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Best wired headphones for 2021

5 great picks for a top-notch listening experience

In this article: I’ll discuss wired headphones and break down how you can hear them at their best. Plus,I'll share my top picks for several different uses and setups:

  1. Best for the audiophile on a budget — Sennheiser HD 560S
  2. Most comfortable headphones — Meze Audio 99 Classics
  3. Best in-ear monitors  — Sennheiser IE 300
  4. One-of-a-kind design — Audeze LCD-1
  5. Best all-around — Focal Celestee

I

n the last year, we've seen more interest in traditional wired headphones that connect with a cable. That’s despite the fact that most smartphones no longer have a built-in headphone jack. For many of us working from home — and already tethered to our desk — sound quality has become a higher priority.

And while there's no denying the convenience of Bluetooth, I find that wired headphones still sound better than most wireless Bluetooth ‘phones.

Jeff at his home desk surrounded by many, many headphones.

Why go wired? Sound quality — and more

Sure, there are other reasons people are turning to wired headphones. Gaming headphones with built-in boom mics have been a popular choice since the pandemic began — for more than one reason. JBL designed their Quantum 300 headphones for video games, but customers also use them as work-from-home headsets. (Clear communication is as important for Zoom as multiplayer Doom.)

And since my kids attended their elementary school remotely, I got them both a set of JBL JR300 kids' headphones. They have a volume-limiting feature called "Safe Sound," that prevents the little ones from cranking it up and damaging their ears.

Grant in class

The JBL JR300 kids' wired headphones help my son stay focused on his virtual kindergarten classes — and they help limit the volume.

But for me, it’s all about the sound. So my picks here will be centered around the best-sounding headphones for different styles and uses.

How to get the best sound from wired headphones

If you plug headphones directly into your laptop or phone, you’ll miss out on a lot. Premium wired ‘phones need the proper amount of power. So when you invest in a good pair of wired headphones, it's worth getting a dedicated headphone amp.

Amp on desk

The battery-powered iFi Audio hip-dac amp/DAC combo connects to your computer or phone and serves up better sound to your headphones.

Most of our headphone amps happen to also be a combination digital-to-analog converter — also known as a DAC — but not all. A DAC is ever-important these days, since most of us listen to digital music. That include downloads or streaming music services like Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, or high-res services like Qobuz, Tidal, and Amazon Music HD.

You can learn more about them in my DAC buying guide.

An amplifier for headphones? Really?

Yes! It makes a world of difference. Here are three reasons I strongly recommend them:

  1. You’ll hear your premium headphones perform their best.
  2. A nice headphone/amp combo is relatively affordable compared to a high-end stereo system.
  3. You’ll find headphone amps in all shapes and sizes, so they fit into pretty much any listening setup.

I recently gave Crutchfield’s new crop of hires a presentation on headphones — one small part of the extensive training for our incoming Advisors, technicians, and writers. When the subject of headphone amps came up, our senior trainer Chris chimed in. “If a customer calls with a certain budget for headphones, I will set aside part of that budget for an amp if they don’t have one,” he said. “It just makes that much difference versus putting that money toward a more expensive set of headphones.”

Case in point — the thumb-drive sized AudioQuest DragonFly amp/DAC combo. There are three models ranging from $99 to $299, and they can really open up and add punch to a nice set of headphones.

Dragonfly

The AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt is our best-selling headphone amp — it's incredibly portable and offers a premium sound upgrade for your phone or laptop.

A note about impedance

When matching headphones with the right amp, the listed impedance is a good place to start. Impedance is measured in ohms, and for simplicity’s sake, the higher the headphone impedance, the more power you need from the amp.

We've broken down a range of impedances in our wired headphones selection, as "works with phone," "amp recommended," or "high-powered amp required."

That is a little reductive, but we use it as a jumping-off point. For one thing, I guess technically any wired headphones should “work with a phone.” You’ll hear audio — it just won’t be nearly as powerful or dynamic.

You can learn more about matching amps and headphones in my headphone amp buying guide.

Should you always use a separate headphone amp?

There are a few situations where I wouldn’t recommend an amp:

  • Headphones with a mic might not work as expected for phone calls, Zoom meetings, or FaceTime.
  • While most Bluetooth headphones include cables for wired listening, you can get mixed results with an amp.
  • Never connect kids’ headphones to an amp. It will play music at dangerously high volume levels.

Pro tip: Always lower the volume when you connect new headphones. That will help prevent the amp from overpowering and damaging your headphone drivers. Plus it can help protect your ears.

My top picks

So here are my personal top headphone picks for high-end audio. For each pick I've included some important specs and information to help you match up the headphones with your listening device. I also recommend some headphone amp/DAC combos I really like.

Sennheiser 560S

Best for the audiophile on a budget — Sennheiser HD 560S

Meet one of my favorite new releases of the past year. The Sennheiser HD 560S wired open-back headphones deliver serious bang for your buck. I absolutely adore these headphones. They just have a clean, unfiltered presentation.

They’re from the same iconic Sennheiser lineage as the higher-end HD 660 S, that goes back over 30 years. But the HD 560S ‘phones boast their own distinct audio attributes, most notably a larger soundstage.

They fit a little more snug than most, but it didn’t bother me much. And I’m extra sensitive to that, thanks to my glasses. They sport soft, velvety ear pads and there are thick dots of padding that cushioned the crown of my head.

Details

  • over-the-ear, open-back headphones
  • 10-foot detachable cable with 1/4" connector
  • 3.5mm stereo mini adapter included
  • impedance: 120 ohms (high-powered amp required)
  • recommended headphone amp: iFi Audio hip-dac portable DAC/amp combo
Meze

Most comfortable headphones — Meze Audio 99 Classics

It seems so obvious, but it is often overlooked — if you're wearing something on your head for long periods of time, it needs to feel good. Our staff tested over 50 headphones for comfort, and the Meze 99 Classics headphones ranked #1 by a long shot. They scored big for their lightweight build, relaxed fit, and butter-soft leather earpads.

And once you sink into these headphones, you’ll enjoy a lively, musical sound.

Details

  • over-the-ear, closed-back headphones
  • two detachable cables with 3.5mm miniplug connectors
  • 1/4" adapter included
  • impedance: 32 ohms (works with phone)
  • recommended headphone amp: AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt plug-in USB DAC/headphone amp
Sennheiser in-ear headphones

Best in-ear monitors — Sennheiser IE 300

If you’ve never tried high-end wired in-ears, you might be surprised at the sound presentation. It’s not the punishing, "between-the-ears" sound you get from those basic earbuds they throw in with your smartphone. The Sennheiser IE 300 in-ear headphones create a nicely sized, just-outside-the-head soundstage.

They use the same drivers as Sennheiser's top-of-the-line IE 800 S in-ear monitors. And these earbuds are tuned to sound even, detailed, and musical. Everything sounded like it was right where it should be, and there was breathing room between instruments. Lead vocals sit dead center.

I found that they had a slight bass emphasis. Not a bad thing — I like some extra low-end when it's executed correctly. And the highs are smooth, yet still detailed.

Details

  • over-the-ear, closed-back headphones
  • detachable 48" cable with 3.5mm stereo miniplug
  • impedance: 16 ohms (works with phone)
  • recommended headphone amp: Astell & Kern USB-C Dual DAC cable
Audeze headphones

One-of-a-kind design — Audeze LCD-1

The Audeze LCD-1 open-back headphones are a true unicorn. Planar magnetic headphones are a rare breed anyway — they rely on two sets of heavy-duty magnets flanking either side of a thin, yet extra-large diaphragm. The magnets move the diaphragm back and forth to generate sound, and they also create a lot of extra bulk.

But while Audeze’s highest-end planar headphones are huge and heavy, the LCD-1s take a more traditional headphone shape. Even though they weigh less than nine ounces, Audeze managed to preserve their spacious, cohesive, and deeply layered sound.

Details

  • over-the-ear, open-back headphones
  • 78" detachable cable with 3.5mm stereo miniplug
  • impedance: 16 ohms (works with phone)
  • recommended headphone amp: iFi ZEN CAN desktop headphone amp
Celestee

Best all-around — Focal Celestee

For this list, I've limited my picks to headphones under $1,000. Once you get into the rarified air above that, I find there are few bad choices — it becomes more of a preference thing. So with that parameter in mind, the Focal Celestee is the best of the best.

And talk about a deluxe headphone experience.

From the form-fitting designer case to the high-grade drivers, Focal has carefully considered each premium part. And these closed-back headphones look even more stunning in person. They have a substantial build with soft leather padding, and they deliver a clear, textured sound with strong, controlled bass.

For sure, you'll get even better resolution from the beryllium drivers in Focal's top-flight Stellia closed-back or Utopia open-back headphones . But we're playing in the same league here — at a significantly lower price point.

Details

  • over-the-ear, closed-back headphones
  • detachable 4-foot oxygen-free cable with 3.5mm stereo plug
  • impedance: 35 ohms (amp recommended)
  • recommended headphone amp: Cambridge Audio DAC Magic 200M stereo DAC/headphone amplifier/preamp

Still have questions?

Get in touch with one of our Advisors for personalized shopping help. They can help you find the right headphones for your listening setup and habits.

Last updated 4/12/2021
  • Erik from Miami

    Posted on 4/21/2021

    No Grado Labs headphones?

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 4/22/2021

    So funny you mentioned that...the Grado Hemp headphones were THIS close to making my list. (My editor and I went back and forth about whether we should cap the list at five.) The Hemp 'phones have a forward sound presentation that's more intimate than I usually prefer. But such great depth and high-end detail. I really dig them.