As The Wirecutter’s resident headphone tester and an audio engineer by training, I hear a lot of the same questions over and over again. Like: “How much should I spend on headphones?” and “Are Beats By Dre good?” and “What’s the difference between in-ear and over-ear headphones?” Let me answer these questions for you.
Why Should I Buy In-Ear Headphones?
In-ear headphones are portable, help seal out the noises around you and are light for wearing during a commute, a workout, or really any activity that involves moving around. This is in comparison to over-ears, which are much bulkier and heavier, and which take up more space in your bag. Buy in-ears if you are someone who likes music on-the-go and don’t mind having things inside of your ear canal for more than a few minutes. What you give up versus over-ear headphones is sound quality in any price range, as it is harder to make things both smaller and sound as good.
Whay Should I Buy Over-Ear Headphones?
Over-ear headphones are made for more prolonged, often stationary listening.
Let me begin by saying that some people just dislike the feeling of in-ear headphones. If that’s you, problem solved. Get yourself some over-ears. Over-ear headphones are made for more prolonged, often stationary listening. They’re bulkier than their in-ear counterparts, and carrying case or no, they’re still going to take up much more precious bag space. In-ears and (closed back) over-ears solve the same problem in a different way. In-ears seal out external sounds from the inside, over-ears seal out external noise by covering the ear from the outside.
A word about sound quality. Not too long ago, the argument would be made that in-ears simply could not reproduce the same sound quality as over-ears. And to be fair, it is definitely more difficult to make drivers small enough and delicate enough to make for a similar listening experience. In more recent years, the technology has gotten better; you can get in-ears that rival over-ears in terms of sound quality. However, be prepared to pay for it. Conversely, one could argue that you can get better sound quality for less money when investing in over-ear headphones as compared to in-ear headphones.
What does $30 (or less) get me?
The perfect headphones for commuting or working out, inexpensive enough to schlep around without sacrificing too much in audio.
Cheap headphones are entry-level models. They can still sound good but won’t have the best build quality. Truly good-sounding headphones in this price range aren’t super common, but the ones that exist can represent all frequencies evenly with clean (not sloppy or muddy) sound. Lyrics in songs will be easy to understand, and no single instrument should overpower another. In the same vein, you shouldn’t have to crank up the volume to hear one range of frequencies, especially to the point where hearing another is painful. For example: if you want to hear the bassline better, the hi-hats shouldn’t make you wince. Headphones in this range are generally plastic, silicone and rubber. For the most part, they’re built to last a year or two, with build quality emphasizing cost-effectiveness, not longevity.
If you are the sort of person who loses things easily, doesn’t want to worry about jamming headphones in a gym bag, or just doesn’t get what all the hype over more-expensive headphones is about (though, don’t make that call until you’ve at least tried it), this could be the range for you.
Best In-Ear Headphones Under $30
What does $100 get me?
Headphones that cost about $100 up the sonic ante with better drivers, sturdier build quality and a more comfortable fit. Good headphones around $100 will sound clearer, crisper and warmer than their inexpensive counterparts, smooth and mellow with no shrill highs. Music will sound richer and voices more lifelike. You’ll notice small details that you might have missed while listening to less expensive headphones: the gentle consonants in vocals, the sparkling of electronic music and bass that has pitch without thrumming. You also might notice that the sounds have a “depth” or “space” to them: you get a feel of room size, or where instruments are placed around you. If this all sounds too touchy-feely to you, let’s try this another way. It’s as though you’d been looking at a photograph printed by a cheap $100 printer, and then saw the same photo developed on quality paper at a good photo print shop. Much clearer, right? It’s like that.
These headphones are also made to last longer and tend to be comfortable when worn for more extended periods. You should get several years out of them with careful use. The materials are often of a higher quality: stronger plastic, rubber and some metal accents. You’ll get tips in several sizes, often made in softer and more flexible substances than very inexpensive counterparts. The cords will feel sturdier and have features to prevent tangling.
Who should buy in-ears in this range? People who listen to music a lot, especially on the go. Maybe you ride the subway to work, then tune out the office noise by listening at your desk. Or you travel a lot, and like to have something to carry with you on your trip. Whatever the reason, portability is key to you, and you are a music fan. Headphones sounding good is important to you, and you notice the difference when you put on a good pair.
Best In-Ear Headphones Under $100
What does $200 (or under) get me?
If music is integral to your life, spending more means a richer, more immersive sound and headphones that trade plastic and rubber for metal and fabric.
$200 headphones are investment-quality. These are carefully engineered to reproduce accurate sound and built to last for many years. Plastic and rubber is replaced by metal, fabric and memory foam. Music will reach a new level of quality. Individual instruments will be discernable in the mix, vocal consonants will be clear without being sharp and you will have a depth of sonic field that is immersive. Nothing should boom, hiss or squawk.
As a music lover, I find that when I listen to quality headphones in this range, I suddenly forget that I’m supposed to be judging the headphones and get caught up in my listening material. To go back to our photo analogy, now the image is part of a video, being displayed by a high-resolution digital projector in a theater. It has motion, it’s clear, it’s all around you. These headphones are for people for whom music is integral to life. You study it, devour every nuance and cherish it. Headphones at this price make that experience possible and portable. Sound like something you’d be willing to pay extra for? Maybe these headphones are for you.
Best In-Ear Headphones Under $200
What does $150 (or less) get me?
A good starter pair if you are ready to upgrade your listening experience but aren’t concerned with portability, a lot of recording studios use headphones in this price range as well.
Headphones that cost about $150 are great first-time investments for people looking to get more from their music listening experience.
The main reason you’d want to buy over-ear headphones in this price range is the sound quality. Good headphones in this range should have a definite sonic depth of field: clean clear highs, mellow non-boomy lows and no frequency range should overpower the others. (Even in headphones that are voiced to emphasize bass or treble you should still be able to hear everything else clearly.) If you’re looking to buy something to record your own music, you’ll want to look for a pair that has flat response (even treble, mids and bass).
A lot of recording studios use headphones in this price range because they get the job done well and are not so expensive that one would need to be overly cautious when working with them. Good representatives of this price range should be sturdily built, last several years of use and be comfortable for long-term listening. As for materials, you’ll see a lot of vinyl and plastic with metal reinforcing the headbands and the occasional steel accent. You’ll also see small details like gold-plated jacks, replaceable earpads and collapsing, swiveling earcups.
Best $150 Over-Ear Headphones
What does $300 (or under) get me?
These are for the diehard audiophile. You’ll hear small, subtle details you never noticed before with crisp highs and velvety lows.
Headphones in the $300 range are made for the person that wants to shut out the world and get some meaningful listening done. When I listen to a track I’ve heard hundreds of times with headphones of this caliber, I find small details I never noticed (or perhaps were unable to hear) before. But be warned: once you fall in love with a pair in this range, it’s tough to go back.
Whereas the $150 range is what the musician listens to as a monitor when recording, the $300 is what the professional engineer, producer and mixer invest in for final analysis of professional recording. Materials become finer in this range as well. Padding on the earcups are soft and cushy, the fit becomes ergonomic and extremely comfortable. You’ll not only see the gold-plated jacks as in the $150 range, but occasionally you’ll see replaceable cables, leather (or high quality faux leather) trim, hard carrying cases and stainless steel. These headphones should feel sturdy and substantial in your hands.
And then there’s the sound. The experience should be immersive, the frequency response delicate and crisp in the highs, smooth and velvety in the lows. There is a sense of being in a specific space, and the listening material should surround you. Attack and decay of waveforms (how sounds start and end) should be gentle and gradual (like a wave rolling in and out), never snapping on and off. Subtlety is not lost in the listening experience.
Best $300 Over-Ear Headphones
What are “open-backed” headphones, and do I want them?
Open-backed refers to headphones that are mounted in a perforated casing that allows air in.
Open-backed refers to headphones that, rather than closing out sounds by cupping your ear in a solid piece of material, are mounted in a perforated casing that allows air in. Think of it this way: If most headphones are a can over your ear, open-backed headphones are a sieve. What this does is allows the sound coming from the headphones to mix in with the air a bit more, and some people feel that the experience is more natural, open and expansive.
What are they good for? Well, for one, recording engineers who do mixing, or people who have very quiet homes in which to listen. Aaand… that’s about it. Why is it such a niche? Because while the open-back lets air in, it also allows in external sounds and your music out. So don’t plan on using open-backed headphones while commuting, recording, podcasting, in a library, in a noisy home, at the office, at the gym, or really anywhere that isn’t an engineering booth or super quiet home with patient housemates. All in all, open-backed headphones aren’t for the average user. But if you want to know more, Shure has a video and Geoff Morrison has an article on Forbes.
What about Celebrity Headphones?
Okay, we’re going to tell you a secret: companies pay celebrities a lot of money to use their name and image on products. Shocking, we know. In a lot of cases, the celebrity had little to nothing to do with the development or manufacture of the product. And just like Britney Spears didn’t make the secret formula for Pepsi, your favorite artist likely didn’t do anything but pop on a pair of headphones and smile for the camera. Perhaps, if they are more involved, they might have picked a color or design from a lookbook given to them from the tech company. But don’t be deluded into thinking your favorite singer or rap star sat around and tweaked the sound. Also, don’t buy that the headphones that have their name on it are what they wear in the studio. Mostly, they aren’t. (Well, unless there’s going to be a photo shoot that day.)
But before you think we’re blaming celebrities for shoddy products, we’re not. They are the symptom of a larger problem. You see, big companies think that if they slap a famous name on something, maybe make it a cool color and raise the price tag, you’ll be fooled into thinking it’s a superior product. Then they make lots of money selling an inferior product to people who don’t know any better. And it’s not the fault of normal people! Who has time or resources to listen to dozens of headphones back to back to hear what they are missing? (Well, except us, but we are a special kind of meticulous/insane type of person.) There are many headphones that sound much better than the Beats (Dre, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber), Soul (Ludacris), V-Moda (Tru Blood), Sync (50 Cent), etc. In fact, scroll back up to all of our roundups. See for yourself where the famous cans rank when pitted apples to apples against other offerings.
That said, for many the value in these celeb headphones are the idea of being a part of a culture or making a fashion statement. And that’s fine if you are the sort of person who wears headphones like an expensive hat. But if you want your headphones to do something more (like sound really great) trust your ears, not the marketing.
…we test celebrity headphones versus things in their price range all the time. They never win.
This isn’t just our opinion—we test celebrity headphones versus things in their price range all the time. They never win.
Instead of the Beats Studio for $270, get the better sounding (and amazingly better at noise cancelling) Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones for the exact same price. Not only do the Bose actually cancel noise better than anything else on the market (the Beats Studio barely reduce what’s happening around you) they also sound fantastic. Or, get the best sound we’ve heard in the price range in the PSB M4U1 for just $29 more. The PSBs have been the darlings of the audio reviewing community since they came out for good reason: they sound better than anything else we’ve heard at that price. They are solidly built, comfortable for wearing for super long periods of time, and are crisp, clean, and a sharp contrast to the heavy-handed bass and sloppy mids of the newest version of the Beats. Because if you can have the best, why spend the money on anything else?
Instead of the Beats Solo for $180, get the Onkyo ES-FC300 for $30 less. Not only are the Onkyo headphones cheaper, they also sound much better. The Beats Solo are muddy in the low end and lack overall sound clarity. Want proof? Read this Sound and Vision article or this CNET Article. The Onkyo sound like you’d hope the Beats Solo would: a bump in the bass, clear and clean highs and lovely mellow mids. They are fun and exciting to listen to, have replaceable cables, come in three colors, have a fantastic design and cost less. I mean, is there really a question?
Instead of the Skullcandy Ink’d, (or any “inexpensive” Skullcandy headphone for that matter like the Titan or Smokin’ Buds) get the Panasonic RP-TCM 125-A for around twelve bucks. Sure, the Skullcandy headphones are everywhere. But they sound treble heavy and muffled and only have two pairs of tips to try to fit your ears, all while costing nearly twice as much as the Panasonic. Why would you spend that much more for something that sounds way worse? You wouldn’t.
This guide originally appeared on The Wirecutter on 12/9/2013 and is republished here with permission.