There are a lot of headphones out there. Every color and shape, endorsed by every celebrity, counterfeited by every third-world country and marketed to make innocent people like you believe that your headphones are somehow better than everyone else’s.
If you spend at least an hour listening to music with headphones each week, it’s worth upgrading your crappy earbuds to something that really will let your music shine. And if you don’t spend that much time plugged into your music, you might want to try it. It’s nice to escape for a little and surround yourself with tunes.
We’ll spare you all of the juicy audiophile details like which headphones have better midtones and skintones or which pairs have the tighest bass or the widest waist. If you want to obsess over that, do spend a few days on Head-Fi. Make sure to think about what style of headphones you prefer: open-air tend to produce better sound but don’t isolate outside noise, whereas in-ear and around-ear styles tend to block external noise at the cost of comfort. Take that generality with a grain of salt, though, because every pair is unique.
HEADPHONES YOU SHOULDN’T BUY
Before we tell you our favorites, might as well steer you away from the bad ones.
Do you know someone that owns a pair of Beats, the headphone-shaped status symbol designed (or not?) by the charlatans at Monster, promoted by Dr. Dre, and sold for hundreds of dollars in malls and nightmares? If you do, please take their subwoofer-on-a-stick headphones and increase the sound fidelity by submerging them in water.
Those Giant Bose Headphones
You know what we’re talking about. The sound isolation (and the sound itself) is great, but not worthy of the Bose-taxed price. Plus, there’s no way to wear them without looking like a 50-year-old business traveler modeling for SkyMall. (If you do happen to be that age and enjoy reading the newspaper on a flight to Atlanta, the noise-canceling QuietComfort 15 is admittedly nice.)
The Tried-And-True Value Pair: Koss PortaPro
These headphones haven’t changed since the 80’s, and for good reason: they sound amazing and look baller. At just $44, it’s one of the best deals in sound, and you can take them everywhere you go, knowing a replacement might be only 5 hours of minumum wage away. For $13 more, you can upgrade to a model with an attached iPod/iPhone remote and mic.
Brooklyn-Based Grado Labs makes the de-facto set of headphones for budding audiophiles, the kind that get better over continued use like a pair of Egyptian cotton sheets. The SR80i and SR60i are just $99 and $79, respectively, and will improve everything you ever liked about every song you’ve ever heard. Especially instrumental music, which sounds fresh and crispy like a peak-season organic Fuji apple picked on a misty morning. Just buy them, okay?
Like our other picks, these offer tremendous value for the price ($50). But unlike the Koss and Grado picks, these are truly portable because they’re tiny. Roll them up and they fit into a pocket, mini case or wrapped around your iPhone (which isn’t a good idea, but do what you wish). The buds come with tons of rubber tips so you can select a perfect fit, and once you learn how to acheive a perfect fit (which, like all in-ear headphones, requires more than practice), sound isolation is incredible. A useful note on in-ear headphones like these: Since your ears are plugged and the driver is so close to whatever anatamoical thing picks up audio vibrations, the headphones don’t need to be cranked up for optimal listening, which means your ears are safer.
The Modern Stylish Self-Obsessed MoFo: Bowers & Wilkins P5
If you want to make a fashion statement and have $300 to drop, check out the Bowers & Wilkins P5. They’re incredibly handsome, offer good sound isolation, are surprisingly comfortable and have the cans to match. But like we said earlier, you don’t need to spend $300 to get great quality sound. But if you want to, go for it.
Unlike headphones that isolate sound by blocking noise, active noise-canceling headphones use a battery—which you need to charge, annoyingly—to record what’s happening in your environment and produce counter-sound. Somehow that cancels out the waves, like two sumo wrestlers running into each other (We don’t do physics, invent your own metaphor). We love the the Bose QC15, but for aforementioned pathetic reasons (read: old men reading SkyMall), our favorites ($150-$300, because AT prices notoriously fluctuate) come from Audio Technica. We can’t help but give honorable mentions to AKG and Sennheiser, though—all three offer noise-canceling solutions so great that you might be able to block out whatever kinky stuff happens in your apartment at night.
Lastly, a PSA: If you want to hear bingo numbers after you retire, treat your ears well and lower your damn music.