What Are The Best Headphones?

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Everyone has a pair of free headphones. Probably more than one. Every mobile device comes with some near-disposable pair of earbuds of marginal quality and dubious sound quality. Apple AAPL -0.85% even sells theirs for $30.

Since nearly everyone has a mobile device now, headphones have become big business. From a few dollars to thousands of dollars, there’s a style, brand, form, celeb endorsement, and/or color to match your interest.

But are expensive headphones worth it?

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As a lover of music and audio, my personal opinion is yes, absolutely… to a point. As a headphone reviewer, I feel like I need to make a few qualifiers first. Or at least, offer some background.

Everyone can hear a difference between good speakers or headphones, and bad speakers or headphones. Everyone. You may not care, but that’s a different thing entirely. Turns out, people smarter than me have studied this for years and found the same thing: better audio is universal.

But are more expensive headphones “better audio?” Now that’s a good question, and unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. I’ve reviewed a lot of headphones at every different price point. There are some that are amazing, and some I wouldn’t give as a gift to someone I hated. The Audeze LCD3s I reviewed are some of the best headphones I’ve heard, but they’re also the most expensive.

To an extent, sound quality is somewhat subjective. Harman has done a lot of work showing that, all else being equal, people prefer flat, accurate sound over colored, inaccurate sound. With speakers this is easy: a speaker that measures reasonably “flat” (i.e. no frequencies are boosted over others) is going to sound good to nearly everyone. With headphones, though, your ear becomes part of the system, so what sounds good in my ear with headphones/earbuds might sound different (perhaps worse) in yours. You also might prefer a little more bass or treble than I do, too.

As far as sound quality goes, price is less of a factor than the individual headphone. The key is to look for reviews that compile the opinions of multiple listeners, to get a better idea of what the headphones sound like. Two examples of this are TheWirecutter and Sound+Vision. If you have a local store where you can try out headphones back-to-back, that’s huge and well worth a visit.

Bose QC15Stepping up in price also gets you different “features,” like active noise cancelling. This is when a microphone and some clever circuitry cancel out ambient noise (like the engine noise on an airplane). Not all noise cancelling is the same. Some headphones, like the Bose QC15s that I picked as the Best Travel Headphone, have excellent noise cancelling. Others that I’ve reviewed barely do anything at all (or worse, add noise).

You can also find Bluetooth headphones or waterproof headphones. Combining these features with something that sounds good is, of course, is the key.

Build quality you’d hope would go up in price, and generally it does. That said, I’ve reviewed $300 headphones that felt like I could crush them to dust with my hand, and mid-range and lower headphones that were built like tanks.

The takeaway

The free earbuds that came with your smartphone are probably the worst audio you can get. There’s no reason to settle for such bad sound. You don’t have to spend thousands to get better sound, there are a lot of inexpensive headphones that sound great. True, stepping up in price usually gets you better sound, better build quality, features like Bluetooth or noise cancelling, but if you’re unsure if that’s all really worth it, check out some reviews of headphones in a price range you’re comfortable with, and check those out. I’m sure you’ll find something that’s perfect for you, and that sounds way better than the freebies.

I’m curious, how many of you have stuck with the free headphones you got with your smartphone? Have you considered upgrading?

If you are considering upgrading, check out What Are The Best Headphones?, a comprehensive guide to finding the right headphones for you

 

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