How to Buy the Right Headphones

  • Category: Buying Guides

These days, some people happily spend more than half a grand on a new tablet or portable media device with an estimated lifespan of around three years, yet the question we're asked often is still, "What's the cheapest pair of headphones I can buy that don't completely suck?" Headphones, earbuds, and earphones (we'll describe the difference between them in a bit) are generally viewed as the least essential link in the musical chain—the part you can easily skimp on. In reality, your headphones are the most important link in that chain: A quality pair has a larger impact than the player itself on how your tunes will sound. Also, if well cared for, they will long outlive your planned-to-be-obsolete tablet, phone, or MP3 player. And you don't have to break the bank, either. For as little as $40, you can get a high-quality pair of headphones and really begin to enjoy all the sweet-sounding audio you've been missing.

Thanks to the wild popularity of iPods and iPhones, those trademark white Apple earbuds have become ubiquitous. Even so, earbuds are not an ideal listening option, since they don't enter your ear canal and as a result don't create a true seal. Thus, they're more likely to be placed at an odd angle, often destroying the balance of the audio mix—and you can forget about getting solid bass response. Earphones, on the other hand, sit further in your ear canal, creating an actual seal—and they're often more comfortable to wear, since they tend to stay in place better than earbuds. Headphones, by contrast, are over-the-head (or behind-the-head) speakers that don't enter your ear canals at all. Circumaural models create a seal with cups that surround your entire ear, whereas open, or supra-aural headphones sit directly on your ears without forming a seal.

Now let's take a look at how to find better alternatives to those lousy stock-issue earbuds. Since earphones have won the popularity war over other styles, we'll start with them, but we'll also explore headphones, including noise-canceling and wireless options.

As explained above, earbuds aren't the best way to get the most from your music. If you're looking for booming bass on a budget, reasonable quality starts to emerge in the $40-50 range. They don't deliver the most accurate sonic experience, but some feature deep, resonant low end—perfect for hip-hop and electronic music—which is a recent development in affordable earphones. Generally speaking, you won't find true audio quality in earphones until you pass the $50 mark. In the $50 to $150 price range, you can expect earphones that fit well, deliver powerful bass and crisp treble, and come with a variety of ear tips in different sizes to ensure a good seal. Ultimate Ears, Sennheiser, and Shure are consistently strong players in this category, but we've also seen promising affordable earphones from other competitors, like the $120 iBeats by Dr. Dre from Monster and the $100 Bose IE2.

If you're more about accuracy than booming bass, you'll want "flat-response" pairs that offer a more pure, less sculpted audio signal. The Etymotic ER-4S ($300) is our flat-response earphone benchmark, and you'll find it in many of our HEAD Acoustics graphs as a comparison pair. In this same price range, you should expect well-matched left and right earphones, as well as better definition on the lowest and highest frequencies. Etymotic makes the flattest pair in this range, but there are plenty of options that offer more low-end without boosting too much.

Earphones can be far more expensive than a couple hundred dollars, however—the JH Audio JH16 Pro will cost you $1,150. They're a custom-molded pair with subwoofers added in each ear for more accurate deep bass response. They sound unbelievable, and do a great job of passively eliminating ambient noise around you (but at that price, they'd better!).

When it comes to consumer headphones, two companies in particular, Grado and Sennheiser, truly stand out from the crowd. Grado makes mostly supra-aural headphones that range from $70-$1,000. The Grado GS1000 pair, with its mix of supra-aural and circumaural design, delivers audio that sounds about as good as it possibly can. Even so, at $995 the GS1000 isn't for everyone: They're not very portable, and you can't ignore the wooden earpieces. Grado also has more affordable options, like the sub-$100 SR60. We also liked the Klipsch Image ONE ($149.95, 4 stars). Generally, headphones should be able to reproduce richer low end since they have larger drivers than earphones and they don't rely on an in-ear seal to deliver sound. The $200 Denon AH-D1100 is a more recent update to a similarly named, critically adored headphone pair. If you seek flat response with a bit of added bass, but not too much, it's a great pair to consider; they'll feed your hunger for deep bass and work nicely on the quieter songs as well.

Noise-Canceling Headphones
You might try to dismiss the din of the outside world by cranking up the volume, but the best solution for saving your sanity and your ears is to invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones, so you can enjoy your audio at much lower volumes. The Bose QuietComfort 15, our Editors' Choice, offer fantastic noise cancellation, and they sound pretty good—but they will set you back about $300. Meanwhile, Phiaton offers an excellent in-ear noise canceling pair, the Phiaton PS 20 NC; at half the price as the Quiet Comfort 15, they're a steal. It's also important to note: noise-canceling headphones are generally not for audiophiles—they typically put noise cancellation before sound quality and tend to sound less compelling than similarly priced headphones without the noise-cancellation circuitry. Plus, several in-ear earphones offer substantial passive noise reduction by basically functioning as earplugs.

Wireless Headphones
Wireless headphones can be convenient in any situation where you don't want to deal with dangling cables—like the gym, for example. After years of poor-to-mediocre sound, Bluetooth wireless stereo audio has made great strides in sound quality over the past year. While the data signal containing Bluetooth audio is compressed, headphone and earphone manufacturers have found ways to enhance the signal to compensate for its deficiencies in a way that makes them less audible than before.

If you can't stand cords, check out wireless pairs like the Novero Tour ($79, 4 stars) and the convertible Samsung Modus HM6450 ($99, 4 stars), both of which double as headsets to let you answer cell phone calls. For higher-quality wireless sound, Sennheiser announced the RS 220 at CES 2012; it uses DSSS, which is an improvement on Kleer's excellent RF-based wireless technology.

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Before you settle on your perfect pair, check out our roundup of the Best Headphones, as well as all the latest reviews in the Headphones Product Guide. And for more information on how we evaluate earphones and headphones, visit the How We Test page.

This buying guide is partnership with Ziff Davis Media.