We pride ourselves on objectively rank headphones. We hope you will gain a lot from this guide. We understand buying the right pair of headphones for you is a deeply personal decision. Happy Listening!
Think of headphones as little stereo speakers for your ears. Traditionally, a “pair” of headphones consists of two speakers contained within two ear cups, one covering your left ear, and one covering your right ear, with some form of headband connecting the two cups, and simultaneously securing them to the listener’s head.
A cable will connect with either one or both of the ear cups, and at the other end of the cable a plug (often a 3.5mm headphone plug) will be attached. This plug will be plugged into your music source (whether it be directly into your smartphone headphone jack, your laptop, or even an expensive DAC/AMP) and the music being played from your source will travel through the cable, where the information will be processed by the speakers into audio waves which are audible to the human ear. Plugging your 3.5mm headphone plug into your phone has recently become more complicated for iPhone users, as the iPhone 7 no longer features a 3.5mm jack.
Wireless headphones are 100% the future of headphones. On a recent trip to the gym it was mildly shocking to see 5-6 people around me all wearing wireless over-ear headphones. I just assumed more people would have worn wireless in-ear headphones. It makes sense with ever-improving sound quality and battery times. We dive deeper into wireless headphones in chapter 4.
Headphone drivers are the component of headphones that actually produce audible sound. Drivers can be tuned to sound more bass-heavy, neutral, or treble-heavy, depending on the sound signature that the headphone manufacturer wants. Why You Can't Get Decent Earphones for Less Than $100 (hint: it's the driver).
These different sound signatures are often desirable for specific genres of music: bass-heavy headphones are often chosen for genres such as rap/hip-hop and dubstep, while neutral and treble rich varieties can both be used for genres such as rock, pop, and classical. Often, the goal of headphone manufacturers is to find that perfect balance, where the bass, midrange, and treble all come together harmoniously, each frequency range sounding lively and fun, and not muddled or weak.
We receive lots of headphone-related questions on a daily basis. Presented below are some of the most common entry-level questions that we receive. If you ever have any headphone-related questions, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments and we will do our best to answer for you.
The very first successful invention that can be referred to as a “headphone” (despite being quite different than what you think of as headphones today) was invented by Nathaniel Baldwin, who made them by hand and eventually sold the technology to the United States Navy. The first stereo headphones (more similar to what you’re used to calling “headphones”) were invented years later by jazz musician John C. Koss, whose name you may recognize, as Koss Corporation has been making headphones for personal audio for many decades.
Nathaniel Baldwin’s original handmade earpiece, and what many consider to be the first definable “headphone” was invented in 1910. Koss’ stereo headphone didn’t come along for another 33 years, in 1943. Headphones didn’t truly begin to catch on in the consumer market until after the invention of the 3.5mm radio connector, which didn’t occur until 1964.
These three terms each refer to the design of a pair of headphones in relation to how they interact with the human ear. As you might expect, in-ear headphones (also sometimes referred to as earbuds) are much smaller than the other two headphone types and physically fit into the ear canal, creating a seal which not only blocks unwanted outside noise, but creates a fuller sound for the listener. Over-ear headphones (sometimes referred to as circumaural) are effectively the opposite of in-ear headphones, as they feature a large “earcup” which encompasses the entire ear, blocking outside noise, and channeling sound information into the ear. Lastly, on-ear headphones (occasionally called supra-aural), are similar to over-ear designs, except smaller, and instead of totally encompassing the ear, their padded speakers physically sit on the ear, sending sound information directly into the ear, while blocking minimal outside noise.
The majority of headphones that you will find in stores feature a traditional closed-back design, which means that the entire earcup is made of solid material, which will let no air or sound in or out. To the listener, a closed system makes the instruments being played sound closer together, like you are listening to music in a recording studio. By contrast, components within an open-back headphone are exposed (often the outside of the earcup is made out of a mesh-like grate, allowing sound and air in and out. While, to the uninitiated, this may sound like a bad thing, it actually creates a more “spacious” sound, increasing the soundstage of the music you are listening to, like listening to music at an outdoor concert hall.
Headphones require amplification from some form of power source in order to produce sound. Some headphones require more power from that source to be “driven” than others. If you listen to a pair of headphones plugged into a weak source, you may find it difficult to get your music to play at a loud enough volume for your preferences. Often, the amps included popular source devices, like smartphones and laptops, are subpar and insufficient to drive more sensitive headphones. Dedicated headphone amps have higher quality circuitry and a more robust power supply, which will help your music not only sound louder, but will often provide your bass with more punch and your treble and midrange with more refinement.
When buying a pair of headphones, pay particular attention to each pair’s impedance rating, as you can often get a pretty good idea as to whether or not they will require a dedicated headphone amp. Often, headphones will feature a low impedance, and will not require amplification, but some high end headphones feature a high impedance and will assuredly require a nice amp to get the best sound out of them. Best Headphone Amps Under $100
A DAC, short for Digital-to-Analog Converter, is an electronic device which turns digital audio information (presented in binary code) into an analog audio signal that can be sent to a headphone amp, where it then, in turn, can be played through your headphone speakers in a way that can be understood by the ear. Without a DAC (which is often built into your source, like with smartphones and laptops) your headphones wouldn’t know how to play your mp3 files in a way that your ear would register as sound.
Bluetooth is a wireless method of connection between two paired electronic devices via radio waves instead of physical wires/cables. Bluetooth headphones include a small computer chip which includes a Bluetooth radio and software to help make it connect with other devices.
Active Noise Cancellation is an ingenious method for eliminating unwanted ambient sounds when you are listening to music with ANC-enabled headphones. Active noise-cancelling headphones include several additional components that standard headphones lack. These three components are:
For most people outside of the audiophile community, very little is known about the countless amazing brands and models of headphones being produced today. A majority of people are only familiar with the major players in the marketplace, the companies that can afford to spend millions on marketing (we’re looking at you, Bose and Beats (aka Apple)), and are mostly ignorant to some of the smaller manufacturers.
Obviously, creating a complete list of the best headphone brands would be impossible, but we have chosen to include a collection of some of the most respected and well-reviewed headphone brands that perhaps not everyone reading this guide has encountered before.
Wireless headphones working with Bluetooth technology are very quickly becoming extremely popular among a younger generation of music listeners. Individuals who are trying to fit music and podcasts into their active lifestyles without feeling tethered or restricted by the presence of cords and wires. Bluetooth is allowing for a newfound level of freedom for headphone wearers.
Bluetooth headphones account for 54 percent of U.S. dollar sales in the headphone market (According to NPD)
Since Bluetooth headphones do not require wires, they are uniquely positioned to be purchased by people who are interested in listening to music while working out at the gym or going for runs. As many of you may very well know, wired headphones are not only annoying in a gym setting, they can actually be dangerous if they become tangled in the equipment.
While Bluetooth headphones offer a number of distinct advantages over wired headphones, they are not perfect. When your music is being transmitted via Bluetooth’s radio waves, there is a slight degradation in sound quality when compared to wired headphones, because a wired connection is stronger and more stable, with less likelihood for artifacts or interference. However, most people are not buying Bluetooth headphones for immaculate audio quality, they are simply after the convenience of the wireless world free of cords.
As we discussed in our Chapter 2 FAQ, Active Noise Cancellation is a bit of technology so cool that it is almost hard to believe that it exists. The ability to figuratively “erase” unwanted ambient noises before they ever get to your ears is so incredible it makes us think of a Star Wars rebel base shooting out lasers to destroy incoming TIE fighters, which is effectively what ANC-enabled headphones are doing.
Active Noise Cancellation is really great for anyone who wishes to listen to music in virtually complete silence, even in noisy environments, like airplane cabins, public parks, and construction sites (not sure why you would be hanging around a construction site, but I think we can agree that they are definitely noisey).
However, ANC is not for everyone. If you are planning on purchasing a pair of headphones for your own home private listening, chances are it is already going to be pretty quiet where you are, so noise cancellation may not be all that important, especially when you couple that with the fact that audio quality from a pair of ANC-enabled headphones may not be quite as clear as with a pair of standard audiophile headphones. There are some who even consider the experience disorienting, and “like listening to music in a black hole.”