Headphones are made in a range of different audio reproduction quality capabilities. Headsets designed for telephone use typically cannot reproduce sound with the high fidelity of expensive units designed for music listening by audiophiles. Headphones that use cables typically have either a 1/4 inch (6.35mm) or 1/8 inch (3.5mm) phone jack for plugging the headphones into the audio source. Some stereo earbuds are wireless, using Bluetooth connectivity to transmit the audio signal by radio waves from source devices like cellphones and digital players. Due to the spread of wireless devices in recent years headphones are increasingly used by people in public places such as sidewalks, grocery stores, and public transit. Headphones are also used by people in various professional contexts, such as audio engineers mixing sound for live concerts or sound recordings and DJs, who use headphones to cue up the next song without the audience hearing, aircraft pilots and call center employees. The latter two types of employees use headphones with an integrated microphone.
Case in point: the Koss PortaPro headphones first hit the market in 1984 and have become such a favorite with audiophiles that the company leaves the design (and the price tag) untouched. You can still pick one up for less than $50, and they come with a lifetime warranty, no receipt necessary. Check out our favorite budget headphones for more selections.
If you just want to block out sound without active noise cancellation, good over-ear headphones will naturally do that to some extent. This is called noise isolation, and it simply works from the earcups forming a good seal over your ears to prevent outside noise from getting in. It's not as effective, but it's less expensive than active noise cancellation and doesn't require power.
The Sony noise-cancelling headphones are a tiny miracle. They’re great at blocking the outside world, so you’ll hear your music and nothing else – at a price point that’s less than $50. Wired headphones can be a tough sell for those who’ve grown accustomed to wire-free listening, but if you’re all right with a wired connection, this pair is an easy choice.
The FiiO E17 “Alpin” + AIAIAI TMA-1 or Pro700 Mk2 seem like a mix you’d recommend, but I’m concerned those cans will be uncomfortable for day-long use. Also I don’t know if that DAC/amp is the best for my style of music/headphones. Third, some of my techno tracks have stunning vocals, and I don’t want to miss out on those high notes while enjoying the bass.
The adage that you get what you pay for is generally true for audio products like headphones. What has made us big fans of the 1More brand is its ability to redefine that expectation in surprising ways. The 1More Triple Driver in-ear headphones are a great example of this: They exhibit all of the hallmarks of high-end, expensive earbuds, yet manage to keep the price highly affordable for most people.
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.
Sports headphones are among the most popular types of headphones and the best ones are now wireless. Sweat-resistant or even totally waterproof, they can be used at the gym or for running or biking. Some are have an open or semi-open design to let some sound in for safety reasons (so you can hear traffic noise). However, other models have a sealed, noise-isolating design.
In the professional audio sector, headphones are used in live situations by disc jockeys with a DJ mixer, and sound engineers for monitoring signal sources. In radio studios, DJs use a pair of headphones when talking to the microphone while the speakers are turned off to eliminate acoustic feedback while monitoring their own voice. In studio recordings, musicians and singers use headphones to play or sing along to a backing track or band. In military applications, audio signals of many varieties are monitored using headphones.
Inexpensive: Most casual users can find a good pair of headphones for between $20 and $50. Headphones in this price range sound great, include key features like an in-line microphone, and often support wireless Bluetooth connections. If you’re looking for a reliable set of headphones and you don’t need much more than audio, you don’t need to spend more than $50.