Best headphones: Our top picks for personal listening

 techhive.com  11/08/2019 11:00:00  8  Theo Nicolakis

The best headphones are the ultimate tool for intimate listening experiences. Whether youre listening on your phone, a digital audio player, a disc player, or even a PC or gaming console, when youre ready to shut out the world and be one with your music, there is nothing better than a great set of cans.

And you probably have multiples of them, since most every smart device and digital audio player comes with a pair; but its a safe bet that youre really not satisfied with any of them. Comfortable high-quality headphones can transform your audio experiences ranging from listening to music and podcasts to watching TV shows and movies, .

Whether you prefer the isolation of in-ear headphones, the comfort of an over-the-ear model, the convenience of wireless, or youre not sure which type is best for you, well help you find the right ones at the right budget. Weve listed our top picks up front. If you need more information to make a choice, well provide thatand links to a bunch of our review sbelow.

Updated November 8, 2019 to add our review of the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H9 headphone. These fabulously luxurious cans look and sound fantastic and earn our Editors Choice designation. But their noise-cancellation abilities trail the best efforts from Sony and Bose.

[ Further reading: The best high-res digital audio players ]

Best over-the-ear headphones

These headphones are unapologetically old school, and we love them for it. You wont find any noise-cancelling electronics on the Beyerdynamics Amiron home. Theres no USB ports or an onboard amplifier, either; heck, they dont even support Bluetooth.

But if dont mind being tethered to your source, these headphones will deliver delightful performances for one at a price that wont bust a generous budget. Theyre highly recommended.

Runner-up

If you can afford them, Focals Elegia closed-back headphones are a sonic wonder that sound as beautiful as they look. Focal might be better known for its high-end loudspeakers than headphones, but discriminating buyers shouldnt overlook this brand.

Best on-ear headphones

If you find over-the-ear headphones too unwieldy, but dont like sticking things inside your ear, we heartily recommend giving AKGs Y500on-ear headphones an audition. Theyre lightweight and very comfortable to wear for long listening sessions. They sound absolutely fabulous, and theyre very reasonably priced.

Best in-ear headphones

Periodic Audios Be (Beryllium) are our current favorite in-ear headphones. They deliver pure sonic bliss. Pair them with the best sources and high-resolution digital audio player you can afford to appreciate these headphones capabilities. Their lightweight design, solid fit, and comfort during long listening sessions are perfect for reference music listening on the go.

They dont offer the utility of wireless connectivity, an inline remote, or a microphone for pairing with a smartphone, but they excel where it counts: reproducing music.

Runner-up

The flange-style ear tips on Etymotics in-ear monitors do a fantastic job of preventing ambient noise from intruding on your favorite musical performances, and they also enable you to listen for long stretches without experiencing discomfort. And once you hear these headphones, you wont want to take them out.

Best noise-cancelling headphones

Some purists dismiss active noise cancellation because they feel the algorithms they use cant help but remove some desirable frequencies along with the unwanted background noise. Fair enough. Wed never recommend using Sonys WH-1000XM3 in a recording studio. But these cans rock everywhere else. And since theyre wirelessandthey have a built-in mic, you can use them with your smartphone, too. And did we mention that they sound positively divine with all forms of music?

Runner-up

We found a lot to like about Boses new flagship noise-cancelling headphones, from the elegant design to the innovation the company has deployed to make your voice more intelligible to folks on the other end of your calls. You can also issue commands to your favorite digital assistant, and youll find support for some augmented reality apps. But that wont justify the $399 price tag for everyone.

Best headphones designed for children

Kids love music, too; sometimes, a little too much. If youre concerned about your youngsters listening to music on headphones at levels that could inflict noise-induced hearing loss on them, take a look at Puro Sound Labs PuroQuiet headphones. They sound very good, have excellent active noise cancellation, they come in fun colors, and theyre not terribly expensive.

Best money-is-no-object headphones

If youre of the mind that true audio fidelity requires a hardwired connection to your source, and you have the budget to avail yourself of the finer things in life, the Focal Clear over-the-ear headphones are the absolute right choice. The name fits: The open-back Clear empower you to hear your music clearly, without any barrier. Theyre an astounding sonic achievement, but they come with a price to match.

But be warned: Auditioning the Clear is like choosing the red pill from The Matrix. Once youve heard their dynamics, their transparency, and their timbral accuracy, you wont be able to go back to lesser headphones.

Runner-up

Full disclosure: We didnt have the opportunity to A/B test the Denon AH-D9200 against the Focal Clear, but we encourage you to do so if youre in the market for headphones at this rarefied price range. The biggest physical distinction between the two sets of cans is that the Denon are closed back where the Focal are open back. Which do you prefer?

Over-the-ear headphones explained

Over-the-ear (aka circumaural) headphones are the audiophile gold standard for high-fidelity, critical listening. And for good reason: This type of headphone fully covers your ear, creating a stable arena of sound.

They come in two designs: closed and open back. Closed-back models help seal out ambient noise and prevent sound from leaking into the environment (and nearby microphones, if youre in a recording studio). As a general rule, because of their design, closed-back headphones tend to have better, more visceral bass response than open-back designs. Some closed-back headphones from Bose, Sony, JBL and others also feature active noise cancellation (ANC) technologies to greatly reduce ambient noise during air travel or noisy commutes (not if youre the driver, obviously).

Over-the-ear headphones tend to be big and bulky. Some manufacturers feature folding models that mak Theo Nicolakis

Over-the-ear headphones tend to be big and bulky. Some manufacturers feature folding models that make them a bit more travel friendly.

Open-back designs typically have a perforated screen that allows air to pass between the ear cups and the outside world. With an open-back design, you can hear your surroundings and anyone near you can easily hear the music youre playing. The best place for open-back headphones is in a quite place at home, as opposed to a noisy environment or in library where youll disturb others.

Choose an open-back design for a deeper soundstage and a sense of space with musical recordings. These types of headphones liberate your music in a fashion thats similar way to listening to free-standing loudspeakers.

The biggest drawback of over-the-ear headphones is their size and bulk. Models that can fold up, such as the Bowers&Wilkins P7 and P9 Signature, theV-Moda Crossfade 2, and theFocal Listen Wireless are still bulkier than on-ear models. Some models dont fold at all.

We should also note that over-the-ear headphones tend to feature three different technologies: dynamic driver, planar magnetic, and electrostatic. We explain these technologies further down.

On-ear headphones explained

The smaller cups that on-ear (aka supra-aural) headphones use are designed to sit on top of your outer ears. This enables them to approach the sound quality of over-the-ear headphones, but in a more compact form factor. Many models, including theAKG N60NC wireless shown below, fold up for travel.

Many on-ear models fold inward, like these AKG N60 NC, or fold flat for portability. Theo Nicolakis

Many on-ear models fold inward, like these AKG N60 NC, or fold flat for portability.

Youll do well to test how on-ear models fit. Some models are too tight and others far too loose. While tight-fitting models can help reduce external noise, they can become fatiguing and painful to wear for extended periods.

In-ear headphones explained

In-ear-headphones (aka in-ear monitors or IEMs), fit into your ear canal and create a seal with either a silicone or memory-foam tip. Because theyre delivering audio almost directly to your ear drums, IEMs tend to deliver a smaller sound stage than either in-ear or on-ear headphones.

Their compact size make IEMs perfect for travel and exercising, and models that include microphones (either wireless or in the cord of wired models) can be used with your smartphone.Some active-lifestyle models even feature IPX ratings certifying their water (and sweat) resistance.

Getting a good fit and tight seal with IEMs critical to achieving the best audio performance. An in-ear-headphones bass response is dependent on the quality of the seal. If the seal is too loose, bass will sound anemic.

Because of their superior ability to seal, memory-foam tips that expand to the unique shape of your ear canal will not only fit better, theyll also block ambient noisein some cases, by 25dB or moreand theyll increase an in-ear monitors perceived bass response (delivering too much of a good thing in some cases).

Complys line of aftermarket memory foam ear tips can provide varying levels of noise isolation for Theo Nicolakis

Complys line of aftermarket memory foam ear tips can provide varying levels of noise isolation for a wide range of in-ear-headphone models.

Memory-foam tips create a superior seal. Some third party companies, includingComply, sell high-quality memory-foam tips for various brands of in-ear monitors.

In-ear-headphones use friction (Periodic Audio Be, left), wrap around your ear (A&K Billie Jean, mid Theo Nicolakis

To stay in your ear canals, on-ear-headphones rely on either friction (Periodic Audio Be, left), wrap their cables around your outer ears (Astell&Kern Billie Jean, middle), or have a loop or wing (B&W C5, right).

Higher-quality over-the-ear and on-ear headphones come with detachable cables, so you can replace them if theyre ever damaged or simply wear out. Thats not always the case with in-ear headphones; however, some recent IEMs now come with detachable cables that conform to the MMCX (Micro Miniature Coax Connector) standard, so you can use any compatible MMCX cable with them. Replacing a cable is a much better alternative to throwing away an otherwise perfectly serviceable set of headphones.

Earbud headphones explained

Earbuds are similar to in-ear-headphones, but they are designed differently. Earbuds sit in the outer part of your ear (theconcha, specifically) as opposed to fitting inside your ear canal.

Earbuds dont block ambient noise, and you might find you need to increase the volume on your source device to overcome the noise floor of your surroundings. This could result in the people around your hearing whatever youre listening to.

Apple is one of the few companies that still makes earbuds. Their earbud design has evolved over tim Theo Nicolakis

Apple is one of the few companies that still makes earbuds. Their earbud design has evolved over time, making the earbuds less prone to falling out.

A major benefit of earbuds is that one size fits all. You dont need to find the just the right silicone or memory-foam tip to fit the unique shape of your ear.The most common complaint about earbuds is that they fall out of your ears too easily, especially while youre running or exercising.

Wireless headphones explained

Wireless headphones are super convenient, and the best will deliver audio performances rivaling wired phones. Theyre particularly useful when youre exercising. If this is the type of headphone youre shopping for, these are the most important features youll want to consider:

Battery life

Wireless headphones use Bluetooth to connect to a source device (smartphone, digital audio player, laptop, or even a soundbar). They typically rely on a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can last anywhere from four to more than 20 hours. If the battery runs dry on in-ear and earbud headphones, you wont be able to use them theyve been recharged. Most on-ear and over-the-ear models come with a 3.5mm audio cable, so you can plug them into your source device and use them in wired mode.

Wireless audio support

A wireless headphones audio quality relies significantly on the audio codecs it supports. Codec stands for compression/decompression: Digital audio is compressed at the source, so the information can be transmitted to the headphone without wires, and decompressed at the destination, so you can hear it. Some codecs deliver higher fidelity than others, but the codec must be supported at both end: by the source device and by the headphones. These codecs are among the most common in wireless headphones:

  • SBC: All Bluetooth devices support the SBC codec, which offers maximum bandwidth of 328Kbps. While functional, the SBC codec doesnt support high-resolution audio, and it tends to exhibit high latency. This could result in soundtracks falling out ofsync with video.
  • aptX: A high-quality, low-latency audio codec from Qualcomm that promises to deliver near CD-quality audio over Bluetooth. Qualcomm has more recently developed a newer version of this codec, called aptX HD, that enables audio encoded in up to 24-bit resolution with sampling rates as high as 48kHz to stream over a Bluetooth connection.
  • AAC: If you use Apple products and services, such as iTunes, youll need support for this codec. Youll also encounter it in some gaming consoles, high-resolution digital audio players, and in automotive entertainment systems. AAC delivers higher-fidelity audio than the more common MP3 codec at the same bit rate.
  • LDAC: Developed by Sony, LDAC offers bandwidth of as much as 990Kbps to wirelessly deliver audio encoded in up to 24-bit resolution with sampling rates as high as 96kHz.

Wireless remote control

Many wireless headphones provide wireless controls. In-ear headphones typically come with some type of inline remote control, like their wired counterparts, while on-ear and over-the-ear headphones usually have remote functions on the ear cup.

Make sure the control navigation fits your style: Some manufacturers outfit their headphones with physical buttons on the right or left ear cup, in locations that feel natural to your fingertips. Some go further and provide tactile cues, so you can be confident youre pressing the right button.

Other manufactures provide whats called a gesture pad, a touch-sensitive surface on one ear cup that responds to taps and directional swipes. Swiping your finger from the back to the front might move to the next track in your playlist, for example, while swiping up or down adjusts the volume. As you might expect, some gesture pads work better than others.

On the next page, well explain headphone technology in more detail, and well provide links to reviews of some of our favorite headphones. (Click here to go to page 2.)


Page 2

best headphones Rob Schultz / IDG

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 Aurvana Trio includes two balanced Armature drivers and a dynamic driver for the bass frequencie Aurvana

The Aurvana Trio in-ear-headphone includes two balanced-armature drivers, plus a dynamic driver for reproducing bass frequencies.

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.

Oppo’s PM-2 use planar magnetic technology to recreate the music. You can see the planar magnetic dr Theo Nicolakis

Oppo’s PM-2 use planar magnetic technology to recreate the music. You can see the planar magnetic driver behind the ear pad.

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.

Active noise cancelling technology works wonders in high-noise environments like planes and trains. Sony

Active noise cancelling technology works wonders in high-noise environments like planes and trains.

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.

Sony’s 1000XM2 headphones pair with an app that uses your smart device’s GPS functions to fine-tune Theo Nicolakis

Sony’s 1000XM2 headphones pair with an app that uses your smart device’s GPS functions to fine-tune some of the headphone’s adaptive noise cancelling features.

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

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  • 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
    • Pricey
    • 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
    • Expensive
  • 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
    • Expensive
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