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Best back to school headphones 2019

Soothe those back to school anxieties with some of our favorite audio picks.
By
August 13, 2019
Best ANC
Sony WH-1000XM3
By Sony
Product image of the Sony WH-1000Xm3 Bluetooth headphones in black.
9
Check price
Positives
Active noise cancelling
Sound quality
Comfortable
Battery life
Negatives
Price
The Bottom Line.
The Sony WH-1000XM2 headphones were already one of the top options available, so updating the best only results in something even better.
Read full review...
Best Gaming
HyperX Cloud II
By HyperX
Best gaming headsets: HyperX Cloud II on white background
8.5
Check price
Positives
USB audio sound card 7.1
Good value
Independent volume adjustment
TeamSpeak certified
Negatives
Bulky
Heat buildup
The Bottom Line.
If you’re going to be spending many a night gaming, whether it’s to blow off steam or avoid human interaction, the HyperX Cloud II are a great all ‘rounder.
Read full review...
Best for exercise
PowerBeats Pro
By Apple
Beats Powerbeats Pro product image on white background.
7.9
Check price
Positives
Bluetooth 5.0, Class 1
Apple's H1 chip allows for seamless connectivity
Sound quality is great for working out
Secure fit
Negatives
De-emphasized mids
Isolation isn't great
Cost
The Bottom Line.
When it comes to working out, the Powerbeats brand has always been a go-to. Now that they've been made into true wireless 'buds, they're even better.
Read full review...
Bang for your buck
RHA MA390 Wireless
By RHA
Product image on white background of RHA MA390 Wireless.
8.1
Check price
Positives
AAC and aptX support
IPX4
Multipoint connectivity
Magnetic, aluminum housings
Negatives
Sound lacks clarity
OK battery life
The Bottom Line.
If you want a pair of wireless earbuds that are a remarkable value, you should pick these up.
Read full review...
Bang for your buck
Creative Outlier Air
By Creative
Creative Outlier Air product image of the earbuds side by side against white background.
8.3
Check price
Positives
AAC and aptX support
IPX5 certified
USB-C charging
Negatives
Slippery charging case
Buttons require a bit of force
Poor isolation
The Bottom Line.
If you're unsure about whether or not you want to dive into the world of true wireless earbuds, get these. They offer plenty of great features and won't break the bank.
Read full review...

Another day, a new semester. In the words of each of our empty-nester parents, “They grow up so fast.” Whether you’re moving across the country, studying abroad in another country, or walking a mile uphill both ways to make it to first period English class, we have the best back to school headphones for your needs.

Stay focused with the active noise cancelling Sony WH-1000X M3

While there’s plenty of learning going on, it can also get a bit loud on campus. For those who want to stay laser-focused on their task regardless of what’s going on around them, a good pair of active noise cancelling headphones is a must-have. While there are plenty of great options, you should just play it safe and go with the WH-1000XM3. These are widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, pair of active noise cancelling headphones around. Even with the release of the new Bose ANC headphones, these still hold the top spot.

Sony WH-1000XM3
Sony WH-1000XM3
9
A photo of the Sony WH-1000X M2 wireless Bluetooth headphones on their backs, showing the drivers and ear cups.A photo of the active noise canceling Sony WH-1000X M2 wireless Bluetooth headphones being used to activate the Google Assistant on a Google Pixel XL.A photo of a man wearing Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones.A photo of the Sony WH-1000XM3 sitting on a stone wall.A photo of the Sony WH-1000XM3 sitting on a stone wall, showing the ports and controls.
Sony WH-1000XM3
Sony WH-1000XM3
Buy now

Besides top-notch active noise cancelling, these also have some of the best specs and features that Sony has to offer. These have up to 30 hours of battery life with active noise cancelling turned on, LDAC codec compatibility for higher-quality streaming, and even a touch-sensitive pad for playback controls. They also have a handy ambient mode which will temporarily relay outside noise through the headphones so you can be aware of your surroundings when you want to.

But back to the noise cancelling.

A chart detailing the noise canceling performance of the Sony WH-1000XM3.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 make the world melt away around you.

If you need to get some studying done, it’s not far off to label these as a necessity. Not only is passive isolation excellent, due to premium materials, but the active noise cancelling is top-notch. By attenuating outside low and midrange frequencies, your music is less prone to masking.

What you should know about the best back to school headphones

Pay attention to your codecs

Best back to school headphones: SBC aptX aptX HD AAC LDAC bluetooth codecs profile audio
Represented is the max transfer rate (kbps) of each respective Bluetooth codec (greater is better). Each waveform depicts a transfer rate of 100 kbps.

I know, I know. School’s back in session so the last thing you want is to learn about what in the world a Bluetooth codec is. Fortunately, we’ve put together a little explainer here. But the SparkNotes version is this: look for aptX or AAC support at the very least. The former provides CD-like streaming quality while the latter is compatible with Apple products. It’s harder to find things that feature aptX HD or LDAC support, but if you do run across headphones like that, keep an eye on them.

What is frequency response?

We don’t expect you to memorize everything that we write; although, we’d be flattered if you did. But we know that picking out the best back to school headphones can be hard, and it may help to understand how frequency response (and isolation) impact the sound signature of your future cans. The gist is this: a neutral frequency response is the ideal because it allows you to hear the song as the mixer intended. By having what some refer to as a flat response, your audio isn’t distorted by unaccounted for treble emphasis or what have you. Every note in the frequency response is given the same amount of emphasis, which means everything from the bass kick to the violin strings will sound equally loud.

best back to school headphones.: Either side has the letters L or R so you know which is which.
The Sony MDR-7506 have earned their keep as studio headphones, but that doesn’t mean they’d be the best back to school headphones.

That said, there are times when studio headphones like this aren’t desirable and that’s often found in the general consumer market. Our ears—well, our brains, really—enjoy when some good low-end exaggeration and slight treble emphasis, as posited by the equal loudness contour.

If you happen to like heart-punching bass, pick up the Under Armour Sport Wireless Flex by JBL. If you prefer something a little less extreme, the Aventho Wireless may be more your speed. At the end of the day, buy what sounds good to you.

Don’t want to keep your roommates up by gaming? Grab the HyperX Cloud II

The term “roommates” can varies greatly from person to person. Are they your parents, your friends, the person you share a four-by-four space with whose exhales you inadvertently inhale? Regardless, unless there’s some serious ill-will, you probably don’t want to keep your roommates up during your third World of Warcraft raid this week. (My, I hope this reference is still relevant.) In that case, we present to you the HyperX Cloud II gaming headphones.

HyperX Cloud II
HyperX Cloud II
8.5
Best gaming headsets: HyperX Cloud II on white backgroundBest gaming headsets: HyperX Cloud II on white backgroundBest gaming headsets: HyperX Cloud II on white background with close-up of detachable mic
HyperX Cloud II
HyperX Cloud II
Buy now

Aside from the integrated USB audio sound card with 7.1 virtual surround sound for PC and Mac—which, by the bye, is imperative for first-person shooters—they also include a detachable noise-cancelling microphone. Now, by nature of being detachable, the mic is also replaceable. Ideally, the replaceable parts will extend the lifespan of the headphones, making these that much more of a deal.

Speak into the mic and your teammates thank you for using something that’s TeamSpeak certified, rather than opting for the good ‘ol tin-can-on-a-string approach. Concerning controls, the in-line control box is easy to operate. The same module includes volume controls for headphone and mic adjustments. What’s more the company throws us a bone by including a spare pair of velour ear pads.

Run it off with the Powerbeats Pro

Freshman 15 is a real thing, and if you want to avoid it (or work it off) then hitting the campus gym is a must. To keep you motivated while exercising, we recommend the Powerbeats Pro. They’re not cheap, but they’re also one of the best true wireless experiences you’ll find whether you’re running around campus or working through some burpees. They have the same over-ear hook design that the Powerbeats brand is known for which keep them in place, and they have basically all of the same features that makes the AirPods so popular.

PowerBeats Pro
PowerBeats Pro
7.9
A photo of the Beats Powerbeats Pro in hand.A picture of the Beats Powerbeats Pro resting in their charging case on a desk.Close-up shot of the Lightning port on the charging case of the Beats Powerbeats Pro wireless headphones.The Beats Powerbeats Pro logo.The playback control buttons on the Beats Powerbeats Pro.Shot of the Powerbeats Pro next to running sneakers.Close-up of the Apple Airpods and the Powerbeats Pro on a synth.
PowerBeats Pro
PowerBeats Pro
Buy now

Pairing with an iOS device is seamless and the connection strength is basically perfect, and even if you’re on an Android device the connection strength is still great. They’re also IPX4 certified so you don’t have to worry about sweat damage. Sound quality is also improved and while you’ll still get the bumping bass to keep you moving through your workouts, they’re not overly emphasized in the way that past Powerbeats headphones were.

Save some cash with the RHA MA390 Wireless

If you want a pair of wireless earbuds that sound good, look good, and are durable, then the sub-$70 MA390 Wireless are the best back to school headphones for you. The magnetic aluminum housings keep the earbuds tethered when you’re not listening to music, and by being IPX4-certified, you don’t have to worry about unforeseen downpours. What’s more, the flexible neckband is outfitted with a rubberized material that remains comfortable for long period of listening.

RHA MA390 Wireless
RHA MA390 Wireless
8.1
RHA MA390 Wireless: A close-up of one of the earbuds with the RHA logo facing the camera.RHA MA390 Wireless: An image of the earbuds wrapped around a film camera. The earbuds are hooked together via the magnetic housings.RHA MA390 Wireless: An image focused on the USB-C port on the right side of the neckband with a Plenax camera in the background.RHA MA390 Wireless: A shot focused on the mic-sidie of the in-line mic and remote. The module reads, "MA390."RHA MA390 Wireless: The earbuds in the hand set in front of Lily's torso.
RHA MA390 Wireless
RHA MA390 Wireless
Buy now

And the sound, while not the best, is virtually latency free due to aptX and AAC Bluetooth codec support. Unlike other listed best back to school headphones, you can stream movies with these earbuds and the sound will be in sync with the scene.

In order to cut costs, RHA omitted the typical inclusion of Comply memory foam ear tips. Sure, it’s a disappointment, but a logical one at that. While you can work out with these on without worrying about perspiration eating away at the materials, they’re not the most ergonomic for exercise. That said, for an unbeatable price you get USB-C charging, high-quality codec support, water-resistance, and a great microphone.

Want true wireless earbuds that are affordable? Go with the Creative Outlier Air

If you want to live the true wireless life but don’t feel like paying $199 for the newest AirPods, then check out the Creative Outlier Air. These easily made our best true wireless earbuds under $100 and are a great choice for anyone not looking to break the bank. Not only are they only $79, but they’re way more discreet than the AirPods and also come stacked with features. You’ll get AAC and aptX codecs for higher quality streaming as well as an IPX5 built which protects against sweat and water damage.

Creative Outlier Air
Creative Outlier Air
8.3
Creative Outlier Air: The earbuds case being removed from a pocket.A top-down image of the Creative Outlier Air earbuds with the nozzles facing upward.Top-down image of the Creative Outlier Air USB-C input on the charging case with the earbuds out of focus in the background.Creative Outlier Air: one earbud out of case and one inside case with it open.Creative Outlier Air: The earbuds in a case atop a guitar amplifier.
Creative Outlier Air
Creative Outlier Air
Buy now

They’re lacking in the isolation department and also don’t have the seamless auto-connecting feature of Apple products. But let’s be real, if you know how to navigate your Bluetooth settings then you won’t have a problem. The pairing process is as simple as any other Bluetooth device and the connection strength is good too so you don’t have to worry about annoying skips and stutters

Checkout the best true wireless earbuds

Who are the best back to school headphones for?

Well, if it weren’t already apparent, this best back to school headphones list is designed with students in mind. The fact of the matter is that schooling, while invaluable and enjoyable, can be arduous, monotonous even. And we want your purchase to best suit your needs, not that of someone else. We considered the varying demands of student life to compile our top five picks, including something for the erudite scholar, the gamer, the I-just-want-something-that-works-and-won’t-break-three-weeks-in consumer, the athlete, and the die-hard Apple fan. Albeit, each pick is versatile enough to perform well in multiple environmentsincluding the HyperX Cloud II, since the boom mic is detachable.

Notable mentions

  • V-Moda Crossfade 2 Wireless Codex: Arguably some of the most durable headphones on the market, the Crossfade 2 Codex include both aptX and AAC support. Plus, you can customize nearly everything about these cans, even the screws.
  • Samsung Gear IconX: If you absolutely need an in-ear fitness coach in your true wireless earbuds, the Samsung Gear IconX have you covered.
  • JLab Rewind Wireless Retro: Maybe audio quality isn’t one of your priorities, but retro styling is. In that case, these are a cheap buy that are plenty of fun.
  • Audio-Technica ATH-M40x: Only a handful of brands are as prolific as Audio-Technica. And although the ATH-M40x may often be overlooked in favor of the M50x, these are more affordable and reproduced less bass emphasis.
  • Bose SoundLink On-Ear Wireless: We don’t often recommend on-ear headphones, but these are unbelievably comfortable. Plus, the integrated dual-mic setup makes taking worried calls from Mom a breeze.
  • Apple AirPods: AirPods are everywhere and entirely unavoidable and for good reason. While they have their issues, they’re also some of the most convenient ‘buds around.

Test data

Similar to algebraic proofs, we have to show our work. As it applies to earbuds and headphones alike, seal matters. A poor fit, and thus a poor seal, will noticeably degrade audio quality. One of the first things to go? Bass. Since the only awarded noise-cancelling best back to school headphones are the Sony WH-1000x M2, they’re the only pick here that use small microphones to cancel out noise. The others filter out ambient noise passively, relying strictly on a proper fit.

To see which ones were best at blocking outside noise we put them all to the test and came up with this chart. You can learn the basics in this explainer, but all you need to know is we did the hard work for you. You can click here to learn more about what kind of ear tips might be best for you.

Best back to school headphones: the Sony WF-SP700N true wireless earbuds in a molded ear.
By subjecting each of our units to pink noise at 75dB(SPL), we’re able to reliably report what a product’s battery life is.

We also looked at battery life. It’s important for your headphones to last as long as you need them to. For most of us, the bare minimum is a round trip commute. Whether that’s one hour or three hours, it’s important to know what the data show.

We also looked at the frequency response. If you want to learn more about it, click here, but the charts below should give you a better idea of how each pair of earbuds emphasizes certain notes. If you like a bass-heavy sound, look at the products with charts that depict an increase in the red area of the line. This bump reflects low-end emphasis, while the green section represents midrange frequencies, and the teal section represents treble frequencies.

Why you should trust us

First and foremost, this is each of our day jobs. We get paid to listen to as many products as we can and do hours and hours of research ’round the clock. Yes, it’s as awesome as it sounds, and yes, we love it. But more importantly: this means that our opinions on products aren’t swayed by the companies that make them—because our livelihood doesn’t depend on a positive review. If we don’t like something, we don’t sugarcoat it. So if it made a best list, we must’ve really liked it. Especially if it’s Bluetooth because we all know how much Chris hates Bluetooth.

Best back to school headphones: the headphones are large, but comfortable to wear.
The Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro headphones are open-back and great for studio use, but aren’t a strong contender for the best back to school headphones.

In addition to that, we each have several years of reviewing consumer audio products under our belts. Having kept a finger on the pulse of the audio market for several years allows us to be able to figure out what’s good, and what’s best avoided. If you have the time or desire, feel free to read our full ethics policy here.

Next: Best workout earbuds