Choosing the right headphones or earphones for your iPhone, iPod and iPad requires some serious thought and fair bit of research to ensure you make the right decision. Unlike other Apple accessories they need to tick a number of boxes - sound, comfort, durability, purpose and not least looks.
To help you find the perfect set of headphones, here's our yearly buying guide as we edge closer to Christmas: what to look (and listen) for, descriptions of the different types, and specific recommendations, whether for yourself or for the lucky recipient of your festive generosity.
What to look for when shopping
Unlike with speakers, headphones don't differ much on features—you plug them in, put the earpieces on (or in) your ears, and listen. (One exception, covered below, relates to remote/headset functionality.) We explain the different types of headphones later in this feature, but here are a few things to keep in mind when shopping.
Specs and sound quality: You should generally ignore manufacturers' specifications—especially frequency-response numbers. No standard testing methodology exists for headphone frequency response, and many vendors exaggerate their specs for marketing reasons. Plus, even if those specs were accurate, they wouldn't tell you much about how a particular set of headphones actually sounds.
Instead of reading specs, use your ears. (If you can't audition a product in person, read reviews from a source you trust.) As with speakers, a quality set of headphones reproduces audio with good balance between treble (upper), midrange, and bass (lower) frequencies, producing full, rich sound while preserving details.
However, because of their especially small drivers (speakers), headphones present a unique challenge when it comes to bass response: Unlike huge speaker woofers that you can not only hear, but feel, the drivers in most headphones can't reproduce the visceral impact of low bass—you may be able to hear the lowest frequencies, but you probably won't be able to feel them.
We point out this bass issue because some vendors attempt to address it by emphasising certain bass and upper-bass frequencies to give their headphones more "kick." This helps the headphones stand out from other headphones in the store, and some people—especially those who use their headphones while exercising or for beat matching—really want that exaggerated impact. But such headphones often become fatiguing to listen to over time. If you're interested in accurate audio reproduction, be careful not to be wowed by emphasised bass. (The same goes for exaggerated treble detail.)
The best approach, when possible, is to audition a set of headphones for several hours—or, even better, several days—with a variety of music. If the headphones still sound great at the end, there's a good chance they'll satisfy you over the long run.
Headset functionality and inline control modules: Many current headphone models include, right on the cable, an inline module with a microphone and one or more remote-control buttons, much like the inline remote on Apple’s iPhone earbuds. At minimum, this remote features a single multifunction button for controlling media playback; making, taking, and ending phone calls; and taking advantage of an iPhone or other smartphone’s voice-control features. The module's microphone can be used to talk on the phone, make voice recordings, and give Siri or other voice-control commands. Models aimed at iOS users generally include a three-button remote with dedicated volume-up and -down buttons; this three-button remote also lets you control volume and media playback on recent Macs.
Fit/comfort: Unlike most consumer-electronics devices, you actually wear headphones. So how well a set of headphones fits you—your head, your ears, and even your ear canals—plays a significant role in your long-term satisfaction (or lack thereof). I include a few comfort-related tips below when describing the different types of headphones, but reading about a particular style is no substitute for actually giving a product a test drive (or a test run, as the case may be for fitness-oriented models).
Where to buy: Sadly, fewer and fewer brick-and-mortar retailers carry quality headphones, and few of those that do actually let you try the products in the store—especially if you're talking about in-ear-canal headphones. This makes it difficult to audition the sound and fit of headphones before you buy them. Your best option is to buy from a retailer with a generous return policy, so that if you're unhappy with the way a set of headphones fits or sounds once you get it home, you can return it. This goes for both local and online retailers.
HMV, Richer Sounds, supermarkets such as Sainsbury's and Tesco, and perhaps to a lesser extent Morrisons and Asda all stock headphones and the bigger stores are your best bet if you want to at least look before you buy. The British Audio-Visual Dealers Association (BADA)has a list of recommended 'best home cinema, hi-fi and custom installation retailers in the UK,' and should be able to offer good, impartial advice.
Protect your ears
Before we get into the different types of headphones, a quick—but important—aside: Whichever set of headphones you choose, make sure you’ll always be able to enjoy your favourite music by protecting your hearing. While some of the models recommended here block external noise, you won’t always be wearing your headphones, so it’s good to keep a set of earplugs handy—you never know when you’ll find yourself in earshot of jackhammers, standing in a too-noisy crowd, or sitting in a cinema with ear-splitting volume levels. Similarly, many music lovers attend concerts where the decibel level risks damage to your hearing.
Inexpensive foam earplugs are widely available, but these work by completely obstructing your ear canals, making it difficult to hear what’s going on around you. Spend a bit more, and you can get special earplugs designed to reduce external sound to safe levels while still allowing you to hear clearly.
Headphone types and recommendations
Literally thousands of headphone models are out there, varying dramatically in style, audio quality, features, and price. But they nearly all fall into one of several main types: earbuds, in-ear-canal, canalbuds, lightweight, full-size, wireless, or noise-canceling. Below are brief descriptions of each type. I’ve noted which models include an inline remote/microphone module.
Alternatively, if you decide to spend the big bucks on a set of high-end canalphones, I enthusiastically recommend going all-in and getting custom eartips—tips custom-made for your particular ears. The process requires an audiologist visit to get impressions taken of your ears, but the benefits include substantially better comfort. (On some models, you may also gain better noise isolation and better sound quality.) For example, ACS provides viable hearing protection and communication products that are designed to help you enjoy sound safely, with prices starting from around £120 rising to £300. ACS offers a dealer list across the UK so you can make an appointment to have ear fitting done.
A step above custom eartips are custom in-ear monitors, which place the actual headphone circuitry in larger, custom-made earpieces.
Canalbuds: Canalbuds, which occupy a middle ground between earbuds and in-ear-canal models, have become quite popular over the past decade. Compared to canalphones, canalbuds generally use smaller eartips that sit just inside the ends of your ear canals instead of deep inside them. Good canalbuds easily best earbuds in terms of audio performance and noise isolation, but fall short of good canalphones in those areas. On the other hand, canalbuds tend to be more comfortable than true canalphones because they don't sit so deep and don't fit so tightly (although the line between canalphones and canalbuds is blurring these days); canalbuds are also usually less expensive. (See our in-ear-canal-headphone primer, linked above, for more information on canalbuds.)
Lightweight Headphones: These portable and (usually) reasonably priced headphones use larger drivers than earbuds and canalphones, and their similarly larger earpieces rest against the outside of the ears instead of sitting inside. Some lightweight headphones have a thin headband that goes over or behind the head. Others use a small clip on each earpiece that slips over the ear—these earclip-style models are often good for exercising. Some lightweight headphones fold up for easier traveling. Although many lightweight headphones produce mediocre sound, there are a number of standouts.
Full-Size Headphones: If you don’t mind some extra bulk, a set of good full-size headphones—so named because they fully cover or surround your ears—will usually sound better than good lightweight models. Many full-size headphones are also very comfortable, thanks to generous padding and ergonomic designs. However, contrary to what you might expect, not all full-size headphones are designed to fit large heads, so be sure to try before you buy (or, again, make sure you can return them if they don't fit well).
Full-size headphones fall into one of two categories: closed or open. Closed models block out some degree of external noise while keeping your music from disturbing others, while open models, which have a (generally deserved) reputation for offering better overall sound, let more noise in and out.
In terms of fit, full-size headphones can either completely surround your ears (called circumaural or over-ear style) or sit on your ears (supra-aural or on-ear). Over-ear models are the largest and tend to block out more sound, but people with large ears may find on-ear models to be more comfortable than squeezing their ears into over-ear models.
Note that to reach their potential, many full-size models (open or closed) require more juice than you'll get from a basic headphone jack. Those listed here work well with the low-power headphone jacks on phones, tablets, iPods, and computers.
Bluetooth Stereo Headphones: If you think being tethered to your music source is a drag—or, for the gym rats, an equipment-snagging hazard—consider going wireless. While some wireless headphones use radio-frequency and infrared technology—some of them very good, if very expensive—your best bet for convenience and portability is Bluetooth.
You can stream audio to stereo-Bluetooth (A2DP) headphones from pretty much any recent smartphone or tablet (including iPhones and iPads), from many media players (including the iPod touch and iPod nano), from any recent Mac, and from some recent Windows PCs. You can use Bluetooth headphones with other devices by purchasing a Bluetooth transmitter, offered by a number of companies.
Most stereo-Bluetooth headphones also double as headsets, letting you seamlessly switch between music and voice features. And most tablets and smartphones let you control music playback using Play/Pause, Back, and Forward buttons on the Bluetooth headphones themselves.
Note that even though Bluetooth headphones connect wirelessly to your music source, they still require a wired connection between the left and right earpieces; for example, Bluetooth earbuds have a cable that goes behind your head. Noise-Cancelling Headphones: If you’re not a fan of in-ear-canal headphones, but you want something that can filter out external noise such as airplane engines, train rumblings, or the hum of a crowd or noisy office, consider investing in a good set of active-noise-cancelling headphones. These headphones sample outside sound and then pipe in an inverse audio signal to “cancel out” a good deal of monotonous noise. (For more on the technology and its limitations, see my review of noise-cancelling models from a while back.) Although they don’t usually sound as good as comparably priced in-ear-canal headphones, noise-cancelling models are easier to put on and take off, and they let you hear what’s going on around you.
Noise-Cancelling headphones are available in many of the same styles—canalbud, lightweight, full-size, and so on—as standard headphones, but we found full-size models to provide the best combination of noise isolation, audio quality, and comfort.
Here then, are some of the recently reviewed and best headphones Macworld have tested in the last 12 months with links to the full reviews online. It's worth noting, prices are SRP only, if you shop around, and you should, you will find discounts available.
Sennheiser Amperior headphones
We said: Soundwise it's hard to find fault with the Sennheiser Amperior. From the moment you put them over your ears and press play you know you're dealing with a confident piece of kit. Music came through loud and refreshingly clear. It's as if the the Amperior's add extra emphasis between each layer of sound it delivers…in a good way. Around £259.
Apple EarPods with Remote and Mic headphones
We said: The audio quality of the iPhone 5 is really good, but you are more likely to listen via earphones. The good news is the new EarPods are significantly better than the iPod earphones they replace. The new look is designed to fit into the ear more comfortably, which they do, and also provide improved audio quality. They also reproduce more bass than the models they replace. Around £25.
Pioneer SE-CL331-H headphones
We said: Sound quality was basic, as we expected from the price tag, but by no means unpleasant. Our disco track showed up a lack of bass power – there was a bit of a percussive kick, but this was experienced around the back of the head, rather than deep in the gut like with the best offerings in this category. And the bass was quite tinny and harsh, especially when we pushed them to high volumes. Around £37.
Nocs NS800 Monitors headphones
We said: Unlike the Nocs NS600 Crush the Nocs NS800 Monitors use a single Balanced Armature driver instead of two separate drivers. The result is that they have a much wider audio spectrum than the other Nocs earphones we’ve tested. The NS600 sound like a good pair of earphones with bass overlaid on the top; the cheaper NS400s sound like regular earphones. Around £129.
Parrot Zik headphones
We said: Parrot’s new Zik headphones are very much designed as companions for its Zikmu speakers. Like the Zikmu they boast a stylish design by Philippe Starck, they sound great – and cost a small fortune. Around £349.
Urbanears Plattan headphones
We said: The Plattan headphones are full-sized and provide a refined, rich and good-quality sound. They feature something called a ‘ZoundPlug’, which allows you to share your music with a friend. Another useful feature relates to travelling, an environment when headphones are in their element: the Plattans are collapsible and fold into a convenient, easily portable triangle. Urbanears says the 120cm fabric cord is tangle resistant, and we tend to agree. Around £50.
Philips ActionFit Neckband headphones
We said: The Philips’ handling of our disco sample reminded us why we got into that kind of music in the first place, with a fat, meaty snap on the bass drum and a kinetic energy that got us right in the stomach. And that sort of thing can make a real difference when you’re working out – the exhilaration of well-reproduced dance music is a great motivator. Around £50.
Accuratus iMage Beatz headphones
We said: Pleasingly, the Beatz generally sidestep the usual down sides of wireless models. For one thing, they’re pretty affordable – not a budget pair by any means, but well within reach for the average buyer. Around £55.Read Macworld's full review of the Accuratus iMage Beatz headphones here.
MeElectronics Air-Fi AF32 headphones
We said: The first thing you notice about the Air-Fi AF32 earphones is how comfortable they are to wear - at least until you get into the gym. The padded red earpieces sink into the contours of your lugs, and the lightweight black plastic headband has a generous strip of red padding that cushions the top of your head. In my tests the pads formed a good seal with my ears and, unlike plenty of other Bluetooth headphones I've tried, were a pleasure to wear for a long time. Around £70.
Sony MDR-AS50G headphones
We said: The Sony MDR-AS50G headphones have a design element that can divide opinion: a semi-rigid loop that sits behind your neck and holds the earphones in your ears. It’s a strategy that can go wrong when done carelessly. But as with the Philips, it works well. Around £35.
a-Jays One Plus headphones
We said: The a-Jays One Plus headphones are a little different, with a flat, fettuccine-like cord, and the buds designed to be inserted in your ear canals to form a seal. Sound quality is excellent with a deep bass response perfect for electronic and hip hop music. They do a good job of highlighting intricate bass-lines, and provide a vibrant overall sound that also reproduces mid- and high-range frequencies very well. Around £40.
iLuv Sweet Cotton iHP614 headphones
We said: These stylish and lightweight over the ear headphones from iLuv demonstrate good value for money, and an alternative for those to those hands-free earphones you may currently use in discomfort. Around £29.
Griffin MyPhones kids' headphones
We said: Griffin, maker of many a fine iPod accessory, offers its kid-friendly MyPhones, and they’re terrific on both fronts (or should I say sides). First, they’re smaller so will better fit a child’s head, and are adjustable so they’ll grown with the little person as they get bigger. MyPhones sit on the ear with padding for comfort and to stop sounds leaking out and in. They even look the part, too, with a choice of cover earcap inserts – blue or pink, of course, and orange for the cooler kids. Around £29.
iGo City headphones
We said: With noise cancelling switched on, the sound is clear and crisp with powerful bass and a well-balanced audio spectrum. General background noise is inaudible. The design of the headphones means that your ear is fully covered, guiding every note in the right direction and ensuring you don't miss a beat. Around £99.
MeElectronics Air-Fi AF32 headphones
We said: The first thing you notice about the Air-Fi AF32 earphones is how comfortable they are to wear - at least until you get into the gym. The padded red earpieces sink into the contours of your lugs, and the lightweight black plastic headband has a generous strip of red padding that cushions the top of your head. In my tests the pads formed a good seal with my ears and, unlike plenty of other Bluetooth headphones I've tried, were a pleasure to wear for a long time. Around 70.
Nocs NS400 Titanium headphones
We said: The first thing that strikes you about these earphones is the metal of the earbud, which offers a sense of quality and style absent from so many me-too earbuds; and at a price of around £69 it seems an almost extraordinary luxury. The finish is ever so slightly brushed metal, too, which makes the NS400 Titanium more stylish than shiny. Around £69.
SteelSeries 7H headphones
We said: The SteelSeries 7H headphones is aimed at Pro Gamers (or at least gamers who take their gaming very seriously). The 7H delivers impressively balanced sound and without an over-emphasis on bass like most headphones. Trebles are also kept in check and at no point (even at high volumes) did the high-end turn shrill. Around £76.
Cygnett Sonic headphones
We said: The Sonics have a certain style. Part club DJ, part Del Boy listening to The Who waving a conductor’s baton, the black faux leather and plastic trim is nicely complemented by a discreet orange trim. At 165g, weight is not an issue, and they also feel well constructed. The over-ear pads are comfy and there’s enough give in the adjustable head strap to make the cans sit snugly. Around £39.
Denon AH-C560R in-ear headphones
We said: The AH-C560’s sound is impressively smooth and coherent. Bass, midrange and treble frequencies are all clear with good (though not exceptional) detail. The AH-C560 emphasises strong (and only slightly boomy) bass, but manages to do so without obscuring the midrange and highs, which is, in my opinion, the best compromise for a bass-heavy headphone. I did find that the AH-C560R somewhat lacked a sense of silence between notes, as well as separation between individual instruments or voices. Around £59.
(R. Matthew Ward, Tony Silva, and J. Andrew Yang contributed to this article.)