Wired headphones offer portability and simplicity—you should always opt for them. Between wired and wireless, cordless devices cost more. And there’s a reason for that.
The Advantages of Wired Headphones
- No battery: That means no recharging. It’s frustrating when headphones die while studying, commuting, or gaming.
- No latency: A few higher-end wireless headphones do offer low latency. However, you don’t have to pay extra to get that with a wired set of cans.
- Better audio quality and fidelity.
- Universal compatibility: Wired headphones work with any device because of the 3.5mm jack (except the new iPhone 7).
So which headphones are right for you? It comes down to your budget and the features you need. Thankfully, despite the number of available options, choosing one doesn’t have to be difficult.
I only explore headphones in this article, not headsets (which have built-in microphones). I cover four kinds of headphones: in-ear, on-ear, over-ear, and noise-cancelling. Each category is divided into three tiers (budget, enthusiast, and audiophile).
In-Ear Wired Headphones
In-ear headphones, or earbuds, offer portability. They’re useful for everything from relaxing to running around your neighborhood—though fitness buffs may want to invest in sports earphones.
Budget: Panasonic ErgoFit
The Panasonic ErgoFit costs little, but you wouldn’t know it if someone on the street just handed one to you. As you might expect from its name, the ErgoFit offers comfort without sacrificing sound quality.
At this price, you’re mostly hoping to get one that sounds halfway decent and won’t chafe your ears, making the ErgoFit the absolute best for what it costs. Just be careful with it because it isn’t exactly durable.
Enthusiast: Marshall Mode
Most people aren’t willing to spend more than $50 on a pair of earbuds. If you’re tired of missing audio frequencies, you’ll need to enter this price range. There aren’t many alternatives that can beat the sound quality of the Marshall Mode.
With a balanced profile, you receive access to a wider range of frequencies. On top of that, the Marshall Mode throws in a bit of bass boost. Bass boost makes your music feel fuller. It’s comfortable, durable, and doesn’t distort your audio. The Marshall Mode offers a power option for any audiophile.
Audiophile: Optoma NuForce HEM6
At just shy of $400, the Optoma NuForce HEM6 is the definition of premium luxury. The main selling point is its triple driver design, though you can opt for a single or double driver alternative (to save money) or the quadruple driver HEM8 (if you have money to burn).
Included with the Marshall Mode are premium features. In addition to the headphones, you get get the following: two detachable cables (one with a microphone, one without), an airtight and watertight case for safe travel, a tool for cleaning, a set of super comfortable ear tips, and a 3.5mm-to-6.3mm adapter.
On-Ear Wired Headphones
On-ear headphones are exactly what they sound like: they sit over your ears without fully covering them. As a result, they tend to press your ears against your skull. On-ear headphones compromise between in-ear headphones (portable but subpar sound quality) and over-ear headphones (too heavy but best sound quality).
Budget: Skullcandy Grind
I’m amazed that a set of headphones, whether on-ear or not, can be this cheap yet sound so good. Never have I bought a pair of $40 headphones that I found impressive, but the Skullcandy Grind costs a bit less than that and has some of the most positive reviews I’ve ever seen in this price range.
It even has a side button that you can use to pause or play tracks, switch between tracks, and even take incoming calls. The material on the ear pads does leave something to be desired, but even so, there’s no doubt about it: the Grind offers superb value.
Since this article was published, Skullcandy has released a new version of the headphones, the Skullcandy Robinson Cano.
Enthusiast: Grado SR80e Prestige
Though the Grado SR80e Prestige was released back in 2014, it’s still on our radar today. It has a sleek and compact design (though blemished slightly by the prominent text on the cups), it’s very comfortable, and you can tell right away that it’s a well-made product.
The sound produced by the SR80e is great from low notes to high notes, even through the middle notes. Its audio profile is excellent regardless of volume level. Just note that the cans are open-backed, so you’ll be able to hear everything going on around you even as you listen.
Audiophile: Beyerdynamic T51i
Beyerdynamic is known for producing good stuff, and the Beyerdynamic T51i is no exception. It may not be one of their best offerings, but it’s hard to think of another set of on-ear headphones in the $200 range that sound as good as these from bass to treble.
It also comes with a three-button Apple remote and microphone (for taking calls and controlling media playback), a nylon carrying case, a 3.5mm-to-6.3mm adapter, and an adapter for non-Apple devices.
Over-Ear Wired Headphones
Over-ear headphones tend to produce the best sound quality, if only because the circumaural cups are great at isolating ambient noise (but only when the cups are closed-back). If you’re worried about the stuffiness and dampness of over-ear headphones, opt for ones with open-back cups (which won’t be as good at isolating noise).
None of these are noise-cancelling headphones. For that, you’ll want to skip ahead to the next section.
Budget: Sennheiser HD 202 II
The Sennheiser HD 202 II is, in a word, impressive. You shouldn’t expect top-grade performance out of it, but c’mon—I can’t think of another pair of headphones at this price point that can produce audio that sounds even half as good. Can you?
The sound is decent, especially in the lower notes, and the ear pads are detachable, which is fantastic for cleaning and for when you wear them out and need replacements. The cord is 10 feet long but comes with a handy wind-up clip for the excess length. If I were on a budget, I wouldn’t consider anything else.
Enthusiast: Audio-Technica ATH-M50X
Audio-Technica makes all kinds of fantastic audio gear that are worth their price and the Audio-Technica ATH-M50X is no exception. It’s one of the best products they’ve ever put out, and it’s regularly used by professionals even though it’s a consumer-grade set of headphones.
One of the best parts about the ATH-M50X is its exceptional noise isolation. These were, after all, designed as studio monitors—so if you want perfect audio without any distracting background or ambient noise and at a reasonable price, this is what you want.
Audiophile: Sony MDR-1A
If you’re looking for something a little better than the ATH-M50X and you’re willing to pay about double the price, the Sony MDR-1A is a solid choice. It delivers excellent sound with maximum comfort and is built such that it feels good to use.
Noise-Cancelling Wired Headphones
A lot of people hear “noise canceling” and immediately think that these headphones will block out everything. Unfortunately, that’s not true. When active, they can block out certain kinds of sounds such as background and ambient noises, but you may still hear loud conversations, buses driving by, etc. It can also reduce audio fidelity while active.
Also, while budget noise-cancelling headphones exist, many of them aren’t very good and therefore aren’t worth mentioning. As such, we’re only going to highlight a higher-end option.
Audiophile: Bose QuietComfort 30
For top-notch consumer-grade noise cancellation, you really can’t go wrong with the QuietComfort series. The Bose QuietComfort 30 is the in-ear model, and in-ear models truly are the most effective when you need to block out as much noise as possible. Plus, this one is very comfortable.
The sound quality is only decent—that tends to be the case with noise-cancelling headphones—but it’s far from disappointing, so these should suffice for all but the pickiest of audiophiles. After all, if you’re buying a noise-cancelling set, you can’t expect to have your cake and eat it too (without spending a LOT more cash).
Making Your Wired Headphones Last
Wired headphones are obviously pricey, so make sure you practice good habits and take good care of them so that they don’t break prematurely. A quality set of cans should last many years if you aren’t rough and reckless.
If they do happen to break for some reason, consider fixing them by hand before dropping a wad of cash on a replacement set.
And depending on how much you care about the absolute quality of your audio, you may want to supplement with a headphone amplifier. It’s overkill for most folks, so we don’t recommend one unless you know that you’ll benefit from it.
And if you do prefer wire-free headphones after all, consider these wireless earbuds.
Image Credit: MDR-1A via Sony.com