Headphones are as important an investment as a new amp or a pair of speakers. And when it comes to picking the right pair of headphones, there's more to it than scrolling through a few deals and skimming a couple of reviews.
Even if you're on a tight budget, it's best to take your time and arm yourself with some expert knowledge rather than buy the first pair that catches your eye. To aid your decision-making, we've put together an expert guide to help you choose the right pair of headphones.
Whether you're spending peanuts or a small fortune, this enlightening step-by-step guide should help you get the most for your money. Here's how we go about buying new earbuds, on-ears or cans...
First, you’ll need to set your budget – and this really should take longer than a momentary glance at your bank balance. You can begin by using the primary component in your system to guide you: music.
If you’re streaming lossy but compact files, such as MP3s, for example, there’s no point in throwing heaps of cash at a pair of headphones that will at best be underworked and at worst shine a light directly on the deficiencies in your source. Likewise, don’t expect a pair of entry-level in-ears to faithfully contour the talents of your extensive and expansive home system and collection of WAV and DSD hi-res files.
All of which leads us on to the question of type. As you’ll doubtless already know (and we're bypassing the issue of whether you want the wire that attaches your listening gear to your device for a minute) headphones come in three main types: in-ear, on-ear and over-ear.
The choice comes down largely to preference – some of the best over-ear headphones are light and tidy enough to wear on your morning commute (and they should act as a deterrent to anyone wishing to strike up a conversation with you on the train), while there's also great audio to be had if you go for a pair of the best in-ear headphones too.
Cutting to the chase, for a decent pair of wired in-ears, we'd recommend the SoundMagic E11C, or, if your budget allows, the Shure Aonic 3. If you simply want the best in-ears around and hang the cost, there's the excellent Sennheiser IE 900 or Shure KSE1200.
Reverting to type
Next, let's think about where you’ll be using your headphones. If they’re solely for home use, do they need to be all-but-invisible and inaudible to the outside world? While perhaps not ideal for the train or bus (because fellow passengers will also hear tracks and playlists you may wish to keep private) if sound leakage isn’t an issue, picking on-ears or over-ears with open backs could deliver a more expansive sound.
Or, if you want to block out the world, there are throngs of great-sounding, noise-cancelling headphones (including many wireless options) that will counteract the hum of an aeroplane, such as the Sony WH-1000XM5 and Apple AirPods Max. We'd also like to put in a good word for the great-sounding Austrian Audio Hi-X15: affordable wired over-ears that look and feel anything but cheap.
On the theme of wireless-ness, a (relatively) new collection of true wireless in-ears (those that don't have wires connecting the two buds) such as the Sony WF-C500, WF-C700N, WF-1000XM4, or Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II will offer even more wireless freedom.
Most of these involve Bluetooth, and are rising in popularity thanks to smartphone brands who've ditched the trusty 3.5mm audio input – and because, if they fit well, it's nicer to go on a run without that wire jangling around your neck or behind your head and potentially upsetting your stride. If you listen to music on your smartphone while you run, that could well dictate the headphones route (wired or wireless) you take.
It is worth noting here though, you will be spending more for wireless headphones to match the sonic performance of their wired equivalent. Also, battery life will be a consideration if you're going wireless – nobody wants to be caught short in the middle of their 10k.
- Closed-back vs open-back headphones: which is best for you?
It’s now time to consider comfort. When you’re test-driving a pair of headphones, try to think not only about how they sound, but how they feel: do your ears get really warm after half an hour, or does the inadequately padded band give you a headache? If you're going for true wireless, can you get a good seal to ensure a solid sound performance and do the units feel secure in your ears? If they feel a little bulky at first, chances are they'll become uncomfortable over the course of a few hours – and possibly even fall out when you turn your head sharply.
For just a little more, consider the Austrian Audio Hi-X50, which we described as "excellent sound in a carefully designed and well-made package". At the very top end, we'll just leave the excellent Focal Clear Mg open-back headphones with you, too...
Sound is king, of course, but aesthetics must also be considered. You should want to plug your headphones in and listen as soon as you cast your eye upon them. Ferrari red might make a pair of cans stand out in the shop, but will you feel self-conscious wearing them to the office?
Conversely, are you less likely to be enthused about your music if your cans look like they were designed by a funeral director? It's all about finding the middle ground between fashion accessory and sartorial embarrassment.
A healthy dose of nihilism is often a great way of safeguarding against future woe and inevitable disappointment, but you probably shouldn’t live entirely in the now during this particular journey.
If you’re planning to upgrade your system over time, either with different sources or a standalone headphone amplifier or DAC, the headphones you’re purchasing now should ideally have the sonic stretch to reveal those improvements.
Or, more immediately pertinent, are there replaceable parts such as pads, tips or cables, for comfort or in case of damage? It’s always worth a little forethought.
The easiest way to trial a wide range of headphones? Going to 'a shop' (it's basically a tangible version of the internet – they're back open for most of us now and they could really use our support). You’ll go in better informed and with a more streamlined shortlist by reading our reviews, of course, but always be open to alternatives.
A good dealer knows their products, and might stock something better suited to your needs that you’d not yet considered. Remember, the dealer is there to help you, but you’re the one spending money – so you should be driving the sale.
As such, you should test with the music you usually listen to. You’ll know better how it ought to sound, and be able to make a more informed judgement of what you are hearing. Take in a few CDs, records or your personal music player, and the dealer should be only too happy to let you play them.
It’s important, too, that you’re testing your potential pair with the gear you’ll be pairing it with at home or out and about. There’s no point choosing a set of headphones based upon components you won’t be using – they’re likely to sound entirely different when you get them home.
If you suspect the shop won’t stock your gear, take it in with you – it will be worth the hassle once you’ve made the correct decision.
As with most hi-fi equipment, headphones need to be run in. Sound changes over time as the components bed in (usually around 24 hours of continuous play will do the trick, but sometimes it can take longer), so make sure the pair you are testing in store has had sufficient play.
Finally, as we often stress, don’t make your pick in a dealership then go home and scour for better deals online. In all likelihood, you won’t be saving much anyway.
If a dealer has helped you with a purchase, not only do they deserve the sale but you’ll want to keep that relationship strong for the next time you walk through the door.
If you don’t have easy access or enough time to visit a dealership, the internet can of course be a great place to shop. Especially around peak shopping days such as Amazon Prime Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Many of the same rules apply: use our reviews to guide your search and be open to any alternatives you may happen upon. There are some great deals available, especially on older models.
Above all else, don’t buy anything you’ve not tried on and actually heard for yourself. Even if you’re struggling for a local dealership, find a nearby hi-fi show or ask your mates if you can try their headphones.
Reviews will help guide you away from absolute tripe, but regardless of how descriptive the article, reviews are merely an aid. The collective expert opinion of the entire team can be found in any What Hi-Fi? review, but it is an opinion nonetheless. You’ll never know exactly how a product sounds (or feels) until you’re using it yourself. Otherwise, you may as well just pick a name from a hat.
If ever you’ve seen the television show Rogue Traders, you will know that not everybody plays fair – and it’s not just plumbers stealing your bone china. There are plenty of undesirables online as well. Always make sure you’re buying from a trusted source (if you are unsure, our online reviews are linked to a number of trustworthy retailers who stock the product) or you could be left with knock-off gear and no chance of a return – all for the sake of a tenner.
Essentially, stay vigilant, just as you would when buying anything else from the web. Oh, and don't forget to check out our best headphones deals page for some superb bargains.
Unlike a lot of hi-fi equipment, there isn’t a great deal of work to be done when you finally get your headphones home. You needn’t worry about positioning, stands or cables as with speakers, but don’t forget our earlier point about running-in.
Lift your headphones straight from the box and plug in, and you run the risk of mighty disappointment. Leave them running in overnight (we do this with every pair we test) and you’ll hear the sound that was the reason you bought them in the first place.
Check our roundup of the best cheap headphone deals
See our pick of the best wireless earbuds
Need some music to try them out? Here are the best music streaming services