Active noise-cancelling headphones use a microphone, amplifier, and speaker to pick up, amplify, and play ambient noise in phase-reversed form; this to some extent cancels out unwanted noise from the environment without affecting the desired sound source, which is not picked up and reversed by the microphone. They require a power source, usually a battery, to drive their circuitry. Active noise cancelling headphones can attenuate ambient noise by 20 dB or more, but the active circuitry is mainly effective on constant sounds and at lower frequencies, rather than sharp sounds and voices. Some noise cancelling headphones are designed mainly to reduce low-frequency engine and travel noise in aircraft, trains, and automobiles, and are less effective in environments with other types of noise.
Impedance: Generally speaking, the lower the headphones' electrical impedance (aka resistance), the easier it is to get higher volume. But here again, the low impedance is no guarantee of high volume capability; other factors can still limit loudness potential. Since many MP3 players have feeble power output -- the iPod is a notable exception -- smart shoppers should check the loudness before purchasing any pair of headphones. To be sure, listen with your player.
While Apple’s AirPods get a lot of attention for how well they work with other Apple products, there’s actually a more affordable option that’s just as tightly integrated: the Beats BeatsX Earphones. Apple owns the Beats brand, and it’s built the BeatsX earphones with the same W1 chip that’s in the AirPods. That means that the user experience is virtually identical – iOS makes it super easy to pair them with any iPhone or iPad. Our favorite part is they have a Fast Fuel feature, so when your battery is low, plugging them in for five minutes provides two hours of talk time. We’re also big fans of the COWIN E7 Headphones. They’re wireless, they’ve got on-board noise cancellation, and they can last up to 30 hours on a single charge. The E7’s have an impressive spec sheet for any price point, but the fact that they’re so affordable makes them an even better value. If you’re looking for affordable over-the-ear headphones that don’t make any compromises, this is the pair to get.
Frequency response: Frequency-response specifications in full-size loudspeakers are generally pretty useless in predicting sound quality, but headphone frequency-response numbers are even worse. Manufacturers have routinely exaggerated frequency-response figures to the point that they're irrelevant. Even the flimsiest, cheap headphones routinely boast extremely low bass-response performance --15Hz or 20Hz -- but almost always sound lightweight and bright. Generally, bass buffs will be happier sticking with larger 'phones.
The usual way of limiting sound volume on devices driving headphones is by limiting output power. This has the additional undesirable effect of being dependent of the efficiency of the headphones; a device producing the maximum allowed power may not produce adequate volume when paired with low-efficiency, high-impedance equipment, while the same amount of power can reach dangerous levels with very efficient earphones.
The impedance of headphones is of concern because of the output limitations of amplifiers. A modern pair of headphones is driven by an amplifier, with lower impedance headphones presenting a larger load. Amplifiers are not ideal; they also have some output impedance that limits the amount of power they can provide. To ensure an even frequency response, adequate damping factor, and undistorted sound, an amplifier should have an output impedance less than 1/8 that of the headphones it is driving (and ideally, as low as possible). If output impedance is large compared to the impedance of the headphones, significantly higher distortion is present. Therefore, lower impedance headphones tend to be louder and more efficient, but also demand a more capable amplifier. Higher impedance headphones are more tolerant of amplifier limitations, but produce less volume for a given output level.
The tech-speak description for this type of headphone is "circumaural," which includes any headphones with earcups that fully enclose your ears. Because of their size and their acoustic isolation, full-size headphones are often considered to be better-suited to home use rather than as a portable option, but the recent popularity of full-size, noise-canceling Beats headphones are challenging the rule.
Despite big promises from Bluetooth’s only Hi-res codec, the standard doesn’t really deliver at best, and it falls far short with its basic 330kbps setting. Both the 660kbps and 990kbps connections offer decent quality, but the 330kbps setting has a lot of noise—and a comparatively poor frequency response with higher-def content. You probably won’t hear it, but it definitely falls short of the marketing.
The Bose QuietComfort 35 II is arguably still the most comfortable pair of noise-canceling headphones you can buy. Released in the summer of 2018, you can think of the QuietComfort 35 II as simplified, less sophisticated and more affordable version of the new Headphones 700. The lack the transparency mode, superior call quality, USB-C charging port and on-ear gesture controls, but they still boast really impressive noise-canceling skills. The also have the tradional foldable design — it folds more compactly — that many travelers really like.
Supra-aural headphones or on-ear headphones have pads that press against the ears, rather than around them. They were commonly bundled with personal stereos during the 1980s. This type of headphone generally tends to be smaller and lighter than circumaural headphones, resulting in less attenuation of outside noise. Supra-aural headphones can also lead to discomfort due to the pressure on the ear as compared to circumaural headphones that sit around the ear. Comfort may vary due to the earcup material.
If you’ve been on an airplane in the last few years, you’ve probably seen the Bose QuietComfort noise-cancelling headphones before: they’re a favorite of regular travelers because they’re so good at keeping outside noise out. They’re comfortable, they sound incredible, and the noise cancellation is so impressive that you feel like you’re in your own personal bubble. These headphones are not cheap, but they’re definitely worth the money.
Expensive: Audiophile-grade headphones can cost anywhere between $130 and $2,000. Headphones in this price bracket are no joke: they create impressive soundscapes, are robust enough for use in a recording studio, and they’re just plain beautiful. If you need a pair of headphones for critical listening, or you simply want the best headphones around, it’ll cost you.
Dale: The examples listed above are good general rules, but there also are so many exceptions and in-betweens that it also could be better to understand what is needed for your music, so you can narrow the search to the most appropriate headphones. For example, you may have heard that Classical music is a particular genre, but within that ‘genre’ are many very different types of music. Chamber music or pipe organ music may benefit from a headphone that’s highly detailed in the treble (a headphone that some users might say is bright), while harpsichord music and music that has a lot of strong trumpet sounds might be better served with a more rounded or softer treble.
We’re totally convinced the Sony WH-1000xM3 will be the best pick for most people, but if you’re looking for some alternatives, we have you covered there, too. We identified seven other models that are more than worthy of your consideration, each with their own specific strengths, whether it’s for use during a workout — or merely to keep you from giving your credit card too much of a workout.
The QuietComfort 30s are Bose’s wireless in-ear headphones with active noise cancellation, and they’ve set the bar for the category since they were released in 2016. The QuietComfort 30s utilize the same StayHear+ tips as all Bose’s other in-ear headphones and they use the same app as the company’s other QuietComfort headphones. The one caveat is that the QuietComfort 30s are a neckband-style of wireless headphone, so they’re fairly heavy and probably best served for office settings.
Earphones are very small headphones that are fitted directly in the outer ear, facing but not inserted in the ear canal. Earphones are portable and convenient, but many people consider them uncomfortable. They provide hardly any acoustic isolation and leave room for ambient noise to seep in; users may turn up the volume dangerously high to compensate, at the risk of causing hearing loss. On the other hand, they let the user be better aware of their surroundings. Since the early days of the transistor radio, earphones have commonly been bundled with personal music devices. They are sold at times with foam pads for comfort. (The use of the term earbuds, which has been around since at least 1984, did not hit its peak until after 2001, with the success of Apple's MP3 player.)
However, the Bose 700 earphones have a much slimmer profile when folded up, and they have a few updated elements, including more integration with digital assistants, touch controls, and sensors for Bose’s “augmented reality” apps. Bose has kept some of the best-loved features from its older models as well, such as adjustable levels of noise cancellation, a monitoring mode to let in sound from your environment, and an advertised 20-hour battery life. According to Bose, call quality is improved as well, though CR doesn’t test call quality in headphones.
Earbuds have small speakers that rest on the ear canal of the wearer. These are usually much less expensive than on-ear and over-ear headphones and reproduce the sound well. However, outside sounds, such as traffic or power tools, can get past the earbuds and interfere with your enjoyment. Earbuds also don't stay in place very well if the wearer is moving much, such as exercising. These also are lower fidelity than on-ear and over-ear headphones.