How to buy the right headphones

Headphones are kind of like relationships: we all have them, we can scarcely imagine our lives without them, and yet no one ever bothers to train us how to select them. It’s that last bit that often leads us to suboptimal outcomes, and it’s the problem I’m here to help you solve. Welcome to The Verge’s headphone buying guide.

STEP ONE: DECIDE WHAT YOU WANT

Simple, right? Not even close. The typical scenario for anyone looking to buy a new piece of technology is that you’ll want to optimize everything. If it’s a laptop, you’ll be seeking dozens of cores, an exabyte of storage, week-long battery life, featherlight weight, and an impulse-purchase price. The first thing to do is disabuse yourself of the illusion that you can have everything.

With headphones, it’s helpful to imagine three competing priorities tugging at the corners of a triangular piece of cloth: one is sound quality, another is portability, and the third is affordability. If you tug hard toward sound quality, you’ll wind up in the audiophile realm of Audeze and Focal, where headphones are enormous, head-engulfing sound rooms for your ears, built and priced like palaces. Should you insist on spending the smallest possible amount, on the other hand, be prepared to compromise on the sound quality and / or accepting a wired connection instead of Bluetooth, the latter of which has been growing in popularity (and necessity, thanks to the new breed of phones without headphone jacks).

lopatto-pryma-street-stylePhoto by Tyler Pina / The Verge

Before you open up Amazon or visit your nearest Best Buy store, consider what priorities actually matter to you. What do you truly need and what can you live without? Even in purely relative terms, imagine your own personal triangle diagram: setting out your preferences in this way can help you answer the more concrete questions that are to come. This early stage is also a good time for setting your spending limit: your budget is the one condition that you can know in advance of looking at glossy brochures and hyperbolic feature lists.

STEP TWO: LEARN THE BASICS

Headphones have a famously arcane taxonomy, the first tier of which is the distinction between open- and closed-back models. It’s actually quite straightforward: open-back headphones have nothing (or very little) insulating you from the outside world, and so the music they generate is audible both to you and to the people near you. Closed-back cans, on the other hand, have a less permeable shell that serves to isolate you and your music from exterior noise and unwanted attention.

sennheiser hd 800 s
Sennheiser HD 800 S (open-back)
 Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge
Fostex Massdrop TH-X00 headphones
Fostex TH-X00 (closed-back)
 Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge

Most people’s first experience with headphones is with closed-back models. Those are certainly the most popular, and every pair of Beats headphones to date falls in that category. Open-backs exist, and retain an enduring popularity, because they produce the best possible sound quality. An open-back headphone designer doesn’t need to worry about dealing with sound reverberations bouncing around inside a closed ear cup.

The choice boils down to this: are you buying headphones to listen to at home or in some other quiet environment where you won’t disturb others? In those limited scenarios, open-back cans will do the best job for you. For portable use, for drowning out the office noise, for discreet listening, and for greater versatility, you should seek out a closed pair instead.

STEP TWO AND A HALF: MORE BASICS

Next on the disambiguation path are the three major categories of headphones, distinguishable by their size and mode of wear.

Audio-Technica DSR9BT
Audio-Technica DSR9BT over-ear headphones
 Photo by James Bareham / The Verge
  • Circumaural, or over-ear, headphones sit around the ear and are typically the largest and, consequently, best-sounding of all three classes of headphones. They don’t often have compact or collapsible designs, and they trade away portability for improved comfort and for the better acoustics of larger components. The best headphones in the world are a contentious topic, but most people’s picks will be some brand and model of open-back over-ear headphones (my vote goes to the Sennheiser HD 800 S). This is the category you’re shopping in if you insist on sound quality as your top priority.
Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3 on-ear headphones
 Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
  • Supra-aural, or on-ear, headphones tend to be the most compromised of all three categories, sacrificing sound quality, noise isolation in closed-back models, and long-term comfort for portability (while still being larger than in-ear buds). There are only a few models in this category that are worth your attention, with Beyerdynamic’s T51i and the Koss Porta Pros being the classic top picks. It may seem strange that I’m bashing what’s probably the most widely used subset of headphones, but let’s remember that popularity and quality are not always perfectly aligned. Just think of on-ear headphones as the Starbucks of headphone variants.
Beyerdynamic Xelento in-ear headphones
 Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge
  • In-ear headphones can sound nearly as good as their over-ear counterparts, and even with a case they’re vastly more pocketable than on-ear alternatives. So why hasn’t the entire world switched to earphones and abandoned the large ear cocoons that we still see selling so well? The answer is that even the most comfortable in-ear headphones aren’t especially comfortable. People tolerate Apple’s EarPods because those barely make it inside the ear, but for the in-ear headphones that produce the best sound, such as the Etymotic ER4XR, you need to go deep inside the ear canal. Beside comfort, the other advantage of over-ear headphones is that they tend to reproduce sound with greater warmth and a more organic quality.

STEP THREE: DEFINE YOUR USE

By this point, you should have a couple of essential pieces of information at hand: your budget, a full understanding of the choices between open, closed, big, and little headphones, and a general sense of your overall priorities. It’s time to now consider these factors in a cohesive fashion that also integrates your primary intended use. Remember: there’s no such thing as a universal headphone that will deliver an orchestra inside your head while weighing and costing nothing.

Here are some of the most common scenarios for headphone use:

  • The perfect office headphones impose two overriding priorities: a high degree of comfort, so they never feel like a distracting burden, and good noise isolation so you can tune out the din around you. What that means in spec terms is that you should be looking for over-ear headphones with active noise canceling. Sony’s 1000X, my favorites in this category from last year, tick both boxes beautifully and they add the bonus of being wireless. What they won’t give you is the very best sound quality, but that’s one of those unavoidable tradeoffs. An updated 1000XM2 model this year only tweaks the original formula slightly, and I’d consider both iterations from Sony easy recommendations.
Sony 1000X
Sony 1000X
 Photo by Vlad Savov / The Verge
  • Amusingly, the things required of good headphones for commuting and long-haul flights are almost the same as those required for office use. Sony’s offering is, therefore, still the prototype, though its wireless connection is less important if you’re going to be sat idle for a 12-hour journey, so maybe that can shift the calculus in favor of wired alternatives. If you’re okay with a wire, Bose’s noise-canceling headphones illustrate the wireless premium well: the Bluetooth QC35s cost $330 while the wired QC25s have been discounted to $180. For many people, that’s the difference between being able to afford a feature like noise canceling or writing it off as a luxury.
  • Gaming headphones are a unique breed. They absolutely do not require great sound quality, but the good ones must have great sonic performance in a couple of ways. The first is imaging: presenting the position of sounds with clarity and precision, so that a player can intuit the source of things like approaching footsteps or incoming gunfire. The other thing is bass: games are simply more fun when you listen to them with a generous serving of bass to amplify the effect of crashes and explosions on screen. My current top pick for best gaming headphones is the Turtle Beach Elite Pro, which exhibits a very pleasant sound signature and excellent, sweat-free comfort, two hugely important things for anyone planning on 10-hour gaming binges.
  • Headphones for use during exercise are a commonly sought thing, however I can’t offer many great options on that front. By the time an audio product is durable enough to withstand sweat, rain, and accidental drops, simple enough to save you from a mess of cables (and, if wireless, efficient enough to last as long as you need it), it’s either too expensive or sounds awful. There’s a litany of somewhat adequate neckbuds like last year’s Meizu EP-51, but my sincere advice would be to just go work out without the encumbrance of tech about your body. In any case, you certainly shouldn’t be looking for any on-ear or over-ear options here: if you must have headphones for your gym or running sessions, make them in-ear. The Jaybird X3 are a popular option here, however I’ve never been able to get a good fit with them and their design makes the sound feel extremely narrow, like it’s pinned to the top of your nose.
  • Audiophiles really shouldn’t be reading this guide at all, but let’s say you’re just a curious soul that wants to maximize sound quality without having to learn every last minute detail about how sound is made. For your purposes, the choice narrows down in supplier — i.e. no JBL, Skullcandy, Urbanears, Beats, and definitely nothing from Monster — and probably even in terms of manufacturing location. My favorite high-end headphones are hand-assembled in the US (Audeze, MrSpeakers, and Grado, among others), Japan (Audio-Technica, Fostex, Final Audio, Zero Audio), and Germany (Sennheiser and Beyerdynamic). In that respect, buying enthusiast headphones is a lot like buying a performance car: go with the classic brands from countries with an established engineering pedigree.

STEP FOUR: READ AND LISTEN

Once you have filtered out the majority of the headphone market by focusing in on what you really want, it’s time to read some reviews and, wherever possible, try out your intended headphones before buying. The reviews are the easy part: you can find them on this very website, on YouTube, and on enthusiast forums like Head-Fi and Super Best Audio Friends. The best part about those deeply geeky forums is that you can ask questions and there’s always someone eager to give you an overachieving answer.

status audio cb1 headphonesPhoto by Vlad Savov / The Verge

The interplay of going to a store and having a quick try of a pair of headphones and reading up on the reviews of the same model is the best way to make an informed decision. Some of the most immediately thrilling headphones can become shrill and fatiguing over the course of an hours-long listening session. And the plush memory foam that might seem awesome at first touch could ultimately be inadequate to prevent you from developing a sore spot from wearing headphones with a badly designed headband. All those gaps in your knowledge and experience can be filled in with a bit of extra research.

Some common, though not obvious, considerations to bear in mind:

  • Leather ear pads are often marketed as a luxurious thing with over- and on-ear headphones, but they’re not without their downsides. Leather doesn’t breathe as well as a nice fabric mesh or other high-end materials like alcantara. Beware the hot summer months when buying headphones for portable use with thick leather pads.
  • Another aspect to keep in mind with leather pads is that they affect the sound signature of your headphones. Leather helps create a better seal around the ear, and it thus contributes to a stronger bass response. The exact same pair of headphones will sound substantially different when equipped with leather pads versus most other materials.
  • The headband can sometimes be the most critical, expensive, and complicated component of the entire set of headphones. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to in-ears, but multiple headphone companies have told me that their biggest development challenge in designing their latest set of headphones has been the headband. This is the critical component that decides how the weight of the headphones is distributed, how tightly they clamp around the listener’s head, and, ultimately, how well they endure.
B&W PX EMBARGO 100317
Bowers & Wilkins PX
 Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge
  • Wireless headphones have gotten really good lately. This probably merits a whole article in its own right, but I think it’s essential to dispel the old fear about wireless headphones being yet another thing you have to recharge. I mean, of course they are, but battery life in over-ear wireless cans has gotten good enough to be measured in weeks of real-world use, not hours. In the course of my reviews of Bluetooth headphones over the past few months, I’ve never once run out of power at the wrong time, and new software updates mean that most wireless cans now report their remaining battery life directly in the Android notifications menu, just as Beats cans do on Apple devices.
  • If you’re not buying wireless headphones, I’d encourage you to buy the best and most expensive pair you can afford. Don’t settle for the seemingly cheaper option. My friend and colleague Chris Plante got a full decade out of his Sennheiser HD 650s, which recently prompted this beautiful essay from him and a purchase of a fresh pair. When he bought the original ones, he was going for expensive cans that sounded amazing; when he bought the second pair, he was getting more affordable cans that still sounded amazing. Good sound is timeless — whether iPhones have headphone jacks or not — and so I encourage everyone to splurge a little with headphones in order to get the best and most long-lasting experience possible.

STEP FIVE: DON’T LOOK BACK IN ANGER

Whatever your ultimate choice of headphones, the most essential post-purchase advice I can offer is to not doubt yourself. Once you make your choice, you have to stop reading the reviews and doing cross-comparisons in your head. The persistent and tragic fear of missing out will otherwise haunt you until you convince yourself that there’s some other, more perfect pair of headphones out there. The truth is that perfect doesn’t exist, and all we can do is find the product with the fewest downsides for our particular preferences and use.

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