Learn how to choose among headphones of all shapes and sizes – and find out which pairs we loved listening to.
Good headphones must do three things: They have to sound good, be comfortable and last a long time.
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?
This large style features padded enclosures sitting against the head, with the ear in a hollow in the middle.
Because over-ear headphones are bulky and a bit heavier, they’re best suited for use at home or in the office. They’re also the obvious choice for audiophiles who want the best audio quality possible.
The very best headphones you can buy are over-ears, so budget $400-500 for something quality.
Appearing similar to over-ears but less bulky, on-ears have flat pads that sit on top of the ear but don’t completely enclose them.
On-ear headphones strike a balance between portability and sound accuracy. They’re best for situations like walking around town or riding on public transport.
They’re also cheaper – you can usually find a decent pair for $200.
These are small speakers that plug into your ear. Most are earbuds, which are inserted into the ear canal. Earphones, which look similar but rest on the outer ear, are much rarer than they once were due to poor sound quality.
Because in-ear headphones are light, they’re perfect for exercise – as long as you can find a sweat-resistant pair that fits snugly. Special ‘sports’ headphones stay in by hooking around your outer ear.
Completely unconnected earbuds are the big new thing in the headphones market, and there are dozens of models to choose from.
Because they’re so small and sleek, these devices can be used in nearly any situation. They’re still a good option for exercise, but due to the risk of one bud slipping from your ear and being lost, you need to be very confident in the fit.
The size of these buds necessitates tiny speakers, which is a limitation on sound quality. Still, it’s remarkable how accurate some high-end models sound.
A quality pair of true wireless buds will set you back about $300.
Being able to shut out your surroundings is an extremely desirable feature, especially for certain activities such as air travel.
It works by listening for the sound coming into your ear and playing you the ‘opposite’ to cancel out the incoming sound waves.
Most noise-cancelling models also have a noise amplification mode. This uses the same hardware to blend external sound with what you’re listening to, letting you remain aware of your surroundings.
Expect noise-cancelling headphones to cost at least $100 more than a good pair without. For example, Apple’s AirPods Pro with noise cancelling cost $449 while the regular third-generation AirPods sell for $329.
Watch out for claims of passive noise cancelling, also called noise isolation. This describes the headphones’ ability to block noise physically, in the same way as earmuffs. While passive noise cancelling works just as well in some cases, it’s very different. For a start, you can’t turn it off when you need to be able to hear.
To differentiate from the passive variety, true noise cancellation is often called active noise cancelling.
Active noise cancelling (ANC) itself can be broken into two kinds.
Feedforward ANC has a microphone on the outside of the ear cup. The distance from your ear gives the software a few extra milliseconds to calculate the correct sound to cancel incoming noise. However, the mic’s placement makes it susceptible to wind noise.
Feedback ANC places the microphone next to the speaker, right by the ear. Because the mic hears the same thing as the listener, it’s more adaptable to variation, such as an unusually shaped ear. However, because feedback ANC has less time to react, it isn’t as good at blocking high pitches.
Some high-end headphones have microphones in both locations, which is called hybrid ANC and tends to work best.
Wireless headphones usually have a claimed battery life on the box, and these tend to be pretty accurate. We also measure battery life in our lab test, so you can check our test results to make sure.
You should expect over-ear headphones to last for 30 hours, or 20 hours with active noise-cancelling turned on.
Truly wireless earbuds should last six hours, or 30 hours when repeatedly charged from a case. However, lower your expectations if you’ll keep noise-cancelling permanently on.
We don’t really test headphones designed and marketed for gaming, but they’re not that different. Here are the key things to be aware of:
Connectivity: Will your headset quickly and reliably connect to the device you need it to?
Microphone: Anything sold as a gaming headset will include a microphone of some sort, but it might be rubbish. If you want to use regular headphones for multiplayer gaming, make sure there’s a mic in case you want to chat at any point.
Comfort: More than perhaps any other headphones, you need to know you can sit down for a marathon session and not have your ears fall off afterwards.
Style: Go ahead, live a little. We don’t often advise you to choose products based on looks, but we know how important it is to feel dapper while you play.
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