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.
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.