Deciding how much to spend on anything can be a difficult task, but it’s especially tricky with jargon-laden tech products. Take headphones, for example. When you’re thinking about buying a new pair, do you know the difference between active, passive, and adaptive noise cancellation? Do you know whether you want an on-ear, over-ear, or in-ear type?
Considering that nowadays you can find almost every type and style of headphone in every price bracket from $50 to $500, knowing how much you “should” pay versus how much you “could” pay is difficult even if you’re familiar with the whole glossary of terms. Here’s a little review of the relevant info and a few recommendations.
Knowing the basic terminology of modern headphones is the best way to estimate what you need (or want) in a pair of headphones, which will guide you towards deciding how much to spend. Usually if you have an idea of what style you’re looking for, what features you want or need, and how you’ll be using your new headphones, you can start to estimate how much you want to spend. For example, Sony’s super-popular WH-1000XM3 headphones are Bluetooth (wireless) over-ears with Adaptive Noise Canceling. If you’re not sure what all that means, read on.
- Style: Deciding on one of the three common form factors—in-ear, on-ear, or over-ear—should be your first step. Generally, in-ear headphones are the most portable and convenient, over-ear headphones are the most comfortable, while on-ear headphones are somewhere in between. Check out our guide to the pros and cons of each form factor.
- Bluetooth/wireless: Do you want wireless headphones? A pair of Bluetooth headphones will let you go completely without wires, while a set of “true wireless” earbuds are even more minimalist. If you’re looking for an experience that won’t tether you to your phone, tablet, or laptop, Bluetooth headphones are what you need—and fortunately, they’re ubiquitous enough these days that you can find them in every style and price range.
(While you’re at it, check out our picks for the Best Wireless Headphones of 2020.)
Noise-canceling: Noise-canceling headphones, originally designed for pilots, aren’t just for frequent flyers anymore. These headphones reduce the volume of ambient noise around you, and over the last several years they’ve become a mainstay for travelers, public transit commuters, gym-goers, and even people in extra-chatty offices. If you already know you’re looking for noise canceling headphones, check out the best ones we’ve tested.
Open-backed: Last but not least, this niche kind of over-ear headphone is a style that’s especially preferred by people mixing and matstering audio. Unlike traditional “closed-back” headphones, open-backed headphones have, literally, open backs, allowing some of the sound to escape into the room around you. While these headphones are primarily meant for audio professionals and audiophiles, it’s worth knowing about them even if it’s so you can decide if they’re something you want or not.
Narrowing down the options
There are, no exaggeration, so many headphones on the market at any given time—easily tens of thousands of models. Even if you know you don’t want to spend more than $100, the amount of sub-$100 options in different styles and configurations is downright staggering.
The amount of headphones on the market is downright staggering.
The easiest way to figure out how much you should spend on headphones is to first figure out which features you want (it also helps, generally, to have a budget, but that’s not something we can suss out here).
The simplest way to narrow things down is to decide on a form factor, and the easiest way to decide on a form factor is to think about how you’re going to be using your new headphones.
For example, if you want to travel light, or want something you can comfortably go jogging or work out in, you’re probably going to want in-ear headphones. And if you especially want to avoid wires in addition to that, you’ll want to get a pair of Bluetooth/wireless in-ears. If you’re mostly going to be stationary and want something that will be comfortable for the span of, say, an 8-hour workday, you might just want a traditional pair of wired over-ear headphones.
Once you’ve figured out the style or form factor, any features beyond “basic wired”—such as sweat-proofing in the case of workout ‘buds, or Active Noise Canceling, or Bluetooth—is going to add to the price a little bit. Likewise, well-established brands like Sennheiser, Audio-Technica, Sony, Beyerdynamic, and so on are going to generally cost more than something from a brand you’ve never heard of.
At this point, all you can really do is set a budget for yourself and start checking out reviews, roundups, and buying guides. One general rule of thumb is that if you want something that checks off all the requisite boxes—it sounds great, is comfortable, and reliable for more than a couple of months—you probably want to spend more than $50.
So how much should I spend?
If you want a pair of headphones that will be comfortable, sound good, and last for years, you’re probably going to want to spend more than $50—though there are definitely good headphones for under $50, too.
But you also don’t need to spend tons of money. Unless you’re a serious audiophile, you probably don’t need to spend more than $500. Naturally, we have recommendations:
Get the Audio-Technica ATH-M50X from Amazon for $149 — These are your basic, great-sounding wired over-ears. The ATH-M50X have been a mainstay as high-quality, no nonsense cans for years. You aren’t getting Bluetooth or ANC here, but if you just need a great set of headphones that live at your desk, you can’t go wrong with these.
Get the Apple AirPods from Amazon for $128.99 (Save $30.01) — If you’re looking for something super convenient, Apple’s truly wireless AirPods are some of our favorites. Their Bluetooth is hyper-fast and they sound good enough for how advantageous their form factor and functionality is.
Get the Sony WH-1000XM3 from Amazon for $348 — If you want the total package—great sound, excellent noise-canceling, Bluetooth, and all day comfort—these plush cans from Sony are our top-rated headphone right now. The only real drawback here is the price, but we think they’re definitely worth it.
Get the Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless from Amazon for $199.99 (Save $149.96) — If you want a great-sounding pair of over-ears that won’t bog you down with wires like the ATH-M50X, but don’t want to spring for the ANC and fancy features of Sony’s WH-1000XM3, the PXC 550 Wireless from Sennheiser is just about the perfect midpoint—especially if you can grab it on sale.
Get the 1MORE Triple Driver In-Ear Headphones from Amazon for $69.94 — If you want high-quality in-ears, but don’t want to pay for wireless, these wired in-ears from 1MORE have been some of our favorites for a few years now. For what you’re paying, they sound way better than they have any right to.
Get the Anker SoundCore Spirit Pro from Amazon for $38.99 — If you want the maximum convenience of wireless, work-out-ready headphones but don’t want to spend much, the Anker SoundCore Spirit Pro are just the one. Naturally, most of what you’re paying for is the waterproofing and Bluetooth abilities: these sound okay, but they won’t drop any jaws.