Want to find the absolute best headphones for YOUR situation?
On this page you will learn:
3 Types of Headphones
1. Headphones (the regular kind)
These are what most of us think of when someone says the word “headphones” - two earmuff-type-things connected with a thick strap that sits on top of your head.
There are two types of headphones:
As the name suggest, on-ear headphones sit on top of your ears. They tend to be smaller and lighter than over-ear headphones, and they also tend to be cheaper.
Two of the drawbacks of on-ear headphones is that they tend to let in more external sound than over-ear headphones, and they also let more sound out from the headphones.
If you’re looking to try out these types of headphones but don’t want to spend a lot of money, check out our guide to the best on ear headphones under 50.
Over-ear headphones are like big cups that encompass your whole ears. They’re usually bigger and heavier than on-ear headphones and tend to be more expensive.
On the positive side, over-ear headphones are usually the best of all headphone types for sound quality, and for keeping sound in (and not letting sound out).
The biggest downsides of over-ear headphones are their size; they can sometimes cause heating/sweatiness of the ears; and they’re often the most expensive headphones.
Here’s a side-by-side view of on-ear and over-ear headphones to show you the difference:
To make things more confusing (!) on-ear and over-ear headphones also come in closed-back and open-back versions:
OPEN BACK HEADPHONES
Open-back headphones allow some sound to escape from the ear cups, and also allow some sound to get in when you’re listening to them.
Why would someone want sound to get in and out of their headphones? There are a few reasons…
Some people say the airiness of open-backed headphones creates a more “natural” listening experience.
Also, if you’re using the headphones in an environment where you don’t want to completely block out sound (like at work, or walking downtown), open-backed headphones can allow just the right amount of sound in.
Open-backed headphones tend to be less “heavy” on the head than closed-back headphones, which can make them more comfortable to wear for extended periods of time.
We guide you through a range of prices in our guide on the best open-back headphones for every need.
CLOSED BACK HEADPHONES
Closed-back headphones don’t allow any sound in or out of the headphones.
The only thing you hear when you wear closed-back headphones is whatever’s coming out of the headphone’s speakers (whether that’s music, the game you’re playing, an audiobook, etc.)
At the same time, no sound leaks from closed-back headphones – so if you’re in a public place, you don’t have to worry about other people hearing what you’re listening to!
If you think closed-back headphones are for you, check out our guide to the best closed back headphones.
Like headphones, earphones come in two different types: earbuds and inner-ear monitors (also known as IEMs, or in-ear headphones).
Here’s a quick rundown of the two:
Earbuds were introduced decades ago and were often bundled with transistor radios (ever hear of those?), but earbuds really took off in the early 2000s with the launch of Apple’s iPod.
Earbuds sit in the outer ear, but not deep inside the ear.
Have you ever used Apple earbuds while working out? You might have noticed that the buds get sweaty and slippery (and kind of gross…) That’s where in-ear headphones come in…
In-ear headphones are more intrusive than earbuds, in that they sit deeper inside the ear.
But that’s a good thing! In-ear headphones are supposed to fit right inside your ear, in order to block outside noise without using any noise-canceling technology (which we discuss below).
In-ear headphones are also great for working out, because they stay in your ears and don’t get slimy from sweat (gross, I know!) like many earbuds.
In-ear headphones come in a range of prices, but we’ve got you covered with our guide to the best in ear headphones under 200.
A headset is distinct from headphones and earphones for one simple reason: it comes with a microphone.
Headsets are useful in situations where you need to be able to listen and talk without using your hands (think video games, driving, working at a call center, etc.)
Just like headphones and earphones – you guessed it! – there’s more than one type of headset:
Have you ever seen one of those cheesy commercials where the narrator says “Operators are standing by!!” and they show a smiling, attractive (usually) woman wearing headphones with a microphone? Those are headphone headsets.
Like on the commercials, headphone headsets are worn by operators who answer the phones in call centers around the world. Unlike on those commercials, headphone headsets are also worn by many gamers, because they let you listen and talk to people you’re playing against.
If you’ve ever owned a pair of Apple earbuds, you know earbud headsets – earbuds that come with a built-in microphone.
Earbud headsets are easy to carry around and usually inexpensive – but they’re often not as sturdy or durable as the other types of headsets (and you might be one of the millions of people who’ve left them in your pants pocket and – oops – accidentally put them in the washing machine).
Have you ever seen someone talking to themselves in public, and wondered who they were talking to?
They were probably wearing a Bluetooth headset in their ear (on the side that wasn’t facing you J
Bluetooth headsets are popular among professionals like real estate agents and others who need a hands-free way to talk on the phone.
Wired vs. Wireless Headphones
Headphones, earphones, and headsets can also be wired or wireless:
Wired headphones have a wire connecting your headphones and audio device.
The biggest benefit of having a physical connection between your headphones and device is the sound quality – generally speaking, wired headphones have a higher quality of sound.
You can guess the biggest drawback of wired headphones – having a wire get in the way (especially if you’re using headphones for activities like running, working out, etc.)
As the name suggests, wireless headphones (also called Bluetooth headphones) have no wire between the headphones and audio device.
The obvious benefit of wireless headphones is not having a wire that gets in the way.
The biggest downsides are the poorer audio quality than wired headphones, and the fact that when your battery dies…so does the sound!
Around-the-neck headphones are commonly used for sports, because they have a “neckband” that sits around your neck and is connected to the two earphones (or earbuds).
This prevents the earphones from flying out of your ears (and off your body) when you’re jogging or doing other types of exercises.
The best neckband headphones will combine a relatively low price with high-quality wireless sound.
Sound Quality (& Quantity) – An Important Thing to Keep in Mind When Buying Headphones
Remember how we discussed that headphones can be closed-back or open-back, and closed-back headphones tend to block out external sound better?
Well, the headphones manufacturers have taken things one step further, and offer even more choice when it comes to managing sound. What that means is headphones can be:
Let’s cover each one briefly:
Sound-isolating (aka noise-isolating) headphones physically block external sounds from entering your ears with the seal of the headphones – so the headphones’ seal provides a physical barrier between external sounds and your ears.
How well the headphones block external sounds obviously depends on how good the seal is.
If you’re looking for an inexpensive pair, check out our guide to the best noise cancelling headphones under 100 dollars.
Noise-canceling headphones also block sounds from entering your headphones, but they go one step further by canceling the soundwaves before they can enter your headphones, by using something called “inverse waves” (don’t ask me to elaborate – I’m not a scientist!).
For a more in-depth explanation of the difference between sound-isolating and noise-canceling, check out this excellent article.
If you don’t have the budget (or floor space) for surround sound speakers, surround sound headphones can be a great alternative.
Surround sound headphones use multiple speakers in each headphone cup to direct sound into your ears from different angles. This replicates the placement of speakers in different positions around a room.
A popular use of this type of headphone is headphones for movies.
Bone conduction headphones sound pretty intimidating (something about the words “bone conduction” freaks me out), but they’re based on a simple idea: the fact that sound starts as a vibration that eventually bounces into our ears.
What bone induction headphones do is cut out the “bouncing around” part of sound vibrations, by sending those vibrations directly to the top of your jaw, and then into your inner ear.
Some people say that the sound of bone induction headphones isn’t as good as headphones that go on or in your ears, but they have one huge benefit: they don’t touch your ears.
This means your ears are free to hear sounds around you. It also means your headphones don’t get sweaty (if you’re using them for sports, working out, etc.)
20 Popular Uses for Headphones
I’m obviously a bit biased (having a headphones website, and all) but I think that everyone should be using headphones more often in their lives.
Because there are so many ways that listening to stuff (music, podcasts, audiobooks) on headphones can make our lives better!
(If you don’t believe me, see the section below called “6 Ways You Can Use Headphones to Improve Your Life” where I link to a bunch of scientific articles proving this.)
So if you’d like to experience the mood-lifting, boredom-crushing, productivity-increasing benefits of headphones, consider these 20 ways you can integrate headphones into your life:
Headphones at Home
Headphones at Work
Headphones for Sports
Headphones for Hobbies
Headphones for Gaming
12 Best Brands of Headphones
Apple needs no introduction – so we won’t give them one!
The technology behemoth has been sucking the dollars out of our pockets since they launched the iconic iPod in 2001 (interesting useless fact about Apple: the earbuds that they’ve been bundling with iPods – and then iPhones - were actually invented over a century ago.
But back then they obviously weren’t as sleek and fancy as today…)
Audio-Technica is a Japanese company that produces headphones, microphones, and other audio equipment. They’ve been manufacturing headphones since 1974.
Audio-Technica headphones are known for their high-quality closed-back headphones – but they also produce some kick-ass open-back headphones, too.
Useless (but interesting) fact: Audio-Technica has been supplying all microphones for the Grammy Awards since 1997. Impressive!
Did you know that Dr. Dre made $700 million when Apple bought his headphones company in 2014? (I’ll let that resentment settle in for a minute…)
Regardless of what you think about Dr. Dre’s ginormous payday, his Beats by Dr. Dre headphones are ginormously popular. Here’s a quote from the editor of Pitchfork describing why people love Dre headphones:
Beats by Dr. Dre are popular because they don't reproduce music as much as they transform it. They are the right headphones for the current era, because their design "customizes" the sound for the listener who wants bass.
To many people, the word “Bose” equals kick-ass quality. Bose is best known for its home audio systems and speakers, noise cancelling headphones, professional audio systems and automobile sound systems.
Useless (but interesting) fact: “Bose” was the last name of the company’s founder, who was an American of Indian descent.
He was a professor of engineering at MIT when he bought a pair of supposedly “high-end” stereo speakers and was disappointed by the sound quality.
So he did what most ordinary people do when they’re disappointed by a product: he invented a better one himself and then built a multi-billion dollar company from it…)
Beyerdynamic has been a family-owned audio company since 1924, making it one of the oldest audio companies in the world.
Among other things, Beyerdynamic is known for their high-quality studio headphones (see Beebs above wearing a pair).
Bowers & Wilkins is a British company that was mostly known for their loudspeakers – until they came out with their PX brand of highly-esteemed and extremely popular (and expensive!) wireless noise-canceling headphones.
The Grado family has been making hand-built headphones since 1991, and before that produced hand-made things called “phono cartridges” - which apparently were used to keep the needle in place on record players.
(Remember record players? No? Didn’t think so…)
Grado Labs is a fascinating company, and a great example of how persistence and craftsmanship can pay off (click here to read a really interesting story on the company’s ups and downs over 70 years).
And here’s a cool little video with a quick rundown of the company (and family) history:
True story: Monster Products was the original designer and manufacturer of Beats by Dr. Dre headphones.
The company started in 1979 when Monster’s founder (Noel Lee) invented an audio cable that he claimed enhanced audio quality.
But you can only sell so many high-priced cables, and though serendipity (apparently) the company partnered with Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine to produce headphones that would be promoted by rap stars and celebrities galore.
Fast forward a bunch of years (and some lawsuits) and Beats by Dr. Dre and Monster parted ways – so now you can plunk down your hard-earned allowance money on some flashy Beats or Monster headphones!
MPOW! Boot to the head!
That’s what we think of when we say “Mpow” aloud. Other people think of Mpow’s low-priced and wildly-popular headphones (Mpow’s 059 over-ear Bluetooth headphones have over 11,000 reviews on Amazon!)
Sennheiser is another German audio company, and they have a couple of impressive distinctions:
So it goes without saying that Sennheiser have a reputation for producing some of the highest-quality headphones - even for us regular folk who don’t have $55k lying around for ear cans…
Along with Mpow, file Skullcandy headphones under “low price, decent quality”.
The brand is known for their sleek and stylish designs and…did we mention the price?
V-Moda was founded by DJ and entrepreneur Val Kolton and is another company with a reputation for producing high-end headphones.
Given its founder’s background, you won’t be surprised to learn that V-Moda headphones are popular among DJs, along with audiophiles who are particular about sound quality.
For an in-depth look at the top headphones brands, make sure to check out our guide on the top types of headphones brands.
5 Critical Tips for Buying the Best Headphones for YOU
Since there are hundreds of models of headphones on the market, you need to start your search with some basic criteria.
In this section I outline the 5 most important criteria for choosing the best headphones for your situation: use, comfort, quality, price, and style:
The type of headphones you buy will depend largely on what you’ll be using them for.
And if your budget only allows you to buy one pair of headphones (not all of us are a Rockefeller!), ask yourself this question:
“What will I be using my headphones for most of the time?”
Unless you have the cash to splash out on a pair of $1 million diamond-studded Beats by Dre headphones like Lil Wayne, price is probably going to be a factor in the type of headphones you buy…
But there’s a reason I didn’t put price first in my list of 5 critical tips for buying headphones.
I’ll answer with a question: if you’ve ever paid $10 for a pair of earbuds, how did that work out?
Let me guess: the earbuds lasted a month or two before crapping out on you! (Hey, that rhymes…)
That’s why you want to look for the best combination of quality and price – in other words, the best value.
To get you started, we’ve put together a handful of guides to steer you toward the best-value headphones at different prices. Check them out:
6 Ways You Can Use Headphones to Improve Your Life
Headphones Can Make You Happier
Did you know that listening to music has been proven to reduce anxiety, have a positive effect on premature babies, improve serious mental disorders, decrease dementia, and increase overall happiness?
There’s even been a song created by psychologist and musicians that makes babies happier!
Of course, there are different ways to listen to music, but the most intimate (and satisfying) is often with a good pair of headphones.
So if you need a pick-me-up, pop on your headphones and listen to some feel-good songs!
Headphones Can Make You Fitter
There’s a ton of research that’s been done on the benefits of listening to music before and during exercise (note the before part – did you know that listening to carefully selected music before a workout can “optimize arousal” (yes!), help you visualize a good workout, and increase the level of your workout?)
And that’s not to mention the obvious: listening to music can make us healthier in general (by, among other things, reducing our blood pressure).
Headphones Can Make Your Co-Workers Less Annoying
I used to work in a cubicle, and as an introvert and analyst it would drive me nuts to hear colleagues chattering all the way across the floor – while I was trying to concentrate on completing a research report.
Headphones play an obvious role in the office – to drown out external noise (those chattering co-workers) and allow you to focus – whether you want to focus on work, surfing the web, or just some peace and quiet.
Headphones Can Make You More Productive
Have you ever gotten into “the zone” while listening to music on your headphones while working or studying?
And here’s one from my own experience: I’m writing this sentence while listening to my “work playlist” on my headphones!
Headphones Can Make Traveling Easier
This might not be a huge factor in your life, but if you’ve ever sat next to a Chatty Cathy on a flight, you know how annoying it can be.
Solution: noise-canceling, over-ear headphones! Those suckers will isolate you from all external sounds.
Then just stare straight ahead and pretend no one is sitting next to you…
I hope this quick guide has given you a decent overview of the different types of headphones, what they’re good for, which ones are the best for you, and how headphones can improve your life.
Feel free to click around the site, because we have tons of guides and reviews to the best headphones for all budgets, styles, and uses.
If you have any questions or comments related to headphones, feel free to flip me a line via our contact page.
And if you’ve got a few more minutes, check out this handy video guide to buying headphones produced by Techradar:
What headphones should I buy? Everything you need to know: