Best headphones: which set should you buy?
Update: The very best headphones are always in flux. Check out the current line-up below to find our picks for the best of the best in 2016.
To get the most out of your smartphone or music player, you have to buy a respectable set of headphones. There’s no getting around it. The dinky throwaways that are included with today’s most popular devices just can’t convey the intricacies that artists put into every song.
But when it comes to making a selection, it’s all too easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer amount of options to choose from.
Over-ear headphones generally provide tons of comfort and a much bigger sound than you’ll hear with earbuds, but at the expense of portability. Wireless headphones mean you can walk around without being tethered to your device but, in order to have that level of freedom, depend on a battery that can run out after a few hours of use.
So, how do you choose the right set of headphones? First, think about what you’re going to need from them.
Do you work in a noisy office space? Noise-cancelling headphones might be in your best interest if you want to drown out your chatty cubicle buddy. For headphones that move at the speed of life, in-ear headphones could be just what you’re looking for.
Even if you’re still unsure which set fits your lifestyle, there is a perfect set of headphones out there for you. With this guide, we want to help you find them.
What does techradar recommend?
Below, you’ll find the top contenders in each category of headphones. We’re always reviewing the latest and greatest headphones available, so you can ensure that this guide is up-to-date.
Best in-ear headphones: Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear
Fully-featured and powerful in-ear headphones
Acoustic design: N/A | Weight: .3 pounds | Cable length: 4.2 feet | Frequency response: 15-22,000Hz | Drivers: N/A | Driver type: N/A | Sensitivity: N/A | Impedance: 18 ohms | Battery life: N/A | Wireless range: N/A | NFC: N/A
With the appealing candy apple detailing, Sennheiser gets you in the door. But once you’re in, you’ll stay for the killer sound quality that comes from the Momentum In-Ear earphones.
These are the among the best deals in the headphones market as it stands today. The company has a version available for each flavor of mobile OS, so everyone can get in on the goodness.
Read the full review: Sennheiser Momentum In-Ear
- Alternative pick: Looking for wireless in-ear headphones? At this price, you can’t do much better than the Optoma NuForce BE6
Best on-ear headphones: Bang and Olufsen H2
Posh headphones with grand sound and comfort
Acoustic design: Closed | Weight: .34 pounds | Cable length: 3+ feet | Frequency response: N/A| Drivers: Two 1.5″ drivers | Driver type: N/A| Sensitivity: N/A | Impedance: N/A
When you wear the B&O H2, people will look at you with intrigue, desperately trying to figure out who makes it so they can buy their own later online. I should know: it’s how I found out about them.
Thankfully, the H2 sounds as good as it look. The sound performance should please even picky listeners with its warm, evenly-balanced sound. We’re trained to assume that good looks are a guise, but the H2’s slick design complements the sound performance quite nicely.
Read the full review: Bang and Olufsen H2
- Alternative pick: The Skullcandy Grind are a fantastic alternative for listeners on a budget
Best over-ear headphones: Oppo PM-3
Closed back planar magnetic headphones from the gods
Acoustic design: Closed | Weight: 0.71 pounds | Cable length: 9.8 ft or 3.9 ft | Frequency response: 10-50,000Hz | Drivers: 55mm | Driver type: Planar Magnetic | Sensitivity: 102dB | Impedance: 26 ohms | Battery life: N/A | Wireless range: N/A | NFC: N/A
The Oppo PM-3’s are a truly stunning pair of headphones. Make no mistake, we’ve reviewed a lot of headphones in the last 10 years but none have we become more fond of than the PM-3.
They’re equally comfortable being plugged into a headphone amp at home as they are commuting through the hustle and bustle of a big city, and they stand head and shoulders above rival products from bigger brands. We really can’t recommend them highly enough, they’re just amazing.
Read the full review: Oppo PM-3
- Alternative pick: The Beyerdynamic Custom One Pro Plus are our previous favorite over-ear headphones, featuring great sound and impressive customization for a great price.
Best wireless headphones: Jabra Move Wireless
Sporty Bluetooth headphones with a surprisingly low price
Acoustic design: Closed | Weight: .33 pounds | Cable length: N/A | Frequency response: 20Hz-20kHz | Drivers: Two 1.5″ drivers | Driver type: Dynamic | Sensitivity: 94db @ 1kHz | Impedance: 29 ohms | Battery life: 8+ hours | Wireless range: 33+ feet | NFC: No
The Jabra Move Wireless are one of the best values around for Bluetooth headphones. Not only does the minimalistic design – infused with the energetic Cobalt blue styling – impress off the bat, it keeps on delivering the goods with a surprising amount of function and performance.
You’ll find deeper lows and mids and highs with an extra level of crisp when you drop a couple more big bills, but for the money, the Jabra Move Wireless offer a big, full sound.
Read the full review: Jabra Move Wireless
- Alternative pick: If you want to step it up in terms of quality, battery life and sound performance, the Plantronics BackBeat Sense is a smart choice that looks slick.
Best noise-cancelling headphones: Philips Fidelio NC1
Executive looks and great sound reproduction
Acoustic design: Closed | Weight: .74 pounds | Cable length: 3.9 feet | Frequency response: 7-25,000Hz | Drivers: Two 1.5″ Neodymium drivers | Driver type: Dynamic | Sensitivity: 107 dB | Impedance: 16 ohm | Battery life: 25+ hours | Wireless range: N/A | NFC: No
Philips presents an elegant noise-cancelling solution with its NC1. These on-ear headphones aren’t wireless, but that’s hardly a reason to knock them. Coming in at around the same price as Bose’ QuietComfort 25, the NC1 are a more compact set that’s high on comfort and battery life.
You get a lot for the money here. In the box comes the headphones, a hard case for storage and the headphones rock a rechargeable battery that provides noise cancellation for close to 30 hours. But best of all, the sound performance is extremely well balanced and warm.
Read the full review: Philips Fidelio NC1
- Alternative pick: If you’re more interested in the over-ear form factor, you’ll like the Plantronics BackBeat Pro. They cost little less than Philips’ and feature some unique playback controls.
What else should you consider?
There’s usually more to a set of headphone than meets the eye. As such, we’ve provided a breakdown of what you can expect to find in each kind of headphone.
Not only will learning more about headphones help you make a more informed purchase, but you’ll know when you’re really getting your money’s worth.
This type of headphone, more commonly referred to as an earbud or earphone, is usually the cheapest and easiest way to pump audio into your ears. If you’ve purchased an MP3 player, or more recently, a smartphone, it’s likely that a set was included with the purchase.
Earphones rest in or just outside the ear canal, creating a tight seal to keep air out and sound in. Compared to other types of headphones, these are the most discreet ones you’ll find. Their small form-factor also makes them the king/queen of portability and the prime choice for athletes.
You’re not likely to find strong performers at the low-end of the price spectrum. Their sound delivery is generally muddled, lacking bass and overcompensating for that with harsh mids and highs. That said, it won’t cost you much money at all to find a value-packed option complete with inline controls and a microphone.
While similar to over-ear headphones in appearance, they fit to your head a little differently. Instead of enveloping your ears with a soft cushion, on-ear headphones create a light, breathable seal around your ear. Thus, the noise isolation is much less effective than in-ear or over-ear options. This might be a dealbreaker for some, but there are big benefits to consider here.
On-ear headphones are usually more portable than their over-ear brethren, and as such they appeal to travellers and the fitness crowd. Taking a walk or a jog around town is also safer, as you can hear traffic go by and be aware of potential hazards.
This ear-muff style of headphone generally provides greater richness and depth of sound, which allows listeners to pick apart the instruments and sounds much easier. Additionally, over-ear, or circum-aural headphones, go around the ear and offer a generous amount of padding.
The price range for a set of on-ear headphones begins around $100 and from there, the sky’s the limit. For example, the Oppo PM-1, while excellent, are priced exorbitantly at $1,099. It’s definitely not necessary to spend that much. That said, you tend to get what you pay for.
If your headphone budget is in the $2-300, you’ll start getting into options that have excellent build quality, premium materials and amazing sound and features like ANC (active noise cancellation.)
This style of headphone doesn’t limit you to a specific form factor like the others. In fact, you can find in-ear, on-ear and over-ear headphone styles sans wire.
Opting to go wireless will cost you a premium of anywhere between $50-100 over the price of wired cans. Going futuristic isn’t cheap. One important thing to consider is that your music player must support the Bluetooth wireless protocol, as it’s required to use this type of headphone.
Speaking of Bluetooth, it has become exponentially more reliable over time, but it’s always susceptible to disturbances in the force. In short, any little thing, from the understandable (conflicting Wi-Fi signals, microwaves, cordless telephones), to the absurd (sticking a hand in the space between the device and the headphones) can sometimes interrupt a wireless listening experience.
This category, like wireless headphones, isn’t limited to a form factor. You can find this clever mix of technologies integrated into the ear pieces of in-ear and over-ear headphones alike.
Many companies falsely claim to offer true noise cancellation with just the padding included around the ear cups. Don’t believe it. This is PNC (passive noise cancellation), and it doesn’t amount to much. You can even replicate this effect by cupping your hands around your ears, so why shell out the big bucks for it?
On the other hand, ANC (active noise cancellation) is the real deal. This technique employs a set of external microphones, which detect the decibel level outside. Once it has an idea of the incoming noise level, the headphone speakers inside transmit a noise generated to dampen the racket. The end result is an effect that hushes the outside noise, allowing you to focus.