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Headphones nowadays sound better than ever. The technology behind the newest drivers increases efficiency, while earcups have been engineered for acoustics, delivering your favorite music in crisp and pristine detail like never before.
The best part: while audiophile headphones used to be reserved for musicians or producers in a studio, these days, many of the best-sounding headphones are available for everyone to buy online.
What Are the Best-Sounding Headphones?
There’s a distinct difference between basic headphones and the best-sounding headphones on our list, namely the way your music comes through the earcups. The best-sounding headphones allow you to pick up more details and nuances of your song, from drum brushes painting the cymbals in a rock track, to the toe-tapping or finger snaps in a live jazz performance.
Most headphones do a decent job of letting the melody and main track come through, but the best-sounding headphones should bring out all the other parts of a song too, from background vocals to instrumentation to previously indistinct beats.
What Makes a Good Pair of Headphones?
While sound was the major factor in how we ranked the picks on our list, take a minute to consider these other aspects too when shopping for the best-sounding headphones online.
Audio: Unless you’re going for a specific capability like big bass, EQ balance is key. A powerful bassy punch rounds out the lower end, creating a more “complete” sound, but can also be too overpowering if it’s not offset by the mids and highs. Similarly, a headset should be able to handle treble too, and not sound tinny when the frequency reaches up the sound spectrum.
Instrument separation is another aspect to be listening for. Without it, everything sounds muddled together, affecting the overall quality of your music. Similarly, a soundstage mimics hearing music as it would be played on an imaginary 3D stage, separated out by sections like right, left, distant, close, etc. Even on a set of headphones with excellent drivers, the resulting acoustics inside the cups can have a big affect on how it hits your ears too.
Wired vs. Wireless: There are advantages and disadvantages to both wired and wireless headphones, but plenty of models offer the choice. Wireless is way more convenient when you’re in motion, ensuring you don’t snag a connecting cable on something, or forget you’re plugged in and pull your phone or laptop down off the desk (you can also take your tunes with you on the go and pair everything to your phone via Bluetooth). But wired headphones win when it comes to sound quality. Bluetooth has gotten way better with each new generation, but the signal is still strongest when wired.
Noise Cancellation: Tuning out the environment around you lets your music be heard loud and clear, and is especially helpful in noisy settings like planes or offices. Transparency Mode has become a common fixture on headsets now, allowing you to listen to your favorite audio while still keeping an ear on what’s going on outside, such as traffic, alarms, and announcements that your next flight is boarding. Most of the picks on our list also featured Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) technology – an industry standard.
Battery Life: This can vary all over the map, and it’s best to think ahead for where you’ll mostly be using your headphones. For places like home or work where there’s always a power source nearby, something on the lower end like 20 hours is going to be more than enough. For travel, a pair of headphones with a longer-lasting battery like 40 hours is best. And in standby mode these last even longer, sometimes up to 200 or more.
1. Apple AirPods Max
Apple’s wireless, noise-cancelling headphones have a sturdy feel, with a metal headband and super comfortable memory-foam ear cushions.
The equalization and overall sound quality was excellent, thanks to Apple’s dynamic drivers and customized acoustics with the H1 chip.
Head-tracking moves with you, immersing your ears in a realistic, all-encompassing theater-like audio. Battery life was about 20 hours, and like most Apple devices, setup takes mere seconds.
2. Sony WH-1000XM4
Audio quality is especially balanced on this comfortable set, and though the accompanying app, you get a ton of EQ options (though the headphones sound pretty great on their own). Everything is well-balanced and the bass can crank up to seriously powerful levels, which were great for movies where you want to hear every rip and rumble.
At only 254g, these won’t weigh down your head for long listening sessions, and they tend to get less sweaty around your ears than other brands too. Powering them on and off is done by a physical button, but regular controls like volume and skipping tracks works by gently tapping the right ear.
3. Bose Noise-Cancelling Headphones 700
These noise-cancelling cans comes with 11 levels to choose from, are water-resistant, and have 20 hours of battery life. You also get the option of wired listening too.
There’s an adjustable EQ through the app, but even without it, the bass resonates an ideal amount inside the ear space without being overwhelming.
The Bose headphones have a more open sound than the rest, with a wider stage, and the set performed well for phone calls – particularly in windy conditions, thanks to an adaptive mic that filters out unwanted ambient noise.
4. Audio Tehnica ATH-M50xBT
Audio-Technica’s set is used by music lovers, DJs, and studio producers alike, and has been a trusted brand for decades.
The 45mm aperture drivers are powerful enough to pick out small details in songs, and copper-clad aluminum voice cables carry loud and clear during a phone conversation. Bass was booming without getting muddy or overpowering, and there’s the option to plug them in as well in order to to hear your favorite music, games and movies in crystal clear full quality.