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Part of being a respectable adult is knowing when it’s time for a little upgrade. You’ve swapped takeout for meal prep and you’re not cooking things in the microwave anymore, so why are you still listening to music on the cheap cans you got for free on your last plane ride?
Consider these picks the cast iron skillets of headphones, all made from premium, durable materials while delivering consistent, above-grade performance. Whether you’re training for a marathon, on your daily commute, or zoning out with a good jam, these headphones churn out bright, booming sound that’s as expressive as your favorite track. Music has never tasted, nay sounded so sweet.
BEST OVERALL: Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Wireless Headphones
With up to 30 hours of playtime and a carbon fiber shell inspired by race cars, there’s a lot to like about these wireless headphones from Bowers & Wilkins. But what you’re really buying them for is the way music sounds that much more rich and detailed and well, like real music, rather than a monster mash of bass and beats.
Makes sense that these cups deliver on sound, since they’re equipped with 43.6 mm drivers and used by some of the folks who work behind the boards at Abbey Road Studios. Purchase: $399.98 on Amazon.com.
LUXURY PICK: Focal Stellia Closed-Back Headphones
These cognac leather-wrapped headphones deliver flawless sound in a sleek and sophisticated package that’s as great for gifting or at-home display as they are for listening to music. Audiophiles will appreciate the full range of highs and lows, and the faithful sound reproduction. Focal’s technical prowess is on full display thanks to its signature M-shaped inverted dome driver, which provides a fuller, more engaging soundspace; the bass really thumps and even the tiny nuances of a track are brought to life with impeccable clarity.
The premium components are all packaged inside a stainless steel, leather and aluminum housing designed with both good looks — and good acoustics — in mind. The accompanying leather storage case is pretty darn handsome too. Purchase: $2972.00 on Amazon.com.
BEST FOR AUDIOPHILES: Sennheiser HD 800S
These high-resolution headphones are precision-built for durability and performance, generating a higher range of frequencies and fuller soundstage than its competitors thanks to a 56mm sound transducer – the largest ever used in dynamic headphones.
Less is more with these cups, with the audio coming through cleaner and in a more natural state; you’re hearing a track the way it was recorded, rather than hearing it put through a processor of artificial enhancements.
As ideal in the studio as they are for casual listening, these wired headphones also boast some pretty impressive chops when it comes to craftsmanship: Sennheiser uses the same materials developed in the aerospace industry for peak resilience with minimal weight. Purchase: $1699.95 on Amazon.com.
BEST NOISE-CANCELLING: Sony WH-1000XM3 Wireless Headphones
These Sony headphones come with a dedicated noise-cancelling processor for a quieter, more immersive listening experience. The cups seal tightly to your ears without feeling cramped, and block out everything from traffic to annoying coworker chatter.
Sony’s “Quick Attention Mode” is a game-changer, letting in ambient sound (I.e. to hear an airplane announcement or a conversation around you) anytime you place your hands over the right ear cup. You no longer have to take your headphones off for a quick chat or to check your surroundings.
What we like: these headphones let you access Sony’s new 360 Reality Audio technology, which directs music around you, rather than left and right. Music feels like it’s floating through the air rather than pounding in your ears, creating a more rounded and realistic listening experience. Purchase: $348.00 on Amazon.com.
BEST FOR TRAVEL: Master & Dynamic MH40 Wireless Over-Ear Headphones
David Beckham and Jonah Hill travel with these Master & Dynamic headphones, which win points for portability, comfort and sound. The lightweight construction and memory foam padding make them exceptionally comfortable to wear, even on long flights (no sweaty ears or headaches here). With up to 18 hours of battery life, they’ll last you from takeoff to touch down before needing to be recharged.
Sound-wise, the MH40 deliver warm, balanced sound with decent clarity whether you’re plugging in to watch a movie or listening to a podcast. The headphones fold flat to slip easily inside your carry-on bag or backpack. Purchase: $249 on MasterDynamic.com.
BEST EVERYDAY EARBUDS: Apple AirPods Pro
Apple seems to have addressed the complaints over their first and second-generation AirPods, namely the loose fit and poor range of sound. Their new AirPods Pro, released last fall, get you a more consistent listening experience, with the addition of active noise cancellation, along with new silicone tips that grip, rather than dangle from your ears. Sweat and water-resistance make these a solid option for the gym, and we like the wireless charging capabilities of the AirPods Pro case, which gets a quick boost from any Qi-compatible charging pad. Purchase $249.00 on Amazon.com.
BEST FOR WORKOUTS: Jabra Elite 75t True Wireless Earbuds
If you’re going for a run or heading to the gym, we like these Jabra Elite earbuds, which are mapped to fit the shape and contours of your ears. The result is a slightly smaller pair of buds, but one that provides a more ergonomic and secure fit. In other words, they’ll stay put – even if you don’t.
The buds are sweatproof, dustproof and will stay powered on even if you’re caught in the rain. Get up to 7.5 hours of playback time on a single charge. Jabra’s noise and wind-reducing technology keeps your audio crisp and clean even when you’re on the move. Purchase: $179.99 on Jabra.com.
NEW: Jabra just introduced its Elite Active 75t Wireless Earbuds, which come with a smaller charging case, enhanced audio features and — most importantly — the addition of waterproofing. It was one of our favorite releases at CES 2020 and a hit with a ton of other attendees too. Purchase: $199.99 on Jabra.com.
BEST VALUE: 1MORE Stylish True Wireless Earbuds
These 1MORE wireless earbuds deliver a lot of bass for its buck, with surprisingly powerful sound from a guitar pick-sized package. The cozy, oblique-angled ear tips fit super snug in your ear canal, eliminating the “airiness” that comes from outside noise seeping in. What you get: louder, fuller, more balanced sound.
The buds pair easily with your device and get up to 6.5 hours of playtime on a single charge. In a rush? A quick 15-minute charge gets you up to three hours of use.
A small, San Diego-based company doing big things in the audio space, 1MORE recently teamed up with Aerosmith to provide headphones for their “Deuces Are Wild” residency in Vegas. Purchase: $99.99 on Amazon.com.
Wired vs. Wireless: The Debate Rages On
Wireless headphones may let you take your music on the go, but when it comes to sound quality, convenience doesn’t always take the cake.
“I don’t always trust wireless headphones,” says Alison Wonderland, the Sydney-born producer who’s played Coachella and EDC, and remixed tracks by everyone from Justin Bieber to Dua Lipa. “Wireless headphones are great for commuting or the gym, but you also have to deal with things like the battery dying on you or the Bluetooth glitching out. To make sure my music keeps going as hard as I do,” she says, “it’s wired all the way.”
While Bluetooth technology has come a long way, a wired connection will still provide more reliable connectivity and better overall sound. Most wireless headsets require you to be in close range of your device and not all Bluetooth-enabled devices will support your current setup, especially if your headphones are running a newer version of Bluetooth. Bluetooth codecs also deliver decent sound, but many still have difficulties reproducing higher frequencies. Casual listeners won’t hear a difference, but studio musicians and producers all choose to plug in to get a fuller, more dynamic range of sound.