Ditch the Bundled Earbuds
The truth is, the earbuds that come with iPhones and many new Android phones sound a lot better than they used to. Still, if you're serious about your music, those plastic pods can only take you so far. The single best accessory upgrade you can buy for a new media player, smartphone, or tablet is a solid pair of headphones. With so many choices, ranging from inexpensive cans you can pick up at the local Best Buy, to budget-busting, finely tuned masterpieces, finding the right pair of headphones can be tough. But if you spend the time to pick the right pair, and you take good care of them, your headphones can easily outlive the device that's delivering your music.
The Headphone Advantage
There's an endless selection when it comes to headphone design, but you're basically choosing between padded over-the-ear headphones or snug in-canal earphones. Both have their merits, but for this roundup we're focusing on the over-the-ear and around-the-ear design of traditional headphones.
Generally, headphones are able to reproduce richer low-end, since they have larger drivers than earphones and they don't rely on an in-ear seal to deliver sound. Some listeners also find headphones more comfortable to wear, and easier to put on and take off, than they do earphones. This naturally means that headphones are bulkier, and less suited to the gym. If you prefer the in-ear design, we have separate lists for The Best Earphones and The Best Headphones for Running.
You might try to dismiss the din of the outside world by cranking up the volume, but the best solution for saving your sanity—and your ears—is to invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones, so you can enjoy your audio at much lower volumes.
Active noise-canceling headphones use microphones on the earcups to measure outside noise and adjust the signal to cancel it out. It's an effective technology, but it depends on power for the noise-canceling circuitry to work. For more, have a look at our picks for The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones.
If you just want to block out sound without noise-canceling circuitry, 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 concellation and doesn't require power.
Wireless headphones can be convenient in any situation where you don't want to deal with dangling cables—like the gym, for example. And now that Apple has ditched the headphone jack in the iPhone 7, wireless headphones are also a good way to ensure you'll be able to connect with all the latest devices.
After years of poor-to-mediocre sound, Bluetooth wireless stereo audio has made great strides in sound quality. 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 makes them less audible than before. We've included some wireless options here, but if you're really keen on cutting the cord, check out The Best Wireless Headphones.
No matter what type of headphones you want, you can't go wrong with any of the options here. That said, you don't need to spend top dollar for a quality pair of cans. If you're shopping on a budget, take a look at our picks for The Best Headphones Under $50.
Bottom Line: The B&O Beoplay H4 headphones deliver a wonderful Bluetooth audio experience and look particularly good doing it.
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.
Bottom Line: The Blue Ella headphones use planar magnetic drivers and an internal amplifier to deliver a truly impeccable sonic experience.
Bottom Line: The Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones continue to push the industry's best noise cancellation to new limits-and now they do so without wires.
Bottom Line: The beautifully designed Bowers & Wilkins P7 Wireless delivers a rewarding Bluetooth listening experience.
Bottom Line: The Coloud No. 16 headphones look and feel good and sound even better, especially for the price.
Bottom Line: The Focal Listen is a no-frills pair of over-the-ear headphones with an accurate, balanced sound signature sure to delight audiophiles.
Bottom Line: The JBL E35 headphones deliver a strong audio experience with rich bass and well-defined highs for a budget-friendly price.
Bottom Line: The Marshall Mid Bluetooth on-ear headphones deliver excellent deep bass response and solid clarity in the highs, in a well-implemented, comfortable design.
Bottom Line: The Plantronics BackBeat 500 offer surprisingly good audio quality for sub-$100 Bluetooth headphones.