When it comes to headphone preferences, everybody’s different. Some like them portable, some like them comfortable, some like them wireless, and some like them bassier than a pair oversized speakers taped to the boot of a Honda.
We review a lot of headphones here at TechRadar, but it’s important to remember that no pair of headphones is perfect, and that your needs might turn a pair of four-star rating into a five, or a sure-fire hit into a bit of a dud.
In order to appreciate the range of opinions that exist when it comes to headphones I turned to the TechRadar team who use a diverse range of headphones everyday both in and out of the office.
The takeaway? A headphones’ form factor is probably just as important, if not more important, than how they sound. No one wants to go jogging with a pair of noise-cancelling over-ears, and woe betide anyone who settles for the convenience of in-ears while sitting at their desk.
So the next time you’re looking to buy a pair, don’t just pick the pair of headphones from our headphone buying guide that most closely matches your budget, pick your form factor first and work from there.
Jon Porter – Home Entertainment Writer
I tend to do most of my music listening on my commute to and from work so my priorities when buying a pair of headphones are to find a pair that aren’t too bulky and include an in-line remote so I don’t have to constantly dig my phone out of my pocket on the bus.
The Beyerdynamic T51i’s fit these requirements perfectly. They’re a fairly small pair of on-ear headphones that feel right at home listening on the bus or tube, and their remote covers all the basics so I can quickly adjust volume without too much fuss.
Most importantly however they sound amazing. Their bass levels don’t overwhelm (a pet peeve of mine), and they make everything from standard Spotify quality streams through to Tidal’s hi-fi files sound lovely and crisp.
Only the lack of a detachable headphone cable prevents me from being able to call them the perfect pair of portable headphones. I’ve already had the cable break on me (an inevitability with the amount I use them), forcing me to go to a dodgy shop to have them repaired at considerable expense.
I can see myself using the T51i’s for many years to come. They’re comfortable, sound rich and full, and generally feel like a pair of headphones twice their price.
John McCann – Phones, Tablets and Wearables
When it comes to headphones, my needs can be narrowed down to three simple requirements. Over the ear, noise cancelling and Bluetooth.
I don’t want to get tied up in a tangle of wires and I don’t want uncomfortable ear buds that refuse to sit properly in my ears and fall out when I go any quicker than a brisk walking pace.
I’m almost always listening to music when I’m out and about, whether it’s the morning train commute to work or a short trot into town. The feeling of my headphones hugging my crown, or draped round my neck during breaks in playback, is more than comforting. It’s part of who I am.
My colleagues will tell you my infatuation with my headphones is a serious problem, but they’re just jealous.
I’m not, however, a finely tuned musical machine. I have no need for DACs, as standard headphones do the trick for me. As long as there’s a decent bass output, I’ll be content.
Currently I’m enjoying the Plantronics BackBeat Pros, which I’ve had for just over half a year. Previous to those I had the smaller, more lightweight Sony DR-BTN200s. Slightly more understated, but they also lacked the same level of bass and noise cancellation as the Plantronics.
To me this is the only sensible setup. I’m not saying you’re wrong if you opt for something else, but I will be very disappointed. And I know that will eat away at you.
Tuan Huynh – Car Tech Editor
I rely on two sets of headphones for at home or travel use. At home, I still use the first set of “high-end” headphones I ever bought, a set of Sennheiser HD 570’s. I’ve had the HD 570’s for the last 14 years and gone through two cables and one set of ear foam.
There are newer and better sounding headphones I could replace it with, but I’m nostalgic about it. The HD 570s weren’t anything special, I picked them up at Circuit City (a former electronics retailer in the states) for $129. It seemed crazy to spend that much money on headphones for me, but I never looked back.
The over ear cups are covered in a soft velvet, which Sennheiser no longer uses. They were my first set of comfortable and good sounding headphones. Before I bought the HD 570s, I had cheap plastic headphones that were included with Walkman and Discmans. I still use them everyday at my desk.
Traveling is a different story, however. I picked up a set of Bose QuietComfort 25 noise-cancelling headphones last year when I flew frequently. I’m not a fan of Bose home theater equipment or premium car sound systems. Hell, Bose is the last audio company I wanted to give my money to.
However, Bose has phenomenal noise cancelling technology. When I get on an airplane, I just put on the QC25’s, switch on noise cancelling and hide in my personal bubble of silence. There’s no drone from the turbines or crying babies, just music or movies playing.
The QC25’s are lightweight and an over ear design with ear cups that are extremely comfortable on long flights. Sound quality doesn’t hold a candle to other $300, but I am willing to give up some quality for my personal silent space.
It also helps that I feed the QC25’s with a Creative Labs Sound Blaster E5. The portable headphone DAC and amp provides a cleaner output than the DAC in my Motorola Nexus 6 and gets louder so I can fly in peace.
Darren Murph – Global Editor-in-Chief
As someone who spends half (or more) of each month in transit, size and fitment are paramount for me. I tend to shun on-ear and over-the-ear headphones due to their sheer size; when you’re a carry-on warrior, every square centimeter of space matters.
My preferred buds are pretty much anything from Klipsch. They’ve patented the oval ear tip, and as it turns out, the vast majority of humans have ear canals shaped like an oval (and not a circle). The long-term comfort and fitment on these is second only to custom pieces costing hundreds upon hundreds of dollars.
Perhaps oddly, I don’t prefer to wear headphones. Given the choice, I’ll listen to room speakers, but I do enjoy a solid seal when hopping on a long flight. I’ve tried fancier setups – headphone amps, ludicrously expensive cabling, etc. – and I just prefer the simpler arrangements. Klipsch’s $99 earbuds are just as satisfactory as some that I’ve tried costing many times more, and work well with anything from podcasts to grunge to rap.
Oh, one other thing: my favorite earbuds for taking a phone call are the EarPods that ship with all new iPhones. They don’t seal well at all, which allows me to hear my own voice as I speak. For whatever reason, it drives me crazy to take calls using earbuds that do an excellent job of sealing out external noise. It’s a con that turns into a pro for that particular use case.
Gareth Beavis – Global Phones and Tablets Editor
I still remember the excitement of getting my first pair of Sennheiser CX-300 headphones over a decade ago. They were the first ‘proper’ headphones I owned that didn’t come bundled with something, and they were magical, allowing me to watch movies on my Archos PMP on my commute.
Nowadays, things are a little different: I have four pairs of headphones I use almost daily for different reasons. The first is the Plantronics Backbeat Fit Bluetooth headphones that, as I’ve said before, are the best Bluetooth running headphones I’ve ever used. Superb fit, long battery life and great sound quality… and they don’t fall out. I’m literally delaying a run right now as I refuse to until they’re charged up, that’s how important to me they are.
At my desk it’s a pair of over-the-ear Marshall monitor headphones, which provide just sheer audio bliss. The power these things can conjure is immense, and I think their quality is proven by the fact they actually hurt my ears after a while… but I’ll still use them.
If I’m flying then it’s always, without question, PSB M4U2 headphones. They’re a little old now but the noise cancelling and sound quality combo is something I’ve not seen beaten unless you’re willing to spend oodles. They’re rather large and need a few batteries, but even though I’ve lost a panel to one side I still take them on every trip.
And finally, for day to day walking around it’s got to be earbuds. There’s something about a person that will wear massive on-ear headphones all the time, wearing them around their neck even in situations where it’s inappropriate or inconvenient, that I just don’t get. Surely a pair of wired, discreet earbuds are the best bet here? Not some clunky Bluetooth choices that will need charging all the time?
To that end, and also answering where I prefer to listen to my music, it’s got to be the HTC 10 and the bundled Hi-Res audio headphones that come with the phone. Firstly, this phone has to be heard to be believed – this thing’s internal DAC can drive headphones.
Combined with the impossibly-brilliant-given-they’re-bundled earbuds, there’s nothing I like more to listen to all my music and movies on. The rest of the phone is good, but in terms of audio it’s simply sublime.
Marc Chacksfield – Global Managing Editor
I currently use three lots of headphones: one for my commute, another for work and then a pair for getting sweaty in at the gym.
The ones I use the most are the Plantronics BackBeat Sense. I reviewed them a while back and have had them on long-term loan ever since. I’ve gone through a load of Bluetooth headphones but these are the ones I keep coming back to. They are perfect for my hour-long commute.
They are super light, so I can wear them without fear of them hurting my ears. They are also Bluetooth and latch on to my various devices with ease – I’ve never had any issue with connectivity. They sound great too. They don’t envelop the ear but the sound that comes out of them is impressive.
When I get to work, I have a pair of KEF M400 on-ear cans. KEF isn’t really known for its headphones, but the M400’s are impressive. They are well built – the metal frame makes them nice and sturdy – and are Apple friendly. They also offer up a nice, rich (if a little bassy) sound.
They aren’t Bluetooth, but connecting anything Bluetooth to my MacBook is always a pain, so I am more than happy with them being wired.
My final everyday pair are some AKG Y50s. Again they are over ear and wired but they are great-looking – my pair is bright red – and really durable, which make them fantastic for running, or in my case trying to run.
I have broken many pairs of Bluetooth running headphones and in-ear ones, and that’s why I keep coming back to the Y50s. They’ve been thrown in my gym bag more times than I can count and are still unscathed. Plus, they offer decent sound, despite their budget price.