Any way you slice it, headphones and other personal audio equipment are an essential part of our lives, at home and at work. Music and podcasts can be summoned at will during our routine workouts or while studying at the library, and conversations can be held over the phone while keeping our hands free for other essential tasks. Headphones—particularly over-the-ear headphones—are irreplaceable in creative industries where critical listening is required, providing users with accurate and clear audio isolated from outside noise. Commuters benefit from the separation and solace from the chaotic and noisy outside world during their busy travels to and from work, too—and music enthusiasts enjoy the full immersion that a pair of true headphones delivers.
In this article, we’ll go over some of the best headphones available for every lifestyle and give you things to look for when you’re ready to shop. (If you’re specifically looking for earbuds instead, we’ve got you covered with our best wireless earbuds buying guide.)
- Best headphones for an immersive sound experience: Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro Plus
- Best noise-canceling headphones: Beats Solo Pro Wireless Noise Cancelling On-Ear Headphones
- Best wireless headphones for portability: Bowers & Wilkins PX7
- Best open-back headphones: Sennheiser HD 650 Open Back Professional Headphone
- Best closed-back headphones: KRK KNS 8400 On-Ear Closed Back Circumaural Studio Monitor Headphones
- Best waterproof headphones: LETSCOM Bluetooth Headphones V5.0 IPX7 Waterproof
- Best budget headphones: Sony MDRZX110NC
Things to consider when shopping for the best headphones
Because headphones can prove to be useful in a wide range of settings, it’s important to consider where you’ll be wearing them most often. Headphones that travel outside with you should have some degree of water-resistance, especially if you’re exercising, and you should likely opt for a lightweight, foldable pair if you want to wear them while commuting. These options are extended even further when you consider equalization and noise-canceling options, as well as some users’ technical needs for critical listening. It’s crucial to factor in each of these options when considering the best headphones for your needs.
How immersive do you want your sound to be?
Listener experience and augmentation of otherwise mundane or repetitive activities lie at the heart of headphone usage. Podcasts, music, and other audio can transport listeners and enhance enjoyment in environments where the increased focus is required or where boredom must be kept at bay. Unless you’re looking for a pair of headphones specifically for critical listening applications like audio editing or mixing, you might benefit from the extended frequency response and elevated user experience in a model that offers enhanced equalization.
In its simplest and most common form, equalization on headphones is usually employed to accentuate low frequencies in music, enhancing bass and drums and opening up a more immersive and visceral listening experience for users. Bass frequencies are “felt” more when increased by these headphones, which translates into a physical sensation that often eliminates the need to turn up the overall volume to achieve a similar effect. Because these low frequencies have high energy and are more robust than high frequencies, this is also a convenient way to drown out excess environmental noise without cranking the volume.
Some models take equalization even further and offer users the ability to customize their headphones’ EQ to their exact desired specifications using calibration apps. In this way, users with different hearing preferences or who use their headphones in specific environments can tailor their listening experience to taste, and because everyone’s individual hearing is different, this can be a major way to ensure that you’re hearing your music exactly as you should. In critical applications and recreational situations alike, headphone EQ calibration can make an astonishing difference in listener experience and overall enjoyment.
Best headphones for an immersive sound experience: Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro Plus
A frequency of 10 to 24,000 Hertz and an adjustable bass boost equalizer slider. Amazon
The Custom One Pro Plus headphones from Beyerdynamic feature a unique sound slider that allows you to toggle headphone casing design between closed, semi-open, and open designs, which makes for a very customizable listening experience.
Do you need noise-canceling headphones?
If you’re commuting on a loud bus or train, you’ll appreciate a pair of headphones that has loud volume abilities as well as noise-canceling features. In many cases, loud volumes may not even be required for hearing your music if the noise-canceling features are robust. Noise-canceling headphones are also commonly found in academic and professional situations where focus and study are paramount considerations because sometimes music alone is not enough to assist in drowning out external stimuli.
Many models of noise-canceling headphones are equipped with multiple levels and styles of noise-canceling, including some modes that allow for close-quarters conversations to make it through to the listener, which is ideal for office and work environments where users need to remain available to some extent and don’t want to turn off or lift away their headphones every time a conversation occurs. Often, manufacturers offer specialized models that even allow users to turn noise-canceling features on and off, so if you’d like to have full control over when and where you engage this function, that’s a feature that is definitely within reach.
Best noise-canceling headphones: Beats Solo Pro Wireless Noise Cancelling On-Ear Headphones
A stylish option equipped with an Apple H1 headphone chip and available in six bold colors. Amazon
Active noise-canceling technology is a hallmark of the Beats Solo Pro, which offer real-time audio calibration and a unique transparency mode that allows you to remain aware of your surroundings and hear more ambient noise. With transparency and noise-canceling modes disabled, these Beats headphones pack 40 hours of battery life.
Are you going to take them on the go?
If you’ll be taking your headphones anywhere you may want to examine the level of portability that you’ll require for your intended purposes. One of the more enduring and sometimes inconvenient design aspects of traditional over-ear headphones is their relatively cumbersome and hard-to-stow shape. This design is comfortable on the user’s head, but these elements don’t always translate into mobile convenience. Modern manufacturers offer plenty of designs that are specifically made to move with you from location to location without sacrificing the comfort and style that you’d expect from a pair of headphones.
Wireless headphone designs are the most common improvement in portability thanks to the lack of cabling and cords, which can become tangled in bags or even crimped or damaged. Models usually come with long battery life that makes this feature appealing, and many even offer detachable, optional cables for use if you’re concerned about backward compatibility. Foldable designs with included travel cases are another portable design feature that enables headphones to survive crushes and drops when you’re on the go, but they also free up space in your bag while ensuring that you always know where they are.
If you’re planning on traveling at all with a pair of headphones, these design elements are incredibly important to look for, especially since they’re not always included in most traditional models. For commuting, traveling, and exercising, light weights, small form factors, and minimalist designs will always win out because of the way they integrate with your activities. The bottom line here is that you don’t have to endure an annoying headphone design to get your music on the go, but you do have to consider whether the form factor will help you or get in the way.
Best wireless headphones for portability: Bowers & Wilkins PX7
Tuck Them Away
Lightweight noise-canceling headphones with an included hard-shell carrying case. Amazon
Bowers & Wilkins’ PX7 wireless headphones are tuned and calibrated by engineers with Abbey Road experience, packing 30 hours of battery life in a sleek, carbon-fiber inspired design that allows for minimal ambient passthrough and wireless connection to two devices at once. The PX7 uses sensors that detect when the headphones are removed from the user’s head to conserve battery life and automatically reconnect the next time they’re worn. These are a pair of bluetooth headphones you’re going to love.
Do you want an open-back or closed-back design?
Back design and outer shell construction are some of the more subtle and often overlooked aspects of design when considering a pair of headphones. Open-back and closed-back designs have obvious esthetic and visual differences, which does make it an important consideration when the style is a factor, but it’s crucial to allow the intended usage of the headphones to determine which design you ultimately choose.
Open-back headphones employ casing design principles that are focused on accuracy and a natural listening experience above all else. By allowing air and sound to move somewhat freely between the headphone speakers and the surrounding environment, the listener enjoys a more realistic soundstage that relies somewhat upon reflections and provides a measure of the experience of listening to music in a pair of speakers. These types of headphones are by far the best for critical listening applications such as mixing, mastering, and audiophile listening. However, because the open design allows sound to leak out, the listening experience is not private and therefore is only ideal for at-home or solitary use.
Closed-back headphones are more commonly found than open-back designs, and that’s primarily because of their popular ability to provide some level of privacy and also isolate the listener from outside noise. All noise-canceling headphones use closed-back designs, which enhances their effectiveness even further. These are best for most situations where privacy, isolation, and less noise leakage are important, whether at a recording studio or in a library. Due to the closed environment of these models and the proximity to the listener’s ear, these are not recommended for audiophiles or critical applications where accuracy is required.
Best open-back headphones: Sennheiser HD 650 Open Back Professional Headphone
Fast Transient Response
Dampened with proprietary acoustic silk and powered by heavily-researched and optimized neodymium magnet systems. Amazon
Audio editors and mixers will notice an immediate difference in the level of detail in their work with the HD 650 headphones from Sennheiser. They sport a detachable 118-inch-long cable, hand-matched driver elements, and offer an extended frequency response of 10 – 39,500 Hertz.
Best closed-back headphones: KRK KNS 8400 On-Ear Closed Back Circumaural Studio Monitor Headphones
This model from loudspeaker veterans includes a detachable inline volume control and a soft-embossed carrying case. Amazon
The KNS 8400 headphones from KRK offer extended bass frequencies and a large dynamic range in a low-distortion package, with premium acoustic foam ear cups designed for superior isolation in environments where privacy matters. The cable is fully detachable and includes a gold-plated ¼-inch adapter for professional audio settings.
Are they waterproof?
It’s not uncommon today to find that many modern electronic gadgets are designed with some measure of water resistance to enable their usage in adverse weather or to help them resist spills and other accidents at bare minimum. Still, audio-related electronics include sensitive parts like amplifiers and speakers, so it’s important to consider the specific intended use as well as the intended usage environment when choosing the best headphones for you.
Outdoor workouts are the most common situation where a pair of headphones might contact rain or sweat, but commutes that involve walking, or even walks to and from the car, can all potentially impact a pair of headphones and require the user to remove them in lieu of enjoying their podcasts or music. If you know for a fact that you’ll be bringing headphones outside, you should consider a model that sports at least IPx5-level water resistance, which will protect your headphones from a continuous stream of water for up to five minutes. If there’s any danger of the headphones falling into or becoming submerged in water, you’ll have to select a pair that uses at least IPx7-level resistance to ensure that they escape unscathed.
In the end, only you can decide whether a certain level of waterproofing is appropriate for your specific needs, but in most cases, if there’s even a small chance of using your headphones in a wet environment, it’s best to go for the highest level of waterproofing available to ensure that you get a long and successful life from your headphones.
Best waterproof headphones: LETSCOM Bluetooth Headphones V5.0 IPX7 Waterproof
Don’t Be Afraid Of A Splash
This lightweight, affordable choice comes in four colors and can take some serious water exposure. Seira Wilson of Amazon.com
If you want serious water protection, these Letscom headphones are inexpensive and have an IPX-7 waterproof rating. You’ll get eight hours of battery life and the ear hooks help keep fit snugly around your ears. This way, your headphones will remain in place while you work out or go for a swim.
Best headphone brands to know
With so many manufacturers of headphones and audio equipment on the market, it can be hard to know where to look. Some emphasize style and others emphasize acoustic research, but there are a few brands in particular that you should keep your eye on if you’re interested in buying headphones from a company with experience.
Sennheiser was founded in 1945 by Dr. Fritz Sennheiser and several of his colleagues in a laboratory at the University of Hannover. They gained traction by producing microphones, transformers, headphones, mixers, and other audio-related electronic equipment, expanding into wireless microphone markets in the early 1980′s. The company remains in the family today.
Beats was founded in 2006 by music producer Dr. Dre and has since blossomed into a large player in the headphone industry, becoming well-known for their products with stylish form factors and hip-hop and pop-friendly bass boosting. They offer products in wireless speaker and car audio lines as well, having signed contracts with Chrysler to feature Beats-branded audio equipment in several of their automotive lines.
Bose has roots in audio technology and engineering going back to 1964. Along with their founder, Amar Bose, they introduced their unique multi-speaker home stereo systems to the market in the 1970s. Their audio research has spawned dozens of lines of products, including soundbars, headphones, and stereos. Amar Bose handed off his shares of the company to MIT, his alma mater, in 2011. Bose headphones are some of the most popular on the market.
Best budget headphones: What you get for under $50
Durability, longevity, and battery life are the key factors to keep in mind when shopping for headphones on a budget. Features on less expensive models may be adequate for low-impact, non-critical listening situations—say, in an office for review of company materials, or for watching videos—but they’re at risk of buckling under the pressure of commuting, exercising, or audio editing. Noise-canceling isn’t a particularly pricey technology, but you’ll have to make a small investment if you want headphones that can actually pull it off. If you do go for something under $50, consider the Sony MDRZX110NC noise-cancelling headphones; they’re a minimalist, wired design from a veteran audio and electronics company.
A final word on shopping for the best headphones
Headphones are essential equipment for private and portable enjoyment of media and music, and the incredibly large market offers the opportunity to satisfy users of every need and walk of life. You don’t need to be an audio engineer to enjoy quality headphones, but you may not want a model with heavy equalization if you’re doing critical work. Above all else, durability and ease of integration with your existing routine will determine which pair are the best headphones for you.