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Best wired headphones for 2023

6 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 closed-back headphones — Meze Audio 99 Classics
  3. Most comfortable open-back headphones — Meze Audio 109 PRO
  4. Best in-ear monitors — Sennheiser IE 300
  5. One-of-a-kind design — Grado Hemp headphones
  6. Best all-around — Focal Celestee

I

n the last few years, 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 or hybrid — 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 when my kids attended their elementary school remotely a few years back, 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 a few years ago — 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.

(Note that I've limited my picks to headphones under $1,000 — you can also see my picks for the best audiophile headphones above $1,000.)

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-dac2 portable DAC/amp combo
Meze

Most comfortable headphones (closed back) — 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

Meze Audio 109 PRO open-back headphones

Most comfortable headphones (open back) — Meze Audio 109 PRO

You might assume based on the picture that Meze's 109 PRO headphones are the open-back "version" of the 99 Classics. Yes and no. The dark walnut wood earcups definitely give them a similar look and vibe. And they use the same spring-suspension system for that relaxed, secure fit.

But these newly released premium 'phones offer their own unique design touches — and the breathable open-air earcups are physically larger. Inside, the drivers have been completely revamped to deliver even better better sonic performance. I found the sound refined, though not buttoned-up, thanks to a delightful, natural timbre.

These headphones also have a certain heirloom, keepsake quality about them. "We always aim to make something fulfilling," Antonio Meze told me in a recent interview, "I'm trying to build products that feel precious and [offer] value on different levels."

Details

  • over-the-ear, open-back headphones
  • two detachable cables with 3.5mm miniplug connectors
  • 1/4" adapter included
  • impedance: 40 ohms (amp recommended)
  • recommended headphone amp: iFi Audio GO Bar portable 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 a similar driver design as Sennheiser's top-of-the-line IE 900 and superb IE 600 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

  • in-ear monitor (IEM) style headphones
  • detachable 48" cable with 3.5mm stereo miniplug
  • impedance: 16 ohms (works with phone)
  • recommended headphone amp: Astell & Kern HC2 USB-C DAC
Grado Hemp headphones

One-of-a-kind design — Grado Hemp headphones

Grado's Hemp on-ear headphones are truly unique and — forgive me — buzzworthy. For over seven decades, family-owned Grado has remained in the same modest factory in Brooklyn. Here for the first time, they've used hemp for their legendary hand-crafted earcups.

This machined version of the industrial hemp plant provides a sturdy, wood-like structure with natural acoustic dampening. And for me, these headphones are Grado at their best. You get their signature engaging, intimate, and active sound, but the hemp helps mellow out harsher tones.

My fellow A/V writer Colin M. uses them as his everyday headphones, and still marvels at their heady articulation. "I picked up on fine details in the Tool track ‘Parabol,'" he told me, "like subtle background vocals drift from one ear to the other."

Details

  • on-ear, open-back headphones
  • attached 68" cable with 3.5mm stereo miniplug
  • impedance: 38 ohms (amp recommended)
  • 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.

Popular questions customers ask

Most wireless headphones use Bluetooth to connect to your phone or other compatible device. They range from tiny earbuds to larger over-ear models. There are also specialized wireless headphones for TV that use a wireless transmitter instead of Bluetooth to connect to your TV or home audio system.

Noise-canceling headphones let you hear all the detail in your music without having to crank the volume to overcome external noise. These headphones use special circuitry to cancel out exterior sounds before they reach your ears. And theyÆre available in lots of styles, from small earbuds to cushier over-ear models.

We carry a range of wireless and true wireless Bluetooth earbuds to keep you moving during your workouts. The best sports headphones are durable and sweat-proof models that stay in place when you move around.

Over-ear and on-ear Bluetooth headphones tend to have much longer-lasting batteries than in-ear headphones, which are designed to be as small and light as possible. Wireless earbuds have batteries that can last up to around 12 hours, while larger headphones can offer 20-40 hours of use between charges — and even longer in some cases.

A good headphone amplifier is an option that will make an average set of headphones sound above average. If you're going to invest in expensive audiophile headphones (especially a model that has high impedance), a headphone amp is a must.

Last updated 11/3/2022
  • Tony from Frederiksted,USVI

    Posted on 7/4/2022

    Hi. Most of the wired connections you mentioned are to a computer or a phone. I have a Sony Minidisc player and an older iPod. Any thoughts on those items.

  • David from Buffalo

    Posted on 5/23/2022

    I power my HD 560s with a sound blaster g3 for use with my PC and PS5. They are very loud even at 50% volume and way too loud on max. I also use them with an iPhone 13 pro and Apple dongle - plenty of volume headroom as well. I absolutely love these headphones.

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 5/23/2022

    Nice!! Agreed, David. They are so great.
  • Jim Nessler from Escondido, Ca.

    Posted on 2/2/2022

    I have some old Sennheiser HD430 headphones which I have refurbished with new ear pads. But I need a really powerful AMP-DAC to power them as they are 600 ohm. The cost of a powerful amp is equal or greater than the cost of the Sennheiser HD 560S headphones. Are my HD430's worthy of a costly amp, or would it be better to just buy the HD 560S in a lower resistance, which I CAN power with my existing equipment?

  • Mike Martin from Lakewood, IL

    Posted on 1/15/2022

    Gotta ask, how do the Koss Pro4A's compare? Had them 50 years ago, and bought a new pair a couple of years ago.

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 1/17/2022

    Another classic! I have to say, I find it is a treat to use them every once and a while, just to "feel" the history. And they also have a very flat frequency response. A great headphone to have in the collection! But I'll admit -- I find them hard to wear after a while. I enjoy the sound and comfort of the headphones on this list more.
  • Paul Jacoby from Caldwell

    Posted on 1/13/2022

    Wondering how these picks compare to the Sony MDR-V6 and MDR-7506 which I use as "reference" headphones for decades now??? Is it time to make a switch?

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 1/17/2022

    Those are iconic headphones who have earned and kept their reputation for a reason. Incredibly accurate and great imaging. But I do think there have been some major advancements in driver design -- not to mention more focus on comfort.

    This may sound like an odd suggestion because they are open-back -- but if you can listen in an area where that's not an issue, I think you would enjoy the Sennheiser HD 560s. Similar enough in sound signature to meet your tastes, but different enough to give you a new listening experience.
  • Bill McCollough from LINCOLN

    Posted on 1/12/2022

    It would help if you discussed connecting a computer to an AVR, either through SPDIF or HDMI, and connecting the headphone to the AVR headphone jack. This setup will use the AVR DAC.

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 1/13/2022

    Thanks, Bill. You're right, I should include something in here about that...a lot of us at Crutchfield use our A/V receivers with headphones, and you can get good results. Let me know if you have any questions about the topic, or any specifics you think I should cover.
  • 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.
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