If you want on-ear headphones because you find in-ear headphones uncomfortable, yet you need something more portable than chunky over-ear headphones, we recommend the $180 Bose SoundTrues. I came to this conclusion after dozens of hours of research on hundreds of models, consulting reviews by both professionals and users. I also conducted a listening panel of four audio professionals that tested a whopping 53 sets of headphones over a period of 45 hours. Our entire panel agreed that the Bose SoundTrues were the way to go—nothing comes anywhere to the fantastic combination of great sound, portability, and comfort like the Bose SoundTrues.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $180.
When it comes to on-ear headphones, three necessary features separate the winners from the losers: size, comfort, and sound quality. The Bose SoundTrues excel at all three. Incredibly light and compact, they have pillowy soft ear pads that are like wearing nothing at all on your head. Not only are they comfortable, but they fold up to one of the smallest case profiles in all of our testing, so they are truly portable, even fitting easily in any airplane carry-on.
None of the competition even came close to the SoundTrue’s compact build and light, hands-down-most-comfy fit.
While the SoundTrue don’t have the best sound of all of the on-ears that we tested, they still sound great at a price that’s almost half that of our best-sounding pick (more on that one below). Add to these plusses the SoundTrue’s Apple compatible in-line remote/mic, removable/replaceable cable, and array of fun colors to choose from (white, black, mint, and purple/blue) and you’ve got an on-ear that easily ran away with the win.
If our main pick is sold out or you want a non-Apple remote, our panel also liked the $180 Samsung Level Ons. While they aren’t nearly as small as the Boses while in the carrying case or as light when on your head, the Samsungs are still comfortable to wear and sound rather good. They have a well-represented, boosted low bass and an even midrange. The higher-end frequencies are subdued, so these headphones lean toward the warmer-sounding side (hip-hop bass lines are emphasized in the mix slightly more than usual, while guitars sound natural).
That said, the high end does have clarity: consonants are understandable, and cymbal hits, while a tad sibilant, are not lost in the mix. Pop, rock, hip-hop and EDM are going to sound stellar. The Samsungs also have a detachable cable with three-button remote. Overall, they’re a good option, especially for Samsung users who will appreciate the remote/mic that controls volume and functionality in Samsung devices: a rarity in an Apple or nothing world.
If you’re less concerned with compactness/portability, and more with audio quality, the $300 KEF M500 are your best choice. Featuring a much bigger soundstage than the Bose, clear detailed highs, and a slight mid/bass boost, the KEF were our panel’s overall pick for favorite sounding on-ear headphone. Every kind of music sounds amazing on the M500, from classical to classic rock. Where the Bose Sound True sound good (say, a 6 or 7 out of 10), the KEF sound great (a solid 9). They have more depth, detail, and clarity than the Bose no matter what you like to listen to.
They also have an impressively sturdy-feeling build quality, with stylish metal housing and cushy earpads. However, despite costing $50 more than the PSB M4U1, our second-place pick for best $400 over-ear headphones, the sound quality isn’t quite as good as the PSB. That being said, they are more portable than similarly priced over-ears—albeit less so than the Bose or other on-ear headphones due to a somewhat large hard-sided carrying case.
If you want great sound for the price, the $90 Beyerdynamic DTX 350ps sound far more expensive than their price tag would indicate. Fitting the bill for being lightweight, comfortable, and having good sound, the 350ps are a great choice if you want to spend a little less money, or if you are looking for on-ears as your secondary headphones.
Best suited for rock and pop, the DTX 350ps have a slight bass and treble boost that create an exciting, if not neutral, sound that is detailed on top and intense on the bottom frequencies. However, the lows can sound a little blurry and uncontained when compared to our top picks, and the highs can be too intense on jazz and classical, feeling a tad piercing on high-hat hits and snare drum sounds. You also won’t get perks like detachable cables or a hard-sided carry case: the 350ps come with a vinyl drawstring bag. However, they do fold up relatively small, are comfortable, and sound great for the money.
If you want on-ears that are small and super inexpensive but still sound decent, the $25 Koss SportaPros are for you. Yes, they have 1980s-style foam ear pads, and yes, they have a plastic chassis and thin metal headband that might catch on your hair. But even if they look cheap, they sound like they cost more than $25. With a nice natural-sounding midrange and no huge bass spike, the Sporta Pros sound clearer and fuller than you’d expect from something this price. Subtle classical or singer-songwriter music might not be the right fit, but most everything else in your playlist will sound way better than you’d think from 1980s throwbacks. They’re light and comfortable too. Plus, the Sporta Pro pack down to a tiny drawstring baggie (included), so they can stow them away in a pocket of a messenger bag easily.
There are no bells and whistles here: no remote, no detachable cord. They can be worn two ways: with the headband over the head as well as behind. If you absolutely, positively want to spend as little as possible, the SportaPros are the way to go.
You know who you are. You go through at least one pair of headphones a year, and you’ve snapped headbands, popped off earcups, and generally beat the heck out of your cans regularly. You want headphones that sound good, look good, are portable, but mostly that have some durability. Oh, and they can’t cost too much, because, well, you lose your headphones almost as much as you abuse them. We have a solution… if you’re willing to wait until November. We got to preview the new $60 UrbanEars Plattan ADVs.
They have a twistable headband that torques like crazy without breaking, headband padding that is removable and machine washable, a detachable and replaceable cable with in-line (single button, universal) remote, and they’ll be available in a myriad of fun colors. The sound can get a bit muddy on songs that are sonically dense (like rock bands with an orchestra backing track) but the sonic profile is actually a step up from the original Plattan. Plus, at $60 they don’t cost a ton, and are a great value for the price. Overall, if you have a kid, or are a kid at heart, the UrbanEars Plattan ADV are a great choice.
Are you using headphones with an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus and experiencing crackling sounds or problems with Siri? We can help with that.
On-ear headphones should only be seriously considered by people who want something more portable than over-ear headphones, yet can’t seem to find a comfortable fit with in-ear headphones. For everyone else, chances are that you can get a better deal for the same or better sound quality out of a pair of over-ear or in-ear headphones, depending on your priorities.
At any given price point, you’re going to get more bang for your buck out of over-ears if sound quality is your main concern. Over-ears will have better sound, a deeper soundstage, and better external noise isolation for the same cost, so if portability isn’t a concern, but sound quality is, you should be shopping for over-ears. Check out our $150 over-ears article for similar priced headphones to our top pick here, or $400 over-ears article for something even higher-quality.
Similarly, if you want the ultimate in portability, in-ear headphones are the best choice. If you don’t mind the feeling of in-ears pushing on the inside of your ear canals (which many people don’t), you can get some really great sounding headphones for around the same price as our on-ear picks. By comparison, I’d say our $200 in-ear pick sounds just as good as the Bose, but are far more compact. And while our $100 in-ear pick is a little bit of a step down in terms of soundstage (or sense of depth and sonic space), they also cost far less and can pop in your pocket with ease.
Whatever the personal reason for considering them, we think that on-ears should be lighter and more portable than over-ears—otherwise why not get the bigger (and generally-speaking better sounding) over-ear model? They also must be very comfortable, as anything that sits on your outer ear will inevitably be fatiguing when listening long-term.
Also worth mentioning is that these headphones aren’t sweat proof, so if you’re looking for something for the gym or running, check out our Best Workout Headphones article. Or, if you don’t care about portability and just want the best sound for the money, check out our $150 over-ears and $400 over-ears articles. But, if in-ears aren’t your style and you need audio on the go, on-ears are a great option.
Not only did I do extensive research and consult with some of the top professional reviewers (you can read more about that below), I also hold a bachelor’s in both Music Performance and Audio Production from Ithaca College. I spent several years in terrestrial radio before moving on to become a professional voice actor in Los Angeles, a job I continue to do and love. (In other words, I’ve spent more than a decade in and out of top recording studios).
Around the same time, I started reviewing high-end home audio equipment for magazines like Home Theater Magazine, Home Entertainment, and Sound & Vision. Since landing at the Wirecutter, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to and reviewing hundreds (yes, hundreds) of headphones.
Since this is the first time we’ve tackled this category, it was a massive endeavor. First, I researched for nearly 30 hours to find out what on-ear headphones were generally well liked. I read professional reviews from well-respected audio experts like Tyll Hertsens of InnerFidelity and Steve Guttenberg of CNET, as well as shopping sites like Amazon, Crutchfield, and other stores to see what people using the headphones had to say. I also dropped in on enthusiast sites like Head-Fi. After that was finished, I looked through every company that we could think of that made on-ear headphones, and saw what was new and un-reviewed (there were 6 of these, two of which we got before anybody else! Lucky us!)
At this point, we’d looked at hundreds of headphones, seriously considered just over 100, and the best of the best were called in to be tested. How many did we test? Fifty-three. Yup, 53. It’s a lot. We called in our expert panel over several days to give their opinions.
The face-off panel consisted of: Brent Butterworth, Wirecutter A/V writer with decades of experience in the audio field with publications such as Sound & Vision, Home Theater, About.com, and many others; John Higgins, a session musician and music and audio teacher at the prestigious Windward School; Geoff Morrison, writer for Forbes and CNET and A/V editor here at the Wirecutter; and me, Lauren Dragan, writer for the Wirecutter and Sound & Vision and a professional voice actor with a dual bachelor’s degree in music and audio production.
With the decades of experience, variety of sonic preferences, and varying head and ear shapes between us, you can be sure that if we all like something, it’s pretty great.
How did we tackle that many headphones? After burning them in (which in itself was a several-day affair) we split the finalist headphones into three price ranges: under $50, $51-$149, and over $150. Generally speaking, we have found through our past research and testing that these price ranges often mark a jump in quality of materials, drivers and sound.
We tested each category separately, comparing all the headphones in each group to one another, and choose our top three. We took into account sound, fit, size, and build quality.
To make it fair, panelists didn’t know the exact price of any headphone, only that it fit into a general price group. Then, we took the winning headphones from each price group and tested them against each other to see if there was a lower-priced gem that beat out more expensive competitors. It was at this point I told the panelists the prices of their top picks.
We then asked ourselves two questions:
1. If I were spending my own money, which headphone would I buy?
2. If money were no object (if for example, they’re a gift) which headphone would I want to use?
Based on those answers, we came up with overall winners for the category as well as runners-up in each price range.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $180.
The Bose SoundTrues are our top pick because they strike the perfect balance of being extremely comfortable, lightweight, and compact—plus they sound really good. This isn’t something many other headphones could claim. Many pinched our ears, squeezed our heads, sounded terrible, or had HUGE cases.
Every one of the panelists gave the SoundTrues top marks for fit and comfort. They fold down (in their included case) to one of the smallest profiles of all of the headphones we tested. Most people who are looking for on-ear headphones want something that is light and portable: more-or-less an alternative to in-ears. And the Bose SoundTrues excel in this aspect beyond any other on-ear headphone in any price range.
The ear pads are soft and pillowy, like little clouds on your ears. (I’m not exaggerating. Go smoosh some yourself and see.) The headband is lightweight, and fit our panel’s varying head sizes and ear shapes well. This is tough to do, especially with someone like me, who has somewhat elfin-like outer ears a la Kate Hudson. I had to give some slack in terms of fit rankings to a few headphones that smashed my ears but fit everyone else well, because I know I’m an outlier. However, if your ears are similar to mine, or if you’re someone who finds on-ears generally fatiguing, the Bose SoundTrues might solve your problem. They are so dang comfortable.
The design of the Bose’s included case is reminiscent of old CD wallets (remember those, kids?) and takes up minimal bag space. The actual measurements when in the case are 5″ x 4.75” x 1.5”, and they’re incredibly light. Weighing in at around 5.25 ounces, they’re lighter than two Blu-ray discs in their cases. As you can see, the SoundTrues are completely airplane carry-on friendly. Besides this, the cord is removable/replaceable, and has an iPhone-compatible, three-button remote/mic. Plus, there are several colors to choose from: black, white, mint, and purple/mint.
Now, let’s get into the weeds about the audio: the SoundTrues have a boosted upper-bass and mids that leads to a somewhat bottom-heavy frequency range. The highs are delicate and lower in the mix, so the overall effect can be a mildly muted, almost muffled sound for those accustomed to headphones that are more even across all frequency ranges or high-end-heavy. That said, the highs are not piercing or fatiguing, and the muted effect isn’t enough to make consonants in words indiscernible. In addition, the bass has good pitch and isn’t thudding or formless.
What this means overall is that the rhythm guitar and electric bass in rock songs might sound louder than you might be accustomed to, and female vocals might sound somewhat softer.
Are the SoundTrues the best sounding example of anything we tried? No. So if sound quality is the most important aspect you’re looking for, check out our high-end audio pick, the KEF M500s, below. That said, if the KEFs are a 10 sound-wise, the Boses are a solid 7 or 8; so the SoundTrues are far better sounding than average at almost half the price of the KEFs, which is what ultimately made them the pick.
But enthusiasts (especially those who don’t care how much equipment they have to carry about to feed their music addiction) might not be absolutely thrilled. Generally, however, when we considered the ease of use on-the-go against the sound, our reviewers unanimously agreed that the Bose SoundTrues would be the headphones we’d want to grab for a journey, even if we had to pay for them ourselves.
Aside from the sound concerns mentioned above, the SoundTrues also have a proprietary cable that is a 1/16” jack at the top and ⅛” at the bottom… which means you have to replace the cable with one by Bose if you lose it.
Also, all that lightness comes at the price of headphones that feel more breakable than those made out of all metal. Try to avoid sitting on them too often.
That said, nothing in this range comes anywhere close to the fantastic combination of great sound, portability, and comfort like the Bose SoundTrues. If you take a trip with them, we’re sure you’ll love them.
Sleek and comfy with a case the size of a large sourdough bread bowl, the $180 Samsung Level Ons are a fantastic option for non-iPhone users, as their remote controls the volume on Samsung products, which many other options do not. Our panel actually liked the sound of the Samsungs better than the Boses. The only issue is that they’re not quite as portable as our main pick.
The Level On sound signature features nice high end clarity, great bass, and little midrange coloration. The result is neutral volume from the guitars through hi-hat, but a little louder bass bump on hip-hop and EDM. This means that your bass will bump a little louder than usual, but everything else will be left undisturbed.
The Level Ons have a removable three-button Samsung remote (though the center play/pause button does function on Apple products) and fit everyone on the panel equally well. The earpads are amazingly cushy, soft, and comfy. And the overall design, while minimal, is simple and elegant. However, they’re less portable than the Bose.
The Level Ones are 7” x 6.5” x 2.5”, a good bit bigger than the Bose Sound True. While this footprint isn’t huge, they don’t tuck away nearly as easily in a bag, and this alone might be enough to keep them from making the packing cut. That said, if you want a remote that functions fully on a Samsung, or want a little more sound at the cost of a little more space, the price in dollars is about the same, and the Level Ons are totally worth considering.
Three of our four panelists put the KEF M500s as their favorite-sounding pick of all of the on-ears we heard (Geoff preferred the Samsung Level Ons and the Beats Solo2s). The highs are crisp and clear, the mids have no discernable coloration, and the bass is full and present with clear representation of pitch, even on very low notes (as opposed to thudding or woofing). So voices are clear and natural with delicate consonants, guitars and piano sound natural and accurate, and the bass lines aren’t muddy; they’re clear and rich.
The M500s also have the largest soundstage of all of the headphones we tested: the music sounds like there is depth to the recording—like it’s happening in a room rather than in your head.
The build quality is also superb: an aluminum chassis covered with protein leather at the crown as well as on the earpads. The linguine-style cable is removable/replaceable and the M500s include one cable with a three button iPhone remote/mic, and one plain cable.
Everyone on the panel found them to be very comfortable. The aluminum housing is sturdy but light, and the pads that sit on your ears are soft and pliable enough to keep them from pushing too much on your outer ears. That said, they aren’t nearly as lightweight and cushy as the Bose.
Unfortunately, two issues kept the KEFs from being a top pick: firstly, their size in the included hard case is a lot bigger than the Bose. Measuring 7.5” x 5” x 2”, the M500s’ case is like a really thick slab of watermelon, which is unfortunate given that portability is one of the main attractions of on-ear headphones. Secondly, their $300 price is almost three times that of the Bose. They’re also about on par with our current second-place pick for best $400 over-ear headphones, the PSB M4U 1, which feature a bigger soundstage and deeper bass response (not surprising given they have more room to work with). However, while the KEFs don’t sound quite as good as our $300 over-ear pick, they only take up half as much space, as you can see in the group shot below.
If portability is more important than absolute sound quality, these are the definite winner.
If you want to know what else is available in this price range, check out the other headphones we tested in the over-$150 section below.
With great sound for their price, and the ability to fold down to a relatively small size, the Beyerdynamic 350ps are a great choice for someone looking for a secondary pair of headphones that can travel with them. Lightweight and comfortable, the Beyerdynamics sound way better than you’d expect from $70 headphones. They beat out many other headphones that cost almost twice the price.
All of our panelists liked their sound, which is boosted in the lower treble. The mids and sounds great on rock and hip-hop. This “pumped-up sound” as Brent called it is fun, although not reference-level; so folks who listen to a lot of folk or jazz might not be as enthused. Vocals and guitars are emphasized, and the lower bass can sound a bit undefined or blurry when compared to more expensive headphones. That said, for the cost they still sound really great, and they fold down to be filed away in a small bag about the size of a can of soup (although much lighter!).
What kept these from the top pick was the permanently attached cord (that goes to both ears, not just one) lack of remote, and the carrying bag rather than hard case. When you have a largely plastic chassis, a bag will keep the dust off but not protect your cans from breakage. But if you’re looking to spend a little less, the 350ps are a good option. Want to know what else we tested in the $51-$149 price range? Check out our results below.
So, what if you want to spend as little as humanly possible without hating your purchase? Then we’d recommend the Koss SportaPros, which will set you back a paltry $25. Are they fancy? Nope. They have foamy ‘80s earpads and a thin metal headband connected to plastic earcups. No remote, no detachable cord. But they’re small, light, they sound good, and they’re cheap. Even smaller than the Bose SoundTrues, the Sporta Pros are good traveling headphones that are inexpensive enough to not make you cry if they get lost.
The sound is great for the sticker price, though, and all of our reviewers put them in their top three in the under-$50 price range. The SportaPros were only bested sound-wise by headphones that are double their price. To make it into the top choices at $25 is a big accomplishment.
They have a nice, clear, and mostly flat frequency response, with just a small bump in the lower mids. This means they handle spoken word just as well as jazz or classical. They lack the high-end detail and intense lower bass of more expensive options, but really, they sound pretty remarkable.
A note, however: Despite the name “Sporta”Pro, the headphones aren’t moisture resistant, so we can’t recommend you take them on sweaty jogs. However, they do have a dual over- or behind-head wearing style, so if you like wearing a baseball cap and headphones, the SportaPro will accomodate.
They’re mostly comfortable, as the build is very light, but the metal band could get caught in longer hair, and the clamping force isn’t overly intense, but definitely more pronounced than our other top picks. Overall, while they’re not perfect, the SportaPros give you way more in sound quality than you’ll pay out for them. Want to know what else we tested in this range? Check out the $50 and under section below.
The UrbanEars Plattan ADVs have a lot going for them: they come in a myriad of fun colors, they have a washable headband, they’re comfortable, they sound good, and you can literally bend them like a pretzel without breaking them. Wanna see? Check this out:
Anyone who has gone through the nuisance of replacing a pair of headphones every year will know the value of this feature. Plus, the Plattan ADVs have a removable fabric-wrapped cable with a one button remote/mic and the capability to daisy-chain. What this means is that there are two connection jacks on the ADVs (one on each earcup), so a friend can hook their headphones into your ADVs and you can both listen to the same thing (or watch a movie together on the same device). Parents on road trips know the value of this feature.
The ADVs are pretty comfortable, with a bit more clamping pressure than the other headphones in this range, but the earpads are soft and the earcups swivel.
While the sound of the Plattan ADVs isn’t our favorite (we like the Beyerdynamic 350ps better) it isn’t objectionable either. In fact, we think it’s an upgrade from the older UrbanEar Plattans we tested, the Plattan Plus.
The overall sound in the mids and lows can get a bit resonant, which means on sonically dense music (like a rock band with an orchestra backing, or really busy electronica) the effect can be a bit of blurriness or muddiness to the instrumentals. In other words, you might find you lose some detail in individual bass riffs or lower piano runs. That said, there are far worse headphones out there that cost far more and that don’t have all the fantastic features of the Plattan ADVs. If you need portable headphones that can take some abuse, the UrbanEars Plattan ADVs are a great choice for you.
Another favorite in this price range in terms of sound were the Sony MDR- ZX600s. Brent and John chose them as their top-sounding headphone pick in this price bracket, and once I got the correct fit, I agreed. These are one of the headphones I mentioned earlier that I realized wasn’t performing as well for me due to my elf ears. They actually sounded completely different to me depending on whether the earcups sat forward or slightly over the back rim on my ears. (FWIW, back was better.) Forward, they were boom and sizzle, with obnoxious highs and lows. Properly positioned, however, I heard what John and Brent did, a headphone that is “flat, neutral, spacious, and clean sounding.” They reminded all of us of the sound of our over-ear pick, the Sony MDR-7506. What kept them out of our top slot was the $50 price tag and the fact that they aren’t very compact. They do swivel flat, but as you can see in the group shot at the top, the ZX600s take up significantly more space than the Koss competition. And while the ZX600s are far more sturdily built than the Koss headphones, the ZX600s cost twice as much. For $20 more you could have the better-sounding and more compact Beyerdynamic 350ps.
Second runner-up for sound were the Beyerdynamic DT235s. While these are comfy and sound rather nice, the price tends to fluctuate, so we’ve seen them for as low as $48, but they occasionally rise over $50. The main problem we had with these is that they, as Brent put it, “kinda look like headphones you’d get for free with something.” He’s right. The money on these was obviously put into the sound rather than the design. The DT235s are not going to win any beauty contests. They don’t fold up at all and don’t really seal out external noise well. While the 235 have decent bass and clear highs, we really would say that their sister headphones, the Beyerdynamic 350ps, are worth every penny of the $18-$22 (depending on the day) more.
And the rest, in alphabetical order:
JVC Flats are $12, and they sound like it. While we appreciate the lightweight design, the sound quality just wasn’t there, even for such a low price. The bass was bloated, the midrange muffled, and the high-end had a hissy quality to it. We want to save you money, but for the extra $13, the Koss SportaPros sound so much better.
The JVC HAS400Bs are in the middle of this price bracket both in terms of dollars and sound. They weren’t the best; they weren’t the worst. Geoff found them uncomfortable, and I felt as though the fit was almost more over-ear than on-ear. Why we weren’t huge fans depends on who you asked: John said the bass had too much of a boost around the frequency where the kick drum sits, Brent found the higher frequencies were too soft and lead to the overall feel to be lifeless, Geoff had the fit issues, and I thought there was a sort of reverb or echo sound in the mids (otherwise known as the Q-factor) that was too much. However you slice it, all of us agreed that there were better options in this category.
Another JVC offering, the JVC HASR500Bs, were a huge disappointment. The sound was akin to an “old clock radio” according to one of our panelists. The highs were blaring, and the bass sounded as though it was muffled. Huge pity.
The Koss Pro 1s are another no-go for folks who have ears that stick out. The earcups don’t pivot forward and back, so you’ll have a tough time getting a comfortable fit. Depending on how they fit you, they could have muddy-sounding mids and a bass bloat, or just sound so-so and cheap sounding. For around $10, they sound decent enough, but the SportaPros are much better for not much more money. You may as well drop the extra $10-$15.
Remember a little while back when an excavation crew dug up a bunch of old buried Atari video games in New Mexico? Well, the Koss Porta Pros look as though they’ve been stuck in that time capsule with the E.T. game and Berzerk. Retro design aside, the Porta Pros sound pretty good, but not as good as their sister the SportaPros. The Portas have a bit more of an edge to vocals and a more boomy bass. They have a tension adjustment slider on the side of the earcups, but we couldn’t get them to work without feeling as though we were going to break something. So the experience is not as great as the SportaPros, and yet the Porta Pros cost $15 more. For nearly $50, you can get the Porta Pros with an iPhone remote, but that price, we would like to see a more sturdy build quality. So unless you’re headed to a totally 80’s party, stick with the SportaPros.
The Lindy HF-20 are small and lightweight, and we really had high hopes for them. The first pair we received and tested sounded terrible: tinny and completely lacking in bass. The folks at Lindy reached out to us and said they thought we may have received a defective pair. So we re-tested. Our second test unit did have more bass than the first; which was really nice to hear. The treble was still sibilant, and the mids were still muffled enough that while the sound was an improvement over our first pair, we still didn’t find that the HF-20 were good enough for a recommendation, especially when they cost $40 or so. Add to that the fact that the entire panel found them weirdly uncomfortable (they pinch larger heads, slide off ears that stick out, and scrape your scalp) we were all (still) really bummed.
The House of Marley knows how to make cool looking headphones at a reasonable cost. We all loved the look of the Marley Harambes. The Harambes come in several sustainably-made colors, and we all wanted to like these so badly. Marley usually chooses really nice drivers for their headphones, so we’re pretty sure something went wrong when these were voiced for sale. The bass was an absolute mess: it sounded like instead of a kick drum, someone was thumping on a styrofoam cooler. The treble was blaring, making horns squawk, and every panelist lost their smile once they hit play. Super duper sad.
The Marley Positive Vibrations also are available in fun color options, and are almost over-ears. Brent liked them a lot, though he admitted that the bass response tended to cover up some of the other frequencies. John agreed that the Positive Vibration were “a little boomy” but added that he “could see himself listening to these for an extended period.” Geoff wasn’t a fan, and I found the headband too tight and while the sound wasn’t bad, per say, I thought the overall sound was kinda dull with a peak right in the higher strings section (3 kHz or so) Here’s our final thought: if you want cool-looking headphones for a reasonable $35, the Positive Vibrations are your best bet. They sound decent enough, but that said, they don’t fold up too small; the SportaPros are by far more portable, and the Sony ZX600s sound better.
Another pretty-looking headphone is the Atlas by MEElectronics. Using a patented technology, the printed designs on the chassis are actually under the plastic rather than painted on top, so the pattern can never flake or scratch off. They have a removable cable with remote as well. The Atlas are comfortable, and the perforated protein leather ear pads feel as though they will breathe well. The problem was that it seemed that the folks who designed the sound profile wanted to create something that they thought people who like the original Beats would enjoy. So the bass is incredibly loud with no definition. The mids are thin sounding, and there’s a big spike in the female vocal range. As a result, it sounds like voices are coming from between cupped hands and live piano, as Brent put it. Overall, if you loved the sound of the original Beats, and you like the kick-ass look of the Atlas, grab them. Otherwise, there are better options out there.
The Shure SRH 145m+s have a design that looks far more expensive than their price. However, when you get them into your hands, they feel cheaply constructed. Brent found the earcups didn’t sit properly on his ears, and none of us found the 145m+ to be comfortable enough to wear for long periods of time. The sound of the 145m+s is rather nice overall; the mids are clean and voices sound really great. The bass end is tight and kick drums and bass guitar have definition and fullness to the sound. The biggest flaw is the treble, which is highly colored and has a lot of peaks and dips that was enough for our panel to decide that we’d prefer to spend the few extra dollars on the Beyerdynamic 350ps. That said, if you need a remote and mic, and want a step up from the ultra inexpensive Koss SportaPros, the Shures are a decent middle-ground option.
The Sony MDR-ZX100s look similar to the ZX600s, but the sound quality is nowhere near as stellar. Perhaps because of the price (just over $15) you can forgive the somewhat reverb-heavy and inexpensive sound, especially if you are listening to only pop, rock, and hip hop. But with any music that requires subtlety, the ZX100s just can’t hold up. They are relatively comfortable, and they aren’t offensive sounding, but our entire panel felt the SportaPros were better sounding for the same amount of money, plus the SportaPros fold up to be much more compact for travel. All that aside, if you really like the look of the Sonys and listen to heavily volume compressed music, the ZX100 got a solid “not bad” from our panelists.
The Urban Ears Humlans come in a rainbow of colors and have machine washable earpads and headband cover. It’s a great idea, and we wanted to love the Humlan. Unfortunately, the bass frequencies have a boost that extends into the mids that means that guitars can overpower vocals and other details in the highs. The earpads don’t swivel, so the Humlans tend to slip forward on your face. They’re not bad, but with so much competition, the $50 Humlans didn’t make the cut. We think Urban Ears were on the right track, but if you want on-ear Urban Ears, go for the Plattan ADVs: they’re only $11 more, sound better, fold up, are flexible, have a detachable cord, and still have the washable headband.
Like the $50 and under range, we had a sound-quality winner that didn’t end up with our top recommendation due to lack of folding capability (and a fluctuating cost.) The Philips Fidelio M1s can currently be bought for far less than their original price due to the fact that they are being replaced in early 2015 by a newer (and likely more expensive) model. (At least in the US; overseas, the new model has been announced and will be available even sooner.) So here’s the deal. The Fidelio M1s were in the top 2 in terms of sound for all of our panelists. They have a neutral sound that’s got no obvious boosts or alterations, and they sound expensive… because they used to be. The build quality is really solid as well, a brushed metal headband wrapped with protein leather and memory foam earpads. The cable is fabric-wrapped and while it’s permanently attached at the earcup, there is a removable segment that gives you the option of using the included iPhone cable or swapping it out. The main issue is that the earcups swivel to fold flat, but the headband doesn’t fold up. So you can slide the M1s lengthwise into your bag like a notebook, but they aren’t going to stuff in a smaller pocket or purse. If you’re only carrying your headphones in a backpack, you’d be fine. But we can’t help but wonder if that defeats the purpose of on-ears altogether. However, if for some reason you dislike over-ears, the Fidelio M1s are a great sounding choice for the price while they last.
The AKG Y50s are peaked-sounding in a fun and wonderful way. With an in-your-face kickass bass and a little extra push in the vocal range, the AKG Y50s are just begging to have rock, pop, and hip-hop blasted through them. The earpads look like puffy little donuts and are very plush and comfy. The headband is metal and padded, and the entire build feels sturdy and quality. The Y50s have a detachable cable with single button remote, and are available in four colors (matte black, yellow, turquoise, and red.) The Y50s do fold up, though as you can see in the group photo above, they aren’t the smallest, even when popped into their included neoprene bag. But if you like a little extra oomph in your bass and and a touch more clarity on cymbal hits and vocals, you’ll really like the Y50s’ sound. What put them out of the winners circle (aside from size) the price: the Y50s will set you back $130 (unless you catch them as a deal on Amazon… we’ve seen them as low as $99 depending on the day.) So, like the Fidelio M1s, they’re great; we just think the Beyerdynamics’ smaller size and lower cost outweigh the Y50s’ benefits for most people.
And the rest in alphabetical order:
AiAiAi Tracks look minimalist-cool, but that’s about their only redeeming quality. They have nearly no bass, the high end has a shouty feel to it, and the earpads are scratchy. Nobody on the panel liked them, and one even said “I just don’t get how these got made.” Ouch.
The AKG K430s have a piercing high-end and a dip in the mids that make snare drums snap in a distracting way, and horns sound like they were squawking. The bass is nice when it’s there, but overall, the sizzling high end was enough to encourage us to choose other options.
The AKG Q460s were said to have been voiced by Quincy Jones, and have the same build as the K430s. We love Quincy Jones. We respect and adore him for everything he has done for the music industry. He is rightly a legend, and we have nothing negative to say about him as a producer. However, these headphones have the most insane, ridiculous, formless bass we’ve ever heard. Seriously. The low end is loud, blobby, and makes everything else difficult to hear. The mids are nonexistent. It’s the most confusing voicing. John said, “we love you Quincy, but damn.”
Audio Technica’s Earsuit ES500s aren’t terrible, but they aren’t great either. The build feels creaky and cheap compared to others in the $100 range, and the overall sound is dull, muffled, and unengaging. Brent mentioned that he listened to a James Taylor live song, and the guitar sounded as though the “body had been stuffed with T-shirts.” it lacked the rich mids that a good guitar sound should have. With so many great choices, it’s tough to recommend these.
The next up in the line, the Audio Technica Earsuit ES700s has a lot of great Amazon reviews. This surprises us as the ES700s have a ton of unevenly peaked treble, which was fatiguing to John, Brent, and I. There is some sort of resonance in the lower treble which makes high hat hits ring longer than they are supposed to, and the mids have an odd coloration that makes the guitar sound like the amp is in a wooden box. Words like “tinny” were also used to describe the ES700, so we think for the $130 the ES700 cost you can do better.
The Audio Technica RE700s have a design reminiscent of a camera focus ring, and look as though they would fold up, but they don’t. Sadly, our entire panel found the highs to be shrill without enough solid bass to counteract it. The bass that is present in the RE700 is woofy and soulless. It’s a shame, as the great looks really set us up for a disappointment.
The Beyerdynamic DTX 501ps are light and portable. Check and check. As far as the sound goes, the DTX 501p aren’t bad; the bass is a bit blurry which slightly muffles the mids and vocal range. John liked them enough to put them in his top three sound-wise, but we all agreed that there were other options that just edge out the 501ps in this range.
JBL’s E30s are new and have a really nice look. They come in a bunch of colors, and feel sturdy. Sadly, the low frequencies are have a “wuh, wuh” quality to them whether portraying a kick drum or an electronic bassline. Not loud in the mix, just nebulous. Brent said the sound reminded him of “hi-fi speakers made in the 1960s.” It’s a bummer, because there were a lot of build-quality plusses that would have made the E30s worth considering had the sound been better.
Marley Liberates look cool and are well built, but they don’t fold up. They also have a voicing that pushes the lower mids and drops the higher end frequencies which leaves everything sounding a bit muffled and lacking in detail. It’s too bad. We are always rooting for a company that uses sustainable materials and donates to charity, but we just can’t recommend the Liberates.
Also by Marley, the Riddems have a nice slouchy military look, but have a lot of the same sonic problems as the Liberates. Reverberant mids cause the vocal line to be muffled, and the bass line is intense as though you’re sitting next to the kick drum. Sigh.
The Polk Hinges have perhaps the best build quality in this price range. The design details are lovely, like stitched leatherette over an aluminum headband, metal hinges, and a removable cable with three button iPhone remote. They’re really beautifully built, and the Hinges feel as though they are worth far more than the current $100 they’re going for. If they sounded as good as they look, we might have a different winner. But although the Hinges’ drivers sound as though they are quality, the voicing is off. They call it Polk Optimized Electro-acoustic Tuning (POET), and claims the sound of the Hinge is supposed to be “immersive.” What we heard was a bloated bass and a midrange that gave male vocals too much resonance at higher volumes, making them a bit muffled. The highs are nice, clear and clean, but everything supporting them in the lower frequencies is lackluster. Serious. Heartbreak.
Skullcandy designed the Knockouts with women in mind. Any time a tech company says they made a product gender-specific, I cringe a little. Marketinghttp://thewirecutter.com/design based on gender, rather than say, specific physical needs like small ears or larger heads can cause a lot of companies to wade into the quicksand of sexism. But if there must be headphones “made for women,” I’d argue that Skullcandy handled the execution as skillfully/thoughtfully as possible. I had a lengthy meeting with Skullcandy at CES 2014 and wrote about it for Sound + Vision.
While I appreciate the request by the Skullcandy team that only women test the Knockouts, I also believe that just as I have the ability to test gender neutral and men’s headphones with equity, men have the ability to test the Knockouts, with the understanding that these headphones were designed with solutions to specific problems in mind. In the case of the Knockouts, those problems are smaller head size, skin prone to breakouts due to bacteria, and the desire to use the carry bag for more than just headphones. In all of these, the Knockouts perform well: The headband is comfortable with not too much clamping force, the earpads are anti-microbial, the included carry bag has an extra pocket, and it’s styled to look like a small tote. The colors are cool, and while some may call them “feminine,” I know some stylish guys who would love to rock the look. And, if those guys have medium to smaller-sized heads, they can.
John and Geoff had no issue with the fit. (Neither did I.) Brent acknowledged that his head was too large for the Knockout, but understood that his cranium wasn’t the target size. But here’s where we all had an issue: the sound. Skullcandy said that they designed the drivers “for women,” based on the sonic preferences they’d found (through research and science) that women have. According to Skullcandy, women favor “deeper, cleaner bass” and “very natural sounding vocals.” And while a study done at University of Texas Austin claims there are some differences between how men and women perceive sounds (Spoiler: supposedly women are more sensitive to sounds than men; this is by only 2-3 dB and apparently can vary by as much as 5 dB during menstruation or if a woman is on birth control) this is only one study, and 2-3 dB is really not that much, loudness wise. Men do tend to lose their hearing faster than women, but that has nothing to do with, nor creates a broad shift in, gender-based preferences from birth to age 60+ (when most hearing loss tends to occur). It didn’t affect our all-sub-60-year-old panel.
So, based on all of that info, we can, with educated opinion, say that the Knockouts have highs that are nice in the acoustic guitar range, but blaring on voices. The slightly muffled midrange is overwhelmed by a bass that sounds like there’s cloth covering the subwoofer and air is hitting it. In general, we all heard the same thing; and we all felt “meh.” So while the visual design pleased listeners of all genders, I’m not sure who the sound was engineered for. Certainly not this lady. :::shrug:::
We mentioned the UrbanEars Plattan ADVs are our choice for kids/teens/breakage prone. Their predecessor, the Plattan Plus have an iPhone remote but are inferior to the ADVs in every other way. The Plus have sluggish attack in the high end which leaves them sounding dull. They don’t have the cool washable headband or the torquing ability. They’re okay… but we really recommend holding out for the ADVs.
The folks at UrbanEars always come up with clever ideas. The Zinkens, made for DJs, have a coiled removable cable that has an ⅛” jack at one end and a ¼” jack on the other. The earcups have an ⅛” input on one side and a ¼” input on the other. See where this is going? The Zinken gives you the ability to listen to music coming from either size output without having to cart around an adaptor. Genius! No more losing your adaptor or washing it in your jeans. Sadly the sound is just okay, with a bit too much low end and a little too little high end. What’s there is good, the Zinkens just lack the detail that a small bit more volume in the syllable range would have solved. Overall, if you like the cord design and less high end, you’ll like the Zinkens. Otherwise, we think the Plattan ADVs are a better choice for most people.
Velodyne makes amazing subwoofers. The bass on just about everything they make sounds good. The V Leves is no exception. To most ears, there may be too much of that bass, but that’s a preference issue. What isn’t a matter of preference is the inexplicably crappy build quality. The V Leves feel brittle, plastic, and like they shouldn’t cost as much as they do. Yes, the option of interchangeable skins is nice, but you can’t cover up a snapped headband or cracked earcups, which is what these feel as though they would do at the first sign of trouble. This might be forgivable if the V Leves sounded amazing, but despite the kick-your-ass bass, the mids are blaring and and sound crude. We were really hoping for more. You should too.
Our runner-up and our audio-fan pick are both in this range, so if you aren’t getting the Bose SoundTrues, we’d recommend the Samsung Level Ons or the KEF M500s, and you can read all about them above. There are a lot of great headphones in this range, but it’s the details that put Bose, Samsung, and KEF on top. That said, with a few exceptions (which will be made clear below), most of these headphones are at least recommendable.
And the rest in alphabetical order:
The AKG K451s look at lot like the Q460s or the K430s. Small, easily folded, lightweight. They sound pretty good, too. Unfortunately, John found the treble to be too harsh, and Geoff and I thought the mids were lacking and a tad blurry sounding. The bass was nice, intense, but not formless or overpowering. However, because there were so many great options in this group, “good” just wasn’t good enough to take the top spots. (Note: these were $180 when we went into testing, but dropped to $99 on Amazon as of writing this piece. While at that price we think the K451 are recommendable, we still find the Beyerdynamics sound better for less, and the Bose are far more compact and comfortable.)
Audio Technica’s Earsuit ATH-ESW9As have actual wood on the earcups and look very well made. The fit on a smaller head like mine was more over-ear than on-ear, but was still rather comfortable. The treble was slightly sibilant and sizzly but the mids and lows were nice and rich with a decent soundstage. Overall, they weren’t bad, but the ESW9A were far from portable. In the end we just liked the sound and fit of the K500 better, and the compactness of the Bose better, and that was enough to push the ESW9A out of the top slots.
Another from Audio Technica, the Sonic Fuel OX5s are glossy and black (or red). Two of our panelists had an issue with the fit, though for differing reasons: Brent felt the earpads mashed his ears, and John found the headband uncomfortable. What we all agreed on, however, was that there were better options for the price. Muffled mids was the biggest complaint by all of our panelists, seconded by muddy bass. In the end, nobody was very happy, and for $200, there are many better options in this range.
The Audio Technica OX7 Amps are nothing much to look at. But they do sound really great. Three of our panelists put them as third place for sound quality in this price range. The “Amp” portion of the name is referring to a battery-operated integrated amp, which is really nice for two reasons: one, it provides more control over the power supplied to the headphone’s driver, which enables the sound to be more responsive; two, it helps reduce the power draw on your music device. When powered on, the OX7 Amp sound really nice, with delicate highs, a nice, spacious midsection, and a little bass bump. Powered off… they aren’t as stellar. The highs lose some detail, and the soundstage diminishes greatly. Why didn’t the end up a pick? The KEF M500s and Samsung Level Ons sounded better, the Boses were smaller (the Ox7 don’t fold up at all) and lighter, and for $300, the OX7 build quality felt very plastic and shoddily built. It was all of these factors combined that kept the OX7 Amps from getting our full endorsement.
The Beats Mixrs were a disappointment. Great build quality, fun colors, removable cord… the Mixrs are awesome until you put them on. Once on, the headband’s clamping pressure was really uncomfortable for Brent, and the earpads weren’t comfortable on John’s ears. Geoff and I didn’t hate the fit, but we both thought the Beats Solo 2s were far more comfortable. As for the sound, the Mixrs have the classic Beats profile that we never got into: booming formless lows and not enough clarity in the high-end to rein the bass in. For $250, there are better choices, including options by Beats.
Here’s something really exciting for the future of Beats: the Beats Solo 2s are the best sounding Beats we’ve heard. Everyone found the Solo 2s to be very comfortable, and our entire panel agreed that the Solo 2 were hands down our favorite Beats headphones so far. The highs on the Solo 2s are clear, clean and delicate, and really sparkle over rich mids that sound equally as good on electric or acoustic guitar. The problem with the Solo 2 concerns the bass. Yes, the bass is forward, although not nearly as heavy-handed as previous Solo incarnations. We could look past a few dB many if the lower frequencies were well formed. Unfortunately, the bass has a “whoomp, whoomp” or “buh, buh” dull sloppy sound that oozes all over the lovely mids and highs. (Especially in music with already intense basslines.) So singer-songwriter music sounds really fantastic on the Solo 2. But hip hop, rock, and pop? Sigh…To put it into a visual, if the mids and highs were a gourmet meal, the bass is a pudding cup some toddler just emptied onto your plate. I mean, the food that was there is technically still good, but man, it sure would have been better without that pudding all over it. That said, if the Beats didn’t cost $200, we might be having a different conversation. This is so close to getting it all right, we’re actually excited to see what Beats do next. For now, we recommend the KEFs instead.
The Beyerdynamic T51is are light and comfy and have a sturdy metal headband and earcups with lovely memory foam-type earpads. Everyone found the T51is to be comfortable, and everyone generally liked the sound. The highs are a tad too syballent (just a touch too much very high highs: somewhere in the 6-8 kHz range) which leaves guitars and vocals sounding slightly metallic or icy, and Brent and Geoff found the bass to be a bit resonant for their taste. Although we all loved the light build, we wish that the T51i folded up to be as small as the Bose. The earpads do swivel so that they can lay flat, but the case ends up being as large as a hardcover book. It’s seriously so competitive a category that these quibble were enough to push the rather good T51i out of our top picks.
The Bowers & Wilkins P3s have the tiny aspect down. They fold up to be quite small, although B&W ended up making the included hard case much larger than it needed to be, so the P3s somehow take up nearly as much bag real estate as the KEF M500. That would be okay, but none of the panel liked the sound of the P3s very much: the bass was bloated and muddied up the rest of the higher frequencies. It’s a shame, as the petite looks and fun colors of the P3s could have had us hooked with the right sound.
Bowers & Wilkins revamped the P5s with the P5 Series 2s, sporting an all new drive unit and the signature B&W quality build you’ve come to expect from the brand. The P5 S2s sound really nice: they’re a tad harsh in the male vocals, but overall, they’re quite balanced with a slight bass bump. The problem is, for $300 we liked the KEF M500s’ sound better, and we wish the P5 S2s folded up. Like the Beyerdynamic T51is, the P5 S2s just lay flat and take up book-sized space. In fact, the NAD VISO HP50 are fully over-ears and in their case are just as big. So, unless you really only like on-ears, we don’t see why one wouldn’t get over-ears if they took up the same amount of cargo room. That aside, if you like the styling, and don’t need to worry about economy of space, and you don’t care for over-ears, the P5 S2 are solid headphones; they’re just not our top suggestion.
The Harman Kardon Sohos have a similar design to the B&W Ps3, but for some reason the Sohos tend to slip off our panel’s ears. At first I thought the issue was just going to be due to my personal ear shape, but everyone on the panel had the same issue. After a few minutes of wear, the Sohos would sloooooowly slip forward on our faces and feel as though they were in danger of falling off. The bass also is a bit thumpy and one note in the Sohos: we all actually liked the sound and fit of the Boses better. As a result, we’d say there are better options in this price range.
Master & Dynamic’s on-ears, the MH30s, are just as pretty as their over-ear big brothers, the MH40s. They feel sturdy, luxurious, and expensive. The MH30s have a similar sound profile to the 40s, but, perhaps due to the way they on-ear shape affects the sound, have slightly more sibilance and bass. As a result, we didn’t like the 30s as well as we did the more balanced MH40s. Also, the 30s are rather large on-ears even when folded up. So we’d say, if you want M & D headphones, go for the MH40s over-ear instead. They both take up about the same amount of storage space. Since the 30s are $350, and the 40s are $400, you’re already prepared to drop a good amount of money on something fancy, so we say spend the extra $50. If $400 is more than you want to spend, stick to the KEFs, Samsungs, or Boses.
We heard good reviews of the Phiaton MS430 from PC Mag to Digital Trends to Amazon, which isn’t surprising, as Phiaton generally make good products. You can imagine our dismay when the MS430s sounded insanely treble-heavy with a midrange dip and shockingly little bass. It was crazy. We suppose if you can’t hear high frequencies well and really hate bass then you might like the MS430s, but the average listener would likely be just as disappointed as we were.
The Sennheiser HD25-1 IIs are not going to win any beauty contests. They are made more for studio work, but even in that world, the HD25-1 IIs are pretty funky looking. They have a split headband design, and exposed cables by the earcups. They can handle high SPL (sound pressure level) which is great if you are an in-the-field camera person. There is a boost in the treble region that makes consonants stick out, and the bass is a bit bloated yet not powerful. If all you wanted to hear is the voice of your reporter over the din of a developing story, these headphones would be fantastic. However, we think for music and other applications there are many far better and more attractive choices.
We really like the Sennheiser Momentums, so we expected quality from the Momentum Ons. The Ons look every bit the smaller version of the retro-attractive Momentums. The Momentum Ons are available in a lot of fun colors too. The Ons are comfortable and light on your head, and all of our panelists found them to be easy to wear. What we were confused by was the frequency ranges the Momentum Ons emphasized. While the over-ear version was a bass-lover headphone, the Ons seemed to emphasize the lower mids and with a dialed-back bass. Have you ever, while listening to music, pulled back on your ear and kinda stretched it? It sort of makes music sound thin and almost like you’re in a slight vacuum. The Momentum Ons’ sound gives a similar feeling when compared to the over-ear Momentums. They aren’t the fan favorites we hoped they’d be. Instead they’re just… fine.
Hot off the presses, we got one of the first pairs of the Sennheiser Urbanite. They’re another fun-looking headphone that Sennheiser has positioned as a kind of Beats Killer. The Urbanite tag line “Bass: better not louder” sums up what Sennheiser was aiming for with the Urbanite. Unfortunately, while the bass on the Urbanite is pretty good, the rest of the sound profile is not our favorite. There’s a somewhat blaring upper midrange and oddly peaked treble that makes voices and acoustic guitar sound unnatural, and even when folded up, the Urbanite is rather bulky. In fact, if you pressed us to choose between the Urbanite and the Beats Solo 2, we’d pick the Solo 2. All of that said, we’d choose all three of our top picks over either of these competitors, though if these were catching your eye, the Samsung Level On might be the best of our picks for you.
Oh, SMS. Can we talk? What is going on, guys? The Street by 50 Cent On Ears feel like brittle plastic, smell like burning rubber, and sound pretty awful. The bass is booming and there is almost nothing else going on. They are reverby and muddy and nobody was happy. Even Geoff, the most forgiving bass lover of all of us, said the following, “There’s lots of bass. Bass, bass, bass. There is nothing good about these headphones.” Ow.
V-MODA are another company like UrbanEars that come up with really clever ideas. V-MODA have customizable metal shields on the earcups and optional boom mics, and they were one of the first companies to have replaceable/removable cables. I like the V-MODA XS. They are the only on-ear that nears the Boses in terms of size in their card case. The XS are actually XS. They are, like all of V-MODA’s products, built like a tank: sturdy and well crafted; definitely more durable than the Bose. As Brent put it, “From a coolness standpoint, the XS are probably the best here.” The sound has some colorations, with a boosted bass, some ups and downs in the mids, and a rolled off treble. John wasn’t a huge fan, but Geoff, Brent, and I all liked the quirky sound. It isn’t natural, but it’s not objectionable either. What edged the XS out was a price tag higher than the Bose, sound not quite as even sounding and crisp as the KEF M500 and a fit that wasn’t as comfortable as the Bose, Samsung, or KEF. If you like the sound of V-Modas, you will like the XS. But as I said when we started this price range, there are a lot of good headphones that got edged out by small degrees, and the XS was one of them.
Grado headphones are on-ear, but almost over-ear, and open-backed. We think if portability is the main reason to get on-ear headphones, you’ll want to be able to listen to them on the go. AS open-backed headphones, Grados are really not suited for listening in any noisy environment (train, plane, on the street, gym, etc.) nor any environment where you might disturb others (office, library). That said, there is a time and place for open-backed headphones, and we have reviewed Grados in our $150 headphone piece and in our $300 over-ear piece. If you want to know more about what open-backed is, check out our What Headphones Should I Get? article.
AKG K619– reports of easily breaking.
Audio Technica ATH-M2X– These are open backed, and we just didn’t think that “portable” and “open-backed” were ideas that most people would be content putting together. (For more info on open-backed headphones, check out our article here.
Audio Technica ATH-P3– Also open backed, plus there are issues with their foam earpads coming loose.
Audio Technica ATH-SJ11– discontinued.
Bose OE2i– these were cleared out to make room for our current pick, the Sound True.
Brainwavz HM3– discontinued.
Denon Music Maniac On-Ear– discontinued.
Harman Kardon Classic CL– have been replaced by the Soho.
JVC-HA44X– These have been out for a while, yet we couldn’t find any reviews anywhere. With 53 headphones with glowing reviews, we decided to focus on those first. If we hear these are great down the line, we’ll call them in to compare.
Klipsch Image One– discontinued.
Klipsch Reference One– ditto. (discontinued)
Logitech UE4000– discontinued. We didn’t want you to fall in love with something that was just about to leave you.
Marley Exodus– discontinued.
Marley Stir It Up– another early Marley with build quality issues, and comments about them being too tight.
Martin Logan Mikros 90– these were originally $300 and now are down to $103. When we asked Martin Logan for a review sample, they told us that they were “not looking to have these reviewed.” This is generally industry-speak for “these are going to be discontinued, but I can’t say that yet,” or “These aren’t that good, so we really don’t want a bad review.” Either way, when a PR rep says this to us, we tend to listen to them.
Monster Diamond Tears– CNET: “As with most brand-driven products, you can argue over whether the Diamond Tears are worth $300, and the short answer — as far as performance goes, anyway — is no.” Ouch. Digital Versus didn’t care for them much either.
NoonTec Zoro– despite good reviews on CNET and InnerFidelity, we read about build issues on Amazon and difficulty contacting the company. Noontec seem to be new to the American market, and as of September 2014, Noontec have revamped their site to include some English speaking contacts. We’d noticed that a lot of the negative comments on the original Zoro was a lack of ability to contact the company for warranty repairs, which could now be remedied. We’ll try to get in touch with Noontec again and see if we can test the Zoro II which are going to be out soon. Until then, we suggest you hold off buying unless you aren’t concerned with potential warranty coverage issues.
Panasonic RPHXC40K– Not fantastic Amazon reviews.
Panasonic RP-HXD3W– discontinued.
Paradigm Shift– See what I wrote about the Martin Logan Mikros above? They said the same thing about the Shift. :::shrug:::
Phiaton MS300– discontinued.
Philips Citiscape Metro– discontinued.
Skullcandy Icon 3– minimal reviews, and Skullcandy said they want to hold off on sending these out for reviews, which makes us think they’re either about to be replaced, or aren’t really Skullcandy’s best offering.
Skullcandy Lowrider– discontinued, and with 3.5 stars on Amazon, probably with good reason.
Skullcandy Uprock– also in the Skullcandy graveyard.
SMS Street Star Wars– Read our review of the Street above, and then imagine that with a Storm Trooper head on it. Only buy if you plan to keep it as a collectable.
Sony MDR- ZX300ip– Our contact at Sony says these are about to be discontinued.
Think Sound On 1– Digital Trends said sound about as good as Sennheiser Momentum but way less comfortable. But then, Digital Trends also liked the Phiaton M430, which you can see our review of above. All in all, we brought in the Momentum instead.
Yamaha Pro 300– Amazon only gave them 3.5 stars, largely because they are uncomfortable.
At CES 2016, Audeze introduced its first pair of planar magnetic on–ear headphones, the SINE. This set is $500 but very lightweight, and it represents what we predict will be an eventual trickle-down effect that makes high-end audio more portable and less expensive. They’ll ship some time in the first quarter of 2016.
We’re also expecting to test several more pairs once they arrive: the $40 Marley Roar, $100 JVC HA-SR100X, and Skullcandy’s not-yet-priced Grind and Slap headphones.
Beyerdynanic announced a forthcoming version of our budget pick, the DTX-350p, that will have a single-button remote and mic called the 350m. The 350p will remain available. The company hasn’t released pricing yet (though we expect it within $10 to $15 of the 350p), or US availability, but we’ll update this guide once we know more.
If you can’t stand in-ears, but you need great sounding headphones that travel light, the Bose SoundTrues are the standouts in a very, very large field. Take them along on your next journey. You (and your ears) will be glad you did.
Originally published: November 1, 2014