Everything You Need To Buy The Best Headphones
Headphones (or cans as they’re sometimes known) are small bands of musical goodness that are a source of joy for millions of people. From keeping us entertained on mundane commutes and car trips to keeping us motivated as we exercise, headphones have become one of the most sought-after pieces of electronics and technology today!
But, as with all popular types of technology, the sheer number of headphones out there can be quite overwhelming. Not only are dozens of brands fighting for your attention, but there are lots of headphone types to pick from, and prices range from the price of a cinema ticket to a brand new television.
Such a diverse selection is going to leave consumers asking tons of questions: “are expensive headphones really worth it?”, “which are better, wired headphones or wireless ones?” - these are some of the questions that this guide for buyers seeks to answer! We’ll tune you in on the many types of headphones you can buy, answer a few common questions that can help you choose the best headphones, and then top the guide off with a few of our favourite picks. So, if you’re ready to lose yourself in the wonderful world of music, dive right in!
What kind of headphones are there?
Let's start off with a few simple descriptions of the kind of headphones you can find on the market today. All headphone types are equally great, but you might be drawn to a specific design based on what you find comfortable, or if you’re looking to use your headphones for a specific task, like gaming or rocking out at the gym.
There are four main types of headphones on the market today:
- On-ear and over-ear headphones
- Wired and wireless headphones
- Bone conduction headphones
- Gaming headsets
On-ear and over-ear headphones
Almost all headphones fit into two different categories: on-ear and over-ear headphones. The difference between them is how they fit onto your head: On-ear headphones rest on your ears while over earphones cover them entirely.
Over-ear headphones tend to have thicker cushions than on-ear headphones and, because they cover your entire ear, they normally provide better noise isolation, keeping the ambient noise of traffic and stranger’s conversations at bay. On the other hand, over-ear headphones can feel smothering to some people, who prefer the lighter fit of on-ear headphones. On-ear headphones are usually smaller and so are more portable, and many have a folding design to shrink their profile.
Wired and wireless headphones
For many years, wired headphones were the only headphones around. Wired headphones connect directly to your music player through a cable that ends in a plug (in headphone terminology, these plugs are often called ‘jacks’). This ensures a strong, continuous electrical current for your headphones to transform into music, but there are a few inconveniences that come with wired headphones. That wire limits how far away from your player you can move, and it can get tangled or break entirely. That’s why lots of manufacturers have tried their best to ditch wires altogether.
Wireless headphones connect to your phone, PC or MP3 player using a wireless aerial. Your music is then beamed to them through the air. This gives you the freedom to roam around your home or the outside world without worrying about getting any pesky wires getting snagged.
Wireless headphones are amazing but there are a couple of reasons why wired headphones aren’t completely out of style. For one thing, wired headphones are cheaper than their wireless alternatives. The best budget headphones are usually wired for this reason. Another is that wireless headphones will run out of battery if you forget to charge them regularly, whereas wired headphones will always work.
Many premium headphones are also wired. Wired headphones are preferred by audiophiles because almost all wireless headphones use a Bluetooth signal to connect with your music player. Bluetooth is a low-energy, low bit-rate medium. It’s great for listening to MP3 files or the music from your favourite streaming service, but the detail offered by high fidelity mediums like vinyl records or ‘lossless’ digital audio files, such as FLAC, will be lost on a pair of wireless headphones.
So which should you choose? It’s up to you: you can even have both! Many headphone fanatics have a pair of premium wired headphones for home listening and a separate pair of wireless headphones that they use while travelling.
Bone conduction headphones
Most headphones play sound waves that vibrate your ear drum, which stimulates the cochlear and other parts of your inner ear, sending signals to your brain where it’s then interpreted as music. Bone conduction headphones, on the other hand, rest on the outside of your skull and send vibrations straight to the cochlear via the bones in your skull, bypassing the eardrum entirely.
This novel way of transmitting sound leaves your ears wide open. If you find ordinary headphones too uncomfortable, or want to keep your ears open for traffic or conversations, bone conduction headphones could be the best headphones for you. They’re also beneficial for people who suffer from hearing impairments too, as they don’t interfere with hearing aids in the same way as other headphones do.
Although bone conduction headphones don’t stimulate your cochlea in the same way, they still use vibration, and too much can damage your inner ear. Be careful not to raise the volume too high when using these headphones.
Gaming headsets are a special set of headphones that come with a built-in boom arm microphone and a set of cables that connect to your desktop PC or console. While you can still listen to music with a gaming headset, they’re specifically designed to help you play videogames to the best of your ability. Using a gaming headset can be more immersive than using PC speakers or your television’s soundbar, while a hands free microphone lets you coordinate with your teams or chat to your friends over apps like Xbox Live or Discord. The best gaming headsets come with surround sound simulation that lets you pin-point incoming enemy fire, for example.
As with all things tech-based, you need to consider more than just the design and features to ensure you’re picking up the right gear for you - and headphones are no exception! To make your shopping experience easier, we’ve answered some of the most frequently asked questions about headphones and listed them below.
- What’s a headphone driver?
- What’s a frequency response?
- What are noise-cancelling headphones?
- Are noise-cancelling headphones bad for your ears?
- What does open backed and closed back headphones mean?
- Why can’t I connect my headphones to my Hi-Fi system?
What’s a headphone driver?
A headphone driver is the piece of tech that turns the electrical signals from your music player into sound waves. Drivers are made from a pair of electromagnets that vibrate a diaphragm at different speeds to create sounds. There’s a driver in each of your headphone cups and, the larger the driver, the more sound is usually created. 40mm drivers are the gold standard for most high-quality headphones.
What’s a frequency response?
Frequency response is a term that describes the range of audio frequencies that a pair of headphones can reproduce. Without getting too technical, all of the sounds that we hear, from human speech to music to car alarms, are air particles vibrating at a specific speed, called a frequency.
The human ear can detect frequencies that range from 20Hz at the lowest to 20kHz at the highest. In music theory, this range is broken up into three sections: low frequencies are called bass notes, high frequencies are called treble notes, and middle frequencies are just called mid-range or mids.
Almost all headphones can theoretically create every sound you can hear, but some headphones are better than others in reproducing them accurately. Premium headphones usually aim to reproduce all sound frequencies equally, which is referred to as a flat frequency response or neutral tone. To get this sort of sound is very expensive though, so most headphones emphasise one of the three frequency sections. This sort of emphasis can actually be a good thing if you like listening to specific music genres. Bass-emphasising headphones are popular in hip-hop and dance music genres, for example.
What are noise-cancelling headphones?
Active noise control (ANC) is the technology that allows noise-cancelling headphones to work. In brief, when you turn the noise-cancelling feature on, a microphone on the outside of your headphones detects the frequency of ambient noises around you and creates a sound wave that cancels out the background noise. This is different to passive noise cancellation (also known as noise isolation), which simply uses well-designed ear cup seals to block unwanted noise. ANC is usually more powerful and effective against continual noise like traffic or the hum of an aeroplane engine. Because ANC requires electricity to run, pretty much all noise-cancelling headphones are wireless.
Are noise-cancelling headphones bad for your ears?
While noise-cancelling headphones generate extra soundwaves, they aren’t at a volume that can pose a risk to your hearing. In fact, using noise-cancelling headphones can be better for your hearing than headphones without, as you won’t have to crank up the volume to compete with loud external noises. Regardless of whether you use wired or wireless headphones, noise-cancelling or otherwise, listening to music at the maximum volume for a prolonged period of time can damage your hearing. To prevent noise-induced hearing loss, always use your headphones at a safe listening level, which is no more than about 60% of the max volume.
What does open backed and closed back headphones mean?
When shopping for headphones you’ll probably come across the phrase ‘closed back’ and ‘open back’. This bit of headphone jargon refers to the back of the headphone cups. Closed back headphones have a solid back made of plastic or metal, while open back headphones have backs made of mesh.
Open backed headphones ‘leak’ the sound of your music into the outside world, while also letting ambient noise in. They’re no good for listening to music in noisy environments like commuter trains, and you might annoy your co-workers if you wear them in the office, so why do headphone manufacturers make them at all?
The answer can be found in audio physics. Soundwaves from your headphones don’t just enter your ear, they bounce around the inside of the headphones as well. This can distort the sound of your music, particularly with regards to high frequency sounds. Open back headphones let these reflected soundwaves escape for a clearer, more precise sound. A closed back can also limit the ‘soundstage’ of your music, meaning that instruments can blend together in the mix. This makes open back headphones ideal for listening to music with lots of instruments in them, like classical music. Open backed headphones are considered the best headphones for listening to your music at home in a quiet room.
If you’re not sure whether a particular pair is open backed or close backed, look at their sides. If you can spot their internal components, you have a pair of open backed headphones, otherwise they have a closed back. Because wireless headphones are all about taking your music on the move, you won’t find any with open backs. Likewise with noise-cancelling headphones, as having an open back would defeat their entire purpose.
Can I connect headphones to my Hi-Fi system?
The best headphones you can buy in 2021
Now that we’ve given you an overview of the different types of headphones and their properties, it’s time to get to the best part: the shopping! From premium picks to budget-friendly options, we’ve sourced some of the best headphones on the market right now. You may recognise some of the bigger names on this list, but don’t underestimate the lesser-known brands - all the headphones in this guide certainly pack a punch!
Pros: Precise and neutral sound, superior build quality
Cons: Expensive, open backs limit use
We’re starting off our list with an entry from the acclaimed sonic specialists at Sennheiser. Sennheiser are well-known for producing audio equipment for recording artists and professional sound mixers, who appreciate the clarity that Sennhieser products provide.
Clarity is certainly the focus of these wired headphones. Sennhieser have worked hard to create a perfectly balanced neutral tone suitable for all genres of music. They’re very much the ‘goldilocks’ of headphones: they’re not too bassy, they don’t focus on the highs too much; they’re just right. Add this to the improved soundstage you get from their open backed design, and you’ve got a beautiful pair of cans for analyzing the craft and depth of your favourite tracks. Their superior build quality eliminates the creaks that you normally have to account for when listening to headphones.
As the HD601s have open backed cups, they’re not suitable for noisy environments. These are very much ‘listening in a darkened room’ headphones. They’re also the most expensive headphones on this list. However, with some headphones costing thousands, they’re not overpriced for the sound quality you receive. If you love just sitting back and listening to your favourite tunes, these are the best headphones for you.
Pros: Incredible comfort, top noise-cancelling features
Cons: Not the cheapest wireless headphones, don’t feel as premium as similarly priced headphones
The noise-cancelling headphones market is incredibly competitive, with lots of big names in the audio world duking it out to get on top. While other companies have done their best, few can match the latest wireless headphones from Sony, the WH-1000XM4.
The first thing you’ll notice when you put these headphones on is how comfy they are. Sony has put a lot of effort into creating the perfect fit for these wireless headphones. They exert just enough pressure on your head to create the proper seal needed for noise cancellation, without being too tight or uncomfortable, and the plush padding is luxurious.
They sound incredible too, with a punchy, dynamic audio profile that can handle both noisy tracks and quiet ones with ease. When you activate the ANC function of cheaper noise-cancelling headphones your music can sound a little muffled and tinny. Thankfully, that’s not the case with these Sony headphones - they sound excellent with ANC turned on or off.
Speaking of noise-cancelling, it’s no surprise that it’s the stand out feature of these headphones. The WH-1000XM4s can filter out more midrange and high frequency sounds than ever before. Sony has developed a noise analysis algorithm to monitor the ambient noise around you in real time. This noise-cancelling feature is adjustable between 10 different profiles, so you can find the best one for each environment.
As with the Sennheiser HD650s, these are a premium pair of headphones, and they come with a premium price tag - don’t expect to find them for cheap. These wireless headphones are also made entirely from plastic, rather than the metal or carbon fibre that some of their competitors use. This means they don’t feel as expensive or hefty as other noise-cancelling headphones, but those plastics do keep the weight down, which is part of why they feel so comfortable. With so many incredible features, Sony’s competitors will have to work really hard to beat the WH-1000XM4s.
Pros: Amazing bass, excellent battery life and connection range
Cons: Not as amazing for some music genres, tight fit
Despite having only been founded in 2006, Beats by Dr Dre have already made huge waves in the audio world. Bearing the name of one of music’s all-time great producers, their headphones are practically a fashion statement, finding their way onto the heads of celebrity musicians and sports stars all over the globe.
If you’re looking for wireless headphones that keep their charge, the Solo 3s are some of the longest lasting. When fully charged, they can last for a staggering forty hours of playback, and their Fast Fuel feature gives you three hours of battery life from just five minutes of charging.
These headphones also include Apple’s proprietary W1 Bluetooth chip, giving you access to the Class 1 Bluetooth power rating. This means that they have a maximum pairing range of up to 100 metres! The days of your music cutting out are a thing of the past when you choose these headphones.
Beats headphones are known for their bass-heavy sound, and the Solo 3 certainly don’t disappoint in that department. Gritty synth lines and drop-tuned guitars are imbued with the appropriate weight in the mix, and rhythm sections shine. Kick and bass drum beats sound especially good on these wireless headphones thanks to the well-tuned sub-bass.
While Beats by Dre headphones are well known for having a good bass response, earlier models have been criticised for putting too much emphasis on the low-end, creating a sound that’s distorted and muddy. Happily, we can report that isn’t the case with the Solo 3. The Beats audio engineers have worked hard to tighten up the sound of these headphones, and treble and mid-range frequencies are no longer being overpowered.
They are still a little bottom heavy, though. If you love listening to hip-hop, dance or pop music, these are quite possibly the best headphones you can buy. However, if you’re a classical or jazz purist, you might want to choose a more neutral pair of headphones.
Besides the big bass, Beats headphones are also famous for their on-trend designs, and the Solo 3 cans are no exception! Available in three attractive colours, these sleek headphones look great and their build quality is superb. You can fold these headphones up, making them nicely portable, and the headband is adjustable. The fit is quite tight for a pair of on-ear headphones, but the cups are fitted with thick pads for your ears to mitigate this snug fit. In almost every area the Beats Solo 3 headphones dominate, making them easily one of the best headphones you can buy right now.
Pros: Folding design, good sound for the price
Cons: Bass can lack detail, not the strongest headband
So far, we’ve focused on the premium end of the headphone world - but let’s take a look at some of the best budget headphones you can buy!
Despite being budget headphones, the Sony ZX310 doesn’t look cheap. That’s thanks to the two-tone metallic colour scheme that Sony have chosen for the headphone cups. Design-wise, the cups are made from a solid piece of plastic with a layer of pleather and foam to ensure a comfortable fit. A hinge at the top allows you to fold the cups up toward the headband. While the cups are very solid, the headband is quite thin and flexible. They won’t fall apart if you use them properly, but it’s certainly worth noting.
Let’s move on to the most important part of any pair of headphones: the sound. Like the Beats Solo 3, these headphones have a pronounced, deep bass. Unlike the Beats, however, this powerful bass can lack detail. You won’t get many sub-bass frequencies with these headphones. That said, expecting the same quality from budget headphones as a pair of premium cans isn’t fair on the ZX310s. The most important thing for this price point is that music sounds rich and fun, and it does with these Sony headphones.
Pros: Balanced sound, fair noise isolation
Cons: Sound lacks punch, no folding hinges
While Sennheiser has a reputation for expensive audiophile headphones you shouldn’t discount their budget line! The Sennheiser’s HD201 headphones are a perfect example: They’ve been a popular budget choice since their release in 2006 thanks to their comfortable fit and impressive dynamic range.
The frequency response of these headphones are the inverse of the budget Sony headphones. They’re very well-balanced, particularly for budget headphones, which allows you to hear small details in your music. However, while they’re more detailed than the ZX310s they lack the oomph factor that the Sonys have, particularly around the low end. This means that they’re better for listening to complex songs with lots of instruments, but aren’t as fun to listen to as other budget headphones.
The large over-ear headphone cups will fully envelope your ears and provide a decent amount of noise isolation. The headband is also thicker and more resilient than the budget Sony headphones we’ve chosen, but they don’t fold up at all. While the lack of folding hinges mean they can’t be tucked away, these Sennheiser headphones are light and wide enough to wear around your neck for long periods, and the cushion at the top of the headband means that they won’t rub against your skin. Undoubtedly one of the best headphones you can buy for a low price.
Pros: THX 7.1 Spatial Audio, removal cardioid mic
Cons: Limited compatibility with consoles, can get quite warm
Razer is one of the most popular gaming brands of all time, so it’s no surprise that they produce quality gaming headsets, too. Just how epic their Blackshark headset is might surprise you, though!
The Razer Blackshark sounds exceptional for a gaming headset, thanks to a twin pair of 50mm titanium drivers. The sound profile has been tuned for gaming, with a slight boost to bass and a de-emphasis on the midrange that separates out the soundtrack and sound effects of your games.
This is all great, but the Blackshark’s killer feature is the THX Spatial Audio technology that’s been added to the headset. This tech faithfully replicates a 7.1 surround sound system, so you can always tell where the action is on your maps. This surround sound audio has different profiles for some of the most popular first-person shooter (FPS) games around. You should be aware that this THX tech only works on PC, so you won’t have access to it if you play on consoles. Playing on consoles is still a fantastic experience with this headset, though.
Comfort is also a win for the Razer Blackshark 2. With a lightweight design and soft memory foam pads, you can wear this headset for hours without discomfort. The material covering the foam doesn’t seem to be particularly breathable though, so your ears may start to feel a little warm after a few hours of use.
For gaming headsets, the microphone is just as important as the audio drivers - and you’ll be pleased to know that the Blackshark’s is excellent. It uses a cardioid mic that offers great speech pickup and noise cancellation. Your voice won’t just be clear, it’ll sound natural as well. Better yet, the microphone can be removed, boom arm and all, at any time. This means that it won’t get in the way if you want to wear this gaming headset as a normal pair of headphones. Overall, you won’t find better headphones for gaming.
Pros: Surround sound at a low cost, cool LED lights
Cons: Omnidirectional mic, needs adaptors for some consoles
Up next is our top choice for budget gaming headsets: the DIZA 100 gaming headset. If you love LED lighting, this is the gaming headset for you! Both headcups have a string of RGB lights built into them that highlight the hexagonal mesh back and illuminate the face of a Chinese dragon.
Unlike many budget gaming headsets, the DIZA100 boasts proper surround sound system replication. It’s not as accurate or detailed as the THX-powered system found in the Razer headphones, but it’ll still give you an edge over opponents using standard stereo systems.
The build quality is good also, as is the DIZA100’s microphone, although it’s an omnidirectional mic, not a directional one. This means it will pick up background noise more readily than the Razer Blackshark. However, if you game in a relatively quiet room, this shouldn’t be a problem.
Like the Razer Blackshark, this gaming headset is designed to be used first and foremost for PC gaming. Its 3.5mm microphone jack is standard for most consoles as well but, depending on what console you own, you might need to purchase an adapter to use it properly. That said, once it’s connected, the experience of using this headset is no different on consoles than PC.
Pros: Strong folding design, decent sound
Cons: Subdued treble, slight delay when pausing or playing music
Wireless headphones have come a long way since they were launched many years ago, dropping their once premium price tag in favour of a more reasonable rate. In fact, you can even get your hands on a pair of quality wireless headphones for a price to suit every pocket. Case and point, the August EP650 headphones.
On the design side, these wireless headphones are exceptional for their price point. The headband has a tough metal core, which is reassuring for anyone worried about breaking them. What’s more, they can be folded up and locked into position, so they shouldn’t unfold without warning.
A simple control panel is built into the side of the headphones that lets you pause your music and skip tracks without having to unlock your phone. The control panel is easy to hit but there’s a slight delay when pausing or playing music that’s accompanied by a slight hissing sound. It’s not a big deal, but it’s worth noting.
Like most budget headphones, the August EP650 headphones emphasize bass notes for a lively sound. The treble is a little subdued and these tones will blend into the mid-range, but the bass quality more than makes up for it. The rolling bass lines popular in dance music are really well represented by these headphones, making them a top choice for fans of this genre.
Pros: Great stable design, decent sound quality
Cons: Uncomfortable tickle at high volumes, inherent limitations of bone conduction headphones
The last headphones on this list are the AfterShokz Trekz Air, a pair of bone conduction headphones. Comparing bone conduction headphones to the other types of headphones can be a bit tricky, as you need to change your expectations of sound quality. That said, these AfterShokz headphones are a powerful example of how good this category can be.
One issue that a lot of bone conduction headphones struggle with is their fit, particularly as you move around. Because there’s no headband or flanged tips in your ears, they can slip from your head - not ideal when you’re on a run. Luckily, that’s just the problem these headphones solve! Its design incorporates the ear hooks that you’d normally find on a pair of running earphones and the electronic components sit on either side of your ear to maximise stability. This is also aided by the flexible yet firm titanium infused headband and a generous helping of friction-rich silicone along the bone conduction plates.
So they won’t fall off your head anytime soon, but how do they sound? They’re among the best of their type in this department, too. Bone conduction headphones often struggle with bass replication, but AfterShokz have worked hard to make sure music quality is the best it can be. They can’t match the quality of premium headphones, but even being in the same league as traditional headphones is a big win for the Trekz Air.
Comfort levels are also high, until you listen to these headphones at their loudest levels. Set the volume too high and you’ll feel an uncomfortable tickle around the bones of your jaw. That being said, this is only an issue at the maximum volume, which should be avoided for the most part.
As with all bone conducting headphones, your ears are fully open when you listen to them. This is great for situational awareness - and the AfterShokz Trekz Air are particularly good in this department. It’s all thanks to the low level of sound leakage found in this model. You’ll find that they’re as great for working in the office as they are for exercising outside. Considering the limitations baked into this headphones category, the Trekz Air are still some of the best headphones you can buy.
Pump up the volume!
We’ve finally reached the end of our headphones buyer’s guide! We’ve worked hard to source the best headphones on the market right now, but if you’re looking for even more inspiration, our headphones category has plenty more fantastic choices for you to explore. This buyer’s guide is strictly headphones only. If you want to check out earphones, earbuds and IEMs, you’ll find a variety of incredible options in our earphones category.
Sure, headphones are great for those private listening sessions, but nothing beats blaring your favourite tunes out loud while the neighbours are away at work. Luckily for you, our Audio and Hi-Fi category is stocked with a wealth of incredible products to get you into the groove! You can find top quality speakers and subwoofers for you to blast out your beats, as well as CD players, record players and radios to play them from.
Please note: The information in this buyer’s guide is correct at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.