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Jeff's headphone buying guide

Find the best pair of headphones, with our expert's advice

There's no shortage of headphones out there. We offer more than 350 different models, spanning all types of styles, colors, and features.

So how do you find the best headphones for you? I've written about and tried lots of headphones, so I can help you narrow down your choices. 

Jeff at Capital Audiofest.

I spend many hours a week writing about and listening to headphones. Read on for my advice on choosing the perfect pair.

The right headphones for the situation

Here’s the most important thing to think about: how and where you plan to use headphones. Different headphones work better in different situations. In the sections below, I’ll take you through the main categories and uses, and point out some features to look for.  

Fit options

There are some basics you should know about fit. Here are the three styles: 

Three options

Over-ear headphones surround the ears completely. On-ear headphones rest on them. In-ear headphones/earbuds fit securely inside the ear opening or canal.

You'll find that earcup sizes can vary greatly. That's why we take photos of most of our on-ear and over-ear headphones on a mannequin to show scale. Look for them in the photo carousel at the top of product pages.

Open-back vs closed-back

This choice often boils down to "where do you usually listen to headphones?" At home, in a room where you won't disturb others? Or in a crowded place like an office or bus?

Open-back headphones allow air to flow through the earcups. This typically ensures sound that is more spacious and natural. Closed-back headphones help keep sound from leaking in or out. 

Open back and closed back

Wired vs wireless headphones

Most of our top-selling headphones right now are Bluetooth headphones, and I expect their popularity to keep growing. They let you listen to music without connecting a wire to your phone — where most of us keep our music and podcasts. That makes them super convenient.

Plus, Bluetooth's sound quality and reliability have greatly improved over the past 4 or 5 years. And now that that the iPhone and other popular phones no longer feature a headphone jack, even more of us are turning to wireless.  

Bluetooth article image

Crutchfield Advisor Enrique prefers Bluetooth headphones for the extra freedom and convenience.

(Read our Wireless Bluetooth headphone guide)

 

Even so, audio purists prefer wired headphones to deliver the best possible sound. And the highest-end headphones rely on a wired connection. When I'm not checking out a new pair of headphones at my desk, my go-to listening rig includes a pair of wired over-ears. 

Smartphone control for on-the-go listening

If you’re commuting or listening on the move, consider headphones with a built-in remote/mic. They give you control over some of your phone’s key functions. 

in-line remote

A three-button in-line remote gives you the most control over your smartphone's music and call functions.

Noise-canceling headphones

Noise-canceling headphones take sound isolation a big step further than closed-back headphones. They use internal circuitry to neutralize the sound around you. I strongly recommend them for air travel — they can block out the plane’s engine drone so you can watch movies or listen to music at safer volumes.

Many customers associate noise-cancelling headphones with Bose, who pioneered and popularized the category. And their latest flagship model, the QuietComfort® 35 wireless II, can block noise as effectively as any headphones I’ve heard.

But they are no longer the only game in town. In this video, I discussed the very formidable Sony WH-1000XM3 wireless noise-cancelers:

Features to look for:

  • "Adaptive" or "Adjustable" noise cancellation. Some noise-canceling headphones can be adjusted according to your environment. While some offer manual adjustments, others do it automatically based on the level of external noise.     

(Read our Noise-canceling headphones guide)

Running and working out

Sports headphones are durable, sweat-proof in-ear models. I think comfort and fit are most important for running and exercising. You need your earbuds to stay put while you move around.

And long workouts are tough enough — you don’t want headphones causing more pain.

Exercising with wireless headphones.

The top-selling Jaybird X4 Wireless headphones are designed to stay secure during workouts.

Feature to look for:

  • Reflective neckband/cord. Safety is paramount when you’re running in public. Make sure you are visible to passing cars. 

(Read our article "How to Choose headphones for running" )

Comfort Matters

How your headphones feel plays a big part in how much you'll enjoy them. If I’ve had a test-run with a pair of headphones, I like to tell you whether they fit relaxed, snug, or somewhere in-between. Scan the product bullets or read "my take" for fit details on the headphones you're considering.

Comfort

Sometimes the more you wear headphones, the better they feel —  our 60-day return period gives you time to try them out. 

"True" wireless earbuds

When Apple dropped the headphone jack, they introduced the Apple Air Pods. These high-tech headphones include Apple’s special W1 chip to improve the wireless connection and performance.

Since then, we've seen a wave of True Wireless headphones (also called "truly wireless"). Just like other in-ear Bluetooth headphones, they'll play music wirelessly from your phone. But each earbud rests in your ear without a cord connecting the two, making them 100% wire-free.

Watch Crutchfield training manager JR break down the Bose SoundSport Free true wireless headphones:

Feature to look for:

  • Charging case. Most of these headphones recharge wirelessly inside their included charging case — check our product details to see how many hours of power the case can bank. 

(Read our article about the best true wireless headphones)

Gaming headphones

Some video games are considered works of art — or at least an innovative, interactive way to tell a story. With all the time and effort spent to make these games sound as good as possible, there should be headphones that can do them justice.

Most gaming headphones feature surround sound processing to give you an immersive gaming experience. Some also give you a competitive advantage: you can hear spatial cues or opponents trying to sneak up from behind. 

The Audeze Mobius headphones take it a step further with real-time head-tracking technology for realistic 3D surround sound. "Through the Mobius headphones, the sound was as enchanting as the graphics and the gameplay," said Crutchfield IT specialist Jenny, an avid gamer. "I felt like I was in the middle of the game."

Jenny playing a game with headphones.

Jenny, Crutchfield IT specialist, enjoys the Audeze Mobius headphones in our gaming lounge here at HQ.

Features to look for:

  • "Boom" mic.  Gaming headsets usually include a microphone so you can communicate with teammates — or trash talk opponents — more clearly. In some cases, the mic is detachable.      

(Read our article "Audeze Mobius headphones review")

Wireless TV headphones

We always get questions about headphones for watching TV. I think Sennheiser's line of transmitter-based headphones are the most reliable TV headphones. The transmitter connects to your TV or stereo and beams sound wirelessly to your headphones. Perfect for late-night viewing.

TV headphone image

Watch TV at the volume you want to, without disturbing others.

Feature to look for:

  • Effects modes and/or dialogue boost. What matters most to you? Clear, intelligible speech? Rollicking, immersive surround effects? Rich, balanced music sound? There are transmitter-based headphones that excel in each area.

(Read our article "Wireless headphones for TV listening")

Audiophile headphones

I prefer listening to a great pair of headphones over a nice pair of speakers. It’s not the most popular stance to take here at Crutchfield. But I just love the absolutely unfiltered connection you can get to an artist, song, or performance when you have the right headphone setup. You can really sink your teeth into the clear, dynamic sound that top-flight headphones can deliver.

The most-respected headphone manufacturers all bring something a little different to the table. Some brands to look for include SennheiserBowers & Wilkins, FocalShure, Grado, and Audeze.

Archer Listening to pro audio.

Crutchfield Advisor Archer says he prefers the personal connection you get with headphones — his vast collection includes a top-shelf Audeze model.

Headphone amps and DACs

High-performance headphones often require more power to perform their best. A Headphone amplifier can make a world of difference. For the best sound, you also don't want to rely on your computer or phone's digital-to-analog converter (DAC). An outboard DAC can squeeze out every musical detail – soft or powerful —from a recording.

AudioQuest DragonFly Black

The compact AudioQuest Dragonfly® Black v1.5 headphone amp/DAC is an excellent entry into the world of high-end personal audio.

(Read our Headphone amp buying guide and DAC buying guide)

Need more help?

Just ask our Advisors. They get to try out our gear, too. They can help you sift through all the headphone choices and make a decision. 

Email them or call 1-800-555-7088 if you have any questions.   

Jeff listening to headphones.

Last updated 11/14/2018
  • David Brown from Crutchfield

    Posted on 12/1/2017

    Hi Augie, Our headphone expert Jeff is on vacation this week. But I saw your comment and can answer your question. The Sennheiser HD 700 headphones are going to require more power to sound their best. That means we highly recommend getting a separate headphone amp to use with them. The Audio-Technica headphones are much more efficient. While an amp would improve their sound, you could use them with a smartphone and get good performance.

  • Augie from MERIDEN

    Posted on 12/1/2017

    I'm stuck between the sennheiser hd 700 and audiotechnica ath m70X. Side by side very comproble , both are over the ear ,one is open back one closed back, frequency response is very close, the big difference is in ohms. The hd 700 are150 ohms vs m 70x at 35 ohms, why such a large difference and what does that tell you.

  • Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/18/2017

    Cay -- There are usually ways to make this work, though it depends on your TV/audio setup. One option is to connect the transmitter to your cable box. I'll forward your question to an Advisor who can touch base with you about your setup.

  • Cay Morrison from Farmington, NM 87401

    Posted on 8/15/2017

    I want headphones to use with TV and for those listening without headphones at the same time,?

  • Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 3/6/2017

    Grado hand-builds their headphones in the same shop where they make phono cartridges for turntables, so that's a good place to start. Their headphones have a warm, natural soundstage that plays nicely with vinyl.

    They have solid offerings ranging from $79 up to $1,695.00 - take a hard look at their Reference Series RS2e headphones with the mahogany earcups.

    Other options include the Audio Technica ATH-M50x headphones or the Sennheiser HD 800 headphones - both offer the type of full-range, revealing sound that you want when you're playing records.

  • David

    Posted on 3/5/2017

    Fantastic article, but I believe you left out vinyl-listening audiophiles who enjoy analog media on their home systems--aka...me! :) I have a pair of low-end Sennheisers, but the ear padding has wore out rediculously fast. Advice for a reasonably priced option?


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