About six years ago, headphones started to get incredibly popular. Was it the emergence of the smartphone? The marketing skills of the people at Beats by Dre? Our increasingly mobile lifestyles? Probably all of the above. Now just about everybody has a set of headphones...or two sets...or five.
But the more people buying headphones, the more different headphones there are to buy. It can be very hard to figure out which one's right for you (unless you just want what's fashionable--then Beats are the only choice. They do look cool). If you start by figuring out what you're going to do with the headphones, you can make the choice a lot easier.
Are you going to do serious, audiophile-type listening at home? If so, you probably want an open-back model. Open-back models have a more spacious sound, but they let sound from around you leak in, so they're not the kind of thing you want to use when someone's watching TV in the same room.
Are you going to use the headphones on airplanes or public transit? Maybe you want noise-canceling headphones, which electronically cancel out low-frequency sounds like jet engine noise. Or you can get in-ear headphones that will completely plug up your ear canals and give you almost as much sonic isolation as noise-canceling headphones deliver. You can even get noise-canceling in-ears if you really want to get rid of the noise. You can also get custom-molded in-ears that will completely plug your ear canals and most of your earlobe, too; many audiophiles and touring musicians swear by them.
Do you need something really small that you can pack into a pocket or purse? Then you need in-ears, or maybe a set of compact on-ear headphones. Compact on-ears tend to mash against your earlobes more, so they're often not as comfortable as over-ear models, but they're much more portable.
Do you just need one headphone that will kind of do it all? You probably want a higher-end over-ear or on-ear model. Some of these can come pretty close to the sound quality of open-back models, but they'll seal out most outside sounds.
As you can see, meeting your specific needs is every bit as important as the actual sound quality of the headphones.
Let's describe entry-level headphones as the ones that cost $100 or less...but let's not assume that entry-level headphones necessarily sound bad. In fact, entry-level headphones can sound amazingly good. It's not uncommon to find $100 headphones that can give $300 headphones a run for their money. In comparison, it's very tough to find a $200 speaker that can beat out many $600 speakers, or a $300 AV receiver that trumps a $900 model.
You can get a pretty terrific set of in-ear, on-ear, or over-ear headphones for less than $100. You can even find a nice set of open-back audiophile headphones at that price. What you can't get for $100 or less is a decent set of noise-canceling headphones. I have tried maybe one or two at this price that were sort of okay, but frequent fliers who really need noise cancellation would be well-advised to spend two or three times this price.
The one headphone feature you can find in this price range (if you want it) is an inline microphone/remote that will work with your smartphone or tablet. This will let you take phone calls through the headphones. Some people like this feature; some don't. If you don't need a mic/remote, that's no reason not to buy a headphone equipped with one; it's easy to ignore. Note that almost all of these mic/remotes will give you play/pause control over your phone, but the forward/reverse track-skip buttons and volume buttons are usually designed only for use with iPhones and iPads. A few are built for use with Android devices, though.
Here's an example of a positively reviewed headphone in the entry-level category: Bell'O Digital BDH821 ($49). Other examples are Grado's $99 open-back SR80e, Beyerdynamic's $99 DTX 501p on-ear, and AKG's $99 K 376 in-ear.
Better sound is mostly what you get when you step up to the Better category, which we'll figure at $101 to $300. The best headphones in this category have a sound that's truly neutral, or at least close to neutral. They'll also typically have less coloration in the midrange, so voices will sound smoother. If you're an audiophile who's serious about sound but not all that interested in headphones--maybe you just want something you can use for occasional flights or train trips--this category might be your sweet spot.
You'll also typically get better build quality and style in this price range. Sub-$100 headphones are usually rather plasticky and often somewhat stiff; they rarely look cool. Once you start spending around $200 or so, you can get into some very nicely made, nicely styled headphones.
Once you start spending more than $150 or so, in-ear headphones can start to get pretty fancy. You can find models in this price range with balanced armature drivers, which are like little teeter-totters attached to a diaphragm; on the other hand, standard dynamic drivers are basically like tiny speakers. Balanced armatures are known for a more delicate, detailed midrange and treble. You can even find a few hybrid in-ears in this price range, which combine a dynamic driver and a balanced armature in the same earpiece.
This price range is where several decent to very good noise-canceling headphones reside. Most of them do a reasonably good job of canceling the noise in an airliner cabin. A few of them, mostly notably the ones from Bose, do an amazing job; it's almost like your ears are turned off. While the Bose headphones sound okay, audio enthusiasts who want noise cancellation might be happier seeking out better sound and settling for just-decent noise cancellation.
Here are a few examples of positively reviewed headphones in the mid-level price category: V-Moda XS on-ear ($212), RBH EP-2 in-ear ($179), NAD Viso HP-50 over-ear ($299), B&W P5 on-ear ($299), and Bose QC25 noise-canceling over-ear ($299).
Once you get above $300, you often start losing features. Headphones in the higher price ranges--at least the over-ear models--tend to be designed for serious listening at home. Many of them are open-back designs, which as we stated above let sound leak in from around you. They're lousy for use on planes and public transit, or around loud family members; but, for a quiet evening of private listening, you can't beat them.
Many open-back audiophile designs use planar magnetic drivers, which work just like the planar magnetic drivers made famous in Magnepan speakers. A thin polyester diaphragm with wire traces applied is suspended in a magnetic field; so, when an audio signal flows through the wires, the diaphragm moves back and forth to create sound. Any audiophile who has never heard one of these headphones really needs to; you could argue that they give you the most bang for the buck of any high-end audio product you can buy today.
The in-ear models you can get for more than $300 can be truly extraordinary. Many of them feature three or more drivers, all precisely fit into each tiny earpiece. They usually feature over-the-ear cable routing, which is a bit more cumbersome but tends to deliver a better fit and a more complete seal of the ear canal. Starting at about $500, you can get into custom-molded in-ear headphones, which are molded to fit the exact shape of your ear; some audiophiles consider these to be the best in-ears, and perhaps even the best headphones, made today.
There's even one noise-canceling headphone worth mentioning in this category (see below)--although only one model, in my opinion.
Here are a few examples of positively reviewed headphones in the high-end price category: Audeze LCD-3 planar magnetic open back ($1,999), Oppo Digital PM-1 planar magnetic open back ($1,099), MrSpeakers Alpha Dog planar magnetic closed back ($599), Sennheiser HD 700 open back ($849), and Ultimate Ears Capitol Reference Monitors custom-molded in-ear ($999).
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• Visit our Headphones category page for our complete collection of headphone reviews.