For music lovers, headphones are becoming more and more important, as people tend to spend more of their lives on the go. That’s in addition to the obvious benefit of listening without disturbing others, whether they’re roommates, neighbors, or fellow commuters.
The thing is, some people happily spend more than half a grand on a new tablet or portable media device with an estimated lifespan of around three years, yet the question we’re asked often is still, “What’s the cheapest pair of headphones I can buy that don’t completely suck?” Headphones, earbuds, and earphones (we’ll describe the difference between them in a bit) are generally viewed as the least essential link in the musical chain—the part you can easily skimp on.
In reality, your headphones are the most important link in that chain: A quality pair has a larger impact than the player itself on how your tunes will sound. Also, if well cared for, they will long outlive your planned-to-be-obsolete tablet, phone, or MP3 player. And you don’t have to break the bank, either. For as little as $40, you can get a high-quality pair of headphones and really begin to enjoy all the sweet-sounding audio you’ve been missing.
Thanks to the wild popularity of phones and MP3 players, inexpensive earbuds have become ubiquitous. Even so, earbuds are not an ideal listening option, since they don’t enter your ear canal and as a result don’t create a true seal. Thus, they’re more likely to be placed at an odd angle, often destroying the balance of the audio mix—and you can forget about getting solid bass response. Earphones, on the other hand, sit further in your ear canal, creating an actual seal—and they’re often more comfortable to wear, since they tend to stay in place better than earbuds. Headphones, by contrast, are over-the-head (or behind-the-head) speakers that don’t enter your ear canals at all. Circumaural models create a seal with cups that surround your entire ear, whereas open, or supra-aural headphones sit directly on your ears without forming a seal.
Now let’s take a look at how to find better alternatives to those lousy stock-issue earbuds. Since earphones have won the popularity war over other styles, we’ll start with them, but we’ll also explore headphones, including noise-canceling and wireless options.
As explained above, earbuds aren’t the best way to get the most from your music. If you’re looking for booming bass on a budget, reasonable quality starts to emerge in the $40-50 range. They don’t deliver the most accurate sonic experience, but some feature deep, resonant low end—perfect for hip-hop and electronic music—which is a recent development in affordable earphones. Generally speaking, with the possible exception of Apple’s much-improved, $29 EarPods, you won’t find true audio quality in earphones until you pass the $50 mark. In the $50 to $150 price range, you can expect earphones that fit well, deliver powerful bass and crisp treble, and come with a variety of tips in different sizes to ensure a good seal. Ultimate Ears, Sennheiser, and Shure are consistently strong players in this category, but we’ve also seen promising affordable earphones from other competitors as well, such as the $80 AKG K 350.
If you’re more about accuracy than booming bass, you’ll want “flat-response” pairs that offer a more pure, less sculpted audio signal. The Etymotic ER-4PT is our flat-response earphone benchmark, while the less expensive Bowers & Wilkins C5 also offers fantastic audio performance with richer bass. In this same price range, you should expect well-matched left and right earphones, as well as better definition on the lowest and highest frequencies. Etymotic makes the flattest pair in this range, but there are plenty of options that offer more low-end without boosting too much.
Generally, headphones should be able to reproduce richer low end since they have larger drivers than earphones and they don’t rely on an in-ear seal to deliver sound. Some listeners also find headphones just plain more comfortable to wear, and easier to put on and take off, than they do earphones. When it comes to consumer headphones, several companies stand out, including Sennheiser, Yamaha, Grado, and Beats by Dr. Dre. The $100 Logitech UE 4000 is a lower-cost headphone pair that delivers clean, powerful sound with an emphasis on crisp mids and highs. If you seek flat response with a bit of added bass, but not too much, it’s a great pair to consider; it’ll feed your hunger for deep bass and work nicely on the quieter songs as well. Some of our favorite higher-end pairs are the Yamaha PRO 500 (our current Editors’ Choice), the bass-heavy Beats Pro by Dr. Dre, and the Sennheiser HD 558.
You might try to dismiss the din of the outside world by cranking up the volume, but the best solution for saving your sanity and your ears is to invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones, so you can enjoy your audio at much lower volumes. The AKG K 490, our Editors’ Choice, offer fantastic noise cancellation, and they sound pretty good—but they will set you back about $250. Meanwhile, Phiaton offers an excellent in-ear noise canceling pair, the Phiaton PS 20 NC; at $100 less than the AKG K 490 and $150 less than the popular Bose QuietComfort 15, they’re a steal.
It’s also important to note: Noise-canceling headphones are generally not for audiophiles—they typically put noise cancellation before sound quality and tend to sound less compelling than similarly priced headphones without the noise-cancellation circuitry. Plus, several in-ear earphones offer substantial passive noise reduction by basically functioning as earplugs.
Wireless headphones can be convenient in any situation where you don’t want to deal with dangling cables—like the gym, for example. After years of poor-to-mediocre sound, Bluetooth wireless stereo audio has made great strides in sound quality over the past year. While the data signal containing Bluetooth audio is compressed, headphone and earphone manufacturers have found ways to enhance the signal to compensate for its deficiencies in a way that makes them less audible than before.
If you can’t stand cords, check out wireless pairs like the Plantronics BackBeat Go and the Outdoor Technology DJ Slims, both of which double as headsets to let you answer cell phone calls. For higher-quality wireless sound, the Sennheiser RS 220 is our Editors’ Choice for high-end wireless headphones; the RS 220 uses DSSS, which is an improvement on Kleer’s excellent RF-based wireless technology.
Before you settle on your perfect pair, check out our roundups of the Best Headphones, Best Noise-Canceling Headphones, Best Earphones, and Best Wireless Headphones, as well as all the latest reviews in the Headphones Product Guide.
By Jamie Lendino, PCMag