Few gifts are safer than a pair of headphones. Unless you’re shopping for DJs or recording artists, chances are your recipient is still limping along with two-year-old Apple earbuds. Just about any pair will provide some improvement.
And then there’s you. Once you’ve given up on your new fitness tracker, why not trade it in for a decent pair of headphones? You may not lose any weight, but your ears will thank you.
With this in mind, we set out to pick a handful of headphones with a good mix of price and quality. We compiled expert reviews from across the industry, gathered specifications for each pair, and tracked customer reviews. We ended up with four final pairs, each best for a particular kind of shopper. Yes, you can break headphones into a dozen more categories, but in our experience, most consumers just want one of these four types.
The Dirt Cheap Pick
Koss KSC75 ($15)
Officially, we advise against picking something dirt cheap (aka under $30), but if you must—and based on our user behavior, many people must—the Koss KSC75 are a pretty reasonable pair. With decent lows and crisp highs, the KSC75 headphones sound like they should cost $100, not $15.
Before you buy, keep in mind that these are clip-on style headphones, so while they’re good for running or biking, they’re not as sleek looking or as comfortable as a pair of (worse-sounding) Beats. The KSC75 also use an open-air operating principle, which is a fancy way of saying that music will sound more natural (like you’re at a concert) but that a bit of sound will leak—making them less ideal for a study session at the library.
The Sporty Pick
Sony XBA-S65 ($90)
Already a solid pair of headphones, the Sony XBA-S65’s design helped cement its spot. Light but secure, simple-looking but sweatproof, these in-ear headphones the perfect choice for a runner, cyclist or gym rat.
Sound-wise, the XBA-S65 are solid across the board, with good detail and a clear, pleasant mid-range. They do show some restraint with the bass, but we like how this keeps the listening experience balanced. If you need a pounding, aggressive low-end to drive your workout, you may want to look elsewhere. For everyone else, grab this pair and head to the gym.
The ‘Affordable Luxury’ Pick
Audio-Technica ATH-M50x ($169)
The most popular model at our office, the Audio-Technica ATH-M50x sound like $300 but clock in at nearly the half the price. The headphones have a balanced, accurate sound overall, with a classy kick in the bass that’s sharp but not overpowering.
The pair is also notable for its design, with detachable cords, cans that can swivel and some of the comfier earcups on the market.
If there’s one thing to criticize, it’s the bulk. Even for an over-ear pair, all the design frills make for a hefty product, particularly for anyone who’s spent time with a light pair, like the Bose Quietcomfort 15s.
The Premium Pick
Sennheiser HD 650 ($396)
It’s not the newest pair on the market, but in this case, it doesn’t matter: the Sennheiser HD 650s are still among the finest headphones you can buy, even eight years since their release. They pull off the rare feat of combining accurate, detailed audio with a warm overall ambience, making them a gratifying listen for both audiophiles and casual listeners alike.
Like our dirt cheap pick, the Sennheiser HD 650s have an open-air operating principle, so some sound will leak to classmates or coworkers. The only other problem, of course, is the price. If you’re simply squeezing in half a podcast in the evenings, you won’t notice what all that extra money is getting you. If, however, you want a transcendent audio experience, the Sennheiser HD 650s are an excellent choice.
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