Full-time rapper and part-time headphone brand Dr. Dre likes to say that “people aren’t hearing all the music.” A more accurate assessment: people aren’t buying the right headphones.
Today, the audio industry is saturated with marketing. Clueless consumers snap up name-brands at $300+ price points while merrily scrolling past better, cheaper pairs. The problem? We’re conditioned to shop by brand, rather than by true audio experience.
It’s time for change. We set out to separate the sound from the unsound. Which brands deserve our attention, and which should customers avoid?
After gathering the specs, review scores, and features for nearly 3,000 headphones—from budget earbuds to full-featured DJ pairs—we scored every product out of 100, based on the following factors:
- 75% – expert reviews (CNET, Wired, TechCrunch, What HiFi, Good Gear Guide, PC Mag)
- 25% – specs and features (frequency, sensitivity, noise canceling, etc.)
The results might surprise you. In the words of Dr. Dre, “Sit back, relax, and strap on your seatbelt—you never been on a ride like this before.”
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(average score in parentheses)
18. Plantronics (57)
17. Beats by Dre (58)
16. Skullcandy (62)
With apologies to celebrities, NBA players, and extreme sports athletes around the globe, our analysis was not kind to Beats by Dre or Skullcandy. Yes, each brand has a handful of decent products (ex: Beats’ Solo HDs, Skullcandy’s Navigators), but the average, mid-range product from either company likely isn’t worth your money.
15. Koss (68)
14. Creative (68)
13. Philips (72)
If you know exactly what to look for, all three of these brands offer solid, reasonably-priced options (ex: some of Philips’ Fidelio line; Creative’s Aurvana, over-ear headphones). The problem: they also offer dozens and dozens of less solid, less reasonably-priced products. If you’re a gambler, you might get a cheap thrill when you scoop one of these off the shelf—like ordering rare fish at a back-alley restaurant or betting on the Dallas Cowboys. For the rest of us, it’s not worth the risk.
12. Bose (73)
11. Apple (74)
10. Panasonic (74)
Unlike Philips and Creative, Bose and Apple have a “less is more” headphone strategy, marketing just three or four flagship products at inflated prices. If you want a comfortable fit with top-tier noise canceling, Bose’s QuietComfort 15s actually stand up to most of the hype. Unfortunately, many of their other products have received mixed reviews, and regardless, you’ll end up paying a premium on anything that comes in a box labeled “Bose.”
Then there’s Apple. They’ve been something of a joke in the headphone industry until recently, when experts gave the new EarPods a polite nod and some decent review scores. While it doesn’t quite make up for years of blown out iPod buds, it was enough for a middle-of-the-pack finish.
9. Audio-Technica (74)
8. JVC (75)
7. Sennheiser (78)
If buying Philips or Creative is a reckless gamble, then snapping up one of these brands is a responsible risk, like investing in an index fund or predicting another Justin Bieber arrest. Though none of these brands are a sure-thing, each has a distinct strength. Audio-Technica produces some of the best studio headphones on the market, and often at sub-$150 prices. Meanwhile, JVC makes many of the best cheap earbuds available: good for couch potatoes and loose change scavengers. Finally, Sennheiser’s best products are universally praised by audiophiles and DJs alike.
6. AKG (79)
5. Sony (80)
4. Pioneer (83)
Both AKG and Pioneer make consistently stellar headphones for DJs and audio technicians. Even better, they don’t charge a superfluous $100 just because the box says “studio” on the side.
That leaves Sony, perhaps the most surprising high-performer, especially next to all these headphone industry stalwarts. With hundreds of products in almost any price range, color, and style, Sony’s biggest accomplishment is consistency of quality.
3. Klipsch (84)
2. Grado (89)
1. Shure (90)
They’re three of the pricier brands, but Klipsch, Grado and Shure headphones are the most reliable buys on this list, with outstanding performance and consistently glowing reviews from experts. If you’re cash-strapped, a cheap pair from Sony or JVC will be fine, but those looking to take a new step in audio enjoyment should start here.
This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.