There are literally thousands of different headphones, earphones, and earbuds out there to choose from. All have the same idea at heart — to provide you with audio without having to play it out loud for everyone to hear. But some achieve this result so much better than others.
You could just search for the cheapest pair, but in our experience, budget earbuds are not typically a great idea since they will most certainly fail you right when you need them most.
Instead, you’re going to want to get the best headphones for you, and that means you’ll have to think about how you plan on using them after you buy them. Are you planning on listening at home? Taking them on your commute? Is noise cancellation a requirement? Do you want to avoid lousy battery life? Go completely wireless?
We’ve checked out numerous pairs of headphones and have narrowed them down to our favorites to make your life easier. Regardless of your budget or requirements, there’s a perfect pair of headphones for you out there.
Earbuds vs. headphones
Headphones go over or around your ears while earbuds go inside and have a much smaller profile. Choosing between the two comes down to style, comfort, and sound quality. Headphones can squeeze your head and give you a headache if you wear them too long, and while earbuds won’t do the same, they can make your ears feel sore after extended wear. It’s all about personal preference on which fit you like better.
Earbuds are easier to transport, and because they’re smaller, you don’t have many restrictions when it comes to wearing them. You can wear wireless earbuds while also wearing a helmet or hat, which is not so easy or comfortable with headphones.
Headphones do provide a better seal and have larger speakers, causing them to be the winners in the sound quality department. There’s some give and take when choosing between wireless earbuds and wireless headphones.
Do noise-canceling headphones actually work?
There’s a big difference between outside noise being blocked and music simply being loud. Just like not every pair of expensive glasses protect your eyes from blue light, a pair of pricey headphones doesn’t guarantee they have noise cancelation.
Active noise-canceling headphones can electronically remove the sound coming from your surroundings. They work by using internal microphones that listen to what’s happening in the world around you, then inverting the noise and sending it into the loudspeaker. The idea is, both the output and the input will cancel out, leaving you with near-silence — or the music you want to listen to. Over-ear headphones are also able to create a tight seal around your ear that adds another layer of sound blocking.
In the past, not many earbuds featured active noise cancellation, but now there are plenty of noise-canceling earbuds if you don’t like the bulkiness of headphones. Earbuds can’t get the same seal that headphones can, though, so if you’re a noise cancellation snob, stick with headphones.
What to consider when buying a pair of headphones
The big thing before any purchase is to consider what you’re going to use them for. Are you going to be using them to listen to music quietly at home? Then it doesn’t really matter if they’re wired or not, since choosing the best headphones for this scenario really boils down to comfort and sound quality.
However, if you’re heading to the gym or going for a run, then you might want to consider a wireless option (or perhaps some bone conduction headphones.) Going wireless — even if they’re not true wireless earbuds in the sense that they’re wired together — means you won’t have to worry about wires getting tangled up when you’re working on beating your personal best.
Long battery life is great if you’re planning on using your headphones for hours on end, but how many of us really need to worry about that? As long as it covers the daily commute, most users will be fine.
Similarly, noise-cancelation features will depend on your needs. Passive noise-cancelation is fine if you’re not too worried about zoning out at the gym. If you’re keen to avoid all the background noise on the train or subway to work, however, then active noise-cancelation is a must.
Do you notice every fine nuance in the music you listen to? Or do you just know what you like? The musically minded will hate budget offerings with weak bass, mids, and highs, but plenty of average users will be just fine with these. If you’re keen on music sounding perfect, expect to pay more.