You will encounter lots of other jargon—and no shortage of marketing hype—when you shop for headphones. Here are explanations of some of the most common terms:
Dynamic driver: Most headphones on the market today use dynamic drivers, which are similar to the round cones or tweeters you see in loudspeakers.
Balanced armature: You’ll find balanced armature designs in in-ear monitors. First developed for hearing aids, a balanced-armature architecture relies on an electrical signal to vibrate a small reed or paddle thousands of times per second.
The reed is “balanced” between two magnets, hence the name “balanced armature.” Some headphones have multiple armatures, each functioning within a certain frequency range for better performance. Balanced armature drivers don’t reproduce bass frequencies well. You’ll typically see balanced armature designs using a dynamic driver for the bass frequencies.
Planar magnetic drivers: A planar magnetic design uses an extremely thin and light diaphragm to reproduce sound. A magnetic system drives the entire surface of the diaphragm evenly in a pull-push manner.
Planar magnetic designs are typically found in over-the-ear headphones and have the reputation for being able to resolve fine musical details and creating a sense of space and depth in the music. The drawback to some planar magnetic models is that they present high impedance to the source device and are thus too difficult for some mobile devices to drive. Check the capabilities of your source device before you buy this type of headphone. You can also use them with a headphone amplifier.
Electrostatic drivers: Electrostatic drivers consist of a thin electrically charged diaphragm. The diaphragm is normally suspended between two perforated plates, and an electrical signal is then passed through the plates to move the diaphragm in a push-pull manner towards one of them. Like planar magnetic designs, some electrostatic headphones present high impedance levels to the source and are therefore hard to drive. Here again, check the capabilities of your source device before you buy this type of headphone or use a headphone amplifier.
Noise-cancelling technologies explained
If you travel or find yourself in noisy environments frequently, you might be interested in a headphone that offers noise cancellation. Here are explanations of the three primary means by which this is accomplished:
Passive noise cancellation: This isn’t a technology per se; rather, It refers to how much ambient noise a headphone will block out. In-ear headphones with memory-foam tips and closed-back over-the-ear headphones offer the best passive noise cancellation. They’re also the least likely to color the music you’re listening to.
Active noise cancellation: A sound wave is similar to the ripples in a pond. Toss a pebble in the pond and then introduce inverse ripples and you’ll effectively smooth out the pond’s surface. Active noise cancellation (ANC) works in a similar manner. Microphones mounted on the headphones analyze ambient sound waves and then produce inverse sound waves that will cancel them out.
As you might expect, the ANC technologies from some are incredibly effective; others, less so. We’ve tested models from AKG, Bose, JBL, Libratone, and Sony and found them to be very good. Some individuals find that ANC-enabled headphones exert pressure on their ears, creating a similar sensation to being under water. If you find ANC headphones to be uncomfortable, you’ll prefer a model with good passive noise cancellation.
Adaptive noise cancellation: You might think of this as a smarter form of active noise cancellation. It operates on the same principles, but adapts to your surroundings to apply more or less of the effect and to even bring in sounds from the outside world.
Some adaptive noise-cancelling solutions even take into account how fast you’re moving, the air pressure around you, and whether you’re likely in a plane, taking a walk, or holding a conversation. Many operate in conjunction with a mobile app on your smartphone.
More of our top headphone picks
These are among the finest headphones you can buy, and they're priced accordingly.
- Better sound than many $2,000 headphones we've heard
- Astounding, lush sound reproduction, with exceptional transparency, resolution, and dynamics
- Incredibly comfortable, thanks to exquisite materials and first-rate build quality
- The price tag will be an insurmountable barrier for many
- Sound leakage is a downside to most every open-back headphone
AKG’s N700NC Wireless headphones deliver an array of noise-cancelling features, but musical reproduction is where these cans really shine.
- Excellent musical quality not typically found in noise-cancelling headphones
- Solid array of active noise-cancelling features
- Excellent battery life, but they can also be used as traditional headphones
- Slightly bulkier than competing products from Bose and Sony
- Controls take some getting used to
- Headband tends to exert pressure on the top of your head after extended listening
You'll be hard-pressed to find better headphones for less than $1,000.
- Lush sound, incredible detail, and superb dynamics
- Amazing bass from an open design that will best many closed-back models
- Light in weight and very comfortable to wear for long sessions
- Large size makes them difficult to carry with you
- The 3-meter cable that's included is too long for on-the-go use, and a shorter replacement costs $105
Focal's first high-end, closed-back headphones are a sonic champion.
- Gorgeous styling and build quality
- Rich, lush, musical presentation regardless of genre
- Super easy to drive with any smart device
- Can't quite match the Focal Clear's sonic clarity
- An ability to reveal the finest details and most delicate nuances from your music
- Incredibly clean and tight bass reproduction
- Exceptional sound, from top to bottom
- Open-back design requires a relatively quiet listening space
- Some might find its deep bass reproduction unsatisfying
These sweet-sounding, Berllyium driver-based headphones are worth every penny of their asking price.
- Oustanding sonic reproduction
- Excellent fit and comfort, even during long listening sessions
- Thin cable makes headphones easy to fit into tight pockets
- Headphone cable tangles easily
- No inline remote or mic option
- 3.5mm barrel lacks protection
This wired IEM offers jaw-dropping sound and solid build quality for very little money. But to get the most out of it, you need to find the right eartips.
- Exquisite sound quality once you find the right eartips
- Solid build quality
- Very inexpensive
- Slightly strident sound on some tracks at loud volumes
- Velcro cable-tie fiddly to use
- Wire gets tangled easily
Sony now offers the best active noise-cancelling headphones you can buy. Your move, Bose.
- Very comfortable and sleek design
- Excellent audio quality when powered
- Industry-leading active noise cancellation
- Easy to use app and gesture controls
- Solid battery life and quick-charge capability
- Audio quality is only average when the headphones are not powered
- Minor learning curve required to master gesture controls
- Very slight high-frequency distortion when the volume is cranked
These are quite simply the best headphones V-Moda has ever produced.
- Impeccable build quality for the price
- Refined, detailed sound that will appeal to audiophiles—and audio engineers
- Folds to an ultra-compact size that's ideal for traveling
- Lightning cable for use with iOS devices is a $101 accessory
- Heavier that comparably sized headphones
1More's Triple Driver Over-Ear headphones continue the company's tradition of delivering great sound at a relatively low price.
- Excellent sound and a strong value for the price
- Excellent build quality and attention to detail
- High-quality accessories included
- Lacks the transparency and refinement you get from more expensive heapdhones
- Ear cups might not be spacious enough for some
AKG's Y500 on-ear wireless headphones sport an ultra-compact, folding form factor and good wireless features, but their wired performance is where they really shine.
- Folds to an ultra-compact aize that's ideal for traveling
- Great sound for an on-ear headphone
- Light and comfortable for long listening sessions
- Quirky play/pause automation
- Wireless performance is inferior to wired performance
- Ambient-aware's enable/disable notification sound is loud and annoying
B&O's H9i headphones hits a high note with excellent ANC performance, premium build quality, and superb sound.
- Beautiful design and premium build quality
- Excellent active noise cancellation and outstanding transparency mode performance
- High-end audio performance
- Gesture pad can be finicky on rare occasions
- Can become uncomfortable after long listening sessions
- No support for aptX, aptX HD, or LDAC
These in-ear headphones reside well within the audiophile sphere, with exceptional sound and build quality, though the wires tethering them to the battery pack are something of a nuisance.
- Superb sound quality (with the right eartips)
- Personalized EQ compensates for individual hearing deficits
- Exceptional build quality
- Getting the right fit and seal is not easy
- The short wires to the battery pack felt a bit constricting to my jaw
- Very expensive
Bose ups the noise-cancellation ante here, turning public spaces into private dens for quiet two-way communiques with friends, family, and your favorite digital assistant.
- Active and passive noise cancellation enhances both musical experiences and phone calls
- Refined product design delivers elevated comfort
- You can shout out commands to Alexa, Google Assistant, or Siri (pick one)
- Operating system is working through some growing pains
- Noise-cancelling circuitry still doesn’t cover every situation
A few minor quirks aside, Bowers & Wilkins PX wireless headphones offer equal measures of great audio and adequate noise cancellation.
- Wide soundstage with excellent audio separation
- Comfortable to wear during long listening sessions
- Long battery life
- Easy-to-use on-cup controls
- More expensive than the competition
- Small drop in sound quality with ANC engaged
- USB-C charging port can’t be used to transmit audio
- Headphones cannot be used passively
These stunning Bluetooth headphones offer superb sound and highly effective active noise cancellation.
- Superb Bluetooth sound quality
- Excellent build quality
- Controls are laid out well and easy to operate by feel
- ANC causes slightly bloated bass
- Somewhat anemic sound when unpowered