a pair of sennheiser headphones sitting next to a phone and a pile of newspapers on a glass table

There are literally thousands of different headphones, earphones, and earbuds out there to choose from — all in varying shapes, sizes, styles, and colors. All have the same idea at heart — to provide you with audio without having to play it out loud for everyone to hear. But some achieve this result so much better — and in better style — than others.

You could just search for the cheapest pair, but in our experience, budget earbuds are not typically a great idea since they will most certainly fail you right when you need them most. They’re often lacking many of the functional features and sleek styling that make the best headphones so great. And TBH, they aren’t always the most comfortable to wear, either.

Instead, you’re going to want to get the best headphones for you, and that means you’ll have to think about how you plan on using them after you buy them. Are you planning on listening at home? Taking them on your commute? Is noise cancellation a requirement? Do you want to avoid lousy battery life? Go completely wireless? Do things like weight and color matter to you?

We’ve checked out numerous pairs of headphones and have narrowed them down to our favorites to make your life easier when it comes to choosing the best headphones for your listening needs. Regardless of your budget or requirements, there’s a perfect pair of headphones for you out there.

Earbuds vs. headphones

One of the first things you’ll want to consider when it comes to selecting the best headphones for your unique sitch is whether you prefer earbuds or headphones. Headphones go over or around your ears while earbuds go inside them and have a much smaller profile. Choosing between the two mainly comes down to style, comfort, and sound quality.

Something to keep in mind is that headphones can squeeze your head and give you a headache if you wear them too long, and while earbuds won’t do the same, they can make your ears feel sore after extended wear. It’s all about personal preference as to which fit you like better.

Some benefits of earbuds are that they are easier to transport, and because they’re smaller, you don’t have many restrictions headphone users often face when it comes to wearing them. You can also wear wireless earbuds while also wearing a helmet or hat, which is not so easy or comfortable with a pair of headphones.

That said, on-ear and over-ear headphones do provide a better seal and have larger speakers than earbuds, causing them to be the winners in the sound quality department. There’s some give and take when choosing between wireless earbuds and wireless headphones, depending on how you’ll use them and what sort of sound quality you’re looking for.

Do noise-canceling headphones actually work?

There’s a big difference between outside noise being blocked and music simply being loud. Just like not every pair of expensive glasses protects your eyes from blue light, a pair of pricey headphones doesn’t guarantee they have noise cancellation.

There are also varying degrees of noise-canceling headphones, with active noise-canceling the best. Active noise-canceling headphones can electronically remove the sound coming from your surroundings. They work by using internal microphones that listen to what’s happening in the environment around you, then inverting the noise and sending it into the loudspeaker. The idea is, both the output and the input will cancel out, leaving you with near-silence — or the music you want to listen to. Over-ear headphones are also able to create a tight seal around your ear that adds another layer of sound blocking, so you can focus on what you want to listen to.

In the past, not many earbuds featured active noise cancellation, but now there are plenty of noise-canceling earbuds for those who don’t like the bulkiness of headphones. Earbuds can’t get the same level of seal that headphones can, though, so if you’re a noise cancellation snob, you’re better off sticking with headphones.

What to consider when buying a pair of headphones

The big thing before any purchase — including headphones — is to consider what you’re going to use them for. Are you going to be using them to listen to music quietly at home? Then it doesn’t really matter if they’re wired headphones or not, since you probably aren’t going to be moving around much. If this is the case, then choosing the best headphones for this scenario really boils down to comfort and sound quality.

However, if you’re heading to the gym or going for a run and want to bring your tunes or a favorite podcast along for the ride, then you might want to consider a wireless option (or perhaps some bone conduction headphones.) Going wireless — even if they’re not true wireless earbuds in the sense that they’re wired together — means you won’t have to worry about wires getting tangled up when you’re working on beating your personal best.

Long battery life is great if you’re planning on using your headphones for hours on end, but how many of us really need to worry about that? As long as there’s enough battery power to cover the daily commute or your average sweat sesh, most users will be fine. Many of the best wireless headphones have a fast charge option, which provides an hour or two of use with just a few minutes of charging. 

Similarly, noise-canceling features will depend on your needs. Passive noise-cancellation is fine if you’re not too worried about zoning out at the gym. If you’re keen to avoid all the background noise on the train or subway to work, however, then active noise-cancellation is a must.

Don’t forget to test a few pairs if you can to help determine fit. As an added bonus, many earbud headphones include tips in a few different sizes to help you get the best fit and sound quality, since every person’s ear is different. 

Do you notice every fine nuance in the music you listen to? Or do you just know what you like? The musically minded will hate budget offerings with weak bass, mids, and highs, but plenty of average users will be just fine with these. If you’re keen on music sounding perfect, expect to pay more.

With the above information in mind, here are some of the best headphones and best earbuds for those looking for great sound at home and on the go.

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