However, we also move up to high-resolution audio files, as well as a wide variety of sources, including plugging in directly to a PC or Mac, using USB DACs (digital-to-analog converters), and employing high-quality, dedicated portable players and amplifiers. Finally, we compare the headphones to some of our go-to models, both in their class and price point, as well as a level or two above to find out if they can punch above their weight.
A: What you plug your headphones into can significantly affect their sound, and the quality of the amplifiers built into portable CD/MP3 players is generally awful. It's not their fault: the little guys have to power their electronics and their internal amplifier using a few puny volts. Even some of the better home AV receivers' headphone jacks offer highly variable sound quality.

Unlike with other codecs, AAC test signals from Android phones like the Huawei P20 Pro, LG V30, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 all vary wildly. Though we can’t definitively say why each Android device seems to handle AAC encoding differently, the fact of the matter is that only Apple can do it well. We suspect some of the power saving features baked into the Google ecosystem’s varying hardware has consequences for audio playback. Nowhere is this more apparent than Huawei’s power-sipping P20 Pro, which seems to cut out at around 14.25kHz.
Noise cancellation: Noise-cancelling headphones play specific tones, much like white noise, to cancel out all of the sound around you and allow you to enjoy your music uninterrupted. Noise-cancellation is an active process, so headphones with this feature require batteries. If you’re a frequent flyer, or if you’ve got a noisy commute to work each day, you’ll love noise-cancelling headphones: they’re fantastic at keeping the cacophony of the outside world at bay.
Unlike with other codecs, AAC test signals from Android phones like the Huawei P20 Pro, LG V30, and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 all vary wildly. Though we can’t definitively say why each Android device seems to handle AAC encoding differently, the fact of the matter is that only Apple can do it well. We suspect some of the power saving features baked into the Google ecosystem’s varying hardware has consequences for audio playback. Nowhere is this more apparent than Huawei’s power-sipping P20 Pro, which seems to cut out at around 14.25kHz.
Headphones are available with high or low impedance (typically measured at 1 kHz). Low-impedance headphones are in the range 16 to 32 ohms and high-impedance headphones are about 100-600 ohms. As the impedance of a pair of headphones increases, more voltage (at a given current) is required to drive it, and the loudness of the headphones for a given voltage decreases. In recent years, impedance of newer headphones has generally decreased to accommodate lower voltages available on battery powered CMOS-based portable electronics. This has resulted in headphones that can be more efficiently driven by battery-powered electronics. Consequently, newer amplifiers are based on designs with relatively low output impedance.
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If you want headphones for gaming or watching movies, get some that support multi-channel surround sound. Some high-end headphones include technology that simulates surround sound, so sound effects feel like they’re coming from different directions. These headphones do a surprisingly good job at replicating the home theater experience and create an immersive experience for listeners. If you’re into big-budget blockbusters or first-person shooters and don’t have the room for a full-blown surround sound system, go for the next best thing and get headphones that support multi-channel audio.
Mid-range: Many headphones that cost between $50 and $130 include improved sound and useful smartphone integration (like custom EQ controls). In this price range, you’ll also see a big jump in the quality of materials used, which improves both the sound and the luxury of each pair. If you need a pair of well-made headphones with basic noise cancellation, you’ll need to spend at least this much.
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.
The moving coil driver, more commonly referred to as a "dynamic" driver is the most common type used in headphones. It consists of a stationary magnet element affixed to the frame of the headphone, which sets up a static magnetic field. The magnet in headphones is typically composed of ferrite or neodymium. A voice coil, a light coil of wire, is suspended in the magnetic field of the magnet, attached to a diaphragm, typically fabricated from lightweight, high-stiffness-to-mass-ratio cellulose, polymer, carbon material, paper or the like. When the varying current of an audio signal is passed through the coil, it creates a varying magnetic field that reacts against the static magnetic field, exerting a varying force on the coil causing it and the attached diaphragm to vibrate. The vibrating diaphragm pushes on the air to produce sound waves.
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.
Every single Bluetooth codec has significant quality issues—despite many creative solutions employed to make the most of the limited bandwidth the standards employ. For those keeping score at home: not a single codec available can meet wired signal quality. Though Bluetooth audio has come a long way since its noisy beginnings, it’s still not ready to replace the headphone jack. Qualcomm’s aptx HD, and Sony’s LDAC 990kbps codecs come close, but everything else falls far short of the mark.

Noise cancellation: Noise-cancelling headphones play specific tones, much like white noise, to cancel out all of the sound around you and allow you to enjoy your music uninterrupted. Noise-cancellation is an active process, so headphones with this feature require batteries. If you’re a frequent flyer, or if you’ve got a noisy commute to work each day, you’ll love noise-cancelling headphones: they’re fantastic at keeping the cacophony of the outside world at bay.
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.
One thing I suggest to prospective customers for a specific headphone, if I have that headphone on hand, is for them to suggest 2 or 3 music tracks by a particular artist and composer that I can sample on that headphone, not so much for me to suggest how it sounds, but mostly to check if that headphone has any real sonic issues with that music. For example, a headphone that’s ideal for classical and acoustic music might sound too harsh with metal and industrial goth.
Recently released this summer, the Headphones 700 are the best wireless over-ear headphones that Bose has to over. The combine the best-in-class noise-cancellation with great audio quality. Other than the design overhaul, the biggest difference from the QuietComfort 35 II is that the Headphones 700 have a significantly upgraded microphone array. This allows the headphones to have a wonderful tranparancy mode (or ambient listening mode), and makes maybe the best headphones you can buy for call quality.
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.
The rule that I use is that the bigger the size of the headphone, the bigger the need for amplification. Of course factors like driver sensitivity and impedance will matter, but the general rule of thumb is, use a dedicated headphone amplifier for a full size headphone. Even a portable amplifier can be enough, depending on the type of the headphones.
Whether you wear headphones for your daily commute, regular workouts, or just for jamming out at home, you need a good pair that’s comfortable and can make everything sound great. Headphone tech has evolved significantly, too, so some pairs can do a lot more than just play sound. It’s not tough to find a pair that can connect to your smartphone wirelessly, or one that can keep outside commotion out.
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