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The Top Headphones of 2018

Last updated on Dec. 16, 2018.

The world’s first-ever headphones were invented in the 1880s, weighed over 11 pounds, and had no padding. Needless to say – they didn’t make our list. But the ones that did are, by any standards, amazing. And to the question: are 2018’s best headphones really that much better than, say, the best from just 3 to 5 years ago? In almost every case, yes.

Two reasons why: 1) With a headphone market expected to top $15 billion by 2025, the world’s premier headphone makers are wrestling for dominance. Along the way, every incremental improvement, whether by giants like Sony and Bose – or audio purists like Focal and Audeze – is a win/win for consumers. 2) A few years ago, wireless headphones were mostly a novelty with often spotty, subpar results. Today, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between wired and wireless, and hearing is believing.

So, with that in mind, we asked our World Wide Stereo audio experts to apply their combined decades of experience with the goal of picking today’s best headphones, by category, no holds barred. And yes, it was hard work (no it wasn’t), but we stuck with it (more like “loved every second”) and now we’re proud to present (after some fairly spirited discussions) the “Best Headphones of 2018.”

1. The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones: Bose QuietComfort 35 II (aka QC35II)

Bose QC 35 II Noise Canceling headphones

Reg. Price: $349
Style: Over-Ear, Closed Back, Wireless Headphones. (For a list of headphone style variations, see our Headphone Buying Guide.)

Why it won

You’re looking at our most popular wireless headphones across the board – by far. The QC35IIs represent Bose’s flagship product, and the company’s attempt to perfect the active noise-canceling technology they alone invented in the first place. Meaning: If your #1 goal is shutting off the outside world, stop reading, put a pair in your cart, and call it a day. The QC35IIs are wireless (but like most, come with a wire) and extremely comfortable.

Are they the absolute best-sounding headphones on the planet? No. But then again, true audiophile-level headphones cost 4 - 5Xs as much.

What else?

• The QC35IIs come with Google Assistant built-in, easily accessible with a dedicated button. Battery life is excellent at up to 20 hours.

• Bose doesn’t include any way to quickly mute volume (the way others do), so keep your eyes open when they call your number at the deli counter.

• For a limited time, you can get a pair of QC35II's in an exclusive Triple Midnight finish. See 'em here.

2. The Best Budget Bluetooth Headphones: JBL Tune 500BT (aka T500BT)

JBL T500BT Headphones

Reg. Price: $60
Style: On-Ear, Bluetooth, Wireless Headphones

Why it won

The fact that you can now buy wireless / Bluetooth headphones from a legendary audio brand like JBL — for less than $100 — is really quite amazing. And that’s the big story here with the Tune 500BT wireless headphones: 32mm JBL drivers built-in for that distinct JBL bass we all know and love, with no wires or outside noise in the way.

The T500BT’s also come with Siri and Google Assistant, which you can access with the press of a button.

What else?

• Comes in four colors (Black, Blue, Pink, White).

• Up to 16 hours of battery life and 2 hour recharge time.

3. Best Truly Wireless Headphones: Sony WF-1000X

Sony WF-1000X Headphones

Reg. Price: $199.99
Style: In-ear, True Wireless Headphones

Why it won

Truly wireless earbuds are wireless earbuds with no connecting wire between each earpiece. Each side processes its own corresponding signal (left or right), which makes for a very clean – and very futuristic-looking – setup. Sony’s version, called WF-1000X, ranks among the best of all truly wireless earbuds.

Each earbud comes with different size ear tips, which let you customize each side for best-possible fit — and least-possible popping out when running or working out. And though you can control everything – pairing, rewinding, skipping tracks, etc. – via controls on each earbud, the only thing you can’t control, oddly, is volume. You’ll need your smartphone and the Sony Headphones Connect app for that.

That said, no earbuds, at any price, can match the stellar quality inherent in a pair of premium headphones. (Just keeping it real.) Though the WF-1000X we tested sounded remarkably good.

What else?

• Noise cancelation technology eliminates unwanted background noise, making them perfect for when you’re on-the-go.

• Expect up to 9 hours of combined playback.

• Available in Black and Gold (very sleek).

4. Best On-Ear Workout Headphones: JBL Under Armour Train

JBL UA Train Headphones

Reg. Price: $240
Style
: On-Ear, Bluetooth, Wireless Headphones

Why it won

JBL and the fitness gurus at Under Armour have partnered to develop a pair of on-ear wireless headphones that are built to take a beating – and sound great. The result: sweatproof headphones guaranteed to withstand even the most vigorous workouts (there's an IPX4 rating to prove it), a 16-hour battery life for serious marathoners, hands-free calling, and a boatload of smart features. Or, just like the commercial says: “designed by athletes, for athletes.” 

What else?

• Ear cushions are lined with Under Armour’s SuperVent fabric, which is ultra-light, ultra-comfortable, and ultra-easy to remove and clean.

• Large buttons make controlling your music a breeze.

5. Best Earbuds for Working Out: Bose SoundSport

Bose SoundSport Wireless Headphones

Reg. Price: $149
Style
: Wireless, In-Ear Headphones.

Why it won

If you want a little more bass in your workout, the Bose SoundSport wireless headphones bring it big time without sacrificing mid and/or high range tones in the process. And we’re talking vibrant, natural bass, not the artificially boosted bass prominent in so many sports headphones. The SoundSport’s behind-the-neck cord includes easy-to-reach inline controls, a microphone for incoming calls, and a 6-hour playtime following a 2-hour charge.

What else?

• The extended nozzle on each SoundSport ear tip does a good job of sealing each ear, and the fins add stability. Bose SoundSport now offers a truly wireless version of the same thing. And with no wires between each earpiece, you’ll soon forget they’re even there, even during a heavy workout.

6. The Best Wireless Headphones: Bowers & Wilkins PX

Bowers  Wilkins PX Headphones

Reg. Price: $399.99
StyleOver-Ear, Closed Back, Wireless Headphones.

Why it won

Bowers & Wilkins is to audio what Maserati is to automobiles: a luxurious, sophisticated, beautifully crafted alternative to industry mass producers like Sony and Bose. To wit: the company’s PX wireless headphones, which look as good as they sound — and they sound awesome. Close your eyes, and the PXs lend the sense of sitting in a real concert hall, where you can clearly pick out the soft ting of a ride cymbal… or every unique voice in a three-part backing harmony.

Though true audiophiles will always reach for the wire provided to make sure nothing’s missed in transit, Bowers & Wilkins’ tight ear seal does a decent job of eliminating most outside noise. To sum, as one of our experts postulated, “If James Bond was still around (the Sean Connery version), he’d have a pair of PXs in his briefcase right next to his Walther PPK.”

What else?

• Built-in sensors improve the overall listening experience - simply place them on your head, and they’ll turn on. Take them off, and they’ll enter standby mode. Pretty cool.

• Battery life lasts up to 22 hours on a single charge.

7. Best Kids Headphones: JBL JR 300BT 

JBL Under Armour Wireless headphones

Reg. Price: $60
Style: On-Ear, Closed Back, Wireless Headphones

Why it won

What can we say about the JBL JR300 with Bluetooth? These fun, on-ear, made-for-small-people headphones come in hot pink, screamin’ green, and orange + blue. The volume is preset to never rise above a safe 85dB, the controls are easy, and… wait for it… YOU CAN PUT STICKERS ON THEM. “Someone in the backseat getting grumpy? Here, play with these, and we’ll be there in NO time.”

What else?

• The wired (non-bluetooth) version costs half as much.

8. Best Hi-Res Headphones Under $300: Sony MDR-1AM2

Sony MDR-1AM2

Reg. Price: $299.99
Style: Over-Ear, Closed-Back, Hi-Res, Wired Headphones

Why it won

For those who want a pair of no-frills headphones that support high-resolution audio files — without dropping the big bucks — look to Sony’s MDR-1AM2. Featuring massive custom 40mm HD drivers, Sony ensured these over-ears deliver a clear and powerful soundstage. From the aluminum-coated LCP diaphragm to the silver-coated copper cables, it’s the finer details that work in tandem to deliver an audio experience that is precise, accurate, and as close to the artist’s original recording as possible.

What else?

• These cans were built for long listening sessions, thanks to its lightweight frame and pressure-relieving ear pads.

• The MDR-1AMs feature a "swivel" design that allows them to lay flat and be tucked away in the included pouch. 

• If you look closely, you’ll notice the grills have a Fibonacci-inspired pattern, which Sony says “ensures no frequency is boosted or cut.” Pretty cool.

9. Best Hi-Fi Closed-Back Headphones: Focal Elegia.

Focal Elegia

Reg. Price: $899
Style: Over-Ear, Closed-Back, Hi-Fi, Wired Headphones.

Why it won

For two years, this 35-year old French company has made headlines with their open-back high-resolution, reference headphones: Elear, Clear, and Utopia (which have also earned a spot on this list). Not only do these headphones trump everything else out there with respect to fit and finish, each could seriously contend for “best in the world” with respect to precision, overall dynamics, bass articulation, and more. The only drawback? Their open-back design, which is better suited for listening in the privacy of your own home.

But with Elegia’s closed-back design, you can bring the same audiophile-quality experience with you wherever you go — no fear of annoying others’ around you when you’re at work, and no frequency loss so often found in closed-back designs.

Elegia is a product that was years in the making. Focal engineers discovered a way to integrate premium speaker drivers into a closed-back design without making any concessions on lower frequencies. They also feature the same “M”-shaped aluminum/magnesium dome used inside Focal’s Elear, Utopia, and Clear headphones. Working in tandem with a frameless, 4mm copper voice coil, even the tiniest details punch through at both low and high frequency ranges.

What else?

• Elegia headphones were principally designed for portable high resolution audio players, but they also come with a 1/4-inch cable for standard home audio components.

• Materials include the finest top grain leathers, microfibers, and solid aluminum. Headbands are made to mold perfectly to heads, while memory foam, microfiber earpads give Elegia a certain weightlessness.

• Comes with a thermo-formed rigid carrying case for storage and protection.

10. Best Wireless Audiophile Headphones: AKG N5005 Reference Class

AKG 5005 Headphones

Reg. Price: $1,200
Style: In-Ear, Wireless Headphones

Why it won

If there’s a ceiling on just how good wireless in-ear headphones can really be, given their size – AKG might have hit it with the N5005 wireless headphones. These reference class earbuds not only provide certified high-resolution sound, they’re the most tune-able headphones we’ve seen. The set actually comes with 4 changeable filters (see photo above) that let you adjust for four different output parameters for your own optimal sound. After some fiddling around, we found bass to be surprisingly warm… with mids and highs perfectly replicated. All the specs are right here, but in a nutshell: If you want the absolute best in-ear headphones to bring along on your travels / daily work commute, you just found them.

What else?

• Each side is gloss black ceramic and feels considerably richer that other earbuds we tried. And though they look heavier than most, they’re actually quite comfortable and soon “disappear.”

11. The Best Planar Magnetic Headphones: Audeze LCD-X

Audeze LCD-X Headphones

Reg. Price: $1,199
Style: Over-Ear, Open-Back, Hi-Res, Wired Headphones

Why it won

We can so easily picture George Martin wearing LCD-Xs back in the day at Abby Road. (He would have loved them.) Or Max Martin for that matter, who, BTW,  now has more #1 Billboard singles than anyone in history, save for Lennon and McCartney. But we digress:

At $1199, the LCD-Xs from Audeze feature an impressive list of specs that also make them among the most advanced headphones on our list, thanks to all of the exotic (Nasa-like) technology inside. You can see the full spec sheet here, but highlights include: double-sided magnet arrays that work to eliminate distortion to crazy low levels, planar magnetic drivers for improved dynamics and frequency response, and an exclusive nano-scale film diaphragms that actually weigh less than the air it displaces. The result: crazy high resolution and the “flattest, deepest, most accurate bass response of any headphone available.” (Their words, though our ears agree.) 

What else?

• Materials are top-notch, and craftsmanship is spectacular. Audeze’s LCD-Xs may not as beautiful as Focal’s Utopia, but hey – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

12. Best Hi-Fi Headphones for Audiophiles: Focal Utopia

Focal Utopia Headphones

Reg. Price: $3,999
Style
: Over-Ear, Open-Back, Hi-Res, Wired Headphones

Why it won

There’s no way we can do justice to Focal Utopia in two paragraphs, but we’re going for it anyway. Highlights from our collective notes include: Overall look: stunning. Overall sound: spectacular, as you would expect from the engineers at Focal.

Solid aluminum yoke, leather padded headband, and 20mm memory foam ear cushions are extremely comfortable and easy to adjust. 40mm full-range inverted-dome driver (with copper voice coil) made from aluminum/magnesium alloy driver provides a huge frequency range (5Hz to 28kHz). Extremely spacious, like a front row seat in Carnegie Hall. Rich, cloth covered cables (3 variations in the box) maintain the original audio signal with a special shielding. Elegant, sophisticated, beautifully finished, and tonally balanced. Holy smokes. Can I take these home for further testing? (And so on.)

What else?

• Comes in a hard clamshell case — the best we’ve seen.

• Utopia represent’s Focal’s flagship luxury, hi-res headphones (CLEAR, Elear, Elegia are also in the lineup). Yes, it’s pricey, but worth every penny.

Still not sure? We got this.


If you’re still not sure which headphones are best for you, give us a call or send us an email. Tell us a little about how you will use them, e.g., for listening to music at home, watching TV on a device, drowning out crying babies on airplanes – whatever. Plus what kind of music do you like, what’s your budget, and/or anything else you think we should know. Just think of us as your own personal audio gear shopping concierge, on-call to help you pick the perfect pair of headphones for you.

One more thing:

A last word of advice: buy your new headphones from a trusted dealer. And the more experience and longer the track record, the better. A good dealer will take care of you in the event anything happens.

Speaking of trusted dealers...

World Wide Stereo is home to some 90+ industry-leading audio/video professionals who love what they do and talking about it, too. We opened our doors in 1979, gained a small yet die-hard following, won a slew of national awards for everything from killer car audio installations to customer service, grew the business online… and today we enjoy a faithful following of like-minded TV-watching, music-listening, gear-loving defenders of fun for the whole family. Our only rule: no one leaves unhappy.

Plus, shopping with us means you get Happiness Guarantee, which includes perks like free shipping, 60-day returns, award-winning support, and service long after the sale — always. Hence our rule: "no one leaves unhappy."

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  • MC

    I had a pair of xFyro xS2 earbuds and had a great experience while using them. These earbuds are very comfortable and are fully waterproof.

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