On last week’s podcast, we discussed why people love Beats headphones despite their sound being so undesirable to audiophiles. Since then, people keep asking me the same question: “What should I get instead?”
Different headphones suit different needs. A great model for working all day at your desk won’t be a great choice for portability, and vice versa. People also have different sound preferences: one person’s clarity is another’s harshness; one’s warmth is another’s muddiness; your “ample” bass might be overpowering to me.
These days, there are many great “desk” headphones that are huge, closed (sealed from the outside world), comfortable for long listening, very affordable, don’t need a separate amp, but might have long and unwieldy cables and don’t fold very small. You’ve seen this list — the Sony (Wirecutter), a Sennheiser or two, the Audio-Technica, the Beyerdynamic, and the AKG are usually on it. They’re great for keeping in one spot and listening for hours in noisy environments (like most offices), and bringing on occasional flights. But they’re definitely too big to walk around with, and might be a bit unwieldy on planes (especially those with coiled cords).
Note: I’m intentionally omitting all open-backed headphones from this article since their sound leakage — especially outward — makes them impractical at best and extremely rude to use around other people, on planes, or on mass transit.1 I’ve also omitted earbuds and in-ear-monitors (IEMs, or “canalphones”) because I can’t wear them without pain, so I can’t really judge them fairly.
Anyway, for portable use, priorities are different. Practicality trumps everything:
- If you fly often, you might want great active noise cancellation above all else.
- Portable headphones must be compact and foldable. The smaller, the better.
- Being able to pause or seek with an iPhone clicker, or even take a phone call, makes a huge difference for almost all use except when plugged into a computer and working at a desk. Many headphones don’t have clickers, and not every clicker is good. Once you’re accustomed to having one, it really sucks not to.
- Durability is pushed to the limit in portables, especially at the cable’s ends. A replaceable cable is a huge bonus.
- Portables shouldn’t need an extra amp, ruling out most high-impedance headphones.
- Comfort is paramount. A great-sounding pair of headphones isn’t very useful if they’re uncomfortable to wear for the duration you’ll typically want.
- Fashion matters. You can look like a space alien alone at home, but if you’re going to be walking around in public, you probably want a more compact, subtle look.
I haven’t tried every headphone on the market — far from it (much to my chagrin). But among those I’ve tried, there are some clear winners, and a handful of models I haven’t tried seem worth consideration since they’ve gotten so much acclaim.
Smallest, for maximum portability
I’ve only found one headphone that nails this: the Sennheiser PX 200-II i ($70). It’s my favorite portable set so far for two reasons: it’s the only one I’ve found that folds into a compact pretzel shape, and it has a good iPhone clicker. It’s also a good value.
But it has relatively poor sound quality — fine for podcasts, but not great for music. There’s also a major durability issue: I’ve lost three of them — one about every 18 months — to what I suspect are internal frays in the thin, non-replaceable cable. And its tiny on-ear design, which makes it so portable, also makes it uncomfortable after about an hour.
It’s great for commuting, walking the dog, or doing household chores, but poor for long listening and sound quality.
Midsized “on-ear” designs, but still portable
These sound much better than ultra-compact models, but since they’re still resting on the ear (rather than around it), they’re usually not comfortable for very long periods. They don’t fold very small, but can often still fit in a large jacket pocket.
- V-Moda XS ($200): Very strong reviews, with a clicker, removable cable (a rarity in this size class), and an inward fold. My XS will arrive in a few days — I’m hoping it can become my new walking headphone, although I know it won’t fold nearly as small as the PX 200-II i.
Update: Full review.
- Beyerdynamic DT-1350 ($200): Strong reviews, but no clicker, and the cable’s not replaceable. Knowing how much I love Beyerdynamic’s detailed sound, if this had an iPhone clicker, I’d definitely get it.
- Sennheiser Momentum On-Ear ($200): Liked by the community with a nice clicker, but doesn’t fold at all.
- B&W P5 ($300): Decent sound quality, but you’re paying more for the luxury brand than the sound. I also found it resonated loudly with every step while walking, and had to return mine. But a lot of people love these.
Over-ear designs, portable only with a bag or case
These are “portable” in the sense that you can bring them on a plane, but you can’t just go somewhere with a jacket and have anywhere to put them except on your head. But their larger, around-ear designs are much more comfortable for long listening, so they can double as desk headphones.
- Bose SoundTrue Around-Ear ($180): Decent comfort and better sound quality than the On-Ear sister model, but not great. It’s pretty cheap-feeling for Bose, but it is the cheapest model in this category.
- PSB M4U 1 ($300): I bought these on The Wirecutter’s strong recommendation. They’re very modern: seemingly good construction, very comfortable, and practical, with a small, removable cable that can plug into either side. But the clicker is awful (and just one button), and the sound quality doesn’t sound like $300. It has weak treble and lacks detail, as if you’re listening through a thin pillow. The DT-770 (32-ohm) sounds far more detailed and costs $100 less, although it lacks the removable cable and (bad) clicker.
- NAD VISO HP50 ($300): By the same designer as the PSB M4U 1, these are getting rave reviews. They appear to have much of the M4U’s practicality, a proper 3-button clicker, and similar but more refined sound at the same price — in fact, based on what I’ve read, I don’t think there’s any reason to choose the M4U over these, but I haven’t tried them yet. I was tempted to buy a pair, but I’m afraid the sound will be too close to the M4U’s and therefore not to my liking.
- Sennheiser Momentum ($300): I only got to try these for a minute, and they didn’t fit me well and didn’t impress me with sound. They’re slightly too small to actually fit around many people’s ears. But a lot of people like them, so they’re worthy of consideration. They have a removable cable (finally, Sennheiser!) and a great iPhone clicker, but they don’t fold at all.
- V-Moda M100 ($300): Another crowd favorite. They look practical: removable cable, iPhone clicker, some folding.
- AKG K551 ($330): iPhone clicker, with Bluetooth and noise-canceling versions available. But it seems like a $100 premium over the K550 just for that iPhone clicker.
- Bose QuietComfort QC-15 ($300, Wirecutter’s pick): If noise-canceling is your most important factor, just stop now and get these. They sound decent, not great, but have the best noise-canceling engine and world-class comfort.
- B&O H6 ($400): Possibly the most comfortable headphones I’ve ever worn. Unfortunately, they sound strange, with nicely detailed midrange but a severe lack of bass. And for about the same price, I could get the still-very-comfortable, better-sounding (but clickerless and non-folding) T70p when it’s on sale.
- B&W P7 ($400): These have a lot of fans, but I wasn’t crazy about them. Like the B&O H6 and the smaller P5, you’re paying much more for the luxurious design than the sound quality. I think the H6 beats the P7 on both, but that’s mostly a personal fashion choice.
What did I miss?
The T90 has shockingly good sound that competes very well against many headphones that cost more than twice as much, including the venerable HD 800 (which I now use as my main home listening set because I have a headphone problem), and it can be easily driven by an iPhone or computer without another amp. ↩︎