How to Choose the Right Headphone
In a time when most people listen to their music on streaming services like Spotify, and even those who have actual audio files on their phones are still often streaming via Bluetooth, it can seem like wired headphones are a relic of the past. But if you’re reading this, it’s because you know, deep in your heart, that a quality wired signal is still higher fidelity than just about any streaming signal. You may need an adapter these days to use wired headphones with your mobile device, but for many, it’s worth the fairly inexpensive accessory.
Here we’ll take a look at both headphones (on-ear and over-ear) and earphones (in-ears) that are still using cables in 2020. Are there even better models available than the ones we list here? Sure, but we’re cutting it off at $500 to keep things reasonable. If you’re really looking to go all out, head over to out stories on the best headphones for audiophiles and studio musicians.
Keep in mind, many wireless headphones can be used with a cable passively. It’s a feature that’s become more and more standard, especially in the noise-cancelling headphone market. To keep the focus here purely on wired headphones, we’re excluding wireless headphones with cables, as well as noise-cancelling headphones (which used to be exclusively wired but in recent years are now mostly wireless, and often also ship with cables), with one rare in-ear exception. That gives us plenty of space to talk about cabled headphones and earphones that simply output audio and, for the most part, aren’t designed to do anything else.
With that in mind, here’s what to look for when shopping for a pair of wired headphones.
Between headphones and earphones, there’s a range of driver styles. In headphones, the most common option is the dynamic driver—you’ll find headphones typically only employ a single full-range driver in each earcup’s enclosure. In recent years, audiophiles have gotten excited about planar magnetic drivers, which use a magnetic field to vibrate a large, (compared with a dynamic driver) flat surface area. Planar magnetic drivers are typically admired for their ability to deliver detailed, accurate audio throughout the frequency range, with very little distortion and highly accurate bass response. Like the even less common, far more expensive electrostatic drivers, the enclosures for these headphones are often large and not really ideal for wearing out of the house. There have been in-ears that employ planar magnetic drivers, and those, too, look rather bulky and odd.
See How We Test Headphones
More commonly, you’ll see either dynamic drivers or balanced armature drivers in earphones. Balanced armature drivers are notable for how tiny and lightweight they can be, and this allows manufacturers to, say, include multiple balanced armature drivers in a single earpiece, with each one covering a different frequency range. This, like two-way or three-way stereo speakers, tends to lead to a more accurate sound signature, but it all depends on how the drivers are tuned.
None of the above-mentioned options are necessarily better than the others, but they do bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table.
Earphones vs. Earbuds
We’ll keep this short: There are no earbuds on this list. That’s because there are no earbuds that seal off the ear canal. Any in-ears that rest outside of the ear canal rather than sealing it off create a host of sonic problems—ear-to-ear balance is compromised, as is bass response.
In-ears that enter the ear canal slightly and seal it off (otherwise known as earphones) ensure proper left/right channel balance, as well as the ability to reproduce bass response. People may use these terms interchangeably, and that’s fine, but for the sake of this story we’re talking about earphones only when we discuss in-ear models.
Over-Ear vs. On-Ear Headphones
There are two basic builds for headphones. You have circumaural designs that fit over and around the ear, encircling it with earpads that typically create a soft seal against the skin and scalp, and supra-aural models, which rest on the ear, and don’t create a seal around it. These models are often called, respectively, over-ear and on-ear headphones—and frankly, both of those terms are much easier to remember for most people.
Audiophile-level headphones are more often than not over-ear, as creating a seal is also a way to provide a more immersive experience, and thus most of the headphones we recommend here are circumaural. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t great-sounding on-ears. For many users, it comes down to comfort. And in certain use cases, it comes down to practicality—if you need headphones for recording/overdubbing in a studio, you’ll usually want an over-ear pair, as they are less likely to leak audio.
Open vs. Closed Headphones
Not all circumaural/over-ear headphones prevent audio from leaking. Some, in fact, purposefully push audio out—these are referred to as open, or open-back, designs. Why would you want headphones that purposefully leak audio? Because the open-back design, which allows you to hear your surroundings a bit, often provides a magical spatial feel that many headphones can’t come close to approximating. Open-back designs also allow more airflow around the drivers.
Closed headphones can also deliver magic, however, and are more appropriate for studio, office, and public settings, as they tend to leak far less audio.
Choose Your Sound Signature
We’re aiming to tell you which pairs we think sound best in the wired realm, so our choices don’t include super-bass-boosted options, simply because they’re not providing an accurate audio experience. Finding mega-bass headphones isn’t hard, however—if anything, it’s been the trend for years now, and finding accurate pairs is the problem.
In our reviews you might often see the terms “flat response” or “flat sound signature.” This might sound like a negative thing, but a flat sound signature merely means that it’s an accurate—or close to accurate—sound that doesn’t boost and sculpt the frequency range too much.
That said, all sound signatures have boosting and sculpting to a degree—if they didn’t everything would sound the same. In recent years, many accuracy-focused headphones and earphones have added in some bass depth because speakers and subwoofers have become more capable of reproducing deep bass rumble, and once that’s possible, artists and producers want to include deeper bass in their mixes. Thus, it’s not audiophile sacrilege to include some serious bass depth in a sound signature. As long as the bass is clean and accurate and not overly boosted, it’s helping to replicate the deep lows that many modern mixes (and films) include.
One nice feature to keep your eye out for is a removable cable. It’s far easier and more affordable to replace a cable than an entire pair of headphones, and cables are usually the culprit when things go awry.
If you need to use your headphones or earphones to take calls, pay attention to whether the cable has an inline mic and remote control. Plenty of the audiophile or studio models skip remotes and mics, though in recent years we’ve seen some models include two cables, one with and one without. Most wired headphones will also ship with a quarter-inch headphone jack adapter for stereo and pro-audio gear. This is rarely the case with earphones, but nearly all 3.5mm earphone plugs will work with a quarter-inch adapter, and they can be found for cheap online.
How Much Should You Spend on Wired Headphones? (And a Word About Older Models)
As we mentioned earlier, we’ve capped at choices here at $500. Why? There are simply too many quality options out there below $500 to focus on pairs that cost $1,000 or more. We are including models that may have started out with a higher price, but in recent years have become more affordable. These price drops are almost never a reflection in quality, which brings us to another point: Wired headphones aren’t like cell phones. There’s not an upgraded version released every year. Some of the models we list here have been on the market for years, and have only had minor updates. When you get something right the first time, there’s no need to change it.
Remember, wired headphones require a little more maintenance than wireless models. Once you’ve found the perfect pair, head over to our story on five easy tips to extend the life of your headphones.
Where To Buy
Etymotic ER4 XR
Pros: Exceptionally accurate mids and highs coupled with rich, full bass response.
Detachable, high-quality cable.
Plethora of eartip options in various sizes and styles.
Ships with several accessories, including zip-up case.
Cons: No inline remote control or mic.
Bottom Line: The stunning Etymotic ER4 XR earphones deliver the sonic accuracy sound professionals need, and add some subtle depth in the lows to complement modern mixes.
Beyerdynamic DT 1770 Pro
Pros: Superb sonic performance gives clarity and equal representation to the entire frequency range.
Secure circumaural fit.
Ships with two long, removable cablesâone semi-coiled, one straight.
Swappable velour and leatherette earpads.
Cons: Can get a tad uncomfortable over very long listening sessions.
Bottom Line: The expensive Beyerdynamic Dt 1770 Pro is a wonderful headphone pair for musicians and engineers seeking an accurate frequency response in critical listening scenarios.
Bowers & Wilkins C5 Series 2
Pros: Powerful audio performance with rich lows, detailed highs, and excellent balance.
Attractive, secure-fitting, lightweight design.
Inline remote control and microphone.
Cons: Projects some sound outward.
More bass and less crispness in high-mids than some listeners seeking flat response might prefer.
Bottom Line: The Bowers & Wilkins C5 Series 2 earphone pair has upgraded drivers and a fantastic sound signature with deep bass response and clear highs, just like its predecessor.
Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2
Pros: Powerful audio performance with deep bass response and excellent detail in the highs.
Luxurious, comfortable design with lots of leather.
Inline remote and microphone.
Cons: Expensive for an on-ear pair.
Bottom Line: Bowers & Wilkins P5 Series 2 is one of the best-sounding on-ear headphone pairs on the market, and its price reflects that.
Audeze EL-8 Open-Back
Pros: Superb audio performance with solid balance, robust lows, and pristine highs.
Open-back earcups provide excellent spatial detail.
Removable cable comes in four varieties.
Cons: Less practical for public use due to sound leakage.
Bottom Line: The Audeze EL-8 headphones may not be the most practical for public use, but their fantastic audio performance trumps any design inconveniences.
Beyerdynamic T-51 i
Pros: Excellent, balanced audio performance with deep bass response and well-defined highs.
Lightweight and very comfortable.
High-quality carrying case.
Cons: Hardwired cable.
Those seeking mega-bass sound might be underwhelmed.
Bottom Line: The Beyerdynamic T 51 i is a smartly designed pair of on-ear headphones that sound fantastic, and is priced to reflect that.
Libratone Q Adapt Lightning
Pros: Uses Lightning port for audio.
Powerful, sculpted sound with various EQ modes.
Surprisingly effective noise cancellation circuitry.
No charging required.
Cons: Only works with iOS mobile devices that have a Lightning port.
Sculpted audio not for purists.
Bottom Line: The Libratone Q Adapt Lightning earphones offer a strong audio experience for iPhone users coupled with solid, relatively affordable noise cancellation.
Pros: Excellent audio performance.
Impressively lightweight despite large size.
Ships with two detachable cables, a replacement pair of earcups, and the sturdiest hard-shell headphone case we’ve ever seen.
Cons: No inline remote control or mic on either cable.
Not for booming bass lovers.
Bottom Line: The Shure SRH1540 is among the more accurate headphone pairs we’ve tested, delivering deep lows and crisp highs clearly with very little boosting.
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