Good headphones must do three things: sound good, be comfortable and be durable.
We’ve tested more than 100 pairs for those three criteria. But what else do you need to know to find the right ones for you?
Types of headphones
Headphones (on and over-ear)
On and over-ear headphones are like a headset. They have padded earcups that sit on (against) or over (enclosing) the ears and they’re connected by a headband. Modern headphones are usually wireless, connecting to the audio source via Bluetooth. Many also come with an audio cable so they can be plugged directly into an audio source as an alternative to connecting via Bluetooth. We refer to those as wireless (also wired).
Earphones (in-ear buds)
Earbuds are usually free from wires, connecting to the audio source via Bluetooth. This type is known as true wireless. But some earbuds are connected by a wire that sits around the back of the neck. Confusingly, most are considered wireless because they connect to the audio source via Bluetooth rather than an audio cable.
The charging case of some true wireless earbuds can be used as a Bluetooth transceiver. This allows you to plug the case into an audio source that requires a wired connection and the case will transmit wirelessly to the earbuds. Many can be used with a single earbud, but in some cases, only the right (not the left).
Because true wireless earbuds are small and light, they’re easy to transport and can be used in nearly any situation. They’re good for exercise, but you need a secure fit so you don’t lose one.
Wired headphones and earphones have a permanently attached cable to plug into the audio source. They don’t have Bluetooth connectivity. We haven’t tested any wired models recently as they’re less common with the move to wireless technology.
Headphones with active noise cancelling (ANC) – also known as acoustic noise cancelling – allow you to reduce environmental noise. They detect external sounds via microphones and cancel them out by playing the ‘opposite’ sound waves.
Most ANC models also have a transparency mode – sometimes called ambient mode or hear-through mode. This mode amplifies external sounds and blends them with what you’re listening to so you can remain aware of your surroundings. Check our test results to compare noise cancelling models.
Passive noise cancelling
Watch out for claims of passive noise cancelling – also called noise isolation. This describes the headphones’ ability to block noise physically like earmuffs do. While passive noise cancelling works well in some cases, it’s very different from ANC and you can’t turn it off when you want to hear your surroundings.
Wireless headphones usually have a claimed battery life (run-time) on the box. We measure battery run-time – both off a full charge and off a 15-minute charge – in our lab test. Check our test results to compare models.
You should expect over-ear headphones to last for 30 hours, or 20 hours with active noise-cancelling turned on.
True wireless earbuds should last 6 hours, or 30 hours when repeatedly charged from a case. But lower your expectations if you’ll keep noise cancelling on full-time.
Check our test results to see how many full charges you’ll get from the charging case of different models.
Sound leaking matters if you don’t want others to hear what you’re listening to or don’t want to be a nuisance in a quiet environment. Headphones that score highly in our sound leaking test have minimal to no sound leakage.
Other headphone features
- Controls: Most headphones have controls for volume, play/pause, skip forward/back and take/end call on the headphones. But some require control via the device you’re connected to.
- Voice assistance: Many models allow voice control via Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, or Apple Siri.
- Auto-stop: Some models will automatically stop your audio track if you remove the headphones so you don’t lose your place or wear down the battery.
- Multiple device pairing: Many headphones can be paired via Bluetooth to more than one device at a time. That can be useful if you don’t want to miss phone alerts while you’re attending an online meeting or watching a movie with your headphones.
- Water resistance: An ingress protection (IP) rating indicates dust and water resistance. Higher numbers offer greater protection.
- Foldability: Many over-ear and on-ear headphones can be folded for transport, making them more compact.
- Accessories: Most earbuds come with different sized ear fittings, but some don’t. Some headphones come with a travel case and an air travel adapter.
Check our test results to see which models have the features and accessories you want.
Which headphones are most reliable?
We ask thousands of Consumer members about their products to find out which brands are most reliable and satisfying to own. The results are available to members and Digital Pass holders.