Headphones connect to a signal source such as an audio amplifier, radio, CD player, portable media player, mobile phone, video game console, or electronic musical instrument, either directly using a cord, or using wireless technology such as Bluetooth, DECT or FM radio. The first headphones were developed in the late 19th century for use by telephone operators, to keep their hands free. Initially the audio quality was mediocre and a step forward was the invention of high fidelity headphones.
While the data signal containing Bluetooth audio is compressed, headphone and earphone manufacturers have found ways to enhance the signal to compensate for its deficiencies in a way that even audiophiles can appreciate. We've included some wireless options here, but if you're really keen on cutting the cord, check out The Best Wireless Headphones. And if you want to go completely wireless (with no cord at all connecting the two earpieces), check out The Best True Wireless Headphones—just keep in mind these are about as far from over-ear headphones as you can get.
The WH-1000xM3’s advanced control systems allow you to let in various levels of ambient sound, with advanced features like voice-only mode, which helps filter through vocal frequencies so you can hear your music and the voices around you while blocking out other sounds. Responsive touch controls let you navigate volume, make calls, and play and pause music with ease, all while helping to maintain a clean aesthetic. Best of all, the WH-1000xM3 offer a staggering 30 hours of battery life, providing even heavy users with days of use from a single charge, and have a quick charge feature that allows you to enjoy five hours of listening after just 15 minutes of charging.
Portability can mean many things, such as appearance in public, having a secure fit so the headphone doesn’t shift off of your ears, amount of isolation from ambient noise (including active noise canceling), whether the headphone can be worn around the neck when not listening or it requires a carry case, and when extra amplification is required, whether a suitable amp can be found that’s OK to carry along with the portable music player.
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.
Again, back on the automobile analogy. If you’re driving in downtown Chicago after winter time, the road is full of potholes. It would be nice to be riding in a nice SUV, rather than typical sports car with a fully stiff suspension. It doesn’t matter if your sports car happen to cost three times the cost of the SUV, it’s just the wrong car for the road. Likewise headphones. A $1,000 headphone can sound very awful on the wrong music. Don’t believe me? Try listening to Linkin Park with the $1,800 Sennheiser HD800. You will wonder where that $1,800 went.
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.
Although some headphones available are wired, many more are available that are wireless, and use Bluetooth to enable your music to be heard, even if the stereo or other device is several feet or even a few rooms away. Wired headphones deliver superior sound quality to wireless and Bluetooth because there's no chance of picking up interference from other devices, which sometimes happens with wireless headphones. In addition, wired headphones have no batteries to power them, so there's no chance of interruption should the batteries wear out.