The Top Headphones of 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 Bowers and Wilkins, JBL, and Sennheiser – 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.”
Jump to the best of:
1. The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones.
The Bose QuietComfort 35 II (aka QC35II)
Style: Over-Ear, Closed Back, Wireless Headphones. Google Assistant on-board.
(For a list of headphone style variations, see our Headphone Buying Guide.)
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.
Also good: The QC35IIs come with Google Assistant built-in, easily accessible with a dedicated button. Battery life is excellent at up to 20 hours.
Could be better: 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.
2. The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones for the Money.
Style: Over-Ear, Closed Back, Wireless Headphones.
For those who want a good pair of premium noise-canceling headphones, but don’t want to spend upwards of $300 for the Bose QC35IIs, look to Sennheiser. At almost half the price, the Sennheiser HD 4.50s come with excellent noise-cancelling technology that, though not quite Bose, can still hush a crowded airport. What do you sacrifice? Mostly build quality – the HD 4.50s are plastic with faux leather earcups, and come with a vinyl bag as opposed to a hard case. (Though that does make them lighter than most — a good thing for frequent travelers.)
Generic looks aside, they sound amazing – arguably as good as Bose and Sony – which makes Sennheiser a “best value” winner as well.
Also good: Battery life is excellent at up to 19 hours. Music doesn’t distort at high volume; you can turn these puppies up – way up.
Could be better: There’s no way to quickly mute the volume. And buttons weren’t very intuitive; it took us a while to figure things out.
3. The Best Noise-Isolating Headphones.
Style: On-Ear, Closed Back, Wireless Headphones.
A quick clarification to start: Noise-isolating headphones use a physical barricade to isolate your ears from outside sounds. Noise-canceling, on the other hand, uses microphones to listen to outside noise before separating and deleting via digital processing.
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 P5 Series 2 wireless headphones, which look as good as they sound — and they sound awesome. Close your eyes, and the P5s 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 3-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 P5s in his briefcase right next to his Walther PPK.”
Also good: The sheepskin leather-sheathed headband is a nice touch, literally. And all the main buttons all live in one spot, on the side of the right earcup. (Everyone should do that.) Battery life is a little over 17 hours.
Could be better: When testing in wireless mode, we lost some volume. And we had to stretch the headband a bit to get a more comfortable fit.
4. The Best Feature-Rich Wireless Headphones.
Style: Over-Ear, Closed Back, Wireless Headphones.
While some headphones may get an A+ in one thing and maybe a C- in others (with some Bs in the middle), Sony’s WH-1000XM2s get straight A's across the board – with some extra credit thrown in. They’re comfortable, not too tight, mushy in all the right spots, and the touch-sensitive buttons are as good as it gets. They also come equipped with aptX HD for processing hi-resolution audio up to 24bit/96kHz – Sony’s own best-in-category proprietary format.
What else? The WH-1000XM2’s "Ambient Sound" feature keeps you aware of outside sounds, and an "Optimizer" feature scans your head to gauge headphone seal – taking into account things like atmospheric pressure, which varies from sea level to 40K feet in the air. Together, both features offer noise cancelation that actually adapts to real-time conditions. Bottom line: they not only sound fantastic, they’re the smartest headphones on our list.
Also good: Raise your palm to your right ear, and a “Quick Attention” feature mutes the WH-1000XM2s. Sony’s easy-to-use mobile app lets you fine-tune and finesse multiple options, including Digital Sound Enhancement (DSEE) for making compressed audio sound better. Battery life is in the excellent range (around 19 hours), and you can quick charge as well (10 minutes = 70 minutes run time).
Could be better: Some of the sound modes (virtual positioning, virtual surround, etc), are a little bit goofy. Other than that, we got nothing.
5. Best Truly Wireless Headphones.
Style: Truly Wireless, In-Ear Headphones.
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. Bang & Olufsen's version, called Beoplay E8, 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 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 Beoplay E8's we tested sounded remarkably good.
Also good: Splash and dust resistant. Expect up to 12 hours of combined playback (4 hours from built-in lithium-ion battery + 8 additional hours of backup power from the charging case). Available in Black and Charcoal Sand (very sleek).
Could be better: Audio quality suffered when the earbuds slipped, even a little, when we jumped up and down. So getting the fit right is everything.
6. Best Fitness Headphones. (A tie.)
6a. JBL Under Armour
Style: Wireless, In-Ear Headphones.
JBL and the fitness gurus at Under Armour have partnered to develop in-ear wireless headphones that are built to take a beating – and sound great. The result: sweat-proof JBL Under Armour earbuds guaranteed to never hurt or fall out, an 8-hour battery life for serious marathoners, hands-free calling, and a boatload of smart features. Or, just like commercial says: “designed by athletes, for athletes.”
Also good: Unlike most earbuds, the drivers remain recessed a bit so the ear tips can enter the ear canal, creating the tight seal needed for JBL’s signature sound.
6b. Bose SoundSport
Style: Wireless, In-Ear Headphones.
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.
Also good: 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.
7. Best Kids Headphones. (A tie.)
7a. JBL JR300BT
Style: On-ear, Closed Back, Wireless Headphones.
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.”
Also good: The wired (non-bluetooth) version costs half as much.
Style: In-Ear Headphones.
The ETY-Kids 5 safe-listening in-ear headphones are also made for small ears (ages 4 and up) and limit volume to a safe range (never exceeding 88dB). The team at Etymotic Research made sure the 3.5mm headphone jack hooks up to most mp3 players, iPods, iPads, DVD players, and most smart phones. And it comes with a zipper storage pouch.
Also good: Includes assorted ear tips for a perfect fit.
8. Best Budget Headphones. (A tie.)
8a. JBL T600BTNC
Style: Wireless, Noise-Canceling, On-Ear Headphones.
The fact that you can now buy wireless / Bluetooth headphones with active noise cancelation from an audio purist like JBL — for less than $100 — is really quite amazing. And that’s the big story here with the T600BTNC wireless noise-canceling 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.
Also good: comes in 4 colors. Battery life: 12 hours.
8b. JBL T110
Style: Wireless, In-Ear Headphones.
The T110BT wireless headphones may look like the cheap, free earbuds that come with every iPhone, but they're far from it. This is JBL, and a great way to take that awesome, bassy JBL sound along for a run or a trip to the gym for less than a tank of gas. A flat, tangle-free cord is included. Comes in 6 colors.
Also good: Ergonomic ear tips make for a secure fit, even during jumping jacks.
9. Best Audiophile Headphones. (A tie.)
9a. Focal Clear
Style: Over-Ear, Open-Back, High Resolution Headphones.
Given there’s no way we can do justice to Focal CLEAR in two paragraphs, we highly recommend you head here for the full story. In the meantime, 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 smoke. Can I take these home for further testing? (And so on.)
Also good: Focal CLEAR is one of three luxury, high-resolution headphones made by Focal. (Focal CLEAR typically retails for about $1500. Focal Elear costs about $500 less, and the company’s top model, Utopia, goes for $2500 more.) So yes, they’re pricey… but worth every penny. All come in a hard clamshell case – the best we’ve seen.
9b. Audeze LCD-4
Style: Over-Ear, Open-Back, Planar Magnetic, High Resolution Headphones.
We can so easily picture George Martin wearing LCD-4s 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 $4000, the LCD-4s from Audeze represent not only the most expensive headphones on our list, but also the most advanced by virtue of all the new exotic (Nasa-like) technology inside. You can see the full spec sheet here, but highlights include: a double-fluxor magnet array that doubles the power driving the diaphragm, plus exclusive nano-scale film that actually weighs 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.)
Materials are top-notch, and craftsmanship is spectacular. Audeze’s LCD-4s may not as beautiful as Focal’s Clear, but hey – beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Also good: We just had to include this from the manufacturer: “It takes four weeks to finish the beautifully-finished 30-year-old Macassar Ebony wood rings, a dense finely-textured hardwood with a very smooth finish when polished.” (Fun fact: Macassar Ebony is known to be extremely durable and have great sonics — you'll see this in premium products like billboard cues and guitars.)
10. Best Wireless Audiophile Headphones
Style: Wireless, In-Ear Headphones.
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.
Also good: 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.”
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...
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