Headphone Buying Guide
How to Choose the Perfect Pair

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

If you’re still using the earbuds that came with your phone or other gadget, you may want to consider an upgrade. You have many 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 in the latest trend, 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 large models that used to be worn primarily at home, 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 on-cord controls for volume, and to connect and disconnect 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 typically larger headphones that look like earmuffs, the two earpieces connected by an adjustable headband. Most are corded, with wires that run from 3 to 8 feet long—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—with Bluetooth or other technologies that connect to a smartphone or tablet without the cord.

Find Our Picks for Top-Rated Headphones

Tips on Finding the Right Pair for You

Evaluate sound quality
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.

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. Smaller, more portable models might sacrifice some sound quality, but they are definitely handy. Earbuds and insert models are great for listening to music on the go. If you’ll be doing a lot of flying, consider headphones with active noise-reduction technology.

For the best sound, stick with corded models
For serious music listening, we recommend one of the better-rated corded models. We found that many newer wireless headphones work well, too, and some are quite good, but we haven’t found any yet that provide the sonic clarity of the best wired models.

Types: A Model to Fit Every Ear

Your choice of type is highly personal. Many listeners are comfortable wearing insert-style earphones that go into 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. But others balk at their bulk or complain that they interfere with eyeglasses or earrings. Depending on what you’ll use them for most often, you might want to consider 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-the-Ear

These come in two types. The “closed” 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. “Open” 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.

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

On-Ear

These are typically lighter than over-the-ear models and don’t press on the sides of your head; rather, they press on the ears. Many wearers find them more comfortable and less likely to make their 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.

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, forming a seal that can help keep out extraneous sounds. 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. While many wireless models have a wire of some sort connecting the two earbuds or cups, companies like Apple and Samsung have also developed “true wireless” models, which don’t have any wires between the earbuds or cups.

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

Noise-Reduction

Noise-canceling headphones are good for anyone who wants to listen to music or movie dialog without being disturbed by outside noise. The design of some models offers 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 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. 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 cancellation activated, so if the batteries die, you can’t use them. You can also use the noise-canceling feature when you’re not listening to music, to reduce outside noise.

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 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. Here are some important features that will help you to keep on loving your headphones over the long haul.

Apple sells headphones to accompany its iPod, iPad, and iPhone products. Among these offerings are AirPods, a pair of “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.
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-the-ear headphones.
Monster, best known for its line of Monster Cable 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’s offerings consist of in-ear 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.
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
Sony is a leading brand in the headphone market. It covers all types and styles, at all price ranges, with wide distribution.
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