Headphones come in different shapes and sizes, whether that's earbuds, in-ear, on-ear, over-ear, wired or wireless. That means picking the right ones can feel like a daunting affair. Fortunately, we tested an incredible amount of headphones so we've made finding the right ones for you that much easier with this handy guide. So read on for headphones of every variety and to suit budgets ranging from stocking-fillers to serious investment pieces.
While this round-up covers headphones broadly, be sure to check out our best headphones for running round-up if you're looking for a pair specifically for exercising. These will not only survive sweat and moisture, but will also be far more secure so you're not constantly dealing with earbuds falling out or headphones dropping off your head. We've also got a list of purely wireless headphones – perfect for the Apple iPhone 7. If you're a frequent traveller, you might be interested in our best noise-cancelling headphones list.
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The round-up is arranged roughly in price order, but the curious among our readers may want to read through the entire list to see just what's available out there.
Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 at Amazon.co.uk | Was £269.99 | Now £199
AKG N60 at Amazon.co.uk | Was £229.99 | Now £149
Sony MDR-HW700 at Amazon.co.uk | Was £450 | Now £375
AKG Y50 at Amazon.com | Was $129 | Now $99
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x at Amazon.com | Was $169 | Now $149
Sony MDR-HW700 at Amazon.com | Was $350 | Now $219
Whether you like in-ear or over-ear, you're sure to find something that matches your needs on our list. So read on for our definitive guide to the best headphones available right now.
Possibly the most common upgrade from a pair of bundled buds is the IEM or in-ear headphone type. IEM stands for in-ear monitor, and it involves a pair of earphones that ends in an isolating tip of some sort – usually silicone, occasionally foam.
The approach of the IEM is a little different to the earbud, in that it isn't tuned for compensate for sound lost by an imperfect seal. Choose the wrong tip and you'll find that the bass response and overall sound quality of an IEM pair drops dramatically. They're our top pick for anyone looking for a portable pair, though. They're discreet, often provide superb sound and block out the outside world effectively.
One big step up the size chart, we find on-ear or supra-aural headphones. These feature much larger drivers than the in-ear type and use pads that sit directly on your ears. These tend to (but not exclusively) use closed cups, as their relatively small size makes them a good second choice as a travel pair if you don't get on with IEMs.
One issue with on-ear headphones, though, is that they're often a bit picky about positioning. Not all sets will make a good seal with your ear in every position, which can result in reduced sound quality if they're not sitting right. Comfort can be a problem, too. If you can, we recommend giving on-ear headphones an audition, as much to check out the padding as the sound. If you have sensitive ears, insufficiently soft pads may cause discomfort.
Over-ear headphones are often very large, and therefore are a bit conspicuous. They tend to side-step most of the comfort issues of the on-ear kind as the padding rests on the less-sensitive area around your ears rather than directly on them. They usually offer decent noise isolation too.
The closed over-ear type can often function as a great at-home pair and an on-the-go set. Semi-open over-ear headphones, meanwhile, aim to get some of the sonic benefits of the fully-open design while reducing sound leakage and offering some level of isolation. These headphones are less common, although there are still plenty of options out there.
Otherwise known as open over-ear headphones, these are arguably the best headphone type for at-home use. Open-backed headphones tend to offer the best sound quality. This kind of design gives sound an airy, wide quality that's very hard to achieve with a closed set.
You do pay for this, though. Open headphones leak sound like no other and offer barely any isolation from the noise of your surroundings. Don't even think about using an open pair as a travel partner.
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Those are the basic types of headphones, but there are a few variations that are worth knowing about, too. Here's a quick overview.
The much maligned earbud is the type that usually comes bundled portable audio products or smartphones. They're generally pretty rubbish at blocking out sound, but this type of earphone can be good from a sound perspective. Several companies out there produce top-quality buds and if you can't stand the invasive rubber tip of an IEM, check out Yuin's range. It produces true audiophile earbuds that sell for upwards of £100. None of them have made it into our best headphones round-up yet, though.
Unlike the other types above, wireless headphones do not suggest a particular design, rather the incorporation of some kind of wireless tech – usually Bluetooth.
Bear in mind, though, that they'll almost invariably offer worse sound quality than a rival non-wireless pair. Plus there's the added consideration of batteries and weight. Few wireless headphones offer the option to plug in a cable once the power's run dry, making them useless without charge.
Many cheaper wireless headphones also use lossy wireless tech, which means some information is being lost in the transition from your player to your headphones. If you're out for portable Bluetooth headphones, look for the aptX codec. It's still not 100 percent lossless, but it offers much better performance than standard Bluetooth.
The other feature worth thinking about is noise-cancellation. This is clever tech that actively gets rid of noise, rather than passively blocking it like a simple closed-back headphone. It does this with the help of at least one microphone. The mic is used to monitor ambient noise, an inverse wave of which is then piped-out by the headphone, negating the hubbub.
Active noise-cancelling works best on low- and mid-frequency noise, such as engines, air conditioners and other such drones. It's generally less effective at reducing high-frequency noise than simpler isolation. Noise-cancelling headphones are perfect partners for long haul flights as they block engine noise brilliantly.
We've drawn together the best headphones available now in one convenient location so, whether you are looking for wireless headphones, noise-cancelling headphones or in-ear headphones, we've chosen the best cans to suit your needs.
Related: Best noise-cancelling headphones
You might start hearing references to 'Lightning headphones' more often now that the Apple iPhone 7 has been released. The phone famously did away with the 3.5mm headphone jack meaning you have to either use the included adaptor, use a wireless pair or buy a new pair of Lightning-cabled headphones. As you might expect, these are wired headphones that terminate in a Lightning connector instead of a 3.5mm jack.
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Lightning headphones do bring along with them some useful features, however. By using a digital connection, functionality can be more easily added to headphones, such as an external DAC or noise cancelling headphones that don't require a separate battery. There's also the potential for Lightning headphones to sound better than their analogue counterparts, too.