It's back-to-school time, and one thing that's struck me over the past few years is how our kids' school-supply lists have changed. Sure, they still include pencils, crayons, and markers--though not as many as before--as well as requests for tissues, hand sanitizer, and other classroom sundries. But these days, our lists also include headphones. Every student is expected to bring his or her own headphones.
This isn't too surprising, as more and more schools are using iPads and laptops as part of the curriculum, and teachers want students to be able to hear lessons and work on projects without disturbing each other. Still, it's telling that headphones are in, and binder paper is largely out.
But after volunteering in my kids' classrooms over the past three years, I can tell you that when it comes to children, not all headphones are created equal. The best headphones for adults are rarely the best models for kids, for a number of reasons:
Style and fit: Earbuds and in-ear headphones are likely the most popular types of headphones, but they aren't always the best for kids. For starters, in-ear models often don't fit kids' smaller ears. And even if you can find in-ear headphones specifically designed for a child, they can be difficult to put in and take out, and they can hamper your son or daughter's ability to hear teachers or classroom volunteers.
In-ear headphones and earbuds also come with some degree of "ick" factor--they sit inside your ears, after all--and these models tend to get even nastier when used by kids who aren't as careful as adults at keeping the things clean: Combine the usual ear detritus with dirty floors and desks, and you get earbuds that no one wants to handle.
Finally, I've seen too many earbuds and in-ear headphones get crushed under little feet when they've fallen on the floor, or been wedged between heavy books in backpacks.
For these reasons, I generally recommend on- or over-ear headphones, which are easy to put on and take off, and often more durable. However, you'll find that very few standard models fit younger children well, even at the smallest setting. Kids' heads are smaller than ours, so they need headphones designed for smaller noggins.
Durability: In a perfect world, any decent set of headphones would be sturdy enough to withstand a few drops, some cable bends and strain, and the occasional yank-them-out-of-a-backpack headband bending. But we live in the real world: Raise your hand if you've ever had a set of headphones break or a cable fail, even though you though you treated the headphones well.
Children tend to be even rougher on their gear than adults, and their headphones are often lugged around in backpacks filled with books and other can-crushing items, so kids headphones need to be designed with kid-level abuse in mind
Volume level Hearing damage from loud volume levels is a risk for anyone listening to headphones, but children are especially susceptible, as they're less aware of the dangers and, in my experience, more willing to put up with too-loud audio rather than turning it down. Specifically, the CDC recommends avoiding extended exposure to volume levels about 85dB.
You can use iOS's volume-limit feature to cap the maximum audio output of an iPhone or iPad, but that feature isn't available on Macs. It also doesn't account for the varying sensitivity of individual headphones--a setting that results in the optimum volume level for one set of headphones might produce volume that's too loud on another set, and not loud enough on another. And, of course, kids are resourceful, and eventually they'll figure out how to get around this setting.
A better solution is a set of kid-focused headphones that includes circuitry to limit output volume to 85dB, no matter how high the volume is cranked up on the source. While testing headphones for this review, I used an Ear3 meter to measure actual volume levels at the ear. (The Ear3 measures loudness in dBA--A-weighted decibles--which refers to a method of measuring noise levels that approximates the loudness perceived by the human ear.)
Volume-limited headphones do have a couple drawbacks. First, the volume-limiting circuitry usually affects sound quality noticeably. Specifically, treble can sound muffled, bass is sometimes emphasized, and midrange is just a bit off. The second is that in some noisy environments, such as a car, train, or plane, volume-limited headphones may be unusable--your kids won't be able to hear the headphone audio because of background noise. The solution, however, isn't to use non-limited headphones, which will subject your kids' ears to potentially damaging sound levels when turned up loud enough to be audible in these environments. Rather, it's to make the environment quieter, or to use headphones that block external noise or include active noise-canceling circuitry.
A family affair
I, along with a 1st-grader and a 3rd-grader, tested six sets of full-size headphones designed specifically for kids. My kids helped me evaluate each model's fit, comfort, and ease of use, while I evaluated sound quality and general fit and finish. Unfortunately, I couldn't perform long-term tests for what may be the most-common headphone failure: cable and cable-connection issues. But all five models survived a few weeks of kid-level use. (If, during subsequent use, any of the models fail, I'll be sure to update this article.) All six models connect using a standard 3.5mm (1/8-inch) headphone plug; one also can connect using Bluetooth. They're listed here from least to most expensive.
Sony MDR--222KD Children's Headphones
Sony's $15 MDR--222KD, available in pink or black, is essentially a kid-sized version of traditional lightweight, portable headphones. The thin, plastic headband hosts small earpieces with small, foam earpads; at just under two ounces, the MDR--222KD is the lightest of the headphones here.
As with some of the other models, the 222KD fits a wide range of head sizes, from toddler to adult--you get a whopping four extra inches of headband length with the earpieces fully extended. The headphone cable is four feet long.
Its light weight keeps the 222KD's hard-plastic headband from being too uncomfortable on the top of the head, though my kids still wished the headband had some padding. The earpad foam is a bit scratchy, but overall quite comfortable, as the headphone doesn't grip the head too tightly, even on large adult heads.
However, the foam earpads make this a very open design--the 222KD doesn't block any external noise, and others can hear what you're listening to, even at moderate volume levels. The former means that kids will be more likely to turn the volume up, and the 222KD's volume-limiting circuitry doesn't actually limit volume to the "safe" limit of 85dBA. Though Sony doesn't explicitly state the volume limit of the headphone, instead claiming only "low volume levels," my Ear3 meter showed that volume levels regularly reached over 90dBA when connected to an iPhone playing music with the volume level at the maximum. ("Only" 5dBA of difference may not seems like much, but the decible scale is logarithmic, so 90dBA is considerably louder than 85dBA.)
As for sound quality, the 222KD sounds much like an inexpensive, portable headphone--the kind that used to ship with Sony Walkman and Discman players. (Since many readers of this review are likely parents, I think it's safe to mention such devices here.) Audio is tinny, thanks to a relative abundance of treble detail paired with recessed midrange and little real bass. Overall, the 222KD's audio was one of the worst of the bunch, befitting the model's budget-minded price tag.
Kid comments: "The foam on the earpads was very comfortable, but the top felt like something was poking me, so I didn't like that part." Said the headband feels stiff and plasticky.
Kidz Gear KidzControl
Thanks to a thin, plastic headband with a split-band design, Kidz Gear's $20 KidzControl Volume Limit Headphones is the second-lightest of the headphones I tested, at just 3.6 ounces including the volume-limiting adapter (more on that in a bit). The headband is hard and uncomfortable, though the small earpads are soft and pleasant on the ears. The KidzControl fits kids as young as two years, but its earpieces extend far enough to fit my adult head. The headphone is available in pink, orange, blue, green, purple, and white; the company also offers a $30 wireless version (which I didn't test).
Each earpiece folds into the headband slightly, though not enough to significantly reduce the size of the headphone for travel. The all-plastic design feels a bit flimsy, but I subjected the headband to a good amount of reasonable twisting and bending, and it handled that limited abuse just fine.
Oddly, instead of incorporating volume-limiting circuitry into the headphone itself, Kidz Gear provides it via a 7-inch adapter cable that you connect in between your volume source and the KidzControl's headphone cable. (The KidzControl's built-in cable also feature an inline, rotary-dial volume controller.) With the adapter in place, the headphones were indeed restricted to safe levels, with volume only occasionally reaching 85dBA with iPhone volume at the max. Without the adapter, sound levels regularly passed 90dBA, sometimes reaching as high as 100dBA.
For a headphone aimed at children, I find the use of a separate adapter to be puzzling. If your child loses the adapter--or purposely removes it to get louder volume levels--you've lost the ear safety provided by the volume-limited circuitry.
The KidzControl produces audio that's roughly on a par with the Sony model, above, just with different limitations: The KidzControl sounds more muffled, with less treble detail and more midrange emphasis, similar to that of the JBuddies, below. Bass response is meager, and midrange sounds a bit hollow and echoey. Interestingly, I didn't hear much difference in sound quality between the volume-limiting and non-limiting configurations--just a bit more muffling in the treble with the adapter in place.
Kidz Gear also offers a couple useful accessories: a $6 headphone splitter that lets two kids listen to the same source, and a $6, lightly padded carrying bag.
Kid comments: The least comfortable of the bunch. "The earpads are soft, but the headphones are hard to put on because the earpieces flip around a lot. And the top hurts my head because it's really hard -- it felt like something was digging into the top of my head." Doesn't block any sound.
Griffin Technology Crayola MyPhones
Thanks to big earpieces, available in blue or dark-pink, Griffin's $25 Crayola MyPhones is one of the larger models I tested--on the youngest of kids, the faux-leather earpads may even surround the ears, rather than sit on them. The pea-green headband is made of hard plastic with no padding, but the headphones are light enough overall (about five ounces) that neither of my kids complained about comfort, even after a couple hours watching a movie.
Each earpiece is connected to the headband by thin, metal rails--the only metal on the headphone--and tilts up and down a few degrees for a better fit. Though the overall appearance is decidedly kid focused, and the headphone fits children as young as two or three years old, the earpieces extend enough that many adults will be able to wear the headphones, as well. (Your kids will likely outgrow the MyPhones' design before outgrowing the headphones themselves.) The headphone cable is four feet long.
The outer surface of each earpiece is quite plain, but that's because each package includes roughly 30 stickers: four round ones that each cover the entire outer surface of an earpiece, a sheet of 22 or 24 smaller ones (depending on the model color) that can be applied to the earpieces and headband, and three blanks (two round for covering the earpieces, and one long, thin one for the headband). Kids can decorate the blank stickers using three included Crayola fine-tip markers. Alas, the stickers and packaging are stuck in traditional gender roles: The blue model, which shows a boy on its packaging, includes stickers with flames, lightning bolts, skateboards, surfboards, guitars, and monsters; the pink model shows a girl on the packaging and includes stickers with hearts, flowers, and butterflies. The blue model includes red, blue, and green markers; the pink model includes pink, purple, and yellow. For such a 21st-century product, the design and packaging feels decidedly mid--20th-century.
That said, I can tell you that, before even trying them on, the MyPhones were the headphones my kids were most excited about, thanks to the decorative opportunities. (One of my two girls prefers blue over pink, so each was happy.)
Griffin claims the volume-limiting circuitry restricts volume levels to approximately 85dBA. Using the Ear3, I verified that when connected to my source iPhone at maximum volume, the audio output occasionally reached the "borderline safe" level of 85dBA, but the majority of the time, audio was actually in the 75dBA to 84dBA range, making the MyPhones the quietest headphone here. Sound isolation, however, is minimal, despite the large, soft earpads, which means that in loud environments, your kids may have trouble hearing headphone audio.
The MyPhones is one of the better-sounding headphones in this group, with good (if a bit too prominent) bass, midrange that doesn't sound too hollow or echoey, and okay treble response. Audio is unquestionably worse than with a decent set of non-volume-limited headphones, but this was one of the two headphones of the bunch (along with the Nabi, below) where I didn't feel like my kids were giving up decent audio quality for the sake of ear safety. For their part, my kids, who haven't yet been cursed with a desire for stellar sound, thought the MyPhones sounded great.
(Griffin Technology also sells the $20 KaZoo MyPhones, which appear to be identical except that each sports an animal theme--frog or penguin--rather than a DIY-design theme.)
Kid comments: The second-most comfortable. "I like the ear pads. They're very cushiony and comfy. Two things I don't like is that the headband is kind of hard, so it kind of hurts my head, and they don't go all the way around my ears, so they don't block out a lot of noise."
MarBlue (formerly Marware) has taken rugged to the extreme with the $30 HeadFoams Foam Headphones for Kids. As the name implies, the entire headphone is made of a semi-rigid, BPA-free, EVA foam in blue, purple, orange, or pink--there are no visible metal or plastic bits, and no moving parts. You can literally bend the headband to form an inverted U without damaging it, and you can drop the headphone from a decent height with only some surface scuffs to show for it. I suspect that the main point of failure will be, as usual, where the four-foot cable connects to the right-hand earpiece.
One consequence of the lack of moving parts is that the HeadFoams headband is not adjustable. Instead, the company includes a color-matched foam pad that attaches to the inside of the headband to fit smaller heads. With this pad, the HeadFoams fits toddlers; without the pad, it fits kids up to around 8 or 9 years old. The underside of the headband is hard, but the headband doesn't squeeze the head too hard, and the earpads are comfortable and block a little bit of external noise. The foam design makes the HeadFoams look and feel a bit bulky, but it weighs only about five ounces.
So far, so good for kids. However, the HeadFoams' volume-limiting circuitry isn't as effective as advertised. At maximum volume from my iPhone, the HeadFoams produced audio that hovered between 85 and 90dBA--too loud, though still safer than blasting non-limited headphones.
And then there's the sound quality: Put bluntly, it's not very good--the HeadFoams is the worst-sounding of the headphones tested here. Treble is severely muffled, midrange sounds distant, and bass is boomy and overshadows the higher frequencies. My kids didn't seem to mind, but you'll buy the HeadFoams for the durability, not the sound. Indeed, our rating of the HeadFoams as "good" is based primarily on the fact that it's an impressively durable headphone for kids.
Kid comments: The third-most comfortable. "They're pretty comfortable, but when I lean forward, they fall off." (Without the foam-pad insert, they were a bit loose on our third-grader, but they were too small with the pad.)
JLab's JBuddies Kids Volume Limiting Headphones has a $40 MSRP, but it sells for just $20 at most online vendors; it's available in black, blue, pink, purple, black/pink, and gray/blue. The JBuddies' small earpieces sport hypo-allerganic, on-ear earpads and sit on an unpadded, plastic headband. As with Griffin's MyPhones, the JBuddies fits kids as young as two years old, but it also extends large enough for small adult heads. However, I the JBuddies' adjustable headband sections slide up and down too easily--it's tough to get the earpieces to stay at the preferred positions. Also, the earpads are a bit stiff, and the pressure on the ears is firm--overall, my kids found the JBuddies to be fairly uncomfortable.
On the other hand, the JBuddies' headband is hinged above each earpiece, letting you fold the headphones up for easier backpack packing. JLab also includes a microfiber carrying bag that doesn't offer much protection, but keeps the four-foot cable from cluttering your child's backpack. And like the MyPhone, the JBuddies offers some degree of personalization: The gray/blue model I tested came with four pairs of adhesive-backed "3-D" stickers to cover the outside of the earpieces. One pair displays the JLab logo; the other three sets feature cute images of monkeys dancing, skateboarding, or exercising.
JLab says the JBuddies includes volume-limiting circuitry, but that circuitry was the least effective of the volume-limiting models I tested. With an iPhone set to maximum volume, the JBuddies frequently produced volume levels of over 90dBA, and occasionally reached 100dBA--dangerous levels, especially for extended listening. And thanks in part to the stiff earpads, the JBuddies offers little isolation from external noise, which means kids will be more likely to want to crank the volume to hear clearly. (The plastic ring around the right-hand earpiece is actually a volume attenuator. It's a neat feature that works well, though there's no way to lock it to reduce the maximum volume level.)
Perhaps because the volume-limiting circuitry isn't as effective as with the other models, treble isn't quite as muffled on the JBuddies as with some other models, and midrange is fairly clear. But there's still a bit of a "listening in a big garage" effect. I preferred the warmer sound of Griffin's MyPhones to the JBuddies' echo-ey audio, but my kids thought the audio was fine. If it weren't for the excessive volume levels, I would have given the JBuddies a higher rating.
Kid comments: "The ear pads are pretty good, and I like the monkey stickers on the side -- they're pretty cool. But the top kind of hurts my head, and they squeeze my ears too much."
Lil Gadgets Untangled Pro
The only wireless-capable model I tested, the $50 Untangled Pro Children's Wireless Bluetooth Headphones is available in black, white, pink, or light blue. It uses a metal headband covered in pleasantly padded faux leather. The on-ear earpads are covered in the same comfortable material and offer a small amount of noise isolation. The company says the Untangled Pro is for kids as young as 4; unlike some of the other models here, it won't fit adults, though it should fit tweens and some young teens. The company includes a microfiber carrying bag that offers little protection, but does keep the headphone together with its accessories.
The Untangled Pro can connect using a traditional headphone cable; a 3.5-foot cable, which plugs into the left earpiece, is included. However, the unique feature here is that the headphone can also connect wirelessly via Bluetooth; it was easy to pair the Untangled Pro with my iPhone, and the headphone quickly reconnected when turned on using the power button on the left earpiece. A controller on the same earpiece feels flimsy, but it lets you skip forward or back (by sliding the controller forward or back, respectively) or toggle play/pause (by pressing the controller). The company says a single battery charge, using the included USB cable, offers 10 hours of playback, though you can use the Untangled Pro in wired mode even if the battery is dead.
My feelings are mixed when it comes to Bluetooth in a headphone for kids. On the one hand, not having a cable to tangle or trip over is fantastic for young kids, and you're also removing the part of the headphone--the cable--most likely to get damaged by rough handling. On the other hand, you have to keep the headphone charged; kids may not know how to troubleshoot when a Bluetooth-connection issue occurs; and in a classroom, kids aren't necessarily using the same iPad or computer each time, so Bluetooth may not even be a connection option. (Since the Untangled Pro also works with a cable, you could have your child use the headphone in wired mode in the classroom, and wireless mode at home.)
The bigger issue, in the context of this review, is that the Untangled Pro offers no volume-limiting features. When paired with an iPhone at full volume, the headphones consistently produced audio above 100dBA, a level at which the CDC recommends hearing protection for exposure of 15 minutes or longer.
Perhaps because of this lack of volume-limiting circuity, the Untangled Pro offers pretty good sound quality given its price and wireless features. Bass response is decent without being overbearing, and midrange frequencies are fairly balanced. Treble detail is a bit recessed, resulting in a bit of a "hollow" effect, but for kids headphones, the Untangled Pro sounds pretty good--it was one of the two best-sounding here, along with the Fuhu Nabi. As with the JBuddies, above, with good volume limiting, I would have given the Untangled Pro a higher rating.
(One other comment: Though most of the headband is nicely padded, that padding doesn't extend to the parts of the headband where the earpieces are mounted. On each side, this section is bare metal, and that metal is sharp in some places--I actually cut my finger when removing the Untangled Pro from the packaging.)
Kid comments: "The headband and earpads are super cushiony, but they don't block any sound." The third-grader really liked the soft padding, but didn't like how the small earpads felt on her ears and how much noise the earpads let in.
Fuhu Nabi Headphones
Fuhu's $100 Nabi Headphones (widely available for $50 to $60) is clearly inspired by style-focused headphones such as Beats by Dre and Soul by Ludacris. The headphone is huge, it's finished in glossy black and red, and it has lots of attractive, faux-leather padding. Even the two flat, red cables--each five feet long, one with an inline volume-attenuating slider, one without--are Beats inspired; and the Nabi ships in substantial, Beats-like packaging. The large earpieces feature cushy, over-ear earpads, and a large, rubber logo on each earpiece adds some fun. (The logos are removable; you can replace them with any of the company's Kinabis.)
The Nabi feels substantial and sturdy, although I do worry about the cable connection, located on the bottom edge of the left-hand earpiece. The cable's large plug seems as though it could put a good amount of stress on the audio jack if the headphone is handled roughly.
The large size and 9-ounce weight of the Nabi Headphones seems a bit excessive, but that's because, unlike the other models here, the Nabi is designed for both kids and adults. It fits my first-grade daughter well--and the headband can get even a little bit smaller--but with the headband fully extended, it also fits my adult head comfortably. (I've got a medium-size head; adults with largish beans will likely find the Nabi to be too small.)
The kid/adult design extends to a nifty sound-limiting feature. Using a semi-hidden switch on the top of the left-hand earpiece, you can switch between Nabi mode and Parent mode. In Parent mode, volume limiting is disabled; in Nabi mode, the headphone is supposed to limit volume levels to 80dB. I found that volume level in Nabi mode was actually around 85dBA at maximum source volume, with occasional spikes to 90dBA or so--a bit of a disappointment, but better than most of the other models overall. In parent mode, volume levels were consistently over 100dBA with the source's volume level at maximum. (Takeaway: Parents should use Nabi mode, too!)
Of course, once your child discovers the Nabi/Parent switch, it's easy for him or her to disable the volume limiter. So the Nabi sports an LED ring around each earpiece that glows white in Nabi mode or red in Parent mode. (The LED is powered by a single AAA battery, and is switched on and off using a button on the left-hand earpiece.) In other words, you can see at a glance if your child is listening at safe volume levels. This feature is great for parent-supervised listening, though in a classroom full of kids, it's unlikely your child's teacher will be watching the LED on your child's headphone to make sure it's in kids mode.
The Nabi Headphones's sound quality seems Beats-inspired, as well. Audio is big and bass-heavy, with slightly recessed treble and midrange, but the Nabi sounds less like an inexpensive "kids" headphone and more like a "real" headphone. (Audio in parent mode shows the same characteristics, but with a little better midrange quality). Overall, as long as you (and your kids) are okay with bass-heavy sound, the Nabi is a pretty good sounding headphone--one of the two best in this roundup.
Adding to the Nabi's appeal is excellent noise isolation. The large earpads completely surround kids' ears (and nearly surround my adult ears), and the memory-foam material offers a good seal against the head. As a result, the Nabi significantly reduces the amount of external noise that you hear while wearing the headphones, helping to ameliorate one of the major challenges of kids headphones: Their volume-limiting circuitry means it can be tough to hear headphone audio in a noisy environment. Indeed, the Nabi is the only headphone in this group that our kids could use in the car at safe listening levels and still hear clearly. On the other hand, isolation may be too good for classroom use, as your child may not be able to hear the teacher while wearing the Nabi.
Kid comments: The most comfortable of the bunch. "I really like them because they block out sound, I like how they go all the way around my ears, and they're really comfortable. The only thing that I don't like about them is that they're kind of heavy." Says weight makes them slip a tiny bit when leaning forward. Still: "Can I keep them?"
The bottom line
None of these kid-focused models offers outstanding sound quality, but I suspect that few people shopping for headphones for young kids would count "great sound" among their primary buying criteria. Most parents likely want a reasonable price, something that can take a decent amount of abuse without breaking, and--I hope--some degree of protection for their child's hearing. If the tradeoff is mediocre sound quality, so be it.
If you're simply looking for the headphones that will survive the most abuse, MarBlue's HeadFoams is the clear winner. In fact, it may be the most durable headphone I've ever used. However, it fits only younger kids, and its sound quality is the worst of the models I tested.
For the best all-around value, Griffin Technology's MyPhones is my pick. It's inexpensive, it fits a wide range of head sizes, your kids will like decorating it, and sound quality is adequate for classroom use. Its plastic-and-thin-metal design doesn't feel exceptionally sturdy, but it should be able to handle a school year's worth of use, and it has the lowest maximum volume of the models here, making it the safest option.
If your child will be listening in noisy environments, Fuhi's Nabi is my recommendation, thanks to excellent noise isolation. You just need to be diligent about keeping the source volume a bit below the maximum, as the Nabi's volume-limiting feature isn't quite as effective as it should be. The Nabi is also a solid family headphone: It offers enough sound isolation for kids to use it in the car or on some planes; sound quality is closer to that of "real" headphones; and the flexible fit means both kids and adults can use it. For travel, you'd have to jump up to a (much more expensive) set of quality noise-canceling headphones to best the Nabi.
Finally, Lil Gadgets' Untangled Pro wouldn't be one of my top picks for classroom use, but if you're willing to set a maximum volume level on your iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch, it's a nice wireless option for kids.