There is no one pair of headphones perfect for every occasion. Sure, you can use the tangled earbuds that came free with your phone whether you’re in bed or at the gym. But then you’re missing out on better sound, a more comfortable fit, wireless tech and more. In other words, there are lots of good reasons to upgrade your headphones.
These headphones represent the best options out there, depending on what you’re looking for. We’ve included a range of styles and prices. (Just looking for a cheap pair of earbuds that’ll sound better than what came with your phone? Try these.)
The Best Headphones For…
Concept albums might be a thing of the past, but long listening sessions driven by streaming services with seemingly unlimited options still have us all ears. Still, even the best-sounding headphones can irritate your lobes after a while. So it makes sense for marathon listeners to invest in a pair of comfy cans.
The best way to describe Bang & Olufsen’s Play H4 is that they’re Isotoners for your ears. Their big, soft lambskin cups sit comfortably on your skin, while the stainless steel headband provides a firm grip on your skull — but without squeezing too tight. While the H4s feel airy as they envelope your ear in sound, they aren’t overly bulky. And that’s despite offering 19 hours of battery life, Bluetooth wireless connectivity, and a 3.5mm audio jack for the rare occasions when you run out of juice. Perhaps their size seems manageable because the H4s have ditched gigantic ear-cup controls (popular on almost most every other pair of over-ear headphones) in favor of a few small playback buttons.
As easy on the ears as the H4s are in terms of comfort, their audio is even kinder. A nice, wide soundstage lets you take in snare drums and bass simultaneously. If you don’t like how the headphones have been tuned, you can easily adjust them with the cleverly-designed Beoplay app.
But before you throw down $300 for these buttery sounding beauts, take note: they’re for homebodies only. They don’t fold up for transport, and they didn’t come with a case to keep them safe from nicks or scratches. Sadly, they didn’t come with a headphone stand, either, because they’re so pretty you might want to put them on display when they’re not in use.
Buy now: $299, Amazon
“Whoosh!” That’s the word we typically use to describe the world zipping past as you head to work or travel abroad. Thankfully, the noise-canceling Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones can snuff out that dull drone for up to 20 hours on a single charge, one reason they’re the best cans for your commute.
The QC 35’s top-notch noise cancelation uses both internal and external microphones to measure incoming sounds and counteract them with opposing signals. The effect is practically unnoticeable, as the sound-blocking automatically turns on when you power up the Bluetooth connection. The headphone’s battery life is as good as you can get, an impressive feat figuring the amount of circuitry needed to power those mics, and they also have a 3.5mm audio jack, just in case you’re somehow able to wear them out.
But just as important as the sound is how the QC 35s feel. Despite the isolation technology, the over-ear headset feels airy, gripping the skull with a light tension that ensures they’ll neither fall off nor cause discomfort. The ear cups are roomy, improving sound quality by not blasting tunes right into your ear canal. In addition, the soft ear cushions feel comfy enough to sleep on—great in case you like to nod off during your flight.
The flexile band also makes the QC 35s fit for travel, as they’re easy to pull off and fold up in a pinch. And they come with a hard-shell carrying case, a wise choice for Bose to include, since it helps justify the $350 price tag and presumably fends off warranty returns.
Buy now: $349, Amazon
It’s tough to find a good pair of fitness headphones that everybody can agree on. That’s because everyone’s ear (and hearing) is different, and working up a sweat only makes those differences more pronounced. But with a great selection of fins and eartips, the Jaybird X3 is the best workout headphone for most people, provided you’re cool with earbuds.
Bluetooth earpieces connected by a ribbon-thick cord, the X3s can be worn several ways: with the cord wrapped up over your ears, under them, or even just dangling out of one. They’re light enough that you can barely feel the cable on the back of your neck, and the in-line remote is so thin and slight, it barely moves when your jogging shoes hit the pavement. Another note on the remote: Its buttons are spaced out nicely and they’re easy to find, even when running in cold weather. That’s something other headphone makers are forgetting about in their endless quest for slimmer and sleeker.
The Jaybirds include three pair of fins for wearers who prefer to lock their earbud into the ear’s concha (it’s a real word, we promise). In addition, six pair of tips help personalize the seal in the canal. That’s twice as many as most headphones provide, and Jaybird not only includes the standard rubber covers, but it also throws in Comply foam cushions, which isolate the X3’s audio extremely well. Finally, the X3 comes with clips to reduce the length of the cord, which is more useful than you might think.
Audio buffs will like the sound that pours out of these $130 buds. They’re plenty loud, and though the bass won’t knock you over, it’s heavier than you’d expect for such a slight package. The high end is similarly satisfactory, but most importantly, it’s clear. And if you prefer a different audio signature, Jaybird’s got a nice app for you to tweak your X3’s settings.
Buy now: $130, Amazon
The most surprising thing you’ll hear when plugging the Bose QuietControl 30s into your ears is…nothing at all. Sure, like most Bose products, the neckband earbuds’ highs don’t soar, and its lows are shallower than you’d like them to be. But when you’re wearing these and the noise canceling is cranked, practically nothing is going to interfere with your music — or your concentration. And considering the in-ear speakers’ relatively small size, that’s really something.
When thinking of Bose headphones, over-ear varieties like the QuietComfort 35s are typically what spring to people’s mind. But by rolling their industry-leading noise canceling tech into a neckband, the company is trying something new. And sure, neckbuds aren’t particularly attractive. And though they only come in black, they may as well be flashing red like a stop light, because that’s how uninviting they are to outsiders. But if you’re trying to get work done at the library, coffee shop, or office, this is a feature, not a flaw.
The $299 QuietControls are covered in a soft, comfortable rubber that lets them ease comfortably into your ear canal, rest easy on your neck, and not slide around on top of your shirt. I’ve worn them for hours on end and, frankly, forgot they were even there. And unless they’re atop your clothing or plugged into your ears, most other people won’t notice, either.
The QuietControls are Bluetooth only, which means you’ll want to charge them up before a long flight to get their maximum 10 hours of battery life. A five-button in-line remote lets you control audio volume and noise cancelation sensitivity, as well as access Siri and Google Assistant. There’s also a companion app which lets you share your audio with other Bose-wearing pals — a nice treat for rocking out with a study buddy or catching an in-flight iPad flick with a traveling companion. And that baby in the seat behind you? Unless she has a dirty diaper, it’s like she’s not even there.
Buy now: $299, Amazon
…Enjoying Your Music
There are a lot of valid arguments against buying a pair of more than-$1,000 headphones that I can’t refute. But there’s one rebuttal for them, and that is Oppo’s PM-1 planar magnetic headphones.
A pair of high-end, over-the-ear, open-back, wired headphones, the Oppo’s flagship sound machines can help audiophiles make out every note of nuance in their most beloved tracks—sounds that they never knew were there before—adding value to whatever audio source they’re listening to, from streaming tracks to vinyl.
That’s a bold boast. But from the moment you crack the packaging, it’s clear the PM-1s were meant to impress. A polished cherry case houses the headphones, giving your listening sessions almost a ceremonial feel every time you take them out. A denim travel case is also included, in case you want to take these cans on the road with you, as are both a woven 6.3mm audio cable, and a (an admittedly platry) 3.5mm stereo headphone cord.
While those touches are nice, it’s the PM-1’s sturdy, luxurious feel that makes the real first impression, coming courtesy of a substantial band and sumptuous cups that are wrapped in lambskin to fend off the moisture and sweat that accompany long listening sessions.
And with this sound, you’re going to log some hours. A wide soundstage ropes in every instrument, crisply and fully. The headphones don’t have overpowering volume (not coincidentally, Oppo sells a portable headphone amp for $299), but that also helps them from wheezing on the high end, or muddying your music up with bass. All in all, the PM-1 provides a great balance that makes you realize what other headphones should sound like.
Are the Oppo’s worth $1,099? Considering most high-end headphones are priced north of this figure, perhaps. But aspiring audiophiles recognizing that there’s no in-line remote, noise cancelation, Bluetooth or other similar features might be turned off. These are about enjoying your music, not taking phone calls. But that’s the point, isn’t it?
Buy now: $1,099, Amazon
The Swiss Army Knife of wireless headphones, Apple’s AirPods are great wireless earbuds for anybody — yes, even Android users. Thanks to Apple’s proprietary W1 chip, these true wireless earbuds (there’s no cord involved, not even attaching the two buds) connect easily and consistently with iPhones. But because they also use Bluetooth, they’re compatible with lots of other devices, like Android headsets, Windows computers, and more.
Of course, the AirPods have gotten their fair share of skepticism. But I argue that’s like complaining about the cutting power of a Swiss knife’s scissors — of course they can’t cut up a credit card, they’re tiny and they fit in your pocket. I like the AirPods because, first and foremost, they’re the best Bluetooth earbuds on the market (trust me, I’ve tried a lot of them.)
Sure, people have valid complaints about their battery life (though the case doubles as a charger), that they can be easy to lose, and that Apple charges $79 to replace a single AirPod.
But for all those complaints, there’s a lot to like about AirPods. The sound is good — not great, a bit thin on the bass, but it will get your toes tapping. Also, the open nature of the earpiece allows for better airflow, which lets you wear them a long time without discomfort. And that airflow also lets you hear what’s happening in the world around you, which helps keep you more aware of your surroundings. There’s no need for external mics piping in the sound of the car that’s swooshing past as you run, for instance.
And lastly, a lot of people don’t like AirPods because Apple’s other earbuds, the EarPods, fell out of a lot of ears. To combat that, people bought wingtips like these and went on with their lives. Now if you want to complain that Apple should include these little plastic problem solvers with their wonder buds, I’ll agree to that.
Buy now: $159, Apple