Jeff's headphone buying guide
Find the best pair of headphones, with our expert's advice
There's no shortage of headphones out there. We offer more than 350 different models, spanning all types of styles, colors, and features.
So how do you find the best headphones for you? I've written about and tried lots of headphones, so I can help you narrow down your choices.
I spend many hours a week writing about and listening to headphones. Read on for my advice on choosing the perfect pair.
The right headphones for the situation
Here’s the most important thing to think about: how and where you plan to use headphones. Different headphones work better in different situations. In the sections below, I’ll take you through the main categories and uses, and point out some features to look for.
There are some basics you should know about fit. Here are the three styles:
You'll find that earcup sizes can vary greatly. That's why we take photos of most of our on-ear and over-ear headphones on a mannequin to show scale. Look for them in the photo carousel at the top of product pages.
Open-back vs closed-back
This choice often boils down to "where do you usually listen to headphones?" At home, in a room where you won't disturb others? Or in a crowded place like an office or bus?
Wired vs wireless headphones
Most of our top-selling headphones right now are Bluetooth headphones, and I expect their popularity to keep growing. They let you listen to music without connecting a wire to your phone — where most of us keep our music and podcasts. That makes them super convenient.
Plus, Bluetooth's sound quality and reliability have greatly improved over the past 4 or 5 years. And now that that the iPhone and other popular phones no longer feature a headphone jack, even more of us are turning to wireless.
Crutchfield Advisor Enrique prefers Bluetooth headphones for the extra freedom and convenience.
(See my picks for Best Bluetooth headphones of 2021)
Even so, audio purists prefer wired headphones to deliver the best possible sound. And the highest-end headphones rely on a wired connection. When I'm not checking out a new pair of headphones at my desk, my go-to listening rig includes a pair of wired over-ears.
Smartphone controls/mic for making calls and working from home
Most headphones these days have a built-in microphone for making or taking calls. They are also good for hopping on a Zoom, Skype, or Microsoft Teams meeting. If you're working from home, using headphones is a good way to keep virtual office meetings — or FaceTime conversations — more private.
Bluetooth headphones often have on-ear controls and many wired headphones have a built-in remote/mic. They give you control over some of your phone’s key functions.
A three-button in-line remote gives you the most control over your smartphone's music and call functions.
Noise-canceling headphones take sound isolation a big step further than closed-back headphones. They use internal circuitry to neutralize the sound around you. I strongly recommend them for air travel — they can block out the plane’s engine drone so you can watch movies or listen to music at safer volumes.
Many customers associate noise-cancelling headphones with Bose, who pioneered and popularized the category. I actually had a chance to interview legendary Bose engineer Dan Gauger, who was there from the beginning. He told me the whole fascinating history of noise-canceling headphones, from Dr. Amar Bose's original concept in the late 70s, to their latest Bose QuietComfort Earbuds — which cancel noise better than any other in-ear headphone I’ve ever tried.
But Bose is no longer the only game in town. In fact, our best-selling over-ears right now are the Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless noise-cancellers. In my own hands-on review, I concluded that they are the best all-around headphones available right now.
Features to look for:
- "Adaptive" or "Adjustable" noise cancellation. Some noise-canceling headphones can be adjusted according to your environment. While some offer manual adjustments, others do it automatically based on the level of external noise.
(Read our Noise-canceling headphones guide)
Running and working out
Sports headphones are durable, sweat-proof in-ear models. I think comfort and fit are most important for running and exercising. You need your earbuds to stay put while you move around.
And long workouts are tough enough — you don’t want headphones causing more pain.
We have many avid runners here at Crutchfield. They're big fans of the Jaybird Vista earbuds' fit, sound, and stability.
Feature to look for:
- Reflective neckband/cord. Safety is paramount when you’re running in public. Make sure you are visible to passing cars.
(Read our article "Best headphones for running" )
How your headphones feel plays a big part in how much you'll enjoy them. If I’ve had a test-run with a pair of headphones, I like to tell you whether they fit relaxed, snug, or somewhere in-between. Scan the product bullets or read "my take" for fit details on the headphones you're considering.
Sometimes the more you wear headphones, the better they feel — our 60-day return period gives you time to try them out.
Our employees (like Britney from Marketing) also tested over 50 headphones specifically for comfort and fit. Check out our top 5 most comfortable headphones.
"True" wireless earbuds
When Apple dropped the headphone jack, they introduced the Apple Air Pods. These high-tech headphones include Apple’s special W1 chip to improve the wireless connection and performance.
Since then, we've seen a wave of True Wireless headphones (also called "truly wireless"). Just like other in-ear Bluetooth headphones, they'll play music wirelessly from your phone. But each earbud rests in your ear without a cord connecting the two, making them 100% wire-free.
I dig the convenience of true wireless earbuds, but value good sound. The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 are the best-sounding wire-free headphones I've heard.
Feature to look for:
- Charging case. Most of these headphones recharge wirelessly inside their included charging case — check our product details to see how many hours of power the case can bank.
(See my picks of the best true wireless headphones)
Some video games are considered works of art — or at least an innovative, interactive way to tell a story. With all the time and effort spent to make these games sound as good as possible, there should be headphones that can do them justice.
Most gaming headphones feature surround sound processing to give you an immersive gaming experience. Some also give you a competitive advantage: you can hear spatial cues or opponents trying to sneak up from behind.
The Audeze Mobius headphones take it a step further with real-time head-tracking technology for realistic 3D surround sound. "Through the Mobius headphones, the sound was as enchanting as the graphics and the gameplay," said Crutchfield IT specialist Jenny, an avid gamer. "I felt like I was in the middle of the game."
Jenny, Crutchfield IT specialist, enjoys the Audeze Mobius headphones in our gaming lounge here at HQ.
Features to look for:
- "Boom" mic. Gaming headsets usually include a microphone so you can communicate with teammates — or trash talk opponents — more clearly. In some cases, the mic is detachable.
(Read our articles "Audeze Mobius headphones review" and "Best gaming headsets")
Wireless TV headphones
We always get questions about headphones for watching TV. I think Sennheiser's line of transmitter-based headphones are the most reliable TV headphones. The transmitter connects to your TV or stereo and beams sound wirelessly to your headphones. Perfect for late-night viewing.
Watch TV at the volume you want to, without disturbing others.
Feature to look for:
- Effects modes and/or dialogue boost. What matters most to you? Clear, intelligible speech? Rollicking, immersive surround effects? Rich, balanced music sound? There are transmitter-based headphones that excel in each area.
(Read our article "Wireless headphones for TV listening")
I prefer listening to a great pair of headphones over a nice pair of speakers. It’s not the most popular stance to take here at Crutchfield. But I just love the absolutely unfiltered connection you can get to an artist, song, or performance when you have the right headphone setup. You can really sink your teeth into the clear, dynamic sound that top-flight headphones can deliver.
Crutchfield Advisor Archer says he prefers the personal connection you get with headphones — his vast collection includes a top-shelf Audeze model.
Headphone amps and DACs
High-performance headphones often require more power to perform their best. A Headphone amplifier can make a world of difference. For the best sound, you also don't want to rely on your computer or phone's digital-to-analog converter (DAC). An outboard DAC can squeeze out every musical detail – soft or powerful —from a recording.
The compact AudioQuest Dragonfly® Black v1.5 headphone amp/DAC is an excellent entry into the world of high-end personal audio.
(Read our Headphone amp buying guide and DAC buying guide)
Need more help?
Just ask our Advisors. They get to try out our gear, too. They can help you sift through all the headphone choices and make a decision.
Contact us today.