The Best Headphones for the Job
Finding the right headphones for your listening needs
Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.
More from Ralph Graves
Heads up!Welcome to this article from the Crutchfield archives. Have fun reading it, but be aware that the information may be outdated and links may be broken.
When it comes to headphones, the number one question we're asked here at Crutchfield is "which headphones are the best?" And the answer is, "It depends." It depends on where you want to use them, what kind of music you generally listen to, as well as what type of headphones you prefer.
We have a wide variety of headphones to choose from, and even though we organize them into categories (noise-canceling, audiophile, wireless, and sports headphones), deciding on which single set is "the best" can be a challenge.
Here are our recommendations on which set of headphones we think are best for different situations. As you'll see, it's not "one size fits all," rather it's more "the right tool for the job." if you still need help deciding after reading our recommendations, give us a call or see our article on choosing headphones.
The Best Headphones for Comfort
There are three basic headphone configurations: around-the-ear earcups, on-the-ear earcups, and in-ear earbuds. Comfort is subjective, of course. But here are our recommendations, based on long hours of continuous wear with many pairs of headphones.
|Most comfortable around-the-ear headphones|
Plenty of padding across the headband and plush velour-covered earcups let the HD 598s rest lightly on the head. Even after four to five-hour listening sessions, we didn't experience any discomfort with these Sennheiser headphones. And the sound was outstanding — definitely on the upper end of the audio quality spectrum.
|Most comfortable on-the-ear headphones|
One of the advantages of on-ear headphones is that they let air circulate around your ears, keeping them cool (important if you're into long listening sessions). The P5s are extremely lightweight, and generously padded, too.
The metal and leather industrial design of the P5s is almost a work of art, sure to turn heads when you wear them on yours. And the sound quality is equally impressive.
|Most comfortable in-ear headphones|
Granted, in-ear headphones aren't for everyone. But even if you've had a bad experience with in-ears before, the C5s just might change your mind. They only go a little way into the ear canal (compared to most in-ear models), relying on loops that sit in the outer ears to hold them in place.
The C5s don't stint on sound quality, either. And if you have an iPod® or iPhone®, you can use the in-line remote and microphone to control your device and make calls.
The Best Headphones for Work
Which headphones are best for office use? To a certain extent it depends on your work situation. Do you work in a cube, or do you have your own office? Are you allowed to listen to music (either streamed or stored) from your office computer, or are you limited to what you can access through your smartphone or portable player? We can't cover every situation, but even here at Crutchfield we have different office setups. Here are our recommendations based on what worked best for us.
|Best for listening in an office environment with a computer|
These headphones have a nice, clear sound that's well-suited to just about every musical genre. Their solid construction means they can take the rough-and-tumble treatment most workplace gear receives. And they're also comfortable to wear.
For best results, we recommend using the HD 650s with a NuForce Icon HDP headphone amp and DAC. It will provide these headphones with enough juice to operate at peak efficiency. The Icon's digital-to-analog converter (DAC) will do a better job decoding your stored music than you computer can, so you'll have more detail to hear through the high-performance HD 650s.
|Best for listening in an office environment with a portable player|
For just plain old listening, day in and day out, the Sennheiser HD 280 Pros are a great choice. We found them extremely comfortable to wear, even for long periods of time. The headphones deliver a nice, warm sound, with a good amount of detail. The cord ends in a stereo minijack, so you can plug them directly into the headphone jack of your portable player, or your computer.
|Best for wireless listening in an office environment|
Noise-canceling headphones are made for travel. But they can also keep the distracting ambient office noises at bay, helping you concentrate. The Sennheiser MM 550-X has the additional advantage of being a Bluetooth® headset. So you can listen to your music wirelessly from your smartphone, PDA, or other Bluetooth-enabled portable.
If you have an office where you need to move around quite a bit, not being tethered to a headphone cable can be a real plus. The MM 550-X has advanced adptX® audio circuitry for streaming high-quality audio from a compatible device, so you don't have to compromise on the sound.
The Best Headphones for Home
For an audiophile, listening to music through headphones at home can be a sacred ritual. For others, it can be just a pleasant way to enjoy one's music with greater detail than speakers can deliver. And for some, it can be an escape from one's surroundings. We've taken home various headphones to try out, and here are our recommendations based on our personal experiences.
|Best for listening with a high-end audio system|
The look of these headphones with their mahogany earcups is striking. But we chose these for sound, not looks. The open earcup design lets sound leak out, so they're not the best choice if you're listening surrounded by other people (like at work). If, however, you just want to sit down and savor every note of your music as it plays through your stereo system, then the GS1000is are a good choice.
Those open earcups give the music an expansive sound that's unlike anything heard through closed earcups. And the fat earcup padding keeps the drivers farther away than most headphones — lending to a greater sense of spaciousness in the sound field (and lessening audio fatigue).
These are headphones that require the extra power a headphone amp can supply — such as the Grado RA1 — to operate at peak efficiency.
|Best overall for home listening|
In addition to getting our vote for the most comfortable over-ear headphones, the HD 598s also score pretty high in the sound department. There's almost no coloration to the sound, and the responsive drivers can have you hearing details for the first time in familiar recordings.
In order to hear the HD 598s at their best, we recommend using them with a headphone amp to ensure they're fully powered.
|Best for super style and in-your-face bass|
Not everyone listens to classical music or acoustic jazz. If you like your music loud, and your bass to hit hard and nasty, Dr. Dre has some headphones for you. The Beats Studio headphones are engineered to the legendary hiphop producer's specifications to reproduce the studio/club experience.
You'll get crispy highs, a crunchy midrange and monster bass. And these headphones were made to be seen as well as heard. So you'll look good as you listen whether you're in the club, studio — or just at home.
The Best Headphones for Portable Listening
Virtually every portable device comes with a set of earbuds. But this is where the concept of "one-size-fits-all" really breaks down. Often those included earbuds are marginally comfortable and offer marginal sound quality.
One of the easiest ways to improve your listening experience is to replace those earbuds. But with what? Based on our experience with many different options, we suggest these as some of the best choices for portable listening in the most common situations.
|Best for listening while traveling|
There's a reason why these headphones are so popular — they work. And they work better than any other pair of noise-reducing headphones. At least, that was the conclusion we arrived at in our headphone shootout.
If you travel by air, you'll appreciate the difference the Bose® QuietComfort® 15 headphones can make. We also found them great for the office. They effectively filtered out the hubbub of our call center where we conducted our headphone shootout. The Bose® QuietComfort® 15 headphones fold flat, and come with their own travel case. And they come with a headphone cable that features an inline remote for an iPhone®, iPod®, or iPad®.
|Best for listening while exercising (sport headphones)|
Let's face it. After a hard workout, you need a shower — and so do your headphones. That's why Monster designed the iSport LIVESTRONG in-ear headphones. Not only are they waterproof, but just like your gym clothes, they're machine washable.
The headphones also have an in-line controller for your iPod or iPhone that allow you to take incoming calls hands-free. The LIVESTRONGs also deliver a good sound with plenty of bass.
|Best in-ear for portable listening|
For overall sound quality, there's nothing quite like the Bose® MIE2i mobile headset. They deliver that legendary Bose® sound with all the warmth and detail you've come to expect.
They also have an in-line microphone and remote for the iPhone, giving them added functionality. The headset features Bose® proprietary StayHear™ silicone ear tips. It's an innovative ergonimic design that keeps the eartips securely in place while resting comfortably in the outer part of your ear canals.
|Best on-ear for portable listening|
Portable headphones should be lightweight, of course. But you don't have to always trade of sound quality for comfort. We found the Grado SR80is to be a comfortable fit, and very light on the head.
They also delivered powerful, dynamic sound filled with detail. The headphones have a vented, open air design that has two advantages. First, it lets your music sound more expansive. And second, it lets your ears "breathe," so they stay cool even during marathon listening sessions.
|Best over-ear for headphone listening|
In addition to being our choice for the most comfortable on-ear headphones, the P5s also rated tops in sound. Regardless of the type of music we listened to, the P5s performed well, delivering accurate sound with nice detail in both the high and low registers.
Although they sound superb with a headphone amp, they also did very well just drawing power from our iPod's headphone jack.