BEST CHEAP HEADPHONES
Pro: Quality sound, at any price
Con: No wired microphone
Best for: Anyone who tends to misplace his headphones
Retail price: $10
Self-respecting music lovers often overlook cheap headphones simply because of their price tag. Too bad for them, because the Monoprice 8320 in-ear monitors, with their punchy bass, midrange clarity and solid construction are excellent headphones at any price, much less for their bargain-basement sticker of $10, shipped.
Professional reviews of low-end headphones are difficult to come by, but news of exceptional values tends to spread quickly on the Web. On the popular personal audio forum Head-Fi, a thread started last year by an early discoverer of the 8320 now has more than 2,000 responses, filled with astounded audiophiles comparing the cheap buds to pairs that cost hundreds of dollars. And surprisingly, the 8320 from Monoprice often won out.
In our own ears-on tests, high frequencies were clean (without the harsh whistling-through-a-gap-tooth “s” sounds that plague many cheap headphones). Midrange frequencies sounded lifelike and unmuddled, and the bass, while not as boosted as some of today’s popular models, was full and clear.
For many, the most relevant comparison will be to Apple’s EarPods, the recently redesigned headset that ships with a new iPhone. And while we found the EarPods to be a marked improvement over the previous version of Apple’s ubiquitous white earbuds, especially for bass, they didn’t offer the overall clarity of the 8320. The EarPods also do not come with noise-blocking foam tips.
With the 8320 there are a few compromises, though. They do not include a wired microphone or remote for controlling a smartphone, and the removable foam tips are not as comfortable as those included with other models. Still, the 8320 is one of the best bargains in gadgets, and money saved can be applied to a better-fitting set of third-party replacement tips.
BEST NOISE-CANCELING HEADPHONES
Pro: Best noise-cancelers on the market
Con: You can find better sound quality elsewhere
Best for: Very loud environments
Retail price: $300
There are two main factors to consider when buying noise-canceling headphones: how well they block out the noise, and how they sound overall. Objectively, the $300 Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones offer the best noise-canceling on the market today. In lab tests, the QC15s reduced low-frequency noise by up to 26 decibels more than competing headphones. That’s a ton. If you’re a frequent flier and noise cancellation is paramount, the Bose pair is a clear winner.
Where QuietComfort falters in every review, and among the experts we interviewed, is in the more subjective area of sound quality. No one seems to think the QC15s sound bad, but all say there are other options that sound better.
If sound quality is paramount, the PSB M4U 2 headphones ($400) are frequently praised as one of the most accurate and best-sounding headphones on the market. But they are not nearly effective at blocking noise as the Bose pair.
The experts we spoke to raise an interesting point you may want to consider before investing in one of these pricier sets of cans: In all active noise-canceling headphones, turning on the noise-blocking circuitry almost always results in a drop in overall sound quality. If you’re going to be using your headphones only occasionally in very loud environments (on planes and trains), a high-quality pair of passively noise-blocking in-ear headphones, which fit into the ear canal like an earplug, may be the best choice. Sound quality will be better on the whole, background noise will still be reduced significantly, and they won’t add as much weight to your suitcase.
BEST $100 EARBUDS
Pros: Comfort; sound quality.
Con: Getting powerful sound may require you to hike up the volume.
Best for: In transit, subway or jet plane.
Retail price: $99
The fundamental reality in recommending a pair of earbuds is that no single pair will satisfy everyone in terms of comfort or sound. It makes sense, then, that the earbud market is so daunting — there are hundreds of models to choose from, all with their own sound and style, some costing as little as a hamburger and fries, others as much as a used car. At $99, Velodyne’s vPulse In-Ear Headphones offer a great balance of sound quality, fit and price.
The vPulse’s sound is bass-heavy. Headphones that emphasize bass are popular these days, and a healthy low-end thump is especially important in a pair of earbuds, which have to compete with the rumble of the subway, the roar of a jet engine or your own huffing and puffing on the treadmill. But where some headphones sacrifice overall sound quality for strong bass, the vPulse offers a balanced soundstage with clear and accurate high- and mid-frequency response, according to expert audiophile reviews.
The vPulse also scored high marks for fit and comfort. The cable extends straight down from the buds and does not need to be looped over the ear like with some models. This allows listeners to pop the earbuds in and out easily and still maintain a snug noise-blocking fit — important, considering earbud listening sessions are often brief affairs. The cable is also flat, like a piece of linguine — a unique but ultimately ingenious design that significantly reduces tangling. After just a few days commuting with earbuds that unfurl almost magically after being stuffed in a bag or pocket, you’ll grow to loathe the unknotting ritual required by other pairs. Throw in a wired remote with volume buttons and microphone, and the vPulse emerges as our favorite pick in this crowded market.