We run every pair through a rigorous testing process over several days or weeks. That includes playing them in all sorts of scenarios — be it on a bus, in the listening room, or at the office — and playing back from a wide array of sources. We know most people use their headphones with a smartphone, often with lower-quality MP3 resolution tracks, so we do, too.
The WH-1000xM3’s excellent noise-canceling technology ranks second only to the Bose QC35 II, from the brand that has long dominated the market in terms of sheer noise-blocking abilities. That said, the Sony cans sound much better than the new bass-forward Bose option, and offer numerous features that help to create a much better overall experience.
A headset is a headphone combined with a microphone. Headsets provide the equivalent functionality of a telephone handset with hands-free operation. Among applications for headsets, besides telephone use, are aviation, theatre or television studio intercom systems, and console or PC gaming. Headsets are made with either a single-earpiece (mono) or a double-earpiece (mono to both ears or stereo). The microphone arm of headsets is either an external microphone type where the microphone is held in front of the user's mouth, or a voicetube type where the microphone is housed in the earpiece and speech reaches it by means of a hollow tube.
I tend to regard the M50 as the minimum for hi-fi listening with no apologies for limitations. But if you have to go cheaper than the usual $125 USD for the M50, the B&O Form2 with a simple bass boost gives a real hi-fi sound, and it should be available for about $100. The Beyer DTX-501P (similar to soundmagic P30) is good for $100, but needs a slight treble boost. The LSTN Fillmore with wood cups is somewhat colored, but still a good listen and good for $100. Below $100 are the Sennheiser PX series – not hi-fi by any means. There are several good IEMs below $100, and Apple Earpods with a Dirac or Accudio Pro player are very hi-fi, and cheap.
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.
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.
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.
These headphones rest on top of your outer ears and run the gamut from inexpensive portables to high-end home models. While on-ear headphones can have closed designs that cover the ears, some prefer fully sealed circumaural models (see below) for their increased sound isolation and the fact that they won't leak sound to neighbors. Still, the earpad headphone is preferred in places like office environments, where users still benefit from hearing the outside world.
No matter what type of headphones you want, you can't go wrong with any of the options here. That said, you don't need to spend top dollar for a quality pair of cans. If you're shopping on a budget, take a look at our picks for The Best Headphones Under $50. And once you've found the right pair, check out our 5 Easy Tips to Extend the Life of Your Headphones and 6 Ways You're Using Your Headphones Wrong.
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.
Electrostatic drivers consist of a thin, electrically charged diaphragm, typically a coated PET film membrane, suspended between two perforated metal plates (electrodes). The electrical sound signal is applied to the electrodes creating an electrical field; depending on the polarity of this field, the diaphragm is drawn towards one of the plates. Air is forced through the perforations; combined with a continuously changing electrical signal driving the membrane, a sound wave is generated. Electrostatic headphones are usually more expensive than moving-coil ones, and are comparatively uncommon. In addition, a special amplifier is required to amplify the signal to deflect the membrane, which often requires electrical potentials in the range of 100 to 1000 volts.
LDAC is a strange family of codecs, not merely because they’re the only codecs that really attempt the hi-res thing, but because they have perplexing issues with common phones. For example, the bitrate defaults are wildly different from phone to phone. The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 and LG V30 both default to 660kbps, and the Google Pixel 3 defaults to the lesser 330kbps. However, the noise present with every LDAC connection is far greater than it is with a regular old 3.5mm headphone jack.
If you won’t compromise on sound quality—and you’re willing to pay for it—the Bang & Olufsen Beoplay E6 may be for you. It doesn’t come cheap, but the Beoplay E6 is one of the best portable wireless models we’ve ever tested. In addition to sound quality, it has design perks including magnets that clip the earpieces together (and automatically turn the headphones off) for easy transport, a braided cable for added durability, and water resistance, according to the manufacturer.
Although modern headphones have been particularly widely sold and used for listening to stereo recordings since the release of the Walkman, there is subjective debate regarding the nature of their reproduction of stereo sound. Stereo recordings represent the position of horizontal depth cues (stereo separation) via volume and phase differences of the sound in question between the two channels. When the sounds from two speakers mix, they create the phase difference the brain uses to locate direction. Through most headphones, because the right and left channels do not combine in this manner, the illusion of the phantom center can be perceived as lost. Hard panned sounds are also heard only in one ear rather than from one side.
In-ear headphones are like earbuds but are an upgrade to them. These headphones fit into the wearer's ear canal and stay in place with the use of foam or rubber tips. These tips are available in custom sizes so they can fit each individual wearer. When a proper fit's achieved, in-ear headphones reduce outside noise and deliver sound quality at about the same level as over-ear and on-ear headphones.