Best headphones: Our top picks for personal listening

Whether you're looking for an over-the-ear, on-ear, or in-ear model, we'll help you find the perfect pair.

best headphones Rob Schultz / IDG

Headphones are the ultimate tool for intimate listening experiences. Whether you’re listening on your phone, a digital audio player, a disc player, or even a PC or gaming console, when you’re ready to shut out the world and be one with your music, there is nothing better than a great set of cans. 

And you probably have multiples of them, since most every smart device and digital audio player comes with a pair; but it’s a safe bet that you’re really not satisfied with any of them. Comfortable high-quality headphones can transform your audio experiences ranging from listening to music and podcasts to watching TV shows and movies, .

Whether you prefer the isolation of in-ear headphones, the comfort of an over-the-ear model, the convenience of wireless, or you’re not sure which type is best for you, we’ll help you find the right ones at the right budget. We’ve listed our top picks up front. If you need more information to make a choice, we’ll provide that—and links to a bunch of our reviews—below.

Updated November 27, 2018 to add our take on the new Focal Elegia headphones. These attractive cans deliver exceptional performance, but the price tag limits them to runner-up status in the over-the-ear category.

Best over-the-ear headphones

These headphones are unapologetically old school, and we love them for it. You won’t find any noise-cancelling electronics on the Beyerdynamics Amiron home. There’s no USB ports or an onboard amplifier, either; heck, they don’t even support Bluetooth.

But if don’t mind being tethered to your source, these headphones will deliver delightful performances for one at a price that won’t bust a generous budget. They’re highly recommended.

Runner-up

If you can afford them, Focal's Elegia closed-back headphones are a sonic wonder that sound as beautiful as they look. Focal might be better known for its high-end loudspeakers than headphones, but discriminating buyers shouldn't overlook this brand.

Best on-ear headphones

If you find over-the-ear headphones too unwieldy, but don’t like sticking things inside your ear, we heartily recommend giving AKG’s N60NC noise-cancelling on-ear headphones an audition.

These headphones are both wireless and noise-cancelling. They cut down the noise so you can enjoy the music. The N60NC’s balance, clear sound, and good noise cancellation in a small, light footprint makes these exceptional travel headphones that will satisfy both the audiophile and the road warrior.

Best in-ear headphones

Periodic Audio’s Be (Beryllium) are our current favorite in-ear headphones. They deliver pure sonic bliss. Pair them with the best sources and high-resolution digital audio player you can afford to appreciate what these headphones’ capabilities. Their lightweight design, solid fit, and comfort during long listening sessions are perfect for reference music listening on the go.

They don’t offer the utility of wireless connectivity, an inline remote, or a microphone for pairing with a smartphone, but they excel where it counts: reproducing music.

Best noise-cancelling headphones

Some purists dismiss active noise cancellation because they feel the algorithms they use can’t help but remove some desirable frequencies along with the unwanted background noise. Fair enough. We’d never recommend using Sony’s WH-1000XM3 in a recording studio. But these cans rock everywhere else. And since they’re wireless and they have a built-in mic, you can use them with your smartphone, too. And did we mention that they sound positively divine with all forms of music?

Best money-is-no-object headphones

If you’re of the mind that true audio fidelity requires a hardwired connection to your source, and you have the budget to avail yourself of the finer things in life, the Focal Clear over-the-ear headphones are the absolute right choice. The name fits: The open-back Clear empower you to hear your music clearly, without any barrier. They’re an astounding sonic achievement, but they come with a price to match.

But be warned: Auditioning the Clear is like choosing the red pill from The Matrix. Once you’ve heard their dynamics, their transparency, and their timbral accuracy, you won’t be able to go back to lesser headphones. 

Over-the-ear headphones explained

Over-the-ear (aka circumaural) headphones are the audiophile gold standard for high-fidelity, critical listening. And for good reason: This type of headphone fully covers your ear, creating a stable arena of sound.

They come in two designs: closed and open back. Closed-back models help seal out ambient noise and prevent sound from leaking into the environment (and nearby microphones, if you’re in a recording studio). As a general rule, because of their design, closed-back headphones tend to have better, more visceral bass response than open-back designs. Some closed-back headphones from Bose, Sony, JBL and others also feature active noise cancellation (ANC) technologies to greatly reduce ambient noise during air travel or noisy commutes (not if you’re the driver, obviously).

Over-the-ear headphones tend to be big and bulky. Some manufacturers feature folding models that mak Theo Nicolakis

Over-the-ear headphones tend to be big and bulky. Some manufacturers feature folding models that make them a bit more travel friendly.

Open-back designs typically have a perforated screen that allows air to pass between the ear cups and the outside world. With an open-back design, you can hear your surroundings and anyone near you can easily hear the music you’re playing. The best place for open-back headphones is in a quite place at home, as opposed to a noisy environment or in library where you’ll disturb others.

Choose an open-back design for a deeper soundstage and a sense of space with musical recordings. These types of headphones liberate your music in a fashion that’s similar way to listening to free-standing loudspeakers.

The biggest drawback of over-the-ear headphones is their size and bulk. Models that can fold up, such as the Bowers&Wilkins P7 and P9 Signature, the V-Moda Crossfade 2, and the Focal Listen Wireless are still bulkier than on-ear models. Some models don’t fold at all. 

We should also note that over-the-ear headphones tend to feature three different technologies: dynamic driver, planar magnetic, and electrostatic. We explain these technologies further down.

On-ear headphones explained

The smaller cups that on-ear (aka supra-aural) headphones use are designed to sit on top of your outer ears. This enables them to approach the sound quality of over-the-ear headphones, but in a more compact form factor. Many models, including the AKG N60NC wireless shown below, fold up for travel.

Many on-ear models fold inward, like these AKG N60 NC, or fold flat for portability. Theo Nicolakis

Many on-ear models fold inward, like these AKG N60 NC, or fold flat for portability.

You’ll do well to test how on-ear models fit. Some models are too tight and others far too loose. While tight-fitting models can help reduce external noise, they can become fatiguing and painful to wear for extended periods. 

In-ear headphones explained

In-ear-headphones (aka in-ear monitors or IEMs), fit into your ear canal and create a seal with either a silicone or memory-foam tip. Because they’re delivering audio almost directly to your ear drums, IEMs tend to deliver a smaller sound stage than either in-ear or on-ear headphones.

Their compact size make IEMs perfect for travel and exercising, and models that include microphones (either wireless or in the cord of wired models) can be used with your smartphone. Some active-lifestyle models even feature IPX ratings certifying their water (and sweat) resistance.

Getting a good fit and tight seal with IEMs critical to achieving the best audio performance. An in-ear-headphone’s bass response is dependent on the quality of the seal. If the seal is too loose, bass will sound anemic.

Because of their superior ability to seal, memory-foam tips that expand to the unique shape of your ear canal will not only fit better, they’ll also block ambient noise—in some cases, by 25dB or more—and they’ll increase an in-ear monitors’ perceived bass response (delivering too much of a good thing in some cases).

Comply’s line of aftermarket memory foam ear tips can provide varying levels of noise isolation for Theo Nicolakis

Comply’s line of aftermarket memory foam ear tips can provide varying levels of noise isolation for a wide range of in-ear-headphone models.

Memory-foam tips create a superior seal. Some third party companies, including Comply, sell high-quality memory-foam tips for various brands of in-ear monitors.

In-ear-headphones use friction (Periodic Audio Be, left), wrap around your ear (A&K Billie Jean, mid Theo Nicolakis

To stay in your ear canals, on-ear-headphones rely on either friction (Periodic Audio Be, left), wrap their cables around your outer ears (Astell&Kern Billie Jean, middle), or have a loop or wing (B&W C5, right).

Higher-quality over-the-ear and on-ear headphones come with detachable cables, so you can replace them if they’re ever damaged or simply wear out. That’s not always the case with in-ear headphones; however, some recent IEMs now come with detachable cables that conform to the MMCX (Micro Miniature Coax Connector) standard, so you can use any compatible MMCX cable with them. Replacing a cable is a much better alternative to throwing away an otherwise perfectly serviceable set of headphones.

Earbud headphones explained

Earbuds are similar to in-ear-headphones, but they are designed differently. Earbuds sit in the outer part of your ear (the concha, specifically) as opposed to fitting inside your ear canal.

Earbuds don’t block ambient noise, and you might find you need to increase the volume on your source device to overcome the noise floor of your surroundings. This could result in the people around your hearing whatever you’re listening to.

Apple is one of the few companies that still makes earbuds. Their earbud design has evolved over tim Theo Nicolakis

Apple is one of the few companies that still makes earbuds. Their earbud design has evolved over time, making the earbuds less prone to falling out.

A major benefit of earbuds is that one size fits all. You don’t need to find the just the right silicone or memory-foam tip to fit the unique shape of your ear. The most common complaint about earbuds is that they fall out of your ears too easily, especially while you’re running or exercising.

Wireless headphones explained

Wireless headphones are super convenient, and the best will deliver audio performances rivaling wired phones. They're particularly useful when you're exercising. If this is the type of headphone you're shopping for, these are the most important features you'll want to consider:

Battery life

Wireless headphones use Bluetooth to connect to a source device (smartphone, digital audio player, laptop, or even a soundbar). They typically rely on a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can last anywhere from four to more than 20 hours. If the battery runs dry on in-ear and earbud headphones, you won’t be able to use them they've been recharged. Most on-ear and over-the-ear models come with a 3.5mm audio cable, so you can plug them into your source device and use them in wired mode.

Wireless audio support

A wireless headphone’s audio quality relies significantly on the audio codecs it supports. Codec stands for compression/decompression: Digital audio is compressed at the source, so the information can be transmitted to the headphone without wires, and decompressed at the destination, so you can hear it. Some codecs deliver higher fidelity than others, but the codec must be supported at both end: by the source device and by the headphones. These codecs are among the most common in wireless headphones:

  • SBC: All Bluetooth devices support the SBC codec, which offers maximum bandwidth of 328Kbps. While functional, the SBC codec doesn’t support high-resolution audio, and it tends to exhibit high latency. This could result in soundtracks falling out of sync with video. 
  • aptX: A high-quality, low-latency audio codec from Qualcomm that promises to deliver near CD-quality audio over Bluetooth. Qualcomm has more recently developed a newer version of this codec, called aptX HD, that enables audio encoded in up to 24-bit resolution with sampling rates as high as 48kHz to stream over a Bluetooth connection.
  • AAC: If you use Apple products and services, such as iTunes, you'll need support for this codec. You'll also encounter it in some gaming consoles, high-resolution digital audio players, and in automotive entertainment systems. AAC delivers higher-fidelity audio than the more common MP3 codec at the same bit rate.
  • LDAC: Developed by Sony, LDAC offers bandwidth of as much as 990Kbps to wirelessly deliver audio encoded in up to 24-bit resolution with sampling rates as high as 96kHz.

Wireless remote control

Many wireless headphones provide wireless controls. In-ear headphones typically come with some type of inline remote control, like their wired counterparts, while on-ear and over-the-ear headphones usually have remote functions on the ear cup.

Make sure the control navigation fits your style: Some manufacturers outfit their headphones with physical buttons on the right or left ear cup, in locations that feel natural to your fingertips. Some go further and provide tactile cues, so you can be confident you’re pressing the right button.

Other manufactures provide what's called a gesture pad, a touch-sensitive surface on one ear cup that responds to taps and directional swipes. Swiping your finger from the back to the front might move to the next track in your playlist, for example, while swiping up or down adjusts the volume. As you might expect, some gesture pads work better than others. 

On the next page, we'll explain headphone technology in more detail, and we'll provide links to reviews of some of our favorite headphones. (Click here to go to page 2.)

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