The centrepiece of any personal audio system – and the thing that has the greatest effect upon the sound quality that you’ll be receiving – is the headphones. I’ll be using the term headphones broadly here, since it really has to include earphones if we’re going to thoroughly cover your options.
There are thousands of individual models of headphones you can choose from, but it’s probably best to first narrow down to the type of headphone that you want, and then make a final judgement based on such things as sound quality, your budget, brand and styling preferences. So, what we’re doing here is looking at those broad categories. What are the differences? What are the similarities? The strengths and weaknesses of each. That should help you narrow down the best type for your particular needs. Do remember that these categories aren’t necessarily exclusive. Some headphones are noise cancelling and over-ear. Some are wireless and in-ear and so on.
Over-ear headphones are headphones with earcups large enough to fully encircle your ears. The pressure applied by the springy headband to the cups isn’t against your ears, but to your head in the area around your ears.
Over-ear headphones come in all manner of variations. Some are closed-back, some are open-back. Some are wireless and others are noise cancelling.
The very best – and most expensive – headphones tend to be over-ear models. That’s not to say on-ear headphones are no good. There are plenty of superb on-ear models. But the very best models are likely to be over-ear.
Pros of Over-Ear Headphones
- Tend to be more comfortable for long listening sessions than on-ear models because they are applying little to no pressure on the ears themselves.
- Sound is potentially more natural because, unlike on-ear models, they don’t distort the faces of your ears. Remember, your ears physically modify the sound before it enters your ear canals. Those whorls on them are there for a purpose.
- Closed-back models offer quite good isolation from surrounding noise.
- Closed-back, over-ear models allow active noise cancellation to be most effective.
Cons of Over-Ear Headphones
- Tend to make your ears uncomfortably warm on hot days since there’s no air cooling around your ears.
- Tend to be a little more expensive, all other things being equal (which, of course, they never are), than on-ear models.
- Are bulkier and heavier than on-ear models, although some models have swivelling earcups so they can be packed flat into a carry case.
Best Over-Ear Headphones – Our* Top Picks
Focal Listen – $119
Fostex T50RP Mk 3 – $199
Sennheiser HD 560S – $299
Fostex T60RP – $379
HIFIMAN Sundara – $549
Focal Elegia – $799
Audeze LCD-2C – $1169
Focal Clear MG – $2199
On-ear headphones are probably the most common type. As the name suggests, they have smaller earpieces – they aren’t really earcups – that sit on the face of each of your ears. They are held in position by the spring pressure applied by the headband.
The range of on-ear headphones is simply enormous, from the very cheapest to some simply glorious models. Very slightly built on-ear headphones were routinely supplied for many years with cheap portable cassette players and, later, portable CD players. Those models only weighed a few tens of grams and sounded … not so good. But there are many extremely high-quality models, such as those from US firm Grado. As with over-ear headphones, there are all manner of variations: open- and closed-back, wireless or wired, even active noise cancelling.
Pros of On-Ear Headphones
- Tend to be less bulky and lighter on the head than over-ear headphones.
- Cooler to use than over-ear headphones during warm weather.
- Sometimes are better value for money.
- Generally better looking.
Cons of On-Ear Headphones
- Can be less comfortable than over-ear models when worn for a long time, due to pressure on the ears.
- The pressure on the ears tends to flatten your ears from their usual shape, and that can modify the sound.
- Less effective than closed-back over-ear headphones in keeping out environmental noise.
Best On-Ear Headphones - Our Top Picks
Koss Porta Pro – $89
Grado SR80x – $179
Grado SR225x – $249
Grado SR325x – $419
Grado Hemp Limited Edition – $699
Grado RS2e – $729
Grado RS1e – $899
Open-back headphones are a surprisingly new innovation … it seems. It’s generally agreed that the Sennheiser HD 414 headphones, released in 1968, were the first (although I confess to some scepticism – surely someone else had done it in the half century before). Whatever, the point is that open-back headphones essentially allow the driver surface to move to and fro without any back cushioning. Until 1968, virtually all headphones had the driver suspended over a sealed enclosure.
Of course, many other headphones also use an open-back design. And of course the driver has to be physically protected, so the outside surface of an open-backed headphone is usually covered by some kind of rigid grille. But open-backed headphones are even more open than that implies. The driver is usually suspended above the listener’s ears, with an open space all the way around the driver. So sound can pass though from the outside to the inside without even having to penetrate the speaker diaphragm.
The original Sennheiser HD 414 headphones were actually on-ear models. These days we tend to think of open-back headphones as over-ear models, including Sennheiser’s various premium models.
Pros of Open-Back Headphones
- Tend to produce a more open, airy sound than closed-back headphones.
- They are more “speaker-like” since the sound they produce is mixed with sound from the outside.
- They are often considered to provide a wider sound stage, since they can seem to sound further away.
Cons of Open-Back Headphones
- Of course, outside sounds might interfere with your enjoyment of music.
- Not suitable for applications where isolation is vital, such as DJ work.
- Not suitable for active noise cancellation models.
- Major leakage of sound from headphones to the outside.
- Some claim that bass is reduced or limited by the design. This typically applies only to very deep bass.
Best Open-Back Headphones - Our Top Picks
Fostex T50RP Mk 3 – $199
HIFIMAN HE-400SE – $259
Dekoni Audio Blue – $299
Fostex T60RP – $379
HIFIMAN Sundara – $549
Sennheiser HD 660S – $639
Focal Clear MG – $2199
Audeze LCD-3 – from $3049
Final Audio D8000 Pro – $4999
HIFIMAN Susvara – $7499
Closed-back headphones are headphones in which the driver is placed into an earcup which is sealed. That is, the air behind the driver is captured between a solid enclosure and the driver’s diaphragm.
Closed-back headphones remain the most common headphones for a number of reasons. They’re the easiest to design – you have to pay a lot of attention to diaphragm control with open-backed headphones. Cheap over-ear headphones are usually closed-back models. But, then, so are many expensive and splendid-sounding over-ear headphones.
Pros of Closed-Back Headphones
- Good isolation from external noise.
- That works the other way too, reducing the amount of sound from your headphones escaping into the space around you.
- Good designs deliver solid, effective bass.
- The best solution for DJs.
Cons of Closed-Back Headphones
- Lack the airy, open nature of the sound delivered by open-back headphones.
Best Closed-Back Headphones - Our Top Picks
Focal Listen – $119
Shure SRH440 – $149
Fostex T40RP Mk 3 – $199
Shure SRH1540 – $665
Fostex TH610 – $699
Focal Elegia – $799
Focal Celestee – $1399
Astell&Kern AK T5p (2nd Gen) – $1699
Audeze LCD-XC – $2749
Fostex TH900 mk2 – $1999
Once upon a time, wireless headphones used some kind of proprietary radio technology and served the purpose of eliminating the cable between your couch and your high-fidelity system. These days wireless headphones are Bluetooth models, and mostly used to connect to a smart phone for music playback. Well, a smart phone or a much higher quality digital audio player.
Wireless or Bluetooth headphones come in on-ear, over-ear and in-ear models. They are typically closed, and of course there are many over-ear models with active noise cancellation for travel.
Things to look for – apart from sound quality – are a good battery life, the ability to also use them with a cable should the battery expire or you want to use the on-flight entertainment system on an airplane, and the best codec that your phone supports. All Bluetooth devices capable of delivering or receiving stereo music support the SBC code/decode system. This provides adequate performance. But optionally Bluetooth can support better codecs. iPhones and iPads work nicely with AAC, some Android phones and DAPs work with the even better aptX, aptX HD and LDAC codecs, providing higher bitrate connections between device and headphones and improved compression schemes.
Pros of Wireless Headphones
- Extreme portability – even full-sized over-ear models usually have swivelling earcups so that they can be packed into a slim case.
- Built-in amplifiers reduce drain on battery of music device.
- Almost a necessity for modern phones which have eliminated the wired headphone output.
Cons of Wireless Headphones
- Even the best codec isn’t quite a lossless as good old-fashioned wire.
- Have to make sure battery is charged.
Best Wireless Headphones - Our Top Picks
Focal Listen Wireless – $149
ag WHP01K – 149.99
ag TWS04K – $199.99
Grado GW100 – $369
HIFIMAN DEVA – $499
Hifiman Ananda Bluetooth – $1299
Noise Cancelling Headphones
One of the great wonders of modern life is the existence of noise cancelling headphones. That said, I only use them when travelling. Noise cancelling – otherwise known as active noise cancelling – must be distinguished from passive noise reducing. Over-ear, closed-back headphones reduce noise somewhat, simply by acting as a barrier. Many in-ear earphones do an even better job, since they are doubling as earplugs.
Active noise cancellation is very different. It feeds a special signal into the music which has the effect of cancelling some of the noise that would otherwise make it to your ears through the physical structure of the headphones. It does this by using microphones to capture that noise, process it digitally so that it matches what would likely reach your ears, inverts its phase and the feeds it into the signal. Done well, this cancels quite precisely the noise that makes it through.
There are levels of noise cancellation. The first consumer noise cancelling headphones were, to the surprise of many, from Sony, not from Bose. Bose followed soon after. A couple of years ago I revisited that first Sony model, the Sony MDR-NC20, here, comparing them to the 2019 Sony WH-1000XM3 noise cancelling headphones. To summarise, those old headphones – they were released in 1996 – took the edge off the noise, while the new ones pretty much cancelled out the noise entirely.
Many noise cancelling headphones, and more so earphones, apply only the mildest of noise cancellation. I asked someone from Sennheiser about that once during a briefing, and he somewhat huffily replied that noise cancellation hurts sound quality, so they use as little of it as possible. Perhaps, but it’s a trade-off. If high levels of environmental noise are drowning out the music, then on balance you’re going to get better sound quality with higher levels of noise cancellation.
Pros of Noise Cancelling Headphones
- Reduce, perhaps even eliminate, environmental noise that may mask some of the music you’re listening to.
- Almost always use Bluetooth, so the same advantages as wireless headphones, including portability.
- Especially valuable on long flights, since you do not need to play the inflight entertainment system as loudly to hear it clearly, reducing hearing tiredness.
Cons of Noise Cancelling Headphones
- Noise cancellation processing can reduce the quality of the sound. In many cases you can solve this just by switching it off. But in some models, deficiencies in drivers are corrected by the use DSP, and switching off noise cancelling may also switch off DSP, resulting in worse sound quality.
- Many noise cancelling circuits do not work well with physical movement of the headphones, producing an audible thumping sound in response to, for example, the jarring of one’s footsteps while walking.
- Some implementations don’t respond well to sharp transients, actually emphasising them in an occasionally ear-piercing way.
Best Noise Cancelling Headphones - Our Top Picks
ag WHP01K – $149.99
FiiO EH3NC – $299
Sony WF-1000XM3 – $279
Sony WH-1000XM4 – $369
Shure Aonic 50 – $449
In-ear earphones have an unjustly poor reputation, although you can understand why. The very cheapest ear gear is usually wired in-ear earphones, and they simply sound terrible. What do you expect for something you can pick up for five bucks! Also sounding terrible were the earphones packaged for many years with smart phones … and I’m not excluding the famous white ones that came with the iPhone.
But, on the other hand, musicians were increasingly turning to in-ear monitors for sound foldback during performances, so clearly in-ear earphones could be good. These days, there are plenty of simply superb earphones. Of course, some are wireless, and some are “true wireless”, which means that the two buds are also connected wirelessly. But the highest in-ear quality comes from high fidelity brands which plug into a source via cable.
One tip: the main weakness of the earphones with which Apple persisted for far too many years was that the buds are hard plastic. That made it very difficult to get a really airtight seal around the buds, and that weakens the bass markedly. That problem is solved with silicone tips, and even more so with Comfort/memory foam tips.
Pros of In-ear Earphones
- Super compact.
- Best passive noise isolation.
- Since the sound is being delivered directly into your ear canals, fine in-ear earphones can provide close to the best sound available.
Cons of In-ear Earphones
- Placing and seating the earphones properly can be slower than simply putting headphones onto your head.
- More susceptible to transmission into your ears of cable noise – when the cable brushes across your clothing, for example – than headphones.
- Since the sound is being delivered directly into your ear canals, lousy in-ear earphones will sound particularly poor. Some in-ear earphones have a tendency towards an irritatingly peaky top end.
Best In-ear Earphones - Our Top Picks
FiiO FA1 – $135
FiiO FH3 – $199
Final Audio A4000 – $249
Campfire Audio IO – $429
FiiO FD5 – $459
Final Audio B3 – $729
Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020 – $1599
Noble Tux 5 – $2099
Final Audio A8000 – $3199
Addicted To Audio Headphones FAQ
What is the “impedance” specification of headphones?
In essence, headphone impedance is, as the name suggests, the opposition provided by the headphones to the flow of current. While loudspeaker impedance is typically in the range of four to eight ohms nominally, it varies quite a lot more across the range of headphones. Nominal headphone impedance is generally somewhere between 16 ohms and 300 ohms. In-ear earphones tend to be towards the lower end of the range. Modern on-ear and over-ear headphones are mostly in the 32-ohm to 150-ohm range. Older headphones tend to have higher impedances. (The original version of the Sennheiser HD 414 headphones had a two-thousand-ohm impedance!)
Since power is the square of the voltage divided by the impedance, the power output of a headphone amplifier depends very much on the impedance of the headphones. Assuming that the amplifier can supply the requisite current. That’s far from always the case.
Impedance is slightly different from resistance, since for some electrical “loads”, the resistance depends on the frequency. (If want to get all technical, impedance is composed of reactance and resistance. Resistance wastes energy by creating heat, reactance stores then releases energy. That’s what causes that frequency dependence.) Most headphones, like virtually all loudspeakers, tend to exhibit a fair degree of reactance. Those headphones may perform differently, depending on the headphone amplifier to which they’re connected. Some headphones, though, are almost purely resistive, and so are relatively unaffected by certain amplifier characteristics.
The problem is, most of these things aren’t well specified by headphone manufacturers. In the reviews on this site, we’ll endeavour to provide all performance-related data, and what they may mean for you in the real world.
Which sounds better, high or low impedance headphones?
In general, neither is “better” than the other. As a rule, you’re generally going to get more volume out of lower-impedance headphones or earphones from a low output device, such as a phone, or an analogue dongle for a phone. If you are planning to use headphones with a home theatre receiver, or a stereo amplifier of indifferent or unknown quality, then higher impedance headphones are going to reduce the impact of such weaknesses of output design as having a high in-line resistance.
But the best rule is: don’t pay much attention to such figures. Audition and see what you like. If you’re planning to use new headphones with a portable device such as a phone or notebook computer, or a phone or computer with a DAC, or a digital audio player, take the device with you and use that for your audition.
Can I hurt my hearing listening with headphones?
Yes indeed. You should be cautious. Most reasonable quality headphones can easily be driven to much higher sound levels than the loudspeakers in most home stereo systems. In-ear earphones, for example, can usually be driven to around 120dB – sometimes a lot higher than that – even from the modest output of an iPhone headphone dongle. Safe Work Australia provides a useful guide on sound levels, but if you don’t have instruments you can’t really convert it into settings for your equipment. Hearing Australia attempts to provide practical advice, but its 80-90 rule is practically useless. Eighty percent volume with some gear – such as the Campfire Audio Solaris earphones played from even a phone, or pretty much any headphones played with any of our quality desktop headphone amplifiers – will give you permanent listening damage in short order.
The best advice is: be sensible. You’re all adults. You’ll know if you’re playing your music loud. If you are, take a good long break after every album. Always start at a low volume, then when you nudge the volume up a touch to increase the excitement, you’ll have a way to go before dangerous territory.
* I’ve reviewed lots of headphones over the years, but only a few of the current models. So I reached out to the Addicted to Audio network of retailers to see what they liked. Nothing like a bit of crowdsourcing! I was pleased to see a wide agreement about the models I’ve selected in each of these categories.