Headphone Buying Guide
How to Choose the Perfect Pair

Most of us are tethered to our devices for at least part of the day, listening to music on the go or watching videos on a tablet, laptop, or phone. Our headphones have become more than merely an accessory—they are practically an extension of ourselves. The right pair will let you listen to music at a crowded coffee shop or enjoy a late-night movie without disturbing your sleeping partner.

If you’re still using the earbuds that came with your phone or other gadget, you may want to consider an upgrade. You have a lot choices these days: from tiny, in-ear models that will slip into a shirt pocket to big, over-the-ear models that can help immerse you in the music and make you look (and maybe even feel!) like a DJ. And some models skip wires altogether, leaving nothing but air between you and your music.

Size: B.I.G. or Lil'

Your choice of headphones is as much about your lifestyle (and even personal brand) as it is about your wallet. Some people buy different types for different uses—one, say, for working out and another for relaxing. The lines, however, are blurring. You’ll now see people on the street or on the train wearing larger models that used to be reserved for home use, while others are attached to their earbuds 24/7, even while watching movies or TV.

A person's ear with in-ear headphones on.

Smaller: When Portability Is Paramount

All headphones are technically “portable,” but we use the term to describe small, lightweight models, some of which can be folded and tucked away in a pocket or purse when not in use. This category also includes earbuds for use with smartphones—those that come with a microphone and in-line controls for volume, skipping tracks, and connecting or disconnecting calls. Note that while smaller, lighter headphones are often more comfortable than their bulkier brethren, you might trade sound quality for comfort.

Check Out Our Headphone Ratings Here
A person wearing over-the-ear headphones.

Larger: Where Sound Reigns Supreme

We use the term “home/studio-style” to describe the typically larger headphones that look like earmuffs, with two ear cups connected by an adjustable headband. Many are corded, with 3- to 8-foot wires—so they can be connected to an audio source such as a receiver or TV. Some fold for storage and come with carrying pouches. There are also battery-powered, wireless models—which use Bluetooth or other technology to connect to a smartphone and other devices without the cord.

Find Our Picks for Top-Rated Headphones

Tips on Finding the Right Pair for You

Evaluate Sound Quality
Like speakers, headphones can 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 your purchase can be returned or exchanged for another model.

Choose a Design Suited to Your Expected Use
Over-the-ear models are great for listening at home but could be too large to be easily stowed while you’re traveling. Sometimes smaller, more portable models sacrifice some sound quality, but they are definitely handy, and in-ear headphones are great for listening on the go. If you’ll be doing a lot of flying or you want to block out some sound from your environment, consider buying headphones with active noise-reduction technology.

For the Best Sound, Stick With Wired Models
For serious music listening, we recommend one of the better-rated wired models. We find that many wireless headphones work well, too, and some are quite good, but so far we haven’t found any that provide the sonic clarity of the best corded models.

Types: A Model to Fit Every Ear

Picking the right type of headphones is a highly personal decision. Many listeners are comfortable wearing insert-style earphones that fit in the ear canal or earbuds that rest in the bowl of the ear, but others find them irritating. Some users prefer on-ear or over-ear headphones, while others balk at their size or complain that they interfere with eyeglasses or earrings. Depending on what you plan to use them for, you may also want to consider buying wireless and/or noise-canceling models. Use this guide to help you find the type that suits your specific needs.

Over-the-ear model headphones.

Over-Ear

These come in two types. The “closed back” models have sealed ear cups, which keep in more sound and muffle ambient noise. But they might also block out some things you want to hear, such as a doorbell or a ringing phone. “Open back” headphones have openings in the ear cups, which are intended to give the audio a clearer, more natural feel. They’ll let in more external sound, but noise can bleed out as well—perhaps enough to disturb someone nearby.

Our Stereo Headphones Ratings
A pair of on-ear headphones.

On-Ear

These are typically lighter than over-ear models, and they press on the ears instead of the sides of your head. Some users find them to be more comfortable than over-ear models and less likely to make their ears hot during long listening sessions. On-ear headphones, like over-the-ear, also come in open-back and closed-back varieties, but regardless, they often let in more outside sound because they typically don’t form as tight of a seal with the ear. Some can fold for storage and come with carrying pouches.

Our Noise-Canceling Headphone Ratings
Photo of a pair of in-ear headphones.

In-Ear

Earbuds rest in the bowl of the ear, outside the ear canal, though a portion might extend into the canal itself. Earbuds are fairly common because they often come with smartphones and portable audio players. Insert-style models are inserted into the ear canal, often forming a seal that can help keep out more extraneous noise. Most come with additional earpieces (canal tips) of varying sizes to ensure a secure fit.

Explore Our Headphone Ratings Here
Photo of a pair of wireless headphones.

Wireless

Wireless models are common and typically use Bluetooth, which has a range of up to 30 feet or so, to connect to smartphones; laptops; portable media players, such as iPods; and even some TVs. Over the past few years, some companies have released  “true wireless” models, which don’t have a cable or headband that connects the earpieces. True wireless earphones are especially portable, but they often have a fairly short battery life.

See Our Wireless Headphone Ratings Here
A pair of noise reduction headphones.

Noise-Canceling

Many headphones have an isolating design that physically muffles ambient noise, often referred to as “passive noise-canceling.” Active noise-canceling models go further. These battery-powered headphones use tiny microphones to monitor the frequencies of outside noise, then produce those same frequencies out of phase in an effort to cancel them. Some work with noise reduction turned off, so you can still use them if the batteries die, while others work only with noise cancellation on.

Find Our Noise-Canceling Headphone Ratings Here

Interactive Video Buying Guide

Watch our interactive video below. You can skip to chapters on types, features, and shopping tips.  

Features for Enjoying Your Audio

Many headphones or earphones that seem fine at first can become 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. Here are some important features that will help you to keep on loving your headphones over the long haul.

Headphone Brands

Apple sells headphones to accompany its iPhone, iPad, and iPod products. Among these offerings are AirPods, “true wireless” headphones that don’t have a wire connecting the two buds. Apple has owned headphone maker Beats since 2014.
While Bose’s best-known headphones are large noise-canceling models, it now makes several types, including in-ear models. Products are usually in the higher price range.
The British company Bowers & Wilkins, founded in 1966, produces in-ear and home/studio style headphones, including noise-canceling models. Prices tend to fall in the higher range.
JBL by Harman—part of Harman International, which also owns the AKG, Infinity, JBL, Lexicon, Mark Levinson, and Yurbuds brands—makes midpriced to moderately expensive earbud, insert, and over-ear headphones.
Monster, best known for its line of cables and interconnects, helped to launch the celebrity headphone category with the Beats by Dre line. Monster and Beats have since parted ways, and Monster still offers a wide variety of on-ear, in-ear, and over-ear models.
Samsung, a powerhouse electronics brand in a number of categories, entered the headphone business in 2012. The company offers in-ear and home/studio style models.
Sennheiser is a respected professional audio brand that also offers a wide assortment of consumer headphones. Prices tend to be in the midpriced to higher-priced range.
Skullcandy earned a following with headphone lines that feature trendy designs targeting a younger demographic. The company’s models cover all price segments.
Sony is a leading brand in the headphone market. It covers all types and styles, in all price ranges, with wide distribution.
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