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Ultimate headphone buying guide
Headphones are more than just a way to listen to music, they’ve matured into a wearable device, a way to augment your smartphone experience. It can be hard to decode all of the specifications and even harder to understand the importance of some software features over others, especially if you’re new to buying headphones. We’re here to reduce the feeling of analysis paralysis with our ultimate headphone buying guide. Now, you dedicate less time to research, and more time to music enjoyment.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on February 13, 2021, to address an FAQ about the relevance of traditional wireless earbuds, address the growing gaming headset market, and address information about headphone applications, privacy, software features, and more.
What kind of headphones do you want?
Headphones cover a wide range of audio peripherals, and take on different shapes and sizes, with different connection types, and so on. The most basic breakdown of headphones includes over-ear headphones, on-ear headphones, in-ears, and true wireless earbuds. We’ll cover the pros and cons of each headset type, and their ideal use cases to help you narrow your search.
Note: there are exceptions to nearly every rule. Use this for what it is: a guide, not a book of law.
Physically speaking, over-ear headphones are the largest of the main headphone types. Over-ear headphones are probably what most of us picture in our mind’s eye when someone says the word “headphones.”
Why should you get over-ear headphones?
Generally speaking, over-ear headphones have an easier job reproducing accurate audio across the frequency spectrum, from sub-bass to treble notes. These large drivers, which are typically of the dynamic variety, can move more air at once. This is key to loud bass notes, and something that smaller headsets like earbuds struggle to do without introducing multi-driver systems.
Over-ear headphones also do a better job of recreating an accurate sense of auditory space, colloquially referred to as “soundscape.” The way the ear pads rest around the entirety of the ear means that the sound waves hit your ears and use their anatomy to funnel the waves down to your ear canal. This is akin to how we regularly transfer sound to our brains for processing.
You might like: Best studio headphones
Another advantage of the larger footprint: greater comfort and better battery life than smaller options. The all-encompassing ear cups distribute weight more comfortably around the ear, and across the headband. Since the housings are roomy, there’s plenty of space to throw in some large li-ion batteries too.
Why you might not want over-ear headphones
As with the pros, the cons to over-ear headphones have much to do with their size. Headphones take up a lot more room in your bag than a pair of wired or true wireless earbuds, and they can’t quite compact the same way as on-ears can. Another inconvenience, albeit a rare one, is that a premium pair of wired headphones might require an external amplifier. This is generally reserved for enthusiasts and headphones that are extremely specialized.
Check out these lists of our favorite over-ear headphones:
Another popular type of headphone are on-ear headphones. Unlike over-ears, these sit directly on top of your ears.
Why should you get on-ear headphones?
The on-ear design is great for listeners who want many of the benefits that over-ear headphones provide, without all of the added heft. Sure, these aren’t quite as pocketable as those tiny in-ears, but they often include rotating or collapsible hinges for storage.
Just as their over-ear brethren, on-ears house large drivers for accurate audio reproduction and bass response. Again, because there’s still some leftover space in the on-ear headphone compartments, manufacturers can stuff large batteries into these kinds of headsets. In fact, some on-ears run circles around over-ears when it comes to playtime.
Why you might not want on-ear headphones
Proper isolation, the ability for a headset to block out background noise, is difficult to maintain with on-ear headphones. An innocent wiggle of the ear could set the whole fit off-kilter, and let in all of the environmental noise around you. This is a bad position to be in, because good isolation yields optimal audio quality.
Alternatively, an on-ear headset may provide very effective isolation but at the expense of comfort. This is true for the Beats Solo Pro noise cancelling on-ear headphones, which feel like a wearing a vice grip. Another disadvantage: even though they’re easier to carry than over-ear headphones, they’re still cumbersome relative to earbuds.
Check out some of our favorite on-ear headphones:
Earbuds, in-ear monitors, or IEMs
Earbuds go by plenty of names, but however you call them, they’re an audio mainstay. Every MP3 player and early smartphone used to come with a pair of wired earbuds, just to get you started, and the debate still rages on about the value of the headphone jack.
Why should you get earbuds?
Whether you purchase wired or wireless earbuds, these are extremely easy to transport. You can shove them into a pocket without a second thought, or roll them into a purse and go about your day. Passive isolation is generally very good with earbuds, unlike on-ears, because they seal to the ear (or most do, anyway). The silicone or memory foam ear tips create a cogent seal that blocks out background noise, and when you fit them properly, it can be almost as effective as some noise cancelling options.
A good pair of earbuds is easy to find on almost any budget.
Wireless earbuds, specifically, are ideal for exercise enthusiasts. There are plenty of workout earbuds that feature some sort of IP rating, which is a must-have feature for any athlete. Another great benefit of buying earbuds: they’re affordable, or can be anyway. Earbuds used to be the consumer standard, and whether your budget is $20, $50, or $100, there’s a great pair of earbuds for you.
Why you might not want earbuds
Accurate audio reproduction is harder for engineers to achieve when working with the physical size limitations of in-ears. There are plenty of audiophile earbuds, but they cost a lot more than the standard listener wants to pay. Again, to the credit of in-ear headsets, the sound quality to price ratio has improved greatly, but headphones still edge out earbuds for most listeners’ realistic budgets.
Wires get tangled, or they break, and this isn’t something a lot of us care to deal with anymore. Few earbuds include replaceable cables with MMCX connectors, which shortens the lifespan of your favorite earbuds. You can always repair those frayed cables with a few basic tools and some time.
Check out these lists of our favorite earbuds:
True wireless earbuds
Much like the in-ears mentioned above, true wireless earphones rest in your ear, and are extremely portable. These are the newest vehicle for personal audio, and generally the smallest.
Why should you get true wireless earbuds?
True wireless earbuds may be the runt of the litter, but they’re also the most portable option around. Whether you pay $50 or top dollar for your totally wireless earbuds, all models include a case that doubles as a way to charge the buds. Since this kind of headset is wire-free, they’re perfect for athletes.
True wireless earbuds are to credit, or blame, for how we understand earbuds today: as an extension of our smartphones. Apple, in particular, popularized the technology with its AirPods, and other companies have since made great AirPods competitors that provide ample software features. True wireless earbuds offer plenty of user control, as you can often reconfigure the touch or button controls, toggle features like ambient passthrough, and more.
Why you might not want true wireless earphones
It’s no secret that true wireless batteries just don’t last. These tiny earbuds house proportionately tiny battery cells, compound that with the constant charge-deplete cycle of the headset, and you have a recipe for battery life disaster. Headset longevity aside, true wireless earphones just don’t offer great standalone playtime either. Sure, there’s your rare case of the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus or Beats Powerbeats Pro, but most earbuds fall somewhere between 4-6 hours of battery before you have to charge them.
Another somewhat common issue that plagues true wireless earbuds is connection stability. Most companies remedied this with Bluetooth 5.0 or later firmware, and others even went so far as to create their own version of Qualcomm TrueWireless Stereo Plus. But there are still some earbuds that struggle to maintain a connection in outside, and others that hiccup when a wall is between the earbuds and source device.
Check out these lists of our favorite true wireless earbuds:
Gamers have their own category of headphones to consider, and gaming headsets are a dime a dozen, making it that much more difficult to separate the good from the gimmick. Whether your console of choice is a PlayStation 5, an Xbox Series X, or a Nintendo Switch, a gaming headset can improve your experience, and that of your teammates.
Why should you get a dedicated gaming headset?
Gaming headsets offer value to casual and professional gamers alike. They may look silly at times, but beneath those glowing LEDs lie plenty of useful hardware and software features. Surround sound is a popular feature among gaming headsets, and sometimes it’s baked into the headset and other times you have to download proprietary software. Regardless of how it’s enabled, surround sound often gives you the edge over non-headset using gamers, because it makes it easier for you to locate auditory cues. This could be the difference of virtual life and death in games like Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.
Gaming headsets make it easier for you to locate where ingame sound is coming from.
Most all gaming headsets are over-ear headphones with an external boom mic, which may not have you completely sold on the idea of shelling out for one. But a good gaming headset is well worth it, because it’s priced as a bundle, and often is much cheaper than if you bought a pair of headphones and an external USB microphone.
Why you might not want a gaming headset
Not all gaming headsets are made well, and there are tons of junk gaming headsets that aren’t worthy of anyone’s desktop. If you make a purchase without doing enough research, you could end up wasting hundreds of dollars. While it’s less so the case now, gaming headsets often follow a distinct design full of RGB lights and geometric shapes. This may be your flavor, or it may not, but this standard appearance makes it hard to walk into public with a Bluetooth-enabled gaming headset.
Check out these lists of our favorite gaming headsets:
What kind of headphones do you prefer?
Should you go wired or wireless?
Like other connection types, there’s no “better” or “worse” when it comes to wired or Bluetooth headphones, just trade offs. However, Bluetooth adds another layer of pros and cons to your buying decisions, and it may not be much of an option if your phone lacks a headphone jack altogether. You might decide that dongle life isn’t worth the hassle, and you prefer to reserve wired listening for the home.
What should you know about audio before buying headphones?
There’s a lot of technical jargon when it comes to headphones, but it’s worth your while to understand it if you want to invest in a nice pair of headphones. These are some of the most common terms that get thrown around when talking about audio in headphones.
Bluetooth codecs impact wireless audio quality
We’ve living in the golden age of wireless headphones and earbuds, which means there’s another specification for us to understand: Bluetooth codecs determine how Bluetooth media is transmitted from your smartphone to your headset. The best Bluetooth codec for your setup is the one that provides optimal audio quality and connection stability.
Become an expert: Bluetooth codecs 101
iPhone owners are best off with wireless headphones that support AAC, which is the only high-quality Bluetooth codec that iOS supports. It optimizes audio quality and reduces lag-time on Apple devices. Android encodes AAC with varying degrees of efficiency, depending on your hardware, so you’re better off with an aptX headset or even a pair of LDAC headphones. Some Android smartphone manufacturers have their own proprietary codecs. Samsung’s Galaxy Buds series of earphones support the Samsung Scalable Codec, which constantly scales bitrate according to signal strength.
What is a frequency response, and how does it affect your music?
Frequency response specifications are typically included on the packaging, and looks something like 20Hz-20kHz. This informs you of the range of sound that a headset can reproduce, and is the most popular range because the accepted range of human hearing is also 20Hz-20kHz. Just because a headset can reproduce these frequencies doesn’t mean it sounds good, though.
There are different types of frequency responses, many with their own nicknames, and the platonic ideal is a neutral, or “flat,” frequency response. It’s only an ideal though, as physical limitations prevent a headset’s drivers from being able to produce a uniform response across the frequency spectrum. In theory, a headset with a “flat” frequency response is one that reproduces all notes with equal loudness, allowing you to hear your music exactly as the mastering engineers intended. Many people shell out plenty of money for this kind of sound, but others prefer something that deviates from the ideal.
Professionals need accurate audio from their headphones to mix tracks, but most consumers prefer a little variation.
Most consumer headphones amplify bass and treble notes, which adds the familiar and beloved oomph to your songs, while making it easier to perceive detail from things like vibrating violin strings. This is typically referred to as a “V-shaped” sound profile, but if bass notes are too amplified, it can lead to auditory masking—when a loud sound makes it hard to hear a relatively quiet one.
Should you get closed- or open-back headphones?
Closed-back headphones are easier to come by, and the headphone casing completely protects the internals components. This design is more versatile, because you can take closed-back headphones anywhere, without your music leaking out into the public sphere. The drawback to closed headphones is that they generally have a harder time recreating a realistic sense of auditory space, relative to their open-back counterparts. Open-back headphones feature grilles that expose the drivers. This constant flow of air in and through the headset creates a more “spacious” sound, but can’t really be taken outside of a quiet environment.
Learn more: Open-back headphones vs. Closed-back headphones
What other features should you consider before buying headphones?
There are plenty more factors to think about when buying headphones: should you buy headphones online or at a brick and mortar store? Should your headphones come with a mobile app? Is the microphone quality good enough? Let’s run through these questions right now.
Software updates and features are important for wireless headsets
Almost every wireless audio product comes with its own headphone app, and this may seem like a roundabout way to collect data from you, but some apps actually offer useful features too. The most important feature a headphone app can offer you is access to firmware updates. Some companies have a bad habit of gatekeeping access to updates, but most companies keep their apps OS agnostic.
If you have an iPhone, you’re likely familiar with the Apple AirPods line of earbuds and, now, headphones. You can only update a set of AirPods if you own an Apple device; Android users can still use the headset, but it’s more like a hindered pair of earbuds than a seamless experience.
A good headphone app can extend the lifetime of your wireless headphones and earbuds.
Software features and mobile companion apps are great for more than just basic firmware updates, though. The useful apps let you access a host of features like virtual EQ modules, onboard control customization, find my earbuds, and more. The Sony Headphones Connect app even lets you decide whether you want the app to prioritize connection stability or audio quality.
Headphones may collect data from you
If a headset comes with a companion app, it’s quite possible that the app collects data from you and even sends it to third-parties. Bose has been embroiled in lawsuits over the years, and Google is under suspicion always. All companies flirt with data collection to some degree, whether it’s burying liability clauses throughout novel-length terms of service agreements, or forcing you to accept certain agreements before fully knowing the apps features. In all fairness, not every company is out to get you, or sell your data for profit, some really do use it for internal marketing purposes, and to better their online services.
Virtually every major headphone manufacturer, including Google, lets you opt out of certain data collection to some degree. Sure, it may take some digging, or a few emails to a customer support agent, but you can almost always opt to decouple your personal identifiers from data collected from your app-related interactions. Those who live in the EU, for instance, have much more liberty than US residents, especially those who don’t reside in California.
Your iPhone data may be encrypted on the phone, but Apple can still hand over iCloud backups to legal entities.
Headphone data collection is no joke, and we implore you to read, or at least “CTRL+F” through the end user license agreement and terms of service for your chosen headphone app. You might find that you don’t feel comfortable allowing headphone companies that much access to your personal data.
Noise isolating vs. Active noise cancelling headphones
This is one of those things that sound similar, but mean very different things. Noise isolation just means that the product physically sits between your ear and outside sound, thus blocking outside noise from entering your ear.
Active noise cancellation (ANC) works differently: products with ANC have tiny microphones in them that pick up outside sounds; sometimes these include inward-facing microphones too, that combat inner-ear resonances. The headset’s processor then sends a signal to another set of microphones to produce the opposite sound wave (destructive interference) to cancel out the noise. It’s all based on physics and wave properties so as you can imagine, it’s not an easy thing to accomplish.
If noise cancellation sounds like it’s for you, there are some great options out there. Don’t expect every little sound to magically disappear, but you’d be surprised how much sound actually does get removed when using a good pair of headphones.
Battery life matters, but only so much
Depending on what variant of wireless headphones you purchase, battery life may or may not be a huge concern. On- and over-ear headphones have much longer standalone battery life than wireless and true wireless earbuds. Most wireless headphones provide at least 18 hours of playtime on a single charge, and most traditional wireless earbuds provide at least 8 hours of playtime. True wireless earbuds average 4-5 hours of listening on a single charge.
All kinds of wireless headphones and earbuds usually support fast charging. Usually, you’ll see a specification that cites something like 10 minutes of charging provides an hour of playtime. Most headphones support a more efficient version of fast charging, which can supply hours of listening after just 10 minutes of charge.
Athletes need a water-resistant headset with an IP rating
If you exercise frequently, you should buy a pair of dedicated workout headphones or workout earbuds. It may seem like a waste of money to buy a headset reserved for the gym, but no one wants a water-damaged headset. You should look out for a product that merits an Ingress Protection (IP) rating. A common IP rating is IPX4, where the “X” marks a placeholder for dust-resistance. Rock climbers and training gymnasts should definitely get a headset with a dust-resistance rating, because the chalk particles can damage internal components if a headset isn’t treated properly.
If you spend all your days in conference calls, invest in headphones with a good microphone
Microphone quality was once an afterthought when you purchased a headset, but today it’s a highly sought-after feature now that so many of us are relegated to remote work. The headset with the best microphone quality is one with an external boom mic, like a gaming headset, but there are plenty of great headphones for conference calls beyond the gaming arena. Perhaps you have a large desktop space, you may even find it worthwhile to purchase a dedicated microphone.
Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro (embedded microphone):
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (embedded microphone):
Corsair Virtuoso Wireless SE (external boom microphone):
Frequently asked questions
Standard wireless earbuds are still around, and new Bluetooth neckband earbuds come out every now and then, but true wireless earbuds have taken off in the past few years. It’s much easier to find a new pair of true wireless earbuds with modern features (e.g., USB-C charging, hyper-efficient fast charging, advanced software features), than it is to find a traditional wireless earbuds equivalent. Then again, you can still find great wireless earbuds like the Beats Powerbeats for athletes, or the Sony WI-1000XM2 for travelers.