How to choose headphones for your budget and needs

How to choose headphones
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How to choose the right headphones for you is a tricky task. There are many different factors to consider: price, quality and comfort, just to name a few.

For me, music is what gives time texture. It’s how I process my emotions. Music is what makes life worth living, it’s as close to magic as we can get. In my mind, life is too short for poor-quality audio, and I want to be able to hear everything all the time. I believe in having the right pair of headphones for the job, because different pairs work better for different genres and activities.

But not everyone is like that, and that’s totally fine. Maybe you just need a beat to run to, or prefer podcasts. You do you.

So, here is my guide to choosing the headphones that are right for you. It includes over-ear and true wireless earbuds, as well as recommendations for different uses: fitness, gaming, and more.

While there are no hard and fast rules about price – I have heard a pair of $80 headphones that I could have sworn were $300, and there are some $900 headphones that should be closer to the $500 mark – this is a general guide to what you can expect from headphones for the price.

How to choose headphones

How to choose headphones for different budgets

Under $150 – budget-friendly and kids headphones

You’ll get the gist of the song. The bass, mid-tones and high frequencies will be fine enough, if a bit muddy and tinny. But if you’re mostly listening to podcasts, or you’re not too fussed, or you’re prone to losing headphones, this is the category for you.

Once you get below $100, there isn’t much separating the options available. Belkin make fairly decent cheap true wireless headphones, as do BlueAnt. You’ll get the best value from wired cheaper headphones, but you can get decent true wireless in this price range (as long as you don’t expect them to last). They’re good for kids and people prone to losing their headphones on the train.

Kids who are always watching YouTube or ABC Kids on their iPads need decent headphones that fit them and limit volume to protect their hearing. LeapFrog makes headphones that are ideal for this purpose, and I highly recommend the LeapPods Max ($69.95).

$300 and below – wireless over-ear and earbuds

Here you would expect to have good enough bass or midtones to get the emotion from music. No special features worth having (usually if there’s noise cancelling, it’s pretty low quality, or you have to give up a different feature to get it), but enough to have a good time with music you enjoy.

A wireless over-ear option is the Sennheiser Accentum Wireless ($299.95). It has a decent soundstage, and pretty good noise cancelling. They won’t blow you away, particularly thanks to the lacklustre bass performance, but they tick enough of the boxes to be a good choice. I haven’t heard any headphones at this price point that sound better.

At $169.95, I really like the Skullcandy Rail true wireless earbuds. They make a good seal, they look cool with the clear plastic sections, and they produce a solid sound for the price point.

$500 and below – true wireless noise-cancelling headphones

This price range is really the sweet spot for most people. You’ll get good bass and high frequencies, usually good midtones, and you’ll start getting features like decent noise cancelling. Here is where you’ll start hearing a few of the little details in songs that bring the magic to life, like the sound of fingers touching frets, or the small breaths that you might have missed before. Not the tiniest details, but some of them.

In the over-ear headphones category, the Sony XM5s ($489) are just too good to go past at this price point. They’re so comfortable, they have the best-in-class noise cancelling, and the battery lasts forever. There’s a reason why 9 out of 10 technology journalists are wearing Sony XM5 (or XM4) headphones whenever you see them boarding a flight.

Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Generation wireless headphones

As for earbuds in this price range, the Apple AirPods Pro 2nd Generation are just so, so good. They are pricey and not perfect, I wish the noise cancelling was a little better, but the range of frequencies is good, and the transparency mode is the best there is, just astonishingly good. They’re comfortable, easy to wear, easy to bring with you, and have become one of my go-to travel headphones.

If you don’t have an Apple device, then the Technics EAH AZ60 is absolutely excellent with superb audio quality. They sounded so good they gave me an existential crisis when I first reviewed them. I strongly recommend them.

Technics EAH AZ60 wireless headphones
Technics EAH AZ60.

Around $1,000 – over-ear and wired in-ear headphones

At this price point, you should be getting all the frequencies coming through perfectly, and almost all the little details the human ear can process. Little cymbal flourishes, tiny breaths, and everything else that makes you feel like you’re there with the artist in the studio. It’s like pulling apart the song and getting to see every little detail that makes it special. Sometimes this is also where you just get $500-quality headphones in designer packaging, though.

Although slightly more than $1,000, the BeyerDynamics Amiron Wireless ($1,099) is excellent. What I love about these headphones isn’t just that they sound great (and they do), or that they’re very comfortable (they are), or that they last for ages (I’ve been using my pair for years), but that you can do a hearing test in the app on your phone and the Make It Yours app will customise the output to suit your hearing. It’s changed my perspective on a lot of songs, and it’s a great pick, particularly for older listeners.

Around $1,200 – wired headphones

If $1,000 headphones pull apart the song to show you what it’s made of, then $1,200 headphones put the song back together and turn the emotion up higher. Here is where headphones will get above frequencies the human ear can process, but somehow still add to the experience. This is the level where run-of-the-mill pop songs can make you cry with a good enough recording. You’ll probably need a headphone amp to get the most out of them, though.

The Sennheiser IE 600 ($1,199.95) is an absolutely life-changing pair of headphones. They take music that I would normally think was merely fine, and turn it into something that makes me cry. The two machined chambers in each ear monitor create such a personal soundstage that it feels like I’m sitting at the feet of the artist. They turn music you love into an even more magical experience, and I hope everyone gets to try a pair sometime.

Sennheiser IE600 in-ear headphones
Sennheiser IE 600.

Over $1,500 – premium wired headphones

This is the level where you get everything from $1,200-ish headphones, but they’re handmade in Europe out of only the finest materials, and then balanced by the most skilled artisans, before an expensive brand is hand-painted on. From here, the sky is the limit, but your brain probably isn’t going to be able to process enough of the difference to make it worthwhile unless you’re very rich. They should last you a long, long time, though. They’ll almost always be wired.

How to choose fitness headphones

Running

The Shokz Open Run and Open Run Pro are the best there is in terms of bone conduction headphones, and are the safest to wear for outdoor exercise because they leave your ears open. The Open Run is pure bone conduction, and thus can be a little concussive on bass-heavy songs, and the bass doesn’t sound great, but they’re waterproof enough to wear in heavy storms (I have, often), and they’ll last forever.

The Open Run Pro uses little external speakers for the bass, so they still leave your ears clear, but they sound much, much better, despite not being as waterproof.

Cycling

The Shokz OpenFit is my pick for cycling headphones. They sound excellent (much better than bone conduction), and are comfortable to wear even with a helmet and glasses.

They also have a really good microphone, so I’ve been able to have phone calls when going 20km/h, and often just wear them around the house to take calls.

Shokz OpenFit in-ear headphones
Shokz OpenFit.

Gym

The Powerbeats Pro are priced at $379.95. Having the ear hook means that they’ll stay on, whether you’re running on the treadmill or squatting a new PB. The good seal on the in-ears means that it’ll cut out the sound of whatever terrible music your gym has on the speakers, and you can just get in the zone and train.

How to choose conversation headphones

This is an unusual category, but an important one. Conversation headphones aren’t for music, but for turning up the world around you when you’re in a limbo between not quite needing hearing aids yet but still needing some assistance.

AirPods Pro are good for this, because you can use your iPhone as a microphone so you can hear people further away. But the Sennheiser Conversation Clear Plus is purpose-designed to turn up the conversations around you so you can still be a part of the party, even when there’s a lot of background noise and it’s hard to hear. It’s unfortunate that the Sennheisers are somewhat overpriced, but if you have the budget and the need, they might be worth it for you.

How to choose gaming headphones

Price is no object

When it comes to gaming, I can’t go past the SteelSeries Arctis Nova Pro Wireless ($735). The spatial audio, hot-swappable batteries, DAC, and sheer audio quality make it my preferred choice for everyday gaming. Truly, the best gaming headset I’ve ever had. Though, that price tag does make it a hard pill for a lot of people to swallow. A cheaper alternative is the also-excellent wired version.

SteelSeries Arctis Nova Pro wireless gaming headphones
SteelSeries Arctis Nova Pro Wireless.

Price is an object

I cannot believe RIG 800 is this cheap. Yes, $299 is still quite expensive, but with a different brand name slapped on it, it would be twice the price. It sounds great, the microphone is clear, and I challenge you to find a more comfortable headset that’s this versatile.

Price is very much an object

You can use any wired headphones with a microphone and a 3.5mm jack. But I also recommend looking at any headset from SteelSeries and RIG. I’ve tested a lot from both brands, and haven’t really found anything from either brand that I didn’t think was good considering its category. If you want more info, I wrote a comprehensive guide after comparing dozens of headsets last year.

How to choose headphones for electric drumkits

This is a niche category, I’ll grant you, but it’s a question that comes up a lot in all the drumming forums I’m in. I use the BeyerDynamic DT770s. They’re comfy, they’re custom-tuned for electric drums, and there’s a good chance your favourite drummer (who plays electric) uses them. They’re top-shelf and reasonably priced.

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