There are so many different types of headphones that it can be challenging to choose the right ones, especially if you’re a first-time headphone buyer. So first, I’m going to consider some things when selecting headphones. Then I’ll share my specific recommendation for the best headphones in four categories: budget, noise-canceling, wireless Bluetooth, and quality.
How to choose headphones for music has some specific questions to answer before making a decision. Below is the come question you should answer fist:
- What type of headphones are you looking for?
- How much do you want to spend?
- What do you need headphones for?
- Do you want wired headphones or wireless Bluetooth ones?
- What’s your audio source going to be?
- Do you want closed-back or open-back headphones?
- Do you want noise-canceling or noise-isolating headphones?
What type of headphones are you looking for?
Headphones can vary in sound quality, but the main differentiator is whether they’re open or closed-back. Open-back headphones allow you to hear the sounds around you, and closed-back headphones give you a nice, tight seal that blocks out external sounds.
My recommendation for the best headphones for most people is closed-back headphones. Most open-backed headphones (like Beats) are very well-built but sound terrible compared to the better closed-back models.
However, if your budget is limited and you’re shopping for budget headphones, they are a great option! They typically have good drivers and sound sweet at their price point, so they’re worth shopping around for.
Closed-back headphones are great if you’re commuting on a train or plane, working in an office, or generally want to be more aware of the world around you. They also block out more external noise and can be used in louder environments (like a construction site) without fear of hearing damage.
How much do you want to spend?
There are also huge differences in price, both within and across headphone categories. It’s not uncommon to find a pair of high-end audiophile headphones worth $1999 or even $5000+. Conversely, you can get a decent pair of closed-back headphones for under $100.
- The Audio Technica ATH-M50x costs just $169,
- The Sony MDR7506 costs about $80,
- The Focal Listen Wireless costs $470.
What do you need headphones for?
In other words, which of the four headphone categories are you looking for? (Budget, noise-canceling, wireless Bluetooth, and quality). Some people use headphones at home to listen to music or watch movies; others use them at the office to tune out background noise or on the road or train to block out noise from nosy neighbors.
Do you want wired headphones or wireless Bluetooth ones?
Wired headphones usually have better sound quality and aren’t susceptible to dropouts when there’s a lot of interference. However, they’re also less convenient and can’t be used as a wireless headset as you need to maintain physical contact with the device.
Wireless Bluetooth headphones are more convenient but usually offer lower sound quality than wired models and require a battery that needs charging every day. They can also suffer from interference if there’s a lot of ambient noise in the area or if the user isn’t in range of their Bluetooth source.
What’s your audio source going to be?
You’ll also want to consider what source you’re plugging your headphones into before investing in new gear. If it’s a smartphone, you’ll want to make sure it can handle the quality of your headphones. If it’s an old setup that doesn’t support Bluetooth or Wi-Fi, make sure your source is compatible.
Closed-back vs. Open-back
Closed-back headphones are fabulous if you want to hear what’s happening around you while you’re listening; they don’t muffle sound like open-backed headphones and won’t seem too fancy. They’re usually more expensive and have less technology inside than their “open” counterparts, but they have better sound quality. On the other hand, open-back headphones may have better technical specs but can be heavy and uncomfortable.
If you’re on a limited budget, closed-back headphones are the way to go. They’re typically good sound quality, and they tend to be cheaper than full-size (over-ear) portable headphones. On the other hand, it’s possible they don’t give enough separation from the outside world or that using them for a few hours makes you feel uncomfortable.
If you don’t need isolation from outside noise but are willing to spend a little more money for better sound quality, I’d recommend looking at the Sennheiser HD 2000 Pro or HD 598 models.
They’re great if you want to listen to music and use them at home. They have a neutral sound signature with an excellent bass response and excellent detail in the highs; the price is also right, which can be a great value.
Overall, they’re probably the best headphones under $100. They’re not as detailed and more expensive models, but they still outperform most other headphones in their price bracket. Meanwhile, Audio Technica’s ATH-M50x headphones deliver an astounding amount of detail for their price point. As a result, it’s hard to point the finger at any particular part of the frequency range and claim it’s weak.
For example, you’ll be impressed by how much detail is packed into the bass response, and the soundstage is surprisingly open for a closed-back design. If you can spend a little more, the Sennheiser HD 598 offers a better value than the HD 515 but costs just over $100.
Because it doesn’t have an in-built microphone, you’ll need to purchase a microphone adaptor for it to work with your mobile device.
But, if you’re looking for great audio quality with a microphone in a relatively compact design, the Beyerdynamic MMX 102i is my top choice. They’re comfortable to wear and provide excellent sound quality for a closed-back design.
They’re fairly sturdy and fit like a glove, so they also look great. They have a slightly warm sound signature that’s very pleasant to listen to; the bass is deep, and the mids are clear without any colorization.
The only real downside is that they’re not foldable, but that’s understandable for a pair of closed-back headphones.
Noise Cancelling vs. Noise Isolating Headphones
Noise-canceling headphones are different from noise-isolating headphones, which use a physical design (like sealed ear cups) to block external sound storms.
Noise-canceling or active noise-canceling headphones use special microphones to monitor outside noise actively and produce inverse sound waves that cancel out the ambient sounds and leave you with a more desirable listening environment. This method benefits working at any volume and does not require a physical barrier to block out external noise.
Noise isolation headphones are fabulous if you’re not concerned about monitoring your surrounding environment while wearing your headphones. Noise-canceling headphones are more expensive and bulkier, but they don’t eliminate background noise as non-noise-canceling headphones do.
Best Wireless Bluetooth Headphone
Sennheiser offers a few wireless Bluetooth headphones under its HD 5 series line. I recommend the HD 598 models, which are ideal if you want to listen to music and use them at home. These cans offer great sound quality with a well-balanced bass response that’s hard to fault. They’re also extremely comfortable and look good; they make for a great pair of closed-back wired headphones.
On the other hand, they’re also more expensive than many other headphones. Sennheiser offers a wired version of these models with even better value, but it won’t be as portable.
If you don’t mind spending more money, the Beyerdynamic MMX 102i is probably the best wireless Bluetooth headphones for under $200 you can get. Like its full-size sibling, the HD 598, it’s not going to wow you with its technical specs. But it does offer excellent sound quality at a very reasonable price and has a decent level of detail in the highs and mids while maintaining a smooth bass response.
I think it’s worth the extra money if you don’t want to use a pair of wired cans. They probably won’t impress audiophiles, but they seem like a great choice for someone on the go who values music over everything else.
The average user can do a lot worse, as these headphones are very comfortable, feature an integrated microphone, and have good sound quality for the price. Of course, you’ll have to make some concessions if you want to wear them all day long, but they’re still better than most wireless Bluetooth options.
If you’re not looking for a closed-back headphone but still want good sound quality and an integrated microphone, look at the AKG K550. They’re open-back headphones, and if you don’t mind being a little uncomfortable, you can get a lot of use out of them.
They provide some isolation from outside noise but don’t have great sound quality or come with an integrated microphone. However, if you’re looking for audio quality similar to the Sennheiser model above and still want to minimize your investment, they’re worth considering.
If you have some money to spend and need something that looks more polished, look no further than the Bose QuietComfort 25i. They’re very comfortable and look pretty good. But for a premium pair of headphones, it’s hard to justify their $400 price tag.
They’re not going to blow you away; the sound quality is similar to the Sennheiser model above and doesn’t have a microphone included. However, they are very comfortable and worth considering if you need something that looks decent but won’t completely break the bank.
Best Over-the-Ear Headphones
We’re almost done with our list of the best headphones under $100, and I’m ending it with a good old pair of open-back cans from Sony. They have great sound quality and are super comfortable, making them great for long listening sessions. They’re also IP55 certified, which is perfect for outdoor use.
The price is right, and it’s hard to complain about their performance; they might not be as detailed as some other models, but they still outperform most closed back in this price range. I think they’re one of the best IEMs you can buy at this price, and they’re worth a look.
They are comfortable and appropriate for lengthy listening sessions; they are the same as the Bose QuietComfort 25is headphones. The Sony MDR-1A and Beyerdynamic versions don’t sound as nice, but they have a superior balance between detail, bass, and highs. It’s not the best-sounding pair of headphones under $100, but they offer excellent value for their price tag; the Sennheiser HD 598 is probably a better choice for someone on a budget.
They’re also very comfortable and have microphonics that is practically nonexistent. So if you don’t want to wear them outside, they will probably fit your needs.
Note: The Sony MDR-1A is not made for audiophiles; it has a nice warm sound signature that’s great for most people but won’t impress anyone looking for detail. If you want more detail and spend less money, the Sennheiser PX 900 is probably the best headphone under $100 you can get, but it doesn’t look as nice as the MDR-1A. The other options on this list are better if audio quality is your main concern rather than comfort or looks.
Best On-Ear Headphones
JVC isn’t one of the more popular brands, but they make a great pair of closed-back on-ear headphones for $100. They’re very comfortable and have a decent sound quality; the bass is heavy — taking up about 50% of their overall sound — but the mids and highs are clear.
They might not be as comfortable as some other headphones on this list, but they have an integrated microphone and still provide isolation from outside noise. They’re probably not going to outperform any wired over-the-ear headphones in this list, but they’re still better than most wireless on-ears.
They’re also small enough to be easy to carry with you wherever you go. So it’s worth considering if you want something small and not too expensive.
The same could be said about the Superlux HD688B; they’re not as comfortable as the JVCs but offer a decent level of noise isolation and an integrated microphone, unlike the JVCs. They’re also very compact and portable, making them ideal for traveling. They might not have the best sound quality, but they outperform most affordable on-ear competitors and provide a lot of value for their low price tag.
Best Over-the-Ear Headphones
Sennheiser HD 598
We’re starting our last pair of headphones on this page with the Sennheiser HD 598. I never bought the original HD 599 since I believed it was pricey and underwhelming than its more costly counterparts. However, now that the price has been lowered, I think they’re much better than their older brothers, out of production.
The overall sound is fantastic, and they have a slightly different sound signature. They have a great bass response, but their minds don’t sound as clear as some other models from Sennheiser. I’d rather have the older models than these new ones, but they’re still nice headphones, and they can easily outclass most other wireless over-the-ears in this price range. They have also included a built-in microphone.
What’s better is that they don’t look too bad either; I think they’re one of the few pairs of on-ear headphones that look good enough to carry with you wherever you go.
They’re not perfect headphones; the sound quality is not up to par with the Sennheiser HD 598 A1 or Sony MDR-1A, but at $200, it’s hard to complain about their performance. They’re one of the best pairs of wireless over-the-ears you can get at this price, and I think they’ll satisfy most people’s needs.
They’re also very comfortable for a pair of over-the-ear headphones. Of course, they’re not as comfortable as the Beyerdynamic Aventho, but they sound a lot better, and for their price tag, I would expect them to have worse sound quality.
All the headphones mentioned above are great choices in their own right, but you should never forget that every headphone is different, and you need to do your research before buying any pair. If you’re not sure which headphones will suit your needs and budget, I highly recommend that you check out our headphone reviews.