The headphone market is large and complicated. I’ve spent the last two years going on a ridiculous personal odyssey, trying way too many models of headphone between $0 and $300. Here’s a quick guide, based on my experiences, that will help you find the right model for you.
First: Consider Use Cases
What kind of situations are you going to use your headphones in? Are you going to listen mostly at home? Do you need something suited to portable use in coffee shops or on walks? Are you going to exercise? Do you need a mic for gaming? Do you need a wireless pair or will a cable work fine?
Try to buy something that meets your primary usage scenario first, and if it works for other uses that’s a nice bonus.
Comfort is so important, and yet so often overlooked. If a headphone isn’t comfy, you won’t want to wear it very long, and you won’t care if it sounds good. Over-ear headphones are the most comfy. On-ears tend to pinch after an hour or so, especially if you wear glasses. In-ear headphones can be decent…if you can get used to their fit in your ear canals, but I find them uncomfortable.
As a general rule of thumb, out of the big brands, Bose, Sennheiser, and Sony tend to pay the most attention to long-wearing comfort, particularly in their over-ear models. Bose is the most consistent in this regard. I’ve never been upset with their comfort. But their pricing is not afforable for everyone.
Sometimes it’s hard to know if a headphone will be comfy for your particular head until you’ve worn it for a while. Always buy from a place with a good return policy.
Third: Sound Signature
There are three types of headphone sound signature, essentially: Warm(Bass-leaning), Neutral(mid-leaning/balanced), and Bright(treble-leaning). I’m being a little reductive. Some headphones combine elements across these ranges. Some are v-shaped (bass and treble boosted, mids recessed) for example, a signature that’s very impressive short-term, but might not work for everyone.
Sound enjoyment is highly subjective, and that’s why there’s such a wide range of different-sounding headphones out there. How do you figure out which one you like? Unfortunately, there’s only one way: listening to stuff.
You probably know if you want a lot of bass or not, so that one’s easy. But you can plunge down an endless rabbit hole trying to find a headphone that sounds “best” to you. I’d start at an in-store display for something ubiquitous, like Beats products. Put on some Solo 2 or 3’s. Does the sound seem like something you’d like long-term? Then you’re probably way into bass. Try a pair of Bose headphones. Do you like it? Then you probably would enjoy a “relaxed” signature with rolled-off treble.
Once you know what type of sound you like, reviews come in handy. Some of my favorite reviewers, in no particular order:
www.innerfidelity.com — Great technically-minded insight into headphones. Tyll knows his stuff, and his wall of fame is a lovely place to start your search.
www.wirecutter.com — They produce great, regularly-updated guides for all sorts of electronic products, including headphones. They use a panel-based review system, in order to get a wide range of opinions.
Metal571 — A youtube reviewer who does an exceptional job of describing the sound signatures of headphones. Once you know the style of sound you want, his reviews will quickly point you in the right direction.
Z Reviews — ZeosPantera is a hilariously cantankerous man who has a cat named Chewbacca. He’s got an extensive list of headphone reviews, and I love that he spends so much time on comfort and extra features. His audio tastes can be polarizing, and he’s often more pure entertainment than reviewer, but I always like checking out his stuff.
Finally: Finding the Best Value
9 times out of 10, you will get a better price on headphones if you shop online. Best Buy occasionally has exclusive sales on Beats products…but brick and mortar headphone discounts are hard to come by.
You will often get better value going with the pure audio brands over the lifestyle/electronics brands. Sennheiser products are generally a better value for the money than Bose or Beats products, for example. Also, studio headphones tend to be a better value than style headphones. You’ll pay less for studio monitor models from Sony, Shure, and Audio-Technica than you will for style headphones from the same companies. If you can live with more utilitarian design, you’ll often get good sound for less money.
Use demo units in stores. Use return policies. Read/watch lots of reviews. Borrow headphones your friends have purchased to check them out. ;)
Happy Hunting! You’ll find something great for you in no time.
My Personal Favorite Headphones
For general use, I really like the new ~$119 Sennheiser HD598Cs. Its open cousin, the HD598/598SE is also good.
For something super cheap and portable, I like the ~$49 Koss Porta Pro.
Want something great for Pro Mixing/Tracking? Nothing beats the ~$80 Sony MDR-V6 for the price.
Want to try a more expensive headphone? Check out the $300 Audio-Technica MSR7NC, or its non-powered cousin the $250 MSR7. Want a high-end wireless model? Then I like the $350 Bose QC35. Nothing else in that category bests it, for me personally.