAC (though Apple computers can be set to use AptX). This is important mainly because not all headphones support both, and if you buy a pair that doesn’t support the codec your device is using, the headphones will still stream audio, but they will default to the SBC codec that all Bluetooth devices use, and SBC is a lower-quality stream than what AAC and AptX deliver.

Headphone Drivers

Headphones are most typically going to have dynamic drivers, while earphones may have dynamics drivers or balanced armature drivers. Especially in headphones, dynamic drivers are the most common, because a larger dynamic driver—which the ear enclosure for a pair of headphone can accomodate—can get louder and produce more bass depth. In earphones, the dynamic drivers have to be much smaller, and this can often affect bass response.

Many manufacturers, especially those in the business of making custom-molded in-ear monitors for musicians and engineers, turn to balanced armature drivers instead. Balanced armatures have the advantage of being tiny, thus, the earpieces themselves can be smaller. Or, in the case of the aforementioned custom in-ear monitors, the earpieces can be quite large—freeing up room internally for several balanced armatures per ear, with each driver handling a specific frequency range and tuned accordingly. Generally speaking, it’s possible to get excellent audio—or poor audio—from both dynamic and balanced armature drivers, although the two styles have certainly attracted their own fan bases.

In both headphones and earphones, a somewhat new type of driver is emerging, the planar magnetic driver. It’s typically a (much) more expensive option, and is usually the main selling point. The advantage planar magnetic drivers have, ostensibly, is a more precise sound thanks to the flat, larger-than-a-dynamic-driver film that is used to create the audio when it’s vibrated between two magnets.

Electrostatic speakers and headphones are similar to planar magnetic headphones in that a large, thin surface area is used to deliver the audio. But we see far fewer electrostatic headphones than any other type—and they are typically through-the-roof expensive, and intended for home use.

What Is Noise Cancellation (ANC)?

 Noise cancellation  used to be one of the most expensive features you could find in headphones, but we are seeing more and more (relatively) affordable options in both the headphone and earphone realms. Not only that, but the shift from wired to wireless headphones in terms of popularity has meant that most of the ANC (active noise cancellation) pairs we see are now wireless.

While this offers a great convenience, never assume that all ANC is the same. Simply put, the best of the ANC realm is quite effective, with Bose leading the category, but plenty of other manufacturers from Apple to Sony offering top-notch options.

When ANC goes wrong, and it often does when spending less than $200, there are three common characteristics. One, it’s just not terribly effective—it doesn’t tamp down low-frequency rumble like it should, or the overall reduction in surrounding noise isn’t profound enough to make it a compelling feature. Two, the ANC circuitry creates a faint hiss—not necessarily unpleasant, but certainly audible (similar to white noise or tape hiss). This is often to mask the fact that the ANC circuitry can’t effectively tamp down some higher-frequency sounds, so the attempt is made to cover it with a hiss. And finally, lower-quality ANC, when combined with wireless headphones in particular, can have the unfortunate side effect of altering the sound signature of the headphones when turned on.

So, when we’re describing good ANC, it’s more or less the opposite—low frequencies are effectively squashed, surrounding chatter and typical environmental noises are tamped down reasonably, and high-frequency hiss is just barely audible. The sound signature also shouldn’t sound wildly different when the ANC is engaged. Beyond that, several manufacturers, like Bose, offer apps that let you adjust ANC levels, or types of ANC (to focus on specific frequency realms).

Not all ANC headphones include mics for an ambient listening mode, but plenty now do. The point is to allow for you to hear your surroundings as if you didn’t have your headphones on, so you can converse with friends without removing them, or hear train station announcements. It’s become a popular-enough feature that plenty of non-ANC now have this feature too.

Headphones for Exercise

Aside from sometimes offering ambient mics for hearing your surroundings, exercise-focused headphones and earphones typically offer water-resistant builds, extra in-ear fit security accessories, and, in some cases, apps that help you monitor your workout. Since most people who use apps have already settled on one for exercise, we’re seeing that quite a bit less, though there are some JBL/Under Armour co-branded options that feature MapMyRun app tie-ins.

The most important feature of any exercise-focused headphones remains the IP rating. IP stands for ingress protection, and you’ll often see ratings like IPX7 or IP65. The third number presents protection against solids like dust (X acts as a placeholder, usually because the product wasn’t actually tested for dust or solids), while the fourth number describes protection against fluids like water and sweat. 

As mentioned, another consideration is in-ear fit. We all have different ears, and some earphones fit better than others. If you’ve had trouble getting in-ears to stay in place in the past, consider a pair that comes with multiple eartips, and earfins that sit against the ear to help add stability. It’s also worth it to considering foam eartips (which sometimes ship with in-ears, but are less common than silicone), as foam tips will expand in the canal to create a stronger seal, much like earplugs. They also often have the added benefit of increasing bass response.

Voice Assistants and Smart Headphones

Most wireless headphones now include a button that will summon your phone’s built-in voice assistant. But the next frontier is headphones that are always listening, like  smart speakers . We’ve only tested a few thus far that can summon a voice assistant with a wake word or phrase (like “Hey Siri” or “Alexa”), but it seems the trend is likely to gain steam heading into 2020.

How Much Should You Spend on Headphones?

Quality and performance can certainly cost money, though that isn’t always the case and they aren’t the only factors that dictate the price of headphones. Currently, certain technologies—true wireless and ANC being the two most obvious examples—tend to drive up price. That doesn’t mean you can’t find affordable true wireless in-ears, but the higher-quality options tend to kick in around $150, while most excellent noise-canceling headphones start around $300. Iconic branding—think Apple, Beats, and Bose, to name a few—also impact pricing.

In short, you can pay as little as  $50 for good earphones or headphones , and far more than $1,000 for  audiophile models . Generally speaking, the range we see most quality options fall in is from $100 to $400. with plenty of strong in-ears, over-ears, and on-ears available in the $100 to $200 range.

AirPod Alternatives: The Best True Wireless Earbuds for 2020

Wireless vs. Wire-Free Earbuds

If you think the term “true wireless” sounds like sales jargon, we’re with you. Regardless of whether you call them “true wireless,” “cable-free,” or “wire-free,” the important distinction between these and typical  earphones  is the complete lack of a cable connecting the earpieces.

If you simply want a pair of Bluetooth earphones for exercise and don’t mind a cable connecting the earpieces behind your neck, you can stop reading now and head over to our list of  The Best Wireless Headphones . That said, there is something liberating about going completely wire-free.

You might notice that the standard  AirPods  aren’t on this list. While Apple may have popularized the true wireless category, the AirPods have their fair share of shortcomings compared with the competition, particularly Apple’s own AirPods Pro, which we like a lot better.

With that in mind, let’s walk through some of the key criteria to consider when shopping for a true wireless pair.

On-Ear Controls

If there’s one complication many models share in the operation department, it’s that it’s easy to accidentally pause music, skip a track, or summon a voice assistant when you merely meant to take an earpiece out or adjust it slightly. There’s not a lot of real estate on most of the earpieces we’ve tested, and thus much of the outer panel area is devoted to housing controls.

Newer models manage to strike a balance between operability and layout. Some use actual tactile buttons to control playback, call management, track navigation, and volume. Some others cleverly divide controls between the two earpieces with touch panels—tapping the left ear, for instance, will skip a track backward, while tapping the right will skip forward. Despite needing to do a little more thinking before you tap, eventually the division of controls between the two earpieces reveals itself to be intuitive. So on-ear control panels are getting more creative and user-friendly, but there’s still a ways to go before they catch up with traditional wireless models.

As for Bluetooth pairing, you won’t find an easier pairing process than with the AirPods or the Powerbeats Pro (if you have an iOS device), which essentially do all the work for you the second you turn them on thanks to Apple’s H1 (or older W1) headphone chip. Other pairs are still relatively simple to connect in your phone’s Bluetooth settings menu.

True Wireless Battery Life

Battery life is the Achilles’ heel of the true wireless category. The typical estimated battery life (and keep in mind your results will vary with volume levels) tops out around six hours. It kills a battery fast when you need to power two earpieces separately.

The necessary solution that (nearly) all of these designs share in common is a charging case. Each case protects the earpieces when not in use, and charges them simultaneously. Most of the cases carry two extra full charges, so you can recharge your earphones on the go. It’s not unlikely that this weak aspect of the true wireless realm will improve to the point that it will no longer be an issue.

What If I Lose an Earpiece?

This is, understandably, a concern of many potential true wireless users. Allow us to allay your fears—we can say that after over a year of testing, you have to try pretty hard to lose one earpiece. First off, just about every pair we’ve tested offers an extremely secure in-ear fit without sacrificing comfort. Most of the earpieces are larger than typical in-ears, while still maintaining a lightweight feel, making the likelihood of losing one while exercising (or at any other time) fairly low.

As for simply misplacing an earpiece when not in use, this also seems unlikely. The charging case is intrinsically tied to the user experience—like hanging up the phone or turning the TV off when you’re finished watching, you’ll automatically reach for the case to stow and charge the earphones. To put it another way: You’re far more likely to misplace the whole thing—the case with both earpieces inside—than you are to misplace one earpiece.

If you do somehow lose one earpiece only, however, plenty of companies like Apple will gladly sell you an extra one à la carte for less than the price of a new full set. If losing an earpiece still seems like something you can imagine happening to you, it’s worth researching whether the model you’re interested in offers this option.

Exercise-Friendly Designs

Surprisingly, many of these wire-free models can be used at the gym and even get wet, despite the fact that each earpiece has an exposed charging contact on the inside. Check the  IP rating  of these; some workout-friendly earphones are only IPX4-rated, so they can stand up to sweat but might be hard to wash. Others are IPX7-rated, which means they can survive getting rinsed and dunked.

If durability and a true waterproof design are your main priorities, you’ll either need to sacrifice some user-friendliness, or opt for a traditional neckband-style wireless design. Thus far, most of the earphones that are bundled with fitness apps or heart rate monitors have been in the neckband/cabled realm.

Earphones With Apps

Many of the models we’ve tested use apps designed by the manufacturer to control various parameters and the setup process. Some let you set auto-off timers, disable voice prompts, and control playback. Others feature user-adjustable EQ and/or an ambient-listening modes (for listening to the sound around you) that can be adjusted.

Get Ready to Spend

There is a marked difference between our Editors’ Choices in the true wireless category, and a typical tether-together wireless pair. You can get good wireless, neckband-style in-ears for $40, but typically, you can expect to spend at least twice as much for true wireless. (Though there are a couple quality, super-affordable exceptions, but they’re not the norm.) The base price for most true wireless options is around $100, with the very best models costing as much as $200 or even $300. If you’re looking for a pair with  noise cancellation , you’re definitely going to be spending closer to $200 or more.

On the plus side, the category has gone past the early adopter premium if you know where to look. We’ve even gathered the finest pairs we’ve tested under $130 in our story on  The Best Cheap True Wireless Earbuds . No matter how much you spend, check out our story on  6 Ways You’re Using Your Headphones Wrong  to get the most out of your purchase.

We’ll be testing more true wireless pairs as they are released, but here you’ll find the highest-rated models we’ve seen so far.

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Review


  • Accurate, clean audio performance across the full frequency range.
  • Comfortable, secure fit for long listening sessions.
  • Durable.
  • Passively reduces ambient noise significantly.


  • Cable is not detachable.
  • More appropriate for professional/studio use than personal listening.

The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro, a $99.95 (direct)  headphone  pair designed for professional studio use, was released in 2003, before I began writing for Audio Engineering Associates. However, I often use it as something of a standard to A-B test similar types of pairs with, so it seemed appropriate to give a proper full-length review. A no-frills, exceedingly comfortable pair, the powerful and accurate HD 280 Pro is ideal for recording and mixing applications. It proves the term “flat response” doesn’t mean “no bass.” There’s plenty of rich, articulate low frequency response here, but the entire frequency range is dutifully represented. At this reasonable price, this is where your search for a pair of studio headphones should begin. It may well end here, too.

For a recording studio headphone pair, the single most important design element, after the drivers that produce the audio, is long-term comfort. Sessions last a long time. People sweat, gravity presses headbands into skulls. The HD 280 Pro ($99.95 at Amazon)  does an admirable job of keeping long-term sessions more or less fatigue-free. Sure, if you don’t take them off for hours at a time, you can expect some sweaty ear cups, perhaps, or some minor discomfort along the headband. But as someone who wears these headphones on a more or less daily basis, I can tell you they fit securely and comfortably for long sessions.

There are pairs with more plushness to the ear pads, like the  NuForce HP-800 , but the HD 280 Pro is unlikely to be described as uncomfortable by many users, and it passively blocks out up to thirty decibels of ambient/room noise. If you blast these while recording near a mic, there will be some sound leakage, but they don’t bleed like an open pair would—their circumaural (around the ear), snug fit prevents most sounds from escaping, provided you listen at moderate levels. The ear cups are swivel-mounted, which allows for an even more secure fit as they adjust automatically to the shape of your head. The headband is easily adjustable and stays in place.

Unlike the NuForce HP-800, the HD 280 Pro lacks a detachable cable. The HP-800 is a newer design, in an era when detachable cables are becoming more and more a design staple, so it’s hard to knock the HD 280 Pro too hard for not having one. But it would be a welcome update on Sennheiser’s part, as a detachable cable can extend the life of your headphones significantly. Cables are the most common culprit when a headphone pair begins to malfunction, and replacing the cable instead of replacing or repairing the whole thing is a far more affordable option.

The non-removable cable features a thick coil, and it terminates in a 3.5mm connection. The sole included accessory is a ¼-inch adapter for larger headphones jacks. A carrying pouch would be nice.

Lest this review begin to sound like a love letter, let me be clear about one thing: The HD 280 Pro is far from my favorite pair of headphones. I’ve heard options, like the  Grado GS1000 , that have made me giddy with excitement—until I realized the price was, well, a bit out of my budget. But the real difference we’re talking about here is not price—it’s application. The HD 280 Pro is a professional studio headphone pair—basically, a measurement tool for recording, mix, and mastering engineers, as well as performers.

A pair like the aforementioned Grado offers a sound signature and a wide, deep stage that makes the music feel almost palpable. The precision of a pair like the HD 280 Pro is more surgical than magical, but here is where it separates itself from the typical, flat, light-on-bass studio reference pair. The HD 280 Pro packs plenty of low-end. Its impedance of 64 Ohms means that, depending on your sound source, it may not get brain-meltingly loud (but this is a good thing). This fact, combined with the superb quality of the drivers, means distortion will also be a rarity.Sennheiser HD 280 Pro inline

Can the HD 280 Pro distort? Sure, but it is very unlikely to happen before your ears start to bleed. Even at very high, unsafe levels, from a variety of sound sources, like a Marantz PM7001 stereo receiver, a Digidesign Digi 003 recording interface, and an iPhone 4S, the HD 280 Pro can handle extremely deep bass without any hints of distorted crackle. If you want to pulverize the headphones and your eardrums, yes, you can achieve distortion, but not at levels you will ever want to actually listen at.

Some headphone pairs manage to avoid distortion on deep bass by, well, avoiding deep bass itself. But the HD 280 Pro’s frequency response starts at the sub-bass realm of 8Hz. Many headphones and earphones don’t start until 15 or 20Hz. What’s more—you can actually hear the presence of these low frequencies. Even better: They are present, but not boosted weirdly. They don’t overtake the mix. On the Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the powerful thump of the kick drum loop is conveyed cleanly and accurately—the Knife mixed it so that you would hear tremendous low frequency content here—but not in a manner so over-the-top that it dominates the rest of the frequency range.

Classical tracks like John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances” sound a little less enthralling than they might sound on a pair with more low and low-mid presence to compliment the lower register strings, like the  Yamaha PRO 500 . But again, we are talking about the difference between a pair to enjoy music on and a clinical tool to make music on. The idea behind this approach has always been: If you can get your mixes to sound exciting and balanced on an accurate pair that doesn’t enhance the sound at all, it’ll likely sound good on the more sculpted consumer options as well. So, while orchestral tracks like this one may not pack the excitement they do on a pair like the Yamaha PRO 500, they are conveyed cleanly and accurately, so the mastering engineer can get a handle on what the actual stereo recording sounds like.

Modern pop, hip-hop, and rock tracks sound excellent on the HD 280 Pro. You almost forget that you’re listening to a pair that doesn’t really sculpt the sound. When mix engineers add a little bass thump to the mix, as many modern producers and engineers often do, the HD 280 Pro handles it beautifully—you hear and feel it, and yet it’s never booming.

On Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” the kick drum loop’s attack packs all the treble edge it should, while the coinciding thump of the drum’s muffled resonance implies power, but doesn’t overwhelm the mix. When the sub-bass synth hits come in after a few measures, they catch your attention—there’s some serious low end here, but it sounds natural, even in a song built on samples and electronic patches. Vocals shine, front-and-center, and the entire mix feels in focus.

If I’m gushing, it’s because I truly have come to rely on the HD 280 Pros for creating and mixing music in my own home studio. You learn to trust a pair like this—if these babies distort at a reasonable listening level, you know you have a problem with your mix. If things sound sibilant here, you had better cut some of the high-mids on your vocal tracks. If the bass sounds smooth and subtle here, it won’t sound crazy and muddy on your stereo system.

If you want something that sounds similar to the HD 280 Pro, but offers more features, like a detachable cable, the slightly more expensive  Shure SRH1440  is an excellent studio option. Also at the higher end of the spectrum, the aforementioned Yamaha PRO 500 offers deep bass and an excellent overall response. The aforementioned NuForce will distort on deep bass tracks at higher volumes, but at modest volumes, and on genres that lack deep bass, it offers a similarly winning combination of accuracy and clarity without making things sound boring. But for $100, it’s very hard to top the HD 280 Pro—it’s a modern classic from a company that has been in the recording business for quite some time, and although it arrives about ten years late, it easily wins our Editors’ Choice award.