More than half the world’s carbon emissions stem from the extraction and processing of raw materials. That’s why the best headphones for the environment are the ones you never bought. The next best option is to make your old headphones last for as long as you can. However, if you desperately need a new pair of headphones, this article will help you pick one that you can buy in good conscience.
Of course, you won’t have to give up on other key qualities. The best eco-friendly headphones listed here also score well in terms of sound quality and features. After all, environmentally sound headphones that you rarely use aren’t sustainable either.
The House of Marley Exodus is the best eco-friendly pair of headphones for most of us
For many companies sustainability is an afterthought, but for House of Marley sustainability is the starting point. Not only does the company mindfully source all its materials, but it also supports global reforestation by donating a share of every purchase to One Tree Planted. To date, Project Marley has helped plant 223,000 trees. When you purchase from House of Marley, you support a company committed to sustainable audio products that also sound great.
House of Marley ExodusFull Review
The House of Marley Exodus is a middle-of-the-road pair of headphones with great build quality. The unique design makes the Exodus stand out, but it’s also a reflection of the materials used in its construction. FSC-certified maple wood ear cups, aluminum, and stainless steel have replaced plastic where possible.
House of Marley was founded on Bob Marley's vision of universal love, music, and respect for the earth.
The Exodus offers nearly 25 hours of battery life. If you ever run out of power, just plug in the included audio cable and switch to wired listening. Audiophiles might want to do this by default as the headphones only support SBC. In any case, you enjoy bass as that’s where these headphones shine, though the boosted bass can occasionally mask mids. When bass is less present, the headset reproduces instruments and vocals clearly, too. Note that the House of Marley Exodus might start to feel uncomfortable after long listening sessions.
What makes a pair of headphones more eco-friendly?
More eco-friendly products have a lower negative impact on the planet. It may seem obvious, but let’s unpack what that means.
Environmental impact is often measured in carbon emissions. However, while calculating a product’s carbon footprint is complex, even that is a simplified metric—it doesn’t account for soil or water pollution, ecosystem destruction, or biodiversity loss, to name a few key impacts. A better way to comprehensively capture negative impacts is to assess a product’s entire life cycle.
A life cycle assessment (LCA) analyzes a product’s environmental impacts from cradle to grave (from resource extraction, raw material processing, production, distribution, use, to its end of life). Unfortunately, not many manufacturers perform LCAs and even fewer make them public.
How we chose the best eco-friendly headphones
It’s hard to obtain official LCAs, so we took the idea and turned it into our own set of guidelines for picking eco-friendly headphones:
- Above-and-beyond sustainability efforts by the manufacturer
When a manufacturer demonstrates a serious commitment to reducing its negative impacts, we think it’s worth investing in its products. Companies that fall into this category are making the transition to a circular economy. That means making new products predominantly from recycled materials, sourcing remaining materials responsibly, making products repairable, and at the end of the product’s life cycle, making sure parts can be recycled and fed back into the production cycle.
- The headphones use reclaimed or recycled materials
The biggest share of a headphone’s carbon footprint is tied to its production. Raw material extraction and processing alone account for 53% of global carbon emissions. Replacing freshly minted materials with reclaimed or recycled alternatives means we can drastically reduce a product’s negative impacts on the environment.
- The headphones use more sustainable (raw) materials
When it’s not possible to use reclaimed or recycled materials, manufacturers can look for other sustainable alternatives. For example, wood from a sustainably managed forest, metals extracted in mines that don’t use child or slave labor, or fully recyclable plastics.
- The headphones are modular or repairable
Making individual components, such as the battery or a driver, replaceable or repairable, can significantly increase a product’s lifespan. What’s more, it can be easier to break apart and recycle modular products, potentially resulting in even less resource extraction.
- The headphones have extra long battery life
A battery with greater capacity generally also translates into a longer product lifespan. That’s because lithium-ion batteries tend to die slowly because they lose a tiny bit of capacity with every charge cycle.
- The headphones use wired audio
Even wireless headphones can come with a wired option via an audio jack or USB. This makes them more sustainable as they will remain functional even when the battery dies. Why smartphone manufacturers ditched the headphone jack is beyond us.
- The headphones meet the SoundGuys quality standards
After picking candidates that met one or more of the above criteria, we weighed eco-friendliness against the overall quality of the headphones and chose models that satisfy both sets of standards.
Learn more: Can headphones be sustainable?
Build your custom headphones with the AIAIAI TMA-2
AIAIAI builds modular headphones. The most you can replace with other cans are the ear pads and maybe the headband cover. With a pair of AIAIAI headphones, you can switch out the whole speaker unit to add wireless support or upgrade the diaphragm. You can also replace any other part, including the headband and all cables. To our knowledge, that’s unique among headphones.
You can choose from five pre-configured models or you can build your own TMA-2 set from any of the available components. The wireless TM-2 speaker units offer 40 hours of playback and USB-C fast charging. You can choose between on-ear or over-ear pads and add coiled or straight audio cables. If your phone doesn’t have an audio jack, just build your set with a 3.5mm-to-USB-C cable instead.
In our tests of the AIAIAI TMA-2 MFG4 with on-ear ear pads, we found that the isolation is lacking which yields relatively quiet bass notes. To mitigate this, choose over-ear pads instead. When you get a good fit with these headphones, the TMA-2 MFG4 sounds quite good. Your experience with other models or a custom build may be different.
The Beyerdynamic DT 700 PRO X is the best for studio or home use
Nothing about Beyerdynamic headphones is explicitly sustainable, but the company generally well-built and long-lasting products. With the DT 700 PRO X, you’ll get a pair of studio-quality headphones with a neutral frequency response to match its purpose.
Beyerdynamic DT 700 PRO XFull Review
The DT 700 PRO X doesn’t require an amp, so you could use it during your commute, though the lack of foldable hinges might make it a bit too bulky for lugging around. Designed for studio use, the DT 700 PRO X isn’t wireless, nor does it feature active noise cancelling. It does, however, offer effective passive isolation. And since it lacks features that require a battery, it comes with a 3.5mm audio cable.
Find out: What does your headphone warranty cover?
This is the kind of headphone that will last you for years beyond its generous two-year warranty. And should you ever break something, Beyerdynamic offers a comprehensive list of spare parts for most of its products, though we could only find cables for the DT 700 PRO X. Listeners who don’t intend to take their headphones out of the house should look into the open-back variant, the Beyerdynamic DT 900 PRO X.
Get massive battery life with the Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2
If you must have wireless headphones, pick the Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2. Not only does Audio-Technica have top-notch quality standards, but the ATH-M50xBT2 also affords you almost 65 hours of battery life. Should you ever run low, a 10-minute charge adds three hours of audio playback. If all else fails, the headphone jack is there to save the day.
Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2Full Review
The ATH-M50xBT2 appeals to consumers and professional users alike. The foldable design makes it portable, the noise isolation is passable, and its sound profile is conservative, but not completely bass-agnostic. Audiophiles will also appreciate the support of AAC, SBC, and LDAC codecs.
The Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2 lacks active noise cancelling and the clamping force might become uncomfortable, but none of these might be a factor for you.
Related: The best Audio-Technica headphones
Apple users should choose the Apple AirPods Max
Among headphone manufacturers, Apple appears to be the most sustainable. Since its first environmental progress report in 2008, the company has set out to achieve a net-zero carbon impact by 2030. This puts it decades ahead of its competitors, most of which haven’t even started reporting on sustainability. However, carbon emissions aren’t everything, which is why the Apple AirPods Max doesn’t make it to the top of our list.
Apple AirPods MaxFull Review
The AirPods Max is the most eco-friendly solution for iPhone owners. Its build largely omits plastic, replacing it with stainless steel and aluminum. This gives these headphones a premium feel and makes them more durable, and it still manages to be extremely comfortable.
The AirPods Max offers excellent active noise cancelling, a great transparency mode, and a pleasing sound profile. At 20 hours with ANC enabled, the battery life is pretty good too. You can also use the AirPods Max in wired mode, but if you’re not already a member of the Apple club, that option will be a nuisance as it relies on Apple’s Lightning connector, as does charging.
If you’re a seasoned Apple customer, you should have no problem adjusting to some quirks, such as returning the headset to its case to put it in a low-power mode. You see, the AirPods Max doesn’t have a power button. Unless you put it back into its smart case, it takes a few hours until it goes to sleep on its own, all the while wasting battery life.
You might like this: Best AirPods Max cases
The most eco-friendly headphones: Notable mentions
- Logitech G733 Lightspeed: If you’re looking for a pair of headphones that’s actually carbon neutral, look no further than this one. Logitech is a member of Amazon’s Climate Pledge and the G733 Lightspeed carries a CarbonNeutral certification by Natural Capital Partners. As a company, Logitech performs LCAs on some of its products and has reported on sustainability since 2011. The G733 Lightspeed is a wireless gaming headset with a battery life of around 28 hours. On the downside, it doesn’t offer a wired option.
- Thinksound ov21: The ov21 is a lightweight pair of over-ear studio monitor headphones. The headband, gimbals, and earcup frames are made from metal, vegan leather wraps the memory foam and headband, and the earcups sport sustainably sourced walnut inlays. Thinksound used Eastman Treva, a bioplastic made from wood pulp, to replace the remaining plastic parts. The ov21 and its 45mm dynamic drivers have been favorably reviewed by fellow audiophiles, and we will update this space once our own review is in.
- House of Marley Exodus ANC: The active noise cancelling version of the House of Marley Exodus offers the same great qualities, but with a whopping 80 hours of battery life with the ANC turned off. If you’re not a fan of the light-brown bamboo, you’ll love this all-black version.
- LSTN The Troubadour 2.0: LSTN is an “inspirational electronics company.” In partnership with the Starkey Hearing Foundation, LSTN funds hearing aids for those in need. Strictly speaking, this is not an eco-friendly headphone, as it’s unclear whether the company’s ethical standards expand to its supply chain. However, if you’d like to support a good human cause, these stylish headphones with vegan leather ear pads and real wood accents could win you over.
- House of Marley Liberate Air: It’s hard to recommend wireless earbuds in an article about eco-friendly headphones because shorter lifespans and irreplaceable batteries make these a liability for the environment. If it wasn’t for the Liberate Air’s mindfully sourced materials, we would recommend earbuds with a significantly longer battery life than 9 hours per charge.
For all earbuds users: How can you make your AirPods last longer?
Why you can trust SoundGuys
At SoundGuys we’re dedicated to testing every product we recommend and we adhere to a strict ethics policy. Our objective tests are based on standards we continuously improve on. We measure frequency response, isolation, active noise cancellation, and battery life. For this article, we also looked into sustainability-related criteria as outlined above. There’s always a subjective dimension to our reviews as we try to cater to different reader preferences. Our goal is to recommend products you will enjoy for many years.