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-1000XM3Full Review
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.
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
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.
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 IIFull Review
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 ProFull Review
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 WirelessFull Review
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 AirFull Review
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 environments—including the HyperX Cloud II, since the boom mic is detachable.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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