The best wired headphones for 2024, tested and reviewed


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While most of the world is content to rush toward a wireless future, audiophiles know the truth: the best sound quality still comes from wired headphones. Without Bluetooth compression to worry about, you can listen to music in full fidelity, enjoying every tiny detail and nuance that made you fall in love with music in the first place. A great pair of headphones can breathe new life into your favorite music. The best can let you hear details you may have never heard before. Others can sweep you away with their spacious and immersive listening experiences.

Finding the best pair of headphones isn’t always easy. If you can’t listen to them for yourself, you’re stuck with a mountain of research and recommendations that can be more confusing than helpful. That’s where we come in. We’ve done the research for you and have spent hours listening to countless sets to bring you the headphones that kept the cord and struck a chord with us. These are the best wired headphones for every kind of listener. 

How we chose the best wired headphones

I’ve been writing about tech online for more than a decade and have been a music lover my whole life. Over the last 10 years, I’ve written about headphones, in-ear monitors, and other audio equipment extensively for MMORPG.com, IGN, PC Perspective, and, of course, Popular Science. During that time, I’ve tested hundreds of headphones and have a personal collection that most people would consider unhealthily large. I love headphones almost as much as I love music; they are the lens through which we experience what moves us.

For this collection, I began by considering the many headphones and IEMs I’ve tested over the years and seeing which truly stood out as something special. After that, I expanded my search to include the many sets I didn’t personally experience but have been widely regarded by critics and real listeners. Sound quality was first on my list, followed closely by fit, comfort, design, and build quality, as well as long-term reliability. I narrowed this lengthy list down to eight core picks, broken into categories for different types of listeners. I spent extensive time with seven of the nine picks. The last, the Meze LIRIC II and Focal Utopia, have spent many hours on the head of our editor, Tony Ware. Our final collection represents an array of options from leading brands in the space, ranging from the boutique and high-end to the affordable and accessible. 

The best wired headphones: Reviews & Recommendations

With our considerations in mind, which you can read below the picks, you’d be equipped to search the internet and make the best choice from the featured options. If you’d rather save yourself time, we’ve done the research for you. Looking for a sound investment? These are the best headphones to deliver an expressive audio experience that’ll get you wired.

Best overall: Sennheiser HD 660 S2


Popular Science / Tony Ware

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Why it made the cut: The HD 660 S2 is a jack of all trades for the everyday listener, balancing outstanding sound quality, great comfort, and a reasonable price.

Specs

  • Price: $400
  • Wearing style: Over-ear
  • Earcup design: Open-back
  • Driver type: Dynamic 
  • Weight: 260 grams
  • Impedance: 300 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 104dB

Pros

  • Overall balanced sound signature that leans a bit warmer than the original
  • Wider soundstage
  • Strikes a good middle-ground between price, performance, and comfort

Cons

  • Plays it relatively safe in sonic improvements
  • Substantially more expensive than HD 650, HD 6XX

Sennheiser is one of the most esteemed brands in the entire audio industry, and its HD 600 series is one of the longest-running default recommendations for anyone looking for a great pair of cans that don’t break the bank. The HD 660 S2 is the latest entry, and though they play it safe with their improvements, what has changed makes us feel like these are the best all-around bet for the majority of listeners. 

Like its predecessors, the HD 660 S2 aims for balance. It doesn’t tread too far in any direction, so you can count on a listening experience that’s overall neutral but also a bit more fun and certainly more engaging. Sennheiser has subtly increased its 600 series bass extension for deeper rumble and tweaked the mids for a wider soundstage. At times, the treble can sound more detailed because of this change. At others, the bass seems to warm the sound instead. It’s music-dependent but always enjoyable.  

It’s clear that Sennheiser didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken with its beloved headphone series, and as a result, it feels a bit safe. That doesn’t mar the fact that this is still an outstanding pair of headphones intentionally designed for wider appeal and to address some of the most common criticisms of the originals: they were bass light, had “three blob” imaging, and didn’t have a great soundstage. The HD 660 S2 corrects all three and is also ridiculously comfy thanks to its plush velour earpads and well-balanced weight.

Its higher price will be a sticking point for some, though we think it earns its keep with how well it balances its aims. If you don’t mind playing with EQ, the Drop x Sennheiser HD 6XX and original HD 650 are still great picks that can get you very close to what the 660 S2 offers. But for an out-of-the-box, no-tweaks-required experience, the HD 660 S2 is a great pick that’s sure to please. 

Best dynamic: Focal Utopia (2022)

Focal Utopia headphones on a stand

Popular Science / Tony Ware

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Why it made the cut: Class-leading in nearly every way, the Focal Utopia drips decadence and backs it up with solid sound.   

Specs

  • Price: $5,000
  • Wearing style: Over-ear
  • Driver type: Dynamic
  • Earcup style: Open-back
  • Weight: 490 grams
  • Impedance: 80 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 104dB

Pros

  • Decadent design and presentation
  • Wonderfully balanced sound
  • Rich in detail and clarity

Cons

  • Potential comfort issues
  • Smaller soundstage than expected at this price

Hailing from France, the 2022 revision of the Focal Utopia is the definition of decadence. At $5,000, this headphone could easily win a category for “best splurge,” but there’s substance behind its style. Utilizing pure beryllium dynamic drivers with Focal’s proprietary M-shaped design and acoustic dampening, it offers a balanced yet incredibly detailed sound signature. This class-leading pair of headphones lets you understand why someone might pay so much for a pair of headphones. 

Focal is an expert at its craft, and nowhere is that clearer than with the Utopia. The engineers clearly aimed for a more reference sound with this set, so while the bass isn’t over-represented, it has genuine impact and speed. It’s a case of quality over quantity and only needs to be heard to be understood. Texture, nuance, and pound: these are the watchwords for the Utopia 2022. 

That level of quality doesn’t subside at higher frequencies. Pure beryllium drivers are coveted for their responsiveness and rigidity, which directly translates to speed and precision. Layering and separation are articulate, so you’ll never be left wondering if you’re hearing everything your music has to offer—you’ll know. That can be a double-edged sword for poorly mastered tracks, but when everything comes together, it’s akin to jumping from 480p straight to 4K Ultra HD. 

With such a high asking price, Focal pulled out all the stops with its presentation and build quality. The unboxing experience is one of the best with an artful presentation of its cables and accessories. Its documentation even comes in its own leather folio. The headphones themselves make heavy use of metal for durability and offer an exceptionally attractive honeycomb grill design with hints of red behind the center logo. The yokes are real carbon fiber, and the cable connections utilize genuine LEMO terminations. It’s fittingly overbuilt.

The biggest drawbacks you’re likely to experience have to do with comfort and soundstage. Focal didn’t change the design much from the 2016 version, so the clamp force is still on the tighter side and rests a bit too much on the top of your head. Some users have found a hot spot developing before long. The soundstage, on the other hand, is surprisingly closed in for an open-back flagship pair of headphones. While not congested in any way, you won’t be mistaking sirens in a song for sirens out your window.

Still, this pair of headphones oozes luxury and has a sound to back it up. 

Best planar: HIFIMAN Arya Organic

HiFiMAN-Arya-Organic headphones outside on a stand.

Popular Science / Chris Coke

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Why it made the cut: A revision of the highly esteemed Arya Stealth Magnet, the Arya Organic has a fuller sound signature, enhanced comfort, and easier drivability. 

Specs

  • Price: $1,299
  • Wearing style: Over-ear 
  • Driver type: Planar magnetic
  • Earcup style: Open-back
  • Weight: 440 grams
  • Impedance: 16 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 94dB

Pros

  • Much fuller sound than previous models
  • Fantastic soundstage and detail
  • Improved fit and comfort 

Cons

  • Very large
  • Can still be difficult to drive well

The HIFIMAN Arya has been one of the best headphones in its price bracket since its debut in 2018, but the crisp sound signature of the original and Stealth Magnet revision left bass fans feeling left out. The Arya Organic changes that with the fullest sound of any Arya model to date and doesn’t sacrifice any of the spaciousness and detail that made it so popular in the first place. Improved comfort and ergonomics also make it the easiest and most securely fitting yet, making it the most well-rounded and appealing Arya ever released.

Planar magnetic headphones are renowned for their detail, speed, and clarity, and the Arya Organic embraces every piece of what makes them so beloved. Their large egg-shaped earcups make way for an exceptionally open and wide sound. Instruments ring out with room to breathe, creating a strong perception of depth in the listening experience. Every note, every finger slipping across a fretboard rings out with lifelike clarity. Because of their depth and fantastic imaging, no one element feels over-loud. It’s natural, crisp, and, with the right music, quite beautiful.

While not overdone to muddy the rest of the mix, the low-end is wide and foundational to fill out any track that calls for it. It’s exacting, starting and stopping with precision, swelling up when called for, and falling back when not. Hip-hop and metal fans may still find that they crave more punch and slam, but it remains full-bodied enough for just about any genre or style of music and will wow you with its detail. Just make sure you have some kind of amplifier to drive it because a laptop or simple dongle DAC won’t cut it. 

The Arya Organic is huge. There’s no way around its size, but it fits more snuggly than any version before it. Most listeners should be able to find a comfortable fit, which has been a long time coming for these headphones. Between its incredible sound, comfortable fit, and enrapturing presentation, the Arya Organic is an incredible choice among planar magnetic headphones.

If you’re not a fan of the over-large egg-shaped design, the Audeze LCD-3 is a great alternative that research indicates offers very similar performance. And from a brand as esteemed as Audeze, you’re not likely to go wrong. 

Best closed back: Meze LIRIC II

Meze Liric II headphones on a stand.

Popular Science / Tony Ware

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Why it made the cut: This top-tier closed back won’t bleed sound but is surprisingly spacious. It’s detailed, comfy, and downright gorgeous.

Specs

  • Price: $2,000 
  • Wearing style: Over-ear
  • Driver type: Planar magnetic
  • Earcup style: Closed-back
  • Weight: 427 grams
  • Impedance: 61 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 100dB

Pros

  • Phase-X Spatial Imaging works wonders with soundstage and imaging
  • Included hand-braided balanced copper cable adds value
  • Gorgeously designed and very comfortable
  • Full-bodied, rich, and highly detailed listening experience

Cons

  • Treble, while more attenuated than the original, may be too energetic for sensitive ears
  • Relatively heavy, though the wide headband distributes weight well

The Meze LIRIC II is what every great successor should be: an evolution that discards what doesn’t work, enhances what does, and adds fresh features to create something new and exciting. Meze listened to the community with this redesign, and the result is a pair of closed-back headphones that leap-frog the original and are genuinely surprising in more ways than one. 

The biggest advancement, apart from its new and elegant Macassar ebony wood earcups, is the Phase-X Spatial Imaging technology and QWRM (Quarter Wavelength Resonator Mask) layered onto its planar magnetic drivers. The company describes these systems as reducing phase distortion and increasing linearity, as well as attenuating fatiguing frequency peaks. But the real-world impact is a much more spacious and positionally accurate sound than a closed-back headphone has any right to provide. It offers a genuine “wow” moment upon first listening and keeps on giving as you re-discover familiar tracks. It’s as close as a closed-back headphone has come to an open-back experience as we’ve heard. 

The sound signature is U-shaped with emphasis on both the mid-bass (bass guitars, synths, cellos, etc.) and the lower treble. This gives it a very full-bodied, lush sound that’s simultaneously very crisp with excellent layering and instrument separation. Of course, some listeners might even find it to be too hot, so we’d recommend being open to EQ if you’re treble sensitive. 

The LIRIC II is the closed-back complement to the Meze Empyrean II, another Meze Audio headphone revised in 2023 that wowed us. Both are amazing, but the LIRIC’s superior isolation makes it a much better fit for travel. 

If you’re looking for something a bit more versatile, something to bridge the gap between wired and wireless, the Dali iO-12 is an option worth considering. Built with a custom low-distortion magnet/driver system derived from flagship loudspeakers, these $1,300 wired noise-canceling headphones offer striking clarity. Along with effortlessly rendering details across an expansive soundstage, these headphones offer advanced features like USB-C DAC, passive 3.5mm, and Bluetooth 5.2 (SBC, AAC, aptX Adaptive) connectivity; active noise cancellation, making them great for airplanes, etc.; and the ability to fold flat in a travel case when not in use. While plush, the chocolate brown earcups with gold accents (shown below) also won’t attract as much attention as the LIRIC II, with its gorgeous polished faceplates that broadcast luxury from every angle (but also threaten to take on scratches and scuffs). 

Earbuds photo
Popular Science / Tony Ware

Best for mixing: Sony MDR-MV1

Sony MDR MV1 headphones on a table

Popular Science / Chris Coke

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Why it made the cut: With its spacious, accurate sound, exceptional build quality, and top-tier comfort, the MDR-MV1 is made for the rigors of the studio. 

Specs

  • Price: $398
  • Wearing Style: Over-ear
  • Driver Type: Dynamic
  • Earcup Style: Open-back
  • Weight: 223 grams
  • Impedance: 24 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 100dB

Pros

  • Well-balanced sound signature with enough bass for monitoring
  • Atmospheric, well-layered sound
  • Wide frequency response

Cons

  • No protective storage case
  • Significantly more expensive than their predecessor

If you’ve worked in or visited a recording studio, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the Sony MDR-7506, the predecessor to the MDR-MV1. It’s a classic pair of mixing cans and affordable enough to be a staple even among students studying audio engineering. The MDR-MV1 upgrades everything from the sound quality and construction right down to the cable. They’re designed to let you peek into a mix with utter precision and comfort and to stand the test of time—all for more than triple the price. 

But don’t let that scare you. The MDR-MV1 is seriously excellent for mixing and monitoring music. The headphones are made of lightweight aluminum with open and highly perforated earcups to trim off even more weight (on top of tuning its sound). At 223 grams and sporting plush suede ear cushions, you can wear these all day for mixing and all evening for movies and games with only headphone hair to show for it. Hot-spotting and ear fatigue just aren’t issues with the MV1. 

More importantly, its sound is highly tuned to match the needs of a mix engineer. Though it’s not the most spacious listen in sheer soundstage, its layering and detail are next-level. You can pick what’s happening throughout the stereo field even in a highly layered and busy track. The sound isn’t wide, but it is deep, which perhaps isn’t surprising given that these headphones were designed with spatial audio productions in mind (Sony’s 360 Audio specifically). 

So even though they’re more expensive than the original, they’re the exact right mix of comfort, sound quality, and tonal balance to max them premiere mixing cans for the price. 

Looking for something closed-back or backed by a current industry pro? The Audeze MM-500 is a fantastic, if more expensive, alternative designed in collaboration with multi-Grammy-winning producer Manny Marroquin. It doesn’t come cheap but is very impressive in its own right. 

Best for iPhone: Questyle NHB-15

Questyle NHB 15 headphones outdoors

Popular Science / Chris Cook

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Why it made the cut: This hi-res pair of earphones features MFi certification, a USB-C or Lightning cable, and a built-in audiophile-grade DAC and amp. 

Specs

  • Price: $350
  • Wearing Style: In-ear
  • Driver Type: Dynamic
  • Weight:  26 grams
  • Impedance: 38 ohms 
  • Sensitivity: Not disclosed

Pros

  • Built-in DAC/amp
  • Detachable cable can be used with other IEMs 
  • MFi (Made For iPhone/iPad) certified

Cons

  • Lightning cable is a separate model/accessory

The headphone jack’s death has been hard for all of us, but Apple users finally have a high-resolution solution with the Questyle NHB-15. This pair of in-ear monitors is MFi-certified to work with Apple devices and ships with both 3.5mm and USB Type-C cables for easy connectivity (not just to iOS but also Android, HarmonyOS, Windows, and macOS devices). Of course, not every iPhone user has upgraded to the 15 series, so there is a Lightning cable model, and you just might want to pick up this accessory for the excellent features and sound quality they offer. 

While the NHB-15 sounds great on the minijack cable (which allows it to be used with a dongle of choice), its magic really lies in the USB-C cable. Since it draws power from its audio source, Questyle was able to outfit it with a high-quality DAC and amp built right into its cable. Taking advantage of the company’s proprietary Current Mode technology, it can deliver a crisp and engaging sound with absolutely no background noise. After all, the name promises NHB—what you’ve Never Heard Before. Though they’re ultimately not the most detailed IEMs available at this price, they’re no slouch either; you’ll hear more simply because of how silent the DAC and amp circuit is. And it’s capable of processing a signal up to 192k with ultra-low distortion at 0.0002%, more than enough for the hi-res lossless streams on Apple Music. The best part is that the cable is detachable and uses a standard 2-pin connection, making it compatible with a vast sea of other IEMs. 

These earphones are versatile and well-suited to a multitude of genres, but pop and rock are at the front of the priority list. The bass is full without sounding boomy, vocals are natural and centered, and the highs, while slightly smoothed over, offer enough detail to make them sound crisp. It plays it safe, but that also means most listeners should also be able to bob along with their favorite music happily.

The NHB-15 also embraces an Apple-friendly sense of style. The earpieces are small and low-profile but eminently stylish thanks to their polished metal shells and white cable. They don’t look fancy enough at a glance to garner unwanted attention but, on close inspection, offer a satisfyingly premium look and feel. If you’re an iPhone user, the NHB-15 is one of the most low-hassle, high-performance pairs of wired IEMs you can buy.

Best in-ear headphones: Thieaudio Monarch MKIII

Thieaudio Monarch earbuds by some flowers.

Popular Science / Chris Cook

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Why it made the cut: The Monarch MKIII is the premiere IEM for around $1,000, and it is ridiculously detailed without sacrificing the bass.

Specs

  • Price: $1,000
  • Wearing Style: In-ear
  • Driver Type:  x2 dynamic drivers, x6 balanced armatures, x2 electrostatics
  • Weight: Not disclosed
  • Impedance: 20 ohms 
  • Sensitivity: 99dB

Pros

  • Punchy and textured bass
  • Exceptionally detailed
  • Spacious, airy sound signature

Cons

  • Large size
  • Limited accessories

As you might have guessed from the name, the Thieaudio Monarch MKIII is the third iteration of this pair of earphones (yes, earphones, not headphones, but they’re far-from-distant relations). And it is the best version yet. Thieaudio took the tribrid (three driver type) design of the previous versions and built upon it, adding a second dynamic driver, new versions of its electrostatics, and a refined tuning that offers fast and powerful bass alongside a sparkly and immaculately detailed sound.

While there’s a lot to love about these in-ear monitors (another name for deeper insertion, higher-resolution wired earphones), the show’s star is absolutely the bass. It uses Thieaudio’s new IMPACT2 system that houses both dynamic drivers in an isobaric chamber. The result is bass that is powerful yet controlled and exceptionally rich in texture. Kick drums have a rapid pound, while bass guitars and synths draw you in with a wide, textured foundation.

The mids and highs are nearly as good. Since the bass doesn’t step on the mids, vocals and instruments can resonate with excellent clarity and true-to-life timbre. The transition to the highs is seamless and allows harmonics to ring out so instruments like guitars and pianos are clarion and unveiled. The electrostatic drivers play a major role in making the highs sound as airy and detailed as they do, all while avoiding fatiguing sharpness in cymbals and hi-hats. 

There’s a lot to love about the Monarch MKIII, and for its price, it’s simply one of the best in-ear monitors you can find at this price and substantially higher. A thousand-dollar pair of IEMs would not often feel like a winning value, but this is definitely a case where it does. 

Just don’t expect tons of accessories. You’ll receive a modular cable, a handful of eartips, a travel case, and not much else. Still, it’s hard to argue that the Monarch MKIII is anything other than fantastic. 

Best for gaming: beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO

beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro on a plain white background.

Why it made the cut: Perfect for multi-hour gaming marathons, the DT 990 PRO offers all-day comfort and the positional accuracy gamers demand. 

Specs

  • Price: $170
  • Wearing Style: Over-ear 
  • Driver Type: Dynamic 
  • Earcup Style: Open-back
  • Weight: 340 grams
  • Impedance: 80 ohm 
  • Sensitivity: 96dB

Pros

  • Highly positional sound
  • Very detailed and resolving
  • Exceptionally comfortable over long gaming sessions

Cons

  • Can be too bright for some
  • Cable is too long

The beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro is perhaps one of the most well-regarded audiophile-tier headphones in the world of gaming. Propelled to the mainstream by mega-streamer, Ninja, these cans have proven to be some of the best for gaming in general and competitive gaming in particular. 

The secret to these gaming headphones’ success is in their highly positional sound. While not the widest or most spacious in the world, their bright tuning allows you to pick up on positional cues to locate your enemies by their footsteps or distant gunshots. For games like Call of Duty, being able to hear your enemy before you see them is a major advantage. 

Compared to many other headphones on this list, they’re lightweight and exceptionally comfortable. Their velour ear pads hug your ears like soft pillows, allowing you to play for hours with ease. Some listeners may find their brightness and long, studio-aimed cable a little bothersome, but when it comes to gaming cans, these are a bargain. Like the sound signature and thinking about going into sound design? If you want to lean in on the critical listening end of the frequency spectrum, there’s an easy upgrade path from the DT 990 Pro to the $269 900 Pro X to the $529 DT 1990 Pro—each model more energetic and exacting than the last.

If you’re looking for something that’s just as good for pure musicality as it is for gaming, the Audeze LCD-GX is an excellent alternative that even includes a microphone. Just be prepared for its much higher price. 

Best budget: Philips SHP9600

Philips SHP9600 headphones on a plain white background.

Why it made the cut: The SHP9600 makes for the perfect introduction to audiophile-grade headphones for listeners on a budget.

Specs

  • Price: $69.99
  • Wearing style: Over-ear
  • Driver type: Dynamic 
  • Earcup style: Open-back
  • Weight: 292 grams
  • Impedance: 32 ohms
  • Sensitivity: 102dB

Pros

  • Spacious soundstaging
  • Very comfortable
  • Warm, non-fatiguing sound

Cons

  • Detail isn’t that remarkable
  • Loose fit
  • Over-long cable

The Philips SHP9500 has been a staple recommendation for budget-conscious audiophiles for years, but now that its successor has arrived, there’s no reason to stick with old hardware. The SHP9600 looks better, sounds better, and won’t break the bank. It offers a warm sound signature with plenty of bass and comfortably smooth mids and highs for long listening sessions. 

They won’t win awards for being the most detailed (a fact which was also true of their predecessor), but you wouldn’t expect them to at this price. Instead, they exist to whet your appetite and act as a first step into the world of high-fidelity headphones. But that doesn’t mean they underperform. For the money, they still manage to impress. Once you get a taste of it, don’t blame us if you find yourself shopping for even better headphones in the future. 

Some qualities that make the SHP9600 especially appealing are that they are lightweight and have an above-average soundstage. Like detail, you’ll find lighter and wider headphones higher up the price ladder, but for the price, these open-backs exceed expectations. And since they’re so svelte (and stylish, we might add), you’ll be able to comfortably wear them all day. 

If you’re looking to skip this first step and can extend your budget to around $100, the Thieaudio Ghost is an excellent alternative. Heavily inspired by the Sennheiser HD 650/HD 6XX, it offers a balanced sound signature with greater detail, an even lighter weight, and is just as comfortable. If the Philips SHP9600 is our pick for “best budget,” the Thieaudio Ghost would be our choice for “best value.”

What to consider when buying wired headphones

If you’re shopping for a great pair of wired headphones, there’s a lot to consider. Here are the most important things to look for while in the consideration phase. 

Size, fit, and weight

Headphones come in many different styles and one size does not fit all. They come in three basic varieties: on-ear (supra-aural), over-the-ear (circumaural), and in-ear, with many variations within each of these categories. Some headphones are very large, trading sleekness for larger earcups and a more spacious sound. Others are low profile and won’t attract unwanted attention on your commute. 

Consider the dimensions of headphones carefully. As strange as it sounds, measuring the length of your ears and comparing to the dimensions of a potential headphone can be a worthwhile step to ensuring they’re going to be a good match for your anatomy. Some headphones, like the HIFIMAN Arya Organic, feature egg-shaped ear cups that extend down your jawline. Others, like the Grado SR60X rest directly on top of your ear. Both could be perfect, or irritating, depending on your preferences.

Another thing to carefully consider is how much the headphones weigh. Audiophile headphones, and planar magnetics, in particular, can become quite heavy. As a rule, anything over 400 grams is considered rather weighty and can cause sore spots on the crest of some listeners’ heads. This is especially true if you have short or no hair, but can vary from listener to listener and how the headphones balance their weight. A single headband is more likely to result in soreness than a suspension strap.

Compare the weight with the headband and read user reviews to develop an idea about the fit and comfort of each pair of headphones you’re considering.

Open- or closed-back

Headphones can be either “open” or “closed.” This refers to the outer face of the earcup and whether or not it is a solid surface or some form of grille to let air escape. Look carefully at the specifications, not just images, because some closed-back headphones feature grilles for aesthetic purposes only.

Closed-back headphones have solid backs and are better at isolating sound. These over-the-ear headphones block out more of the world around you and also keep your music from irritating other people in your space. They tend to have a less spacious sound overall because of this but more powerful bass. 

Open-back headphones let sound freely travel out of the earcup, which usually results in a greater sense of space when listening. The best open-back headphones can sound like the sound isn’t actually coming from right next to your ears and offer better positional accuracy and imaging. They’re the better choice for gaming and mixing because of these qualities. Sound bleed is a real issue, however, and you’ll hear everything around you too, which can be distracting when you’re trying to focus on your music. 

In general, closed-back headphones are better suited for listening around other people. If you’re alone or don’t need to worry about bothering others, open-backs are our go-to recommendation.

Driver type

Headphones are just speakers strapped to your head, and the part of the headphone that makes sound is called the transducer, or driver. But that doesn’t mean they’re all the same, and there are a couple of key types you need to know about. The first is dynamic drivers. Dynamic drivers are the most common type you’ll find in headphones, especially if you’re used to buying your headphones from a department or electronics store. They feature cone-shaped diaphragms powered by large magnets. They’re a jack of all trades, which is why they’re so ubiquitous, but have a particular strength in bass.

The second driver type is planar magnetic. These drivers use completely flat diaphragms traced with electrical filaments. These drivers are flanked on one or both sides by rows of powerful magnets. They’re larger and heavier than dynamic drivers but are renowned for their exceptional clarity and low distortion. Because of this, headphones that utilize them are often bigger and heavier. Their clarity makes them a popular choice among audiophiles. 

In-ear monitors—also known as in-ears or IEMs—use miniature versions of these drivers, as well as an array of others. Balanced armatures, typically found in hearing aids, are common and often work in conjunction with a dynamic driver to round out their sound (but not always). Electrostatic drivers are another, which offer exceptional treble detail but are usually very expensive. Bone conduction and piezo drivers are also sometimes found. The more important thing to consider is how these drivers are being used and how they impact their overall sound, which can be found in the product description and reviews.

Sound signature

Sound signature, tonality, and tonal balance all refer to how a pair of headphones sounds. In simple terms, it’s the balance between the bass, mids, and treble. Some manufacturers make this information known through frequency response graphs: line charts that show how loud the frequencies are across the three registers. This is often left to reviewers while the brand contents itself on flowery marketing language. 

Understanding how a headphone sounds before you buy it is both important and difficult. Unless you can try it for yourself ahead of time, it’s always worth reading reviews for professionals and real listeners. Don’t stop at one. Because everyone’s ears are different, we perceive sound differently, and a single review may not capture exactly how the headphones will sound to you. Take a broad overview of feedback by reading Amazon reviews and searching for the headphones on community forums like Reddit’s r/headphones and Head-Fi.

What to listen on

While upgrading your headphones is usually the best way to enhance your listening experience, it’s also important to consider what you’ll be listening on. Some headphones, like the HIFIMAN HE-1000, require more power than your average laptop or headphone adapter can provide to sound their best. Others use special 4.4mm or XLR balanced cables that reduce audio signal noise and accept more powerful output but require special jacks that those devices won’t provide. 

You can get a good idea of a headphone’s power needs by reading reviews and seeing what other people are listening on. Still, if you’d rather know exactly what they take to drive, we recommend using Headphones.com’s power calculator and finding a source device that will truly do them justice. 

As luck would have it, I’ve written an extensive guide on exactly this. For audio quality, you’ll need a digital-to-analog converter (DAC). For audio power, you’ll need an amplifier. These can be purchased separately but also come as hybrid, combined units to keep things simple and compact. If you’re planning to listen in one place, a larger desktop DAC may be a good choice but if you’re on the go or want to listen while doing chores, you’ll want something pocketable. 

On the higher end, the iFi xDSD Gryphon is an excellent choice. It offers fantastic audio quality, enough power for any pair of headphones, and xBass and xSpace enhancements to add low-end and spaciousness to your sound. It’s a bit bigger than a smartphone, so is pocketable, but may still be too big if you’re carrying other items at the same time. If space is a concern, the Questyle M15i is a great, bite-sized alternative (it’s literally about the size of a fun-sized candy bar) that sounds amazing and still has enough power for most headphones. On the budget end, the Moondrop Dawn Pro is even smaller and can run nearly any pair of in-ear monitors and many less demanding headphones too.

You can also go all-out and get a digital audio player (DAP). The best DAPs are completely dedicated to music and feature top-tier components, plenty of power, and features dedicated to ensuring you have the best listening experience possible. The FiiO M11 Plus remains our go-to recommendation for its competitive features, Android OS, and high output for its price, though FiiO offers portables at every price point (as well as a stellar Android-based desktop media streamer/amp, the R9, for power-hungry headphones). If you don’t need Android, the Hidizs AP80 Pro-X is an excellent and much more affordable alternative (and you can pair them with the $199 MP145 planar-magnetic IEMs for a budget rig that punches well above its price).

FAQs

Q: Are wired headphones better quality, and are planar magnetic headphones the best?

Sonically, wired headphones will always produce a more rich, resolving sound than wireless ones (though the gap is narrowing). And planar magnetic headphones are certainly beloved in the audiophile community and have some major advantages. If you want clarity and detail, they’re hard to beat. Their unique design and large size allows them to offer an exceptionally wide frequency response range and, usually, a more spacious listening experience. That word “usually” is key here. Planar magnetics have a uniquely crisp sound, but the overall acoustics have a great deal to do with how its designer has tuned it and crafted its sound signature. There is no one size fits all or best. When it comes to headphones, it’s all about personal space. 

Q: Are headphones designed for audiophile music good for gaming? 

They absolutely can be! While gamers often choose gaming headsets due to their microphone, if you can live without a built-in mic, many headphones that are great for music excel in gaming. Consider that many games, especially multiplayer shooters, benefit from exceptional clarity, positional accuracy, and a spacious presentation. In comparison to most gaming headsets, many great headphones for music offer far better performance in exactly these areas. If you’re considering picking up a pair of music headphones for gaming, we recommend going with an open-back design unless sound bleed is a concern. Look for terms like “wide soundstage” and “great imaging” within reviews. 

Q: Can wireless headphones be used wired?

This depends on the model. While some can, others cannot. Another important thing to consider is if they sound the same plugged in as they do wirelessly. Some wireless headphones, like the Dali iO-12, can sound great when wired to a quality source, but others sound like completely different headphones. The Sony WH-1000XM5, for example, is one of the most popular wireless headphones on the market because of the excellent ANC and seemingly endless app settings for customizing the sound. But you’d never guess it by listening to them over the 3.5mm jack. When plugged in, the internal processing is disabled, so all of the intricate tuning performed by Sony goes out the window. This isn’t the case with every set but the only way to know for sure is to research that specific model.

Final thoughts on the best wired headphones

Wired headphones may seem like a blast from the past, but when it comes to sound quality, they’re a wave that will ride long into the future. There’s a lot to consider but it’s worth the effort. Whether you’re getting lost in your favorite song, blocking out the world on your commute, or putting your feet up with a new game, a great pair of wired headphones is the gift that keeps on giving. 

Why trust us

Popular Science started writing about technology more than 150 years ago. There was no such thing as “gadget writing” when we published our first issue in 1872, but if there was, our mission to demystify the world of innovation for everyday readers means we would have been all over it. Here in the present, PopSci is fully committed to helping readers navigate the increasingly intimidating array of devices on the market right now.

Our writers and editors have combined decades of experience covering and reviewing consumer electronics. We each have our own obsessive specialties—from high-end audio to video games to cameras and beyond—but when we’re reviewing devices outside of our immediate wheelhouses, we do our best to seek out trustworthy voices and opinions to help guide people to the very best recommendations. We know we don’t know everything, but we’re excited to live through the analysis paralysis that internet shopping can spur so readers don’t have to.





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