Headphone Buying Guide

Most of us are tethered to our devices for at least part of the day, listening to music on the go, watching videos, or participating in Zoom meetings for work or our social lives. Headphones have become more than merely an accessory—they’re practically an extension of ourselves.

If you’ve spent years listening to the same cheap pair you bought at a convenience store, it might be time to consider an upgrade. You have a lot of choices these days, from tiny, in-ear models that will slip into a pocket to big, over-the-ear cans that can help immerse you in high-fidelity sound. And though Bluetooth has become the norm, there are reasons to consider a wired pair.

Consumer Reports currently has more than 160 models in our ratings. They are all tested for sound quality, along with other characteristics. When it comes to choosing the best headphones, a lot of personal choice is involved—pure audio quality is important to most people, but budget, convenience, and other characteristics matter, too. 

How Big to Go

Your choice of headphones is as much about your lifestyle as it is about your wallet. Some people buy different types for different uses—one, say, for working out and another for relaxing at home or hopping on a video conference—but the lines are blurring. You’ll now see people out for a walk or on the train wearing larger models that used to be reserved for home use, and others are attached to their earbuds 24/7, even while watching videos on their laptops.

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, most of which can be tucked away in a pocket or purse when not in use. Some people find smaller, lighter headphones to be more comfortable, but you might trade sound quality for comfort.

Stereo headphones Ratings
A person wearing over-ear headphones.

Larger: Where Sound Reigns Supreme

We use the term “home/studio style” for the larger headphones that look like earmuffs, with two ear cups connected by an adjustable headband. Some fold for storage and come with carrying pouches. They’re bulkier, but the best-sounding models in our ratings tend to be this style.

Stereo headphones Ratings

Tips on Finding the Right Pair for You

Evaluate Sound Quality
Like speakers, headphones can emphasize (or distort) 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 get in the way while you’re on the go. Sometimes smaller, more portable models sacrifice a little sound quality, but they are definitely handy, and in-ear headphones are easier to manage. If you need some peace and quiet working at home or in other environments, consider headphones with active noise cancellation technology.

For the Best Sound, Stick With a Wire
For serious music listening, we recommend one of the better-rated wired models. We find that many wireless headphones work well, too, and some have excellent sound, but so far we haven’t found any that provide the sonic clarity of the best corded models. (On the other hand, you can find excellent sound quality in some wireless headphones—even true wireless 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-ear headphones.

Over-Ear Headphones

These come in two types. “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 let in more external sound, and noise can bleed out as well—perhaps enough to disturb someone nearby.

Stereo headphones Ratings
On-ear headphones.

On-Ear Headphones

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-ear models, 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.

Stereo headphones Ratings
In-ear headphones.

In-Ear Headphones

Earbuds rest in the bowl of the ear, outside the ear canal, though a portion might extend into the canal itself. Earbuds have become ubiquitous companions for smartphones, and they’re essential tools for millions of people. 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.

Stereo headphones Ratings
Wireless headphones.

Wireless Headphones

Wireless models are common and typically use Bluetooth, which has a range of up to 30 feet or so, to connect to smartphones, laptops, and even some TVs. Once a novelty, wireless models became indispensable in recent years when most phone manufacturers abandoned the headphone jack. They come with a variety of features, from compatibility with Alexa and other digital assistants to ambient sound monitoring modes, which let in noise from your environment on purpose so that you can keep an ear on your surroundings.

Stereo headphones Ratings
Noise canceling headphones.

Noise-Canceling Headphones

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, and others work only with noise cancellation on.

Noise-canceling headphones Ratings
True wireless headphones.

True Wireless Headphones

True wireless is the term for headphones that don’t have a cord or a cable connecting the earpieces. They’re the ultimate when it comes to portability, and the technology has improved over the years, with better sound and more options at lower prices. They come with a carrying case that doubles as a portable charger. When you’re shopping for a true wireless model, consider how many times the case will refuel the headphones on the go before it needs to be plugged in again—the battery life tends to be shorter on these models.

Stereo headphones Ratings

How to Save Money on Your Next Pair

There are a lot of ways you can cut down on the money you're spending on headphones. First and foremost, look past brand names, and don't assume more expensive models are better.

We've found that quality and performance can vary dramatically across different models made by the same manufacturer. And many of the top-scoring models in our ratings come from lesser-known companies at prices that can be hundreds of dollars less than competing products.

Another way to save is to try a refurbished pair. Big retailers such as Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart often sell refurbished headphones. They may have needed repairs or might have simply been cleaned up after being returned for other reasons. Refurbished products don't always come in their original packaging, but you can score big discounts on popular and well-rated models. Check the return policy, but the retailers we've looked at generally offer a warranty.

Believe it or not, you may also want to consider headphone repair before you buy a new set. Not all problems can be fixed for a reasonable price, but if you've shelled out big bucks for a set of headphones, it's worth a look. When we checked it out, typical repairs ranged from as little as $30 to around $70. Check out our guide to headphone repair for details.

Last, take some steps now to keep your current headphones in shape. If you do it right, regular cleaning can keep your headphones working for months or even years longer than they might otherwise.  

Will Your Headphones Break?

Your next pair of headphones shouldn’t just sound great; they should be built to last, too.

That's why we conduct annual member surveys, to get a picture of how well headphones fair in the real world and how satisfied owners are with them. In our most recent headphones survey, more than 18,600 of our members told us about their experiences with more than 22,200 headphones purchased over the past five years.

Our predicted reliability ratings use the data from our surveys to estimate how new models from a particular brand will hold up over the first two years of ownership.

We also assign each brand an owner satisfaction rating, based on the percentage of our members who are extremely likely to recommend the product to friends and family.

You can see a full breakdown of our assessment of predicted reliability and owner satisfaction in our headphones ratings.

How We Test Audio Quality

Every year, CR tests dozens of headphones in our labs. A panel of trained audio technicians assesses each pair by listening to the same set of high-quality music recordings. These tracks were selected to highlight different parts of the audio spectrum—such as bass, midrange, and treble—and different kinds of sounds, such as the spatial ambience of the room the music was recorded in, the delicate nuances of the human voice, and audio passages crowded with tons of different instruments. 

We use the same songs to compare the headphones we’re testing with a standard set of reference models that represent different levels of audio quality, a range of Excellent to Poor in our ratings. That gives us a clear, consistent picture of how each headphone measures up.

It’s important to note that personal preferences influence people’s feelings about what makes for great audio quality. For example, some listeners want the guttural hit of a loud bass note above all else, while others prefer a more clinical sound that lets you pick out all the fine details. At CR we privilege “accuracy” in audio products, or how well the headphones reproduce the sound of an original recording. In other words, the better a pair of headphones rates in our tests, the closer it's going to get you to what the producers created in the studio, with the fewest distortions and sonic quirks.

Video Buying Guide

Watch our video below for more.

Headphone Brands

Apple sells headphones to accompany its iPhones, computers, and other devices. Among these offerings are AirPods, “true wireless” headphones that don’t have a wire connecting the two buds. Apple has also owned headphone maker Beats since 2014.
Bose is practically synonymous with over-ear noise-canceling headphones, but the company makes a variety of products with various styles and features. Products are usually in the higher price range.
Grado, a manufacturer based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is known for handmade headphones geared toward audiophiles. The company’s products tend to be high-end, but it has a number of midpriced options and recently started making Bluetooth models.
JBL by Harman has a long history, and the company is now owned by Samsung. It makes midpriced to moderately expensive headphones in a variety of styles.
Monoprice is a budget electronics manufacturer that has expanded into headphones over the past few years. Its products tend to be inexpensive, and its headphones often punch well above their weight in our tests.
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.
Founded in 1945, 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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